October 11, 2018
As I write this, I am halfway through the writing of a novel. At any time you speak to me, I am either planning a novel, writing a novel, or revising a novel. Always. And sometimes I'm doing more than one of those at a time. As a result, I have a fairly streamlined process for novel creation (well, for me anyway) and I thought I'd share it with you in a series of essays.
This one is going to be about the things you do before you start writing, because you really need to be doing a few things before you jump into the writing. All the novels I write (at the moment) are mysteries. So the planning of the novel has some elements that won't be there for other types of novels. At the same time, nearly all novels have some element of mystery. Mystery is a great way to keep readers engaged and keep them reading.
Will Bella end up with Edward or Jacob?
Is Snape a villain or a good guy?
Will this character get his heart's desire or crash and burn along the way?
There's always something we don't know, but that we get hints about along the way. So because of that, plotting a romance or contemporary novel or most any genre you’re attempting won’t differ so terribly from plotting a mystery novel after all.
Premise: The First Question
Before I begin plotting, I have to come up with a premise. The premise is the idea that will make this particular novel different from all the other novels I've written. For me, the premise can come from nearly anywhere. I'll watch a television show and someone will make a stray remark that makes me ask a question: could a person drown in salt? What if a new building were about to be built on top of the spot you buried the loot from a bank robbery? What if you went to a funeral home to pick out a casket and someone was already in it? I'm always coming up with rather dark and peculiar questions, but not all of them will result in an interesting novel idea. I can usually tell which ones will, because they are the ideas that simply won't go away. They keep popping up and insisting I think about them. And when I begin research, an effective premise only grows more exciting as I learn more about the questions I’m asking.
Casting: The Questions Multiply with the People
Once I've found the interesting question to explore, I'll begin thinking about how this question might affect a group of people, because ultimately novels are about characters. Your characters might be human people or they might be fantasy people (or even talking animals who are really people inside) but they're ultimately going to be people of some sort.
For me, most of the novels I write are part of a series, so the main characters are already there. Still I have to think of what new people might come in once this premise starts affecting everyone. At this point, I'm just thinking, not writing. I'm asking myself more questions based on the first one that launched the premise. For instance, for the novel where characters find a body in a casket, I had a flurry of questions. Why were the characters at the funeral home in the first place? Do I want to deal with more than one death in the novel? And who is the person in the novel? Which of my enduring characters is going to be connected with the victim in the casket? As I answer these questions in my head, more will pop up. In this premise stage, the questions pop up like a lively game of whack-a-mole. And I give every single question some thought, no matter how off the wall or silly the question seems.
At this stage, I've probably begun taking a few notes as some ideas feel right. The girl in the coffin is the girlfriend of one of my core characters. That idea feels right. But that brings up a lot more questions. Assuming he's not the killer, did he know she was in danger? Why not? And who might have been less than happy with her? Obviously, I'm going to need for my recurring character to have had a fight with the girlfriend, because that will make him a suspect. It can up the motivation for my amateur sleuth when one of my suspects matters to the sleuth and to the community of characters overall.
Secrets, the Key to Tension
With a murder mystery, one of the first assumptions I work with is that my victim had secrets. And there should be a lot of them. So I'll begin coming up with hers. After that, I look at every other character who might wander into the story, and I'll give them a secret as well. Everyone gets a secret. That helps create lots of suspicion because the mystery needs to not be too easy. If that seems unlikely to you, consider how many secrets you have. Maybe they aren’t serious secrets or big secrets, just things you might find embarrassing or things you wouldn’t say because you don’t want to start an argument. Everyone has those. And knowing the secrets of your characters helps increase tension even when you’re not writing a mystery.
Let’s take a moment to think about secrets in novels that are not mysteries. Secrets lead to conflict and conflict makes a book interesting. Plus, the question that is core to your premise needs to not be too easy to answer, even when it's not a "mystery" question. Edward or Jacob? Is Snape evil or merely misunderstood? You'll need to build in enough possibility for more than one potential answer in the mind of the reader. This keeps the tension of the premise question engaging. Now you might decide you're going to have a plot twist later on. For instance, that kid who sees dead people is actually talking to a dead guy who doesn't know he's dead. For that to work, you must give the audience clues, subtle ones, so that when the secret is revealed, it feels right. Now, this means some people will figure out the secret before you reveal it. That's okay. Those people will just get the ego boost of feeling smarter than the writer, and we don't mind that. But if everyone figures out the secret before you reveal it, then the book will seem dull or predictable, and that's not so good. So be sure that every secret has an equally likely reason from the truth. Why is the young man hoarding lunchroom leftovers in his locker? Is he not getting enough food at home? Is he taking the food to someone who is hungry? Could it be part of some unusual experiment? With all the possible reasons, consider pumping up a wrong answer before you reveal the right one, this will heighten the surprise and thus the plot value of the secret.
Outline? I Don't Need No Stinkin' Outline
For me, after the brainstorming steps of asking and answering questions in my head, it's time to begin to put things in a tidy order. I actually do this on paper. Some people don't. For some, if you ask them to "outline" a novel, they'll run screaming into the void. For others, the very suggestion that someone might know where their novel is going before they begin means the outliner is not creative, not a true novelist. Yeah, fine. Everyone has their process and it takes time to figure out the one that works for you. For me, I like a plan because it keeps me from stalling in the middle of the novel when I've dug the characters in so deep that I don't know where to go.
One of my favorite things about Stephen King, something that never fails to make me laugh (and in a good way, I actually do like his work), is that he will sometimes dig his characters into absolutely impossible situations with no possible, reasonable solution. He's a writer who does some pre-writing in his head and then just sits down and starts, enjoying the excitement of not knowing quite where he's going. And he goes to some dark and scary places sometimes. But it also means that he's been known to dig in so deep that there is flatly no solution. There's no way out. There's no explanation for what's going on here. So, what do you do? Send in the aliens! Aliens can do anything, bend reality in any way you like, and be anything. So aliens offer you a free Get Out of Plot Misery card. Unfortunately, most of us aren't Stephen King, so if we dig in and then don't know how to get out, we can’t choose aliens as an option. In fact, agents and editors even have an inside joke about any plot solution that doesn’t grow logically from what came before, “the aliens arrive.” Don’t let the aliens arrive in your book.
Another way some newer writers have "sent in the aliens" is through the "it was all a dream" ending. I know I wrote one of those in junior high school. I had so much fun with the story and it got wilder and wilder, but how do I get out? Oh, right, it was a dream. See how that has something in common with "send in the aliens?" It is an ending that doesn't grow out of what came before. And this kind of ending can take a few other forms as well, usually involving the sudden appearance of "rescue." Suddenly a character who seemed mild-mannered and normal turns out to be an ex-Navy seal and just takes on the bad guy and wins. Or suddenly a wise someone comes in and tells the main character the solution. All of these endings have one thing in common. They tend to be sudden. They don't grow slowly during the course of your plot planning because they are inserted to rescue the writer just as much as to rescue the characters. So even if you don't want to create a real plan, at least keep asking yourself questions until you know where you're going. And keep that destination in mind as you begin the writing.
If You Do Plan
Personally, I write an outline of sorts. Basically I plan the scenes and the transitions in super short forms. And I make the plan through a series of questions. Okay, I'm going to need for my characters to end up at the funeral home to discover a body. How will I get them there? And how will I let the reader know that my main character knows the dead girl? I see that my opening scene will be one where my main character is dining with a friend with a secret. This gets me right into a scene with tension––what is Mary's secret? Why is she so uncomfortable with her dear friend, my main character? Her secret turns out to be that Mary has decided she wants to plan her own funeral (for reasons that make sense in the scene) and she's hoping my main character will go with her to pick out the casket since her husband is creeped out by the whole idea. So that fixes my first question, but what about the second? What about the dead girl? Well, what if the conversation with Mary were interrupted by a scene in the restaurant between the eventual victim, her boyfriend, and a mysterious unnamed guy. The altercation is very upsetting for the eventual victim. My main character is a warm supportive person so she steps in to comfort the upset girl. And thus, they meet. So I have this first scene planned. Boom!
My plot plans are normally built this way. I'm always asking questions. Why would a normal, sensible person do the thing I need them to do? Then I build a plot reason to allow that to happen. And that becomes a scene. I order the scenes to make the most sense for everyone's motivation. Some writers do this on index cards, scrawling a brief description of each planned scene on a card. Then they can lay out the whole book and move scenes around. This is a nice visual way to see the logical flow of the novel. I do mine in paragraph form on the computer as I don’t usually need to move scenes around too much.
Once I have the plan, I can start to write. But that’s a whole new topic, so we’ll look at writing the novel opening in the next installment of this series. So see ya next week!
Do you write mysteries like Jan? Check ot the IFW Mystery First Pages contest for your chance to win a cash prize and critique! Click here.
Jan Fields is a full-time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor. Would you like to have your own instructor teaching you on a one-on-one basis? Show us a sample of your work here.