This is the beginning of a series of posts about plotting and outlining. During this series of posts we will look at various aspects of plot and story, and then we’ll talk about different types of outlines. The goal is that this series of posts will help you plan out your next novel-length project.
Since we are at the very beginning, today I would like to talk about that beginning. These are some of the important things you have to consider when you’re going from a basic idea to a planned story.
1. Why do I want to write this story? There are many different reasons why we choose to write the stories that we do. They range from being as simple as the story needs to get out to as complex as supporting a political movement. Why are you writing this story? Is it because it just came to you, in a seeming flash of brilliance, or is there a specific point you are trying to make? Every good story has a point to it, but some stories come out of their point, while some points just grow with the story. You need to know why you want to write the story, not just because the purpose will help you tighten the outline and the story itself, but because then if you ever get lost you can remind yourself what your original purpose was, and why this project is important.
2. Who are the main characters of this story? Right now you have an idea. Let’s say that your idea is that a poor urchin discovers their royal blood (because it’s easy for an example) and needs to reclaim their throne. The main characters include the urchin and the urchin’s best friend/love interest who will help them reclaim their throne, as well as some mysterious royal person who gives the royal urchin the insider information they need to reclaim the throne. This question is about finding out a little more about the royal urchin and their best friend. It’s about deciding their names, their genders, and their backgrounds. You don’t need to know everything at this stage, but you need a basic idea of who your main characters are. This will make it easier to plot your novel, and once you’ve got the basics, the rest of the character usually comes easily.
3. What kind of place is this story set in? A lot of you will already know this. Many times I know the world before I know too much about the story-and I almost always know the world before I know the main character’s name (they’re not forthcoming about that kind of thing). You don’t need to know exactly where every part of your story takes place and you don’t need to think about it too much-we’ll talk about setting later-but it’s good to know what kind of world you’re starting off in, even if you don’t know much about it. You should at least know whether or not you’re going to be working in our world, and what kind of era you’re working in-are you working in something like the middle ages, or something like Star Trek? This will tell you what kind of setting research you might need to be doing. Setting is also a great place to find new story ideas.
4. What is the underlying conflict of this story? Every good story has multiple layers of conflict. They have external conflict and they have internal conflict. The main characters’ quest to reclaim the throne is interesting, but what really drives us is the conflict going on in his head: conflict about his past, conflict about his future. From our example above, you could say that the underlying conflict is the character wondering about his poor friends: will he have to leave them behind? Is it ethical to leave them behind?
Knowing the underlying conflict of the story helps you to plot it more thoroughly. You can remind yourself to put it in various scenes and to make sure it’s always lying there, just under the surface. It means you don’t have to go back afterwards and put in the introspective scenes, you can plan for them to be there the first time.
5. How long is this project going to be? Now, I think I’ve made it clear that I’m talking about novels here. There is prep work for short stories but it’s a lot less intense. But there’s still a wide variety in novel lengths. What you say now probably isn’t your definitive answer-the story length will change somewhat with each draft, even-but it’s good to have an idea. You can go for a shorter novel of around 50, 000 words or a big book sitting at 150, 000 words. For those of us looking to break into mainstream print someday, publishers like books between 80, 000-100, 000 most of all. But don’t let that discourage you-if your book is twice the size, that means it can be two. Honouring your story and letting it end when it needs to end is the most important thing; you can’t cut it off too soon or let it live for too long. The completion of the story is more important than the word count.
So what now?
Keep thinking about these questions. Over the next week, spend some time getting to know your characters. What they like, what they dislike. What they’re afraid of. Whatever might be useful to your story-or just interesting background information. Next week we’re going to talk about the importance of setting to plot.
What do you ask yourself when starting a new project?