Welcome to week four of Write That Book. So far we have covered motivation and getting started, genre, ideas and creating characters. This week we will talk about ‘plot’, or story.
The first question I am always asked regarding plot is how do you come up with a story in the first place, and the second question is how do you plan a book, and indeed, should you plan at all?
I’ll answer the second question first - there is no right or wrong way of plotting a book. Many writers - the crime writer James Lee Burke for example - never use plot outlines. They just write blind. At the other extreme the author Jeffrey Deavers outlines are almost as long as his books, and J K Rowling spent months planning each Harry Potter book carefully. For most people, plotting is a process of trial and error and it may take a while to find what suits you as a writer. Using a plot outline is a method that works for many writers starting out.
What’s a plot outline?
A plot outline is simply an outline of how your story is going to progress. There’s no need to stick rigidly to your outline once you are writing if you’d prefer not to; think of it as your safety net, a document to refer to when you’re a little stuck or need a reminder of where your story is heading.
So now to the second part of the question - how do you come up with the story?
That’s a difficult one to answer as the story tends to build organically. For me, it starts with a major problem or dilemma. How the character deals with this problem, that’s my plot.
I’ll give you an example. At the beginning of The Shoestring Club (my latest book for adults) the main character, Julia is bombarded with problems – her best friend announces her engagement to Julia’s ex-boyfriend, Julia loses her job, and then she starts binge drinking. How she deals with all these things, that’s what I’m interested in dealing with in the book, that’s my plot. A book (popular fiction) is roughly 100,000 words long, so make sure you have to have enough drama to fill it the pages. Take some time to really think about your plot before you start writing your novel. The more work you do on both character and plot beforehand, the better your book will be.
I would suggest that you at least need to know the beginning of your story and have a clear idea of how your story ends. As for the middle – if you’re a planner in life, by all means plan the middle, if you are not a planner, you might prefer more freedom. Some writers produce detailed chapter-by-chapter outlines, and if this suits you go right ahead. But remember that your characters may not stick to your outline and if this happens, just go with it. Never force characters into doing things in your book just because your plan dictates it. For the record, I’m a planner but if my story veers off in different directions, I go with it, see where it takes me.
How should I open the first chapter?
As dramatically as possible. Your first scene is vital, it must pique the reader’s interest. Try starting the book just before something attention grabbing/interesting/different happens - a murder, a wedding, a marriage break up, an accident, a birth, a funeral. This incident is your narrative hook. Starting your book just before this incident means that the reader will have some idea what impact the incident will have on the characters.
Always open with a strong and attention grabbing sentence to draw in your readers. For example:
‘It is a truth universally known that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.’
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.
Or try this for impact:
‘They said I was a drug addict.’
Rachel’s Holiday by Marian Keyes.
Over the next week study the openings of some of your favourite books and think about why they work.
Once you have opened the book (hopefully with a bang) and introduced your main characters it is vital to keep your readers interested. Present your characters with problems to solve and difficulties to overcome, and make them take action. Keep the dialogue snappy and realistic, and keep descriptive passages to a minimum (especially if writing popular fiction or children’s books) - they can slow down the pace of the book. Also try to avoid too many flashbacks where possible for the same reason while starting out, this isn’t as relevant for seasoned writers (in fact, in some novels the flashbacks make the book). And throw in lots of surprises and twists along the way to keep your readers on their toes. Ideally the action should come to a heart-gripping climax, and then a satisfactory and well thought out resolution or ending.
Every scene in your book must have meaning, it must tell the reader something about the character, or move the story along. If it doesn’t, it has no place in your book. Write your book scene by scene and take infinite care each time you sit down at your desk to craft the best scene you can. Give it your all, every single writing day.
Next week we will deal with endings and staying motivated. After that, editing and getting published. Until then, happy writing.
Yours in writing,
Writing Tips from Cathy Kelly
(More great tips on her website here)
1/Write the sort of book you'd like to read. I considered writing a 'clogs and shawl' book years ago and never did it because I didn't like reading that type of book. The moment I began writing what I enjoyed reading, I was hooked and couldn't stop.
2/ Be true to yourself. This is a bit like hint 1. Don't try and copy anybody or write the Booker Prize winner if that's not you.
3/ Enjoy it. Writing can be hard work but if you don't love it and have fun doing it, you'll never finish a book.
4/ Plot-wise, know roughly where you're going but I've never found that a detailed plot-plan in advance helps as it stops the novel developing in its own way. If your characters come alive on the page, then they will move the plot themselves and if you keep rigidly sticking to a pre-ordained idea, you will lose something. Treat your plot like a living thing that grows and changes.
5/ Show don’t tell. Telling means narrating the story endlessly instead of actually showing what happened via scenes. Telling is easier but less interesting for the reader. Showing can be a couple of lines of dialogue relating to the past, but it brings the reader back to a real moment in time and that can be more powerful than four pages of narration explaining what happened.
6/ Have courage. If you write for days and think it's rubbish, then join the club! All writers are riddled with self-doubt. Just don't throw out the stuff you hate, because in a month, you might re-read and think it's not so bad after all.