With NaNoWriMo around the corner, we’ve already started to offer some advice on how to get started and outline a story, but sometimes an outline isn’t as easy as it appears. You might know what you want to happen in your story but not necessarily when it will happen, there could be gaps in your story or you could be struggling juggling your multiple POVs. For the sake of this article I will be using an alternate version of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ that Elizabeth and I developed -this is so that any plotting advice revolves around a story you are all familiar with. So let’s get started, shall we.
The 3-Point Plan
A huge outline can be a daunting task to begin with, or perhaps you have so many ideas for where you’re going that it’s difficult to pin them down. In this instance, I’d suggest you start in the simplest place you possibly could. The first thing you should do is identify your beginning, middle and end. This doesn’t have to be a lengthy description, just one brief sentence to say what happens at each of these three critical points.
Beginning: Belle meets the Beast.
Middle: Belle and the Beast fall in love.
End: Belle admits her love, curing the Beast.
Once you have these down you have something you can work around. Now you have these tied down, ask yourself the following question: How does this happen?
Beginning: Belle meets the Beast as a result of her father stealing a rose from his garden.
Middle: Belle starts to fall in love with the Beast when she realises how caring he is after he saves her life.
End: The Beast’s life is threatened. It is her act of saving him, that reveals the truth of Belle’s love.
From here it’s just a matter of constantly asking yourself how and why these things happen. What are the circumstances? What leads up to this event? What needs to occur for this to happen. Keep asking yourself why and picking apart the holes and eventually a 3 point plan will become a fleshed out story.
Chapter Based Plan
In general, I prefer to hover the line between ‘plotter’ and ‘pantser’. So my advice here will rely on how I plan. My first piece of advice is to write a couple of words or a sentence for each chapter. Nothing more, just a brief description of what happens. It isn’t much to work with but this helps me get the world and story on paper and as you go along you will realise exactly where the gaps are in your story. For the sake of this story I’ve colour coded each chapter dependent on which POV it would be. This isn’t necessary, just something I prefer to do in order to manage POVs which I will discuss later in this article.
If you work better without a plan this might be enough for you to get started on writing that first chapter. If not then don’t worry, we’re not finished yet. You can then do an independent plan for each plot point/event/chapter that you wrote down on your initial plan.
This is your description of what happens in the chapter and gives you a much more rigid outline to follow. If you’re aren’t much of a planner then I’d suggest approaching it the way I did while writing my first draft of Skythief. During NaNo I wrote about a chapter/ half a chapter a day, each night before I went to bed I plotted the next chapter. The following morning I then wrote up the part that I had planned. This means the future of the story was still a mystery, it was constantly changing and I only really knew a little bit further ahead then my main character (which was helpful considering I was writing in first person present). It also helped me keep my motivation because I wanted to know what happened next and I wanted to be surprised by my story.
The Post-It Method
So you’ve planned every single chapter or critical plot point. The only thing your uncertain about is what order do the actually need to happen? Some events directly influence each other, some might have different effects depending on where they are and others might happen at the same time (particularly when working with multiple POVs) so it can be difficult to work out the optimum order. My suggestion is to get some post-its (perhaps cut them so they don’t take up as much room) and write down each chapter/plot point on a separate post it. Get a board or large piece of paper (I’ve even used my TV screen in the past) and move the scenes around until you find an order that you’re happy with.
Working With Multiple POVs
If you have 3 POV characters, writing a plan becomes 3 times as difficult. It’s important to know where all your characters are at any one time and how this influences the other characters. My advice for approaching this is to plot out each characters arc separately. Treat them as three separate stories. Do a brief plan in any format you’d prefer, I’ve used the Chapter Based Plan in the example but whatever method you prefer will work. Keep it brief but try and include every critical point to the story. When doing this I advise to start with the main/most critical POV as their plot might influence or help shape the other characters storylines.
Now that you have a plan for each individual character you can look at them together and see where they crossover. How does what character A does effect character B here? Your characters’ actions should influence each other at some point or crossover, this is even true of characters who never meet. A lot of characters in the ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ series never meet but their actions have consequences for other characters. Remember that your characters are from the same world so of course they overlap. If you characters do know each other they must be experiencing separate events to justify using multiple POVs.
As far as working out which order to show these chapters, there are multiple ways to approach it. You could have a ‘part’ dedicated to each character as done in Twilight, you could name each chapter after their character like in A Song of Ice and Fire, or their might be more chapters devoted to one character while other POVs are occasionally brought in like Throne of Glass. So long as it is clear to the reader which character each scene is following.
Another method, especially if the story is smaller/more contained, is to write a brief plan using the Scene Based Plan, but write the name/initial of the character in the margin or, if you’re like me, write each character’s scene in a different colour like I demonstrated in my earlier example of the Scene Based Plan. This way with a brief glance you know which character each scene belongs to.
Knowing what order to put these scenes in, especially when two characters scenes might happen at the same time, can be difficult. You might prefer to have each character have a chapter after another.
Alternatively you could try the Post-It method and move around the order.
However, if you have a cast of more than 3/4 characters it can get even more complicated. This advice is more specific to large casts like A Song of Ice and Fire and is based off the way I am tackling my Sci-Fi Saga. My recommendation is to separate it into separate storylines. For example if you have 5 characters, you might have three main storylines. Character A has their own individual storyline, but B and C’s, and D and E’s storylines overlap. That makes three storylines in total. You can clump these storylines together and focus on plotting (and writing) them in this manner.
Most importantly remember that any order you pick isn’t definitive. When you finish your first draft, things might change in subsequent drafts and when you’ve completed your final draft you can always move the chapters around (this is particularly easy in software like Scrivener) and change the order to what you feel works best.
Which POV should you write from?
So this is more in the vein of ‘general plotting advice’ but it’s also an important starting point for when you plot. Once you have a plan written down (preferably Chapter Based), write which character’s POV this scene would be better approached from, you may want to do this in different coloured pens so you can easily identify them. When you get to the end hopefully you’ll be able to see which character/s has the most beneficial POVs.
There are two results this might have. Either you will see that most scenes are from one character’s perspective. In this case you have found your POV and would be best writing the novel from this characters POV. There may be a few stray scenes for other characters but you need to weigh up whether these scenes are relevant to the story. While they might add some interesting elements, it’s important you ask yourself will the story still be the same without these scenes? Does this need to be shown for it to happen? And if it does, is there another way I could show it. For example after Belle’s Father’s fight with the Beast, Belle could approach to see the aftermath, she doesn’t need to be there, she just needs to see the result. Alternatively this could happen with Belle acting as an onlooker, perhaps through the mirror. This eliminates the need for an extra POV.
Your other result might be to see that there are an equal amount of scenes for each character. In this case you have to identify if all these scenes are critical. If they are, you might be better writing your story with multiple POVs.
Plotting a novel is a momentous task, even once you have your plot, how do you work out what happens and when? Hopefully this article has given you some idea of how to tackle organising the scenes of your novel and how to do so even when you have multiple POVs. These are approaches I use myself when it comes to plotting and I hope it’s helpful for you too. To anyone thinking of tackling NaNo, good luck! I’ll see you on the finish line.