Writing Your First Novel Part Four: Plotting Your Story Idea

Sing to me, Oh Muse…

  — Ode to the Courage of a Child by Nicola Berardi: Father of Alexey

The muse. Greek mythology tells of the Nine Muses, deities that served as the inspiration for writers, artists, and philosophers. The word muse derives from the Greek word “mosis” which means to “desire and wish.” Ancient writers would call on the muses as they began to write and to this day Muses are symbolic of  “inspiration and artistic creation.”

Writers often joke about their “muse,” but I suspect each of us secretly likes that soft voice only we can hear urging us to write. In truth, our inspirations are triggered by anything and everything we observe or imagine.

Your muse has spoken. The question is what do you do with the story idea swirling in your head?

An excellent piece of advice offered to writers is that we keep a notebook with us at all time. I decided to heed that advice, and am glad that I did. I was surprised at the number of times, a new story idea, or an idea for a current work will pop into my head. As non-functioning as my brain can be at times, thoughts don’t disappear if I have written them down.

How you record your inspirations is up to you. Modern technology allows for many options, notes, written or audio, can be made on smartphones, pads, laptops, sticky notes (the paper or electronic kind), or the old fashion way, a notebook. I love the feel of a real notebook in my hand, hardcover, and spiral bound. My current notebook has the inscription “How to Get Away With Anything” on the antique-finished cover, perfect for a mystery writer.

Now that you have your idea, it’s time to flesh out your story plot. As an acknowledge pantser, at this point, I’d be typing “Chapter One” and be off. However, some writers prefer to plan vs. jump in and to be honest, it is wise likely to think before you type. (Don’t tell my muse, she is impatient for me to start writing.)

One thing I find helpful in organizing my story is that instinctively I know how I want the story to begin and end when a story idea sparks in my head. Having those elements of the story determined helps focus on how to get from Point A, the beginning, to Point C, the end. “B” is your plot points in between. It is important to note that some writers start their outline at the end of their story and work their way backward to beginning. There is no correct way to plan your story, do what is comfortable to you.

First, let’s discuss story vs. plot. For many novice writers, the difference between these two terms is unclear. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines plot as the “the plan or main story (as of a movie or literary work).”  A story is told in a series of scenarios, or events, interacting sequentially.

Stories are about characters’ conflicts or goals. It is important to introduce the protagonist, or main character to your readers quickly, I suggest the first page, to establish a rapport. If your readers like and identify with your character, they will be interested in reading to the conclusion of your story. We will be discussing character development in the next installment of this series, but clearly, developing plot and character go hand in hand. If you outline first, once you have fleshed out your characters, add their important elements to your plan.  

As a mystery writer, I respect my readers need to have a murder victim within the first few pages. I introduce my antagonist within the first chapter, no later than the second chapter, as I establish clues. It is imperative, regardless of genre that you keep the small nuances of your genre in mind as you outline. While it is a writer’s desire to be innovative, it is also important to remember why your reader loves the genre you write in. Don’t disappoint them.

While all three sections of your outline are important, the beginning establishes your story, introduces your characters and reveals conflict that forces your protagonist to take action.

The middle of the story is where many novice writers lose focus. Often nicknamed the “saggy middle, it is the portion of the book where it is imperative to keep the reader engaged. Rising action regarding the story’s conflicts should drive this section of the book. A series of issues, some resolved, some not are presented and the pace should vary. Give your reader time to catch their breath, a constant roller coaster ride will only serve to tire them.

In this section, your outline goal is to move the story on to its conclusion. Conflict should rise, the characters should be placed in further jeopardy. At least one main action scene along with smaller events should be driving the story,  leading your character toward the total disruption of their goals or desires.

The ending is where the conflict or goal of the main character is broken and then resolved. Never make it easy for your protagonist to reach their desired outcome. Place them in physical or emotional harm’s way, bringing them to the brink, then redeem them at the conclusion. The last scene of your book should (if you choose) reveal the aftermath of the story as you return them to a normal life.

There are numerous methods to create an outline. You can use the tried and true roman numeral outline learned in school, write a very detailed synopsis, create a three-section outline based on the beginning, middle and ending, follow a chapter outline, or follow the recommendations of numerous authors. One favorite method that has garnered a great deal of attention is the Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermanson. This method also involves Snowflake extensive character development and is considered one of the most comprehensive methods for outlining a story.  (Link to the Snowflake Method can be found in Resources at the end of the article.)

Regardless of the method you choose to pattern your outline on, make it your own. There is no correct way to plot a novel. Remember some of us do not plot before beginning to write, others have the story written before they begin chapter one.  Use the suggestions as guidelines and happy writing!







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