How Not to Plot A Novel

Since I already had the basic idea for my novel in my head, I gave myself until the beginning of June – I guess about two or three weeks – to put that plot down on paper and have the basic structure for my story. Three weeks to put down in an organised form what I already had in my head seemed like a pretty manageable task. Boy, I was so wrong.

So wrong. I wrote in my last post about how I descended into ‘plotting hell’ when I realised that, not only was my idea half baked, but it had very little structure or coherence. Well, I then compounded that error in the worst way imaginable. When June 1 came and went, and my plot was still in no kind of shape to write, I awarded myself another two weeks to get it right.

That was a big mistake. Because I then spent the next two weeks in a brain-boiling agony of confusion, trying to squeeze a wonky plot into shape, and it just wouldn’t go. I tried adding characters; I tried removing characters. I tried changing the setting. I tried swapping the hero with the heroine and the villain with the hero. I changed genres, periods, you name it. And nothing worked. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it just didn’t work as a story, and I couldn’t get excited about it. What the hell was I doing wrong?

So I went on writing forums and went back to my writing books. Another mistake. I filled my head up with theory about character arcs and mythological journeys, and this method and that method. I was pretty darn near close to tears because I felt I’ve never been so bad at anything in my life as writing a novel, when it’s the only thing I really want to do.

FInally, with one day to go – one day! – I decided to stop. Relax. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong, I told myself, but I know I’m doing something wrong. I need to take a break and get some perspective. So I did. I took a break, and decided to stop thinking about this dumb story I was writing, and just tell myself a story. A really simple story, about a very simple character. A story as simple as Red Riding Hood. Could you do that? I asked myself. Well, I’ll give it a go. So I sat down from scratch, and I told myself a very simple story of a guy, and what he does for a living. And then I asked myself some questions: about what he wanted, and where he’d like to be, and why he is the way he is. And then I asked myself what the best thing that could happen to him would be, and what the worst thing that could happen would be. And then I thought about whether these things could be the same thing, or happen at the same time. And bit by bit, in far less than three weeks, or five weeks. Actually in more like three hours, I had my story.

I make no claims. I’m not saying it is the best story ever. It certainly needs some work, and I have a suspicion the ending is a bit weak. I’ll have to fix that. But I do know that I’m confident that it works as a story, albeit perhaps in a small, and very humble fashion, it works.

I don’t know exactly what conclusions to draw from this experience. Did I waste 5 weeks? Did I learn anything? Well, I don’t feel that I wasted all that time, because along the way, I generated – painfully – a lot of ideas, some of which I think I can use in my new story. And also, any experience, especially a painful one, teaches you something. I think that what I know now is that if a story isn’t working as a two sentence elevator pitch, if it hasn’t got within it the beginning, middle, and end that you need to make a story, then there isn’t much point expanding that into a 2000 word synopsis, or adding on characters and scenes and settings and turnarounds. Because whatever happens, you’re still going to have to deal with those basic structural questions: where does this story go to, and how does it end up? I think I wasted a lot of time trying to make a story work, when really, it wasn’t a story at all. It was just a random group of ideas, and i was trying to make them gel. A story flows from character, from who your characters are, and what they do, and hope and dream. The story unfurls as naturally as leaves grow on a tree. So any forcing, or gluing together of parts is just going to seem artificial and fake. This is what I’ve learned.

Am I depressed about all this? Not at all. I keep reminding myself: this is your first novel. I expect to make every mistake under the sun, and then find some new mistakes which noone has even thought of before. What’s great is, that I have actually found the story I’m going to use, even if it took a hell of a lot of punishment to get here.

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