Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

How I Planned
My First Novel

by Joanna Cravit
©2004, 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 later.

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 on.

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 direction.

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 concludes.

Step 3: Flesh Out Your Idea With Character Work

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 Can

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.

Unstable/Inciting

*

*

*

*

*

First Turning Point

*

*

*

*

*

Midpoint

etc.

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 him again.

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 ride home. 

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 collect her.

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