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Plotting Your Novel

by Lee Masterson

"By failing to plan, you are planning to fail."

A good story is made up of a logical beginning, a bumpy middle and a satisfying end. But a good plot is made up of more than just these three basics.

Plotting an entire novel is a complex task, best summed up by saying it is the author's way of showing the reader the events as they are unfolding. A successful plot depends largely on how the author chooses to display those events as they unfold.

A carefully crafted plot-line, interwoven with clever characterizations, tightly written dialogue and enough action to hold a reader's attention are only some of the factors which determine whether a book is a memorable journey, or merely a story moving through the motions from start to finish.

Let's look at some of the ingredients you will need to include into a successful plot-line.

The Hook

Beginning a long story, such as a novel-length work, with a detailed description of the surroundings, the setting and the people who will be involved in the rest of the story is no fun for a reader. The author has offered his reader no real temptation to continue turning pages to find out what happens next.

You must lure the reader into wanting to continue deeper into your fictional world by introducing some form of action at the outset. This will throw your audience into the thick of things, and tempt them to keep turning pages to find out what happens next. All the creatively-crafted description in the world won't hold a reader's interest as well as a strong opening action scene.

Action, in this instance, does not specifically mean a wild car chase, or a shoot-out. But it should involve some aspect of conflict, difficulty or obstacle which will entice a reader into wanting to find out how your character got himself into that predicament in the first place.

Characters

The best stories are usually about interesting, likeable people facing extraordinary situations. Heroes are never perfect. In fact, it is usually because of his or her flaws that a hero becomes more endearing.

Work on displaying your protagonist's strengths and weaknesses through his actions and dialogue. Showing your reader how a character reacts to a situation tells more about that person than a lengthy, boring chunk of narrative can. Similarly, how your hero reacts to the characters around him can highlight much about his personality.

Villains should be no exception to this rule. Allowing your protagonist to defeat the 'bad guy' just because he is a bad guy will make your villain appear weak and one-dimensional. Creating a worthy opponent capable of defeating your hero, complete with intelligence, skill and charm, will make your story more engaging because of its realism.

It will also force your audience to care more about what happens to your hero, especially when you make it clear that your hero could possibly be beaten by this worthy opponent.

Introducing strong leading characters during your 'hook' will involve your reader with their situation immediately, but it is ultimately the characters themselves, and how they handle their predicament, that will remain fixed in the memory of a reader long after the book has been finished.

Conflict

Once you have your reader firmly hooked, and you have him caring about what happens to your characters, you must step up the tension by creating conflict.

This could be a conflict between the characters you have already introduced, or it could be an inner conflict within the thought processes of your protagonist. Perhaps your plot involves an adversary or an obstacle for your hero to overcome.

Whatever type of conflict you choose to insert into your story, it must be clearly drawn so that the reader is left in no doubt as to the difficulty facing your hero. Reversals are a relatively simple way to introduce conflict and tension to a plot line.

Introduce a reversal of events, which stops your protagonist from reaching her goal. Your heroine will be surprised by the change in events, and forced to act upon the new situation at hand.

Just as you bring this first conflict to a satisfying resolution, step up the tension another notch, and introduce another, more demanding obstacle to impede your hero.

The obstacles you insert should become increasingly more difficult, building toward one major climactic scene.

Sub-Plots

As in real life, no person ever lives their life focused on one solitary event. The same should be true for your characters.

Your hero will not be single-mindedly consumed by the obstacle you have placed in his path. He will still have family, friends, a job, romantic involvements, responsiblities, a social life, and many other things, although none of these outside things should overshadow the main point of your story. They are simply the mundane trivialities of life that will make your story more believable, because your hero will still have to face these, no matter what other horrors he might be facing.

But be warned. A sub-plot is not a good excuse to add a lengthy romantic interlude (unless, of course, you are writing romance!). Nor is it a place to 'pad' your novel to increase the word count.

Climax

This is often the hardest part of a novel-length work to plan for, and even harder to write. You may know in your mind that the hero beats the bad guy, the girl gets her man, and they live happily ever after, but what about the details behind your characters getting all these things?

Have you created a believable build-up to this final pay-off? Having a great showdown scene without explaining why it is a necessary step for your characters to take can make your reader feel cheated, and make your story seem contrived.

Are there any reasons why this conflict couldn't be resolved another way? If there is any other possible outcome, you can be sure that your audience will think of it, and wonder why you didn't. Set up your obstacles so that the only possible remaining outcome is the big final climactic showdown you have planned. Your readers will probably see it coming, but at least they won't feel cheated.

Denouement

A 'denouement' is the 'wrapping up' of all the little loose ends of your story. It is almost like the epilogue in a film, or the "They lived happily ever after" portion of a story.

After such an intense climactic scene, it is often necessary to include a wrap-up. This has the dual effect of tying up all of the sub-plots to a satisfying conclusion, and also showing your audience that life after the big showdown is still continuing, although with some very apparent changes.

Remembering to include all of these things into a novel can seem daunting, but if you spend a little time in the planning stage, your story will benefit from it in the end.

Copyright © 2002 Lee Masterson
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Lee Masterson is a full-time freelance writer from Adelaide, South Australia. She is also the editor of Fiction Factor (http://www.fictionfactor.com) -- an online magazine for writers, offering articles on the craft and business of writing, author interviews, paying market listings, lots of writer's resources and much more. In what little spare time she has Lee also writes science fiction novels.

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