How I Planned
My First Novel
by Joanna Cravit
Last year I wrote my first novel. I knew that
it would not be publishable; although I have written dozens of short stories,
and lots of nonfiction for my day job, this was my first attempt at a
novel-length story, and I resolved to treat it as a practice run. My goal was
simply to finish it and to see if I really could sustain a narrative of that
length and complexity.
For a first attempt, the novel did have its
good points. I had a solid handle on my characters and their motivations and
backstory. And my dialogue was good. However, as my writing group buddy
explained to me, 200 pages of people having conversations -- even very nicely
written ones -- is not a plot. Stories need to actually have parts in them that
aren't conversations! Clearly, I would have to go back and do structural work if
the novel was to be any good.
Our writing group decided to see if we could
do any better the second time around. One member, who had taken a writing class
earlier that year, agreed to help us work through some story planning exercises.
Below is the entire planning process we went through, using examples from my
practice novel to show what we did.
Step 1: Begin with an Idea
For our first meeting, we began by briefly
talking about the best way to ensure a tight plot: to have characters with clear
goals and motivations. This allows the story to be paced via setbacks that keep
the character’s goal out of reach. Well-planned turning points allow the story
to advance to its climax.
With this basis established, each person
offered a one or two sentence summary of their basic story idea, and invited
everyone else to make suggestions on it. It was interesting to see how different
people interpreted the same basic idea.
My premise involved four friends who reunite
years after an accident. I was interested in exploring how these people had
changed in the intervening years. One had hooked up with the other's ex, and
another had escaped the accident unscathed only to undergo traumas of her own
One of my writing buddies was interested in
having the two former flames hook up again (thus complicating their current
relationships) and another wanted a revenge story where instead of hooking up
with her ex, she punishes him for leaving her!
Step 2: Work on the High Points
Our homework was to try and work on a general
outline of the high points of the story, which were explained as follows:
Story begins with an unstable ground
situation in your protagonist's life, which the inciting incident capitalizes
The first turning point is at the end of the
first quarter, and is an escalation scene that sets the plot spinning in a new
The midpoint ends the second quarter of the
story, and involves a main character making a choice that will drive the second
half of the story.
The second turning point ends off the third
quarter with another crisis/escalation scene, leading up to the crisis, where
the protagonist takes action.
The black moment occurs right before the
climax, near the end of the story. Confronted by the crisis, the protagonist
faces another decision.
And finally, the ending where the story
Step 3: Flesh Out Your Idea With Character
I still did not have a full handle on my
plot, so I thought I would see if some character work would help me flesh things
out a little. Those character questionnaires always seemed so random to me, so I
thought that at this early stage, I would just free-write and see what I got. I
wrote a brief paragraph for each main character, trying to touch on all the
basics of appearance, motivation and backstory.
Example: Emma is one of the two female leads.
She was injured in the accident and has a long, deep scar on her face, which she
is very self-conscious about, but she is otherwise extremely pretty. She was
wealthy and popular, but her family went broke paying her medical bills and her
father deserted them. So she ran away to "the city" as soon as she was able to,
and tried to make a fresh start.
Shortly after arriving, she ran into fellow
accident refugee Jonathan, who used to date her former best friend Sasha. He
felt sorry for her and took her in. At the beginning of the story she leans more
toward needing him than loving him, and he puts up with her numerous
insecurities and difficulties because he feels guilty (maybe he was partially to
blame for the accident?). The inciting incident of having to go home again will
unhinge her -- not only is she is overwhelmed by everything she left unresolved,
but she knows that Jonathan has been living in limbo too. When he sees Sasha
again, will they resume where they left off?
Most of this summary was merely a recap of
some of the plot points I was trying to work though, but I did get a few
interesting nuggets from it. The line about Emma "needing him more than loving
him" intrigued me, as did Emma’s realization that Jonathan has been repressing
too. I was starting to get as curious as she was to find out what would happen
when he reunited with his former flame.
Step 4: Fill in as Many Plot Blanks as You
By now, I had enough to work on the high
points. So I opened up the word processor and typed out the headings, leaving
five lines in between them.
First Turning Point
Then I filled in what I could, and gradually
found the entire plot taking shape. Seeing, visually, how you only have five or
so chapters to get from point A to point B, you can think sequentially: what
needs to happen to get you there? I have two main viewpoint groups: Sasha and
her sphere, and Emma and hers. Even if each girl only gets one scene per
section, that still takes two of my five. Doesn't leave you much wiggle room!
Evan Marshall, in his book The Marshall
Plan for Novel Writing, suggests that every scene is either an action scene,
or a reaction to a previous scene. That made a good starting point for me. I
began with the unstable ground situation of Jonathan learning that his
grandmother has died and he must, after several years, return home for the
funeral. The inciting incident, which takes advantage of this, was the idea that
he was unable to find accommodations for Emma and himself on such short notice,
and he is forced to call his ex, Sasha -- much to Emma's dismay. Now, according
to my outline, I've got five chapters until my first turning point. Go!
Scene 1---Reaction: Back in the hometown,
Sasha shares the news with her boyfriend Cole, and over the course of the
conversation, updates the reader on her own backstory. Although unharmed from
the accident, she has had her share of traumas. Her mother died and left her
teenaged sister Marnie in her care, and she has been scraping out a living
working in Cole's restaurant. She confesses to Cole that Jonathan never said a
proper goodbye when he left her, and Cole wonders how she will react to seeing
Scene 2---A migraine en route leaves Emma
irritable when she and Jonathan arrive in town. The whole gang is a little
snippy together, and when Cole shuts down on her, Sasha takes Jonathan for a
walk to clear the air between them. Meanwhile, back at the house, Emma finds
herself unexpectedly bonding with Sasha's sister Marnie.
Scene 3---Action: The morning after. Jonathan
and Emma go to the funeral home to take care of business. Jonathan is dismayed
when Emma can't keep her mind off Sasha. They argue, rehashing past
insecurities, and Emma walks out on him, forcing Jonathan to call Sasha for a
Scene 4---Reaction: Sasha and Cole come to
get Jonathan. While Sasha confronts him about his grandmother, his past and his
future with the grouchy Emma, Cole runs into the departing Emma and to his
surprise finds himself opening up to her about his relationship with Sasha and
his fears regarding Marnie's role in his relationship.
Scene 5---Action: Emma and Jonathan take a
night out to try to patch things up following their fight in the previous
chapter. Sasha enjoys a quiet night of domesticity with Cole while Marnie is off
babysitting, and Sasha surprises Cole by broaching the subject of their future
and suggesting that they move in together.
And finally, we reach the first turning point
all of this has been leading up to: Emma's date with Jonathan ends badly. As the
gang settles in for one last uncomfortable night together before Jonathan and
Emma return home, Cole is a little too grateful to escape the tension, and Sasha
finds solace with an out-of-sorts Jonathan.
I've got a healthy set-up for the rest of the
story now. I have a turning point open for Emma to find out about Jonathan's
little indiscretion, and another for Marnie to find out about Sasha's plans to
bring a new dad into her life. I also have some tension available in Marnie's
new bond with Emma. Just how is Sasha going to feel if a confused Marnie turns
to her former rival for help? That could be a good midpoint: have a freaked-out
Marnie run away from home, maybe, and go to Emma? This way I'll have to reunite
the kids again (and on Emma and Jonathan's turf this time) for Sasha to come
And what is it exactly that has Marnie so
freaked out anyway? For this I re-scan my character description and remember my
backstory for the girls. Sasha got saddled with custody of her sister after
their mother died. So clearly the father was already out of the picture. Dead?
No, that would be a bit too tragic. Maybe he left them, and although Marnie
plays the cool teenager, it obviously affected her. She fears bringing another
father figure into her life because he might leave too!
So there is my climax: they arrive to collect
Marnie, and she finally comes clean with them about her true fears. After all
this angst, a happy ending is, of course, mandatory. Let's leave them all happy
friends again, coupled off as they should be. And let's get Marnie a puppy or
something as a token of love from Cole. The end.
As a final wrap-up to the planning process, I
skimmed a few of my favourite books about writing for further inspiration. Then,
with outline in hand, I was ready to go. It is easy enough to revise the outline
if the story takes different twists than expected once the writing begins, and
it is important to be flexible and ready for that possibility. But just knowing
that you have enough to work with, and that there are logical, interesting and
plot-driven ways to get from one part to the next can be a huge confidence
booster and make the writing go that much more smoothly.
The proof? I have a finished draft of the
above story, which may not be publishable, now or ever, but which served its
purpose in teaching me a lot about the writing process.
Book cited: The Marshall Plan for Novel
Writing by Evan Marshall, 1998, Writer’s Digest Books. ISBN 1-58297-062-9