A great, balanced story with perfectly paced action and neatly unfolding subplots does not happen by itself; it takes meticulous planning. The best sorts of stories are the ones that keep you guessing and desperate to find out what happens next. In order to create this tension, you need to have lots of twists and turns, e.g. an Agatha Christie novel will have lots of possible murder suspects; a thriller will have a will they/won’t they catch him in time dynamic; and dear old Harry has Voldemort to deal with. To manage all these subplots, back-stories, and tensions, you will need a system – trust me. As the writing process goes on and you get closer to your material, you will find it incredibly useful to have a handy reminder of what has and hasn’t happened by now, and what needs to happen in your next chapter.
Now, I’m all for free-writing as an exercise to develop your writing skills, try out new material to see if it has got legs, or even recover from writers’ block, but when it comes to writing something full-length, you need to make sure that each chapter is serving a purpose – either developing the reader’s understanding of a character/situation or contributing to the overall story arc.
Before you get to the stage of actually planning out your novel, you will probably have got to know your characters, built backstories for them, and tried out some scenes or test chapters. You should have a strong idea in your mind of what the setting looks like and what the main story arc will be: the exposition, action, climax and resolution. Once you have this skeletal outline, you can add flesh to the bones and start seriously plotting out the action.
How J.K. Rowling Planned a Bestseller
To save yourself work, it is best to be as focussed as possible from the off. This may seem almost clinical, but let’s look at J. K.’s planning of Harry Potter. Her stories are rich with detail and strands that wrap around you and draw you in. This is a sample of how she managed to keep on top of such a complex story, and make it work for even very young readers:
- Before she started writing, she read a lot. It’s clear from the references and echoes within her work that she is a lady who loves to read. This gave her an advantage because she learned how other writers used various plot mechanisms and set-pieces successfully. She knew what boxes needed to be ticked to make a great read and duly ticked them.
- She broke it down. For each chapter, she defined the month in which the action takes place (very important – a lot of writers I work with have issues with chronology as they can’t quite remember when and where certain things happen; this is especially apparent when they are inserting extra content at a later date, and don’t quite get the positioning right), the title of that chapter, the main action of the plot, and also, separate columns for the action of each contributing subplot. It is hard work to plot things out in such detail, but it will keep you strictly on track. This will also reduce the temptation to flesh out a subplot that is not really going anywhere.
- She was flexible. As you can see from the crossings out and movement arrows, the writing process sometimes has a life of its own and you just have to go with it. Ideas change, parts of the story may have to be shifted into different chapters or removed altogether. The plan should be your guide, but do not be a slave to it. In fact, some readers have noticed that the finished edition of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix has some marked departures from this plan. This was her guideline for her initial draft. There would have been some rounds of self-editing, and also, working with professional editors to shape the final story.
From the tattered edges and smudges you can see this was a treasured document that she referred to a lot. You might find it easier to use a spreadsheet (that is saved and backed-up somewhere!). I know it looks like a lot of work, but having a good plan of where you are going to go with your writing will help you sharpen your work.
Too late, I’ve already written my first draft without a plan
If you have already started writing, it can be an interesting exercise to create this plan in reverse (this is something I often do with authors who have complex plots to manage). Draw the grid (or set up the spread sheet) and then fill in the cells as you read through, chapter by chapter. You may find that you have sections of the manuscript that are thin on plot points, or other areas where they are bunched together. You may also find inconsistencies in your timeline; a character may refer to a meeting that has not yet happened, for example. Don’t beat yourself up about this, a first draft is never going to be perfect, but use the grid to help get your manuscript into better shape.