Without Proper Plot Exercise, a novel will be weak, unappealing, and possibly never completed. One cause of writer’s block is lack of Plot Exercise. If you don’t know what you are writing, it blocks the flow of creativity. When I get stuck, here is one exercise routine I follow.
- Identify where the opening image of the book ends. This is the point in the novel when the reader understands who the characters are, where they are, and what they want in life. Perhaps they already have everything they want, or maybe they wish life was better. This should be the first 10% of your book. For a 200 page book, that means you only have 20 pages to get all that information communicated. This is before their world changes. This is Luke wishing to go to the Academy, but being told to wait one more season.
- Identify what changes their world. Sometimes this is where the villain crosses their path, or they learn who their parents are. Typically this requires a decision for the hero to make. Do I risk my life, or run and hide? Do I leave everything I know in the hope of something more, or settle for what I have? This part is important, because it identifies the midpoint of the novel. This is where the droids show up and turn Luke’s life upside down. He could turn them in, or leave them to rust in the desert. Instead he chases after them, not understanding how much this decision will change his life.
- Decide on the Midpoint. About halfway through the book, the hero either gets what they want, and find it isn’t everything they were hoping for, or they falsely believe they will never obtain it. This is called the false victory, or the false defeat. Luke Skywalker gets to Alderaan, but it’s been blown to bits (False Defeat because now he believes he can’t ever deliver the droid to the Rebel Alliance.)
- Define the Endpoint. Some people put this step sooner, but I find it easier to know where the book should end when I can see the other pieces first. Defining the ending takes some careful thinking. Usually this is the point in the book where the hero gets what they truly deserve. The final image of the hero should be in some way the opposite of the opening image. Something in their life has changed, or everything in their life has changed. Luke Skywalker is surrounded by friends and being praised for his efforts, instead of being lonely, overlooked, and underappreciated.
- State the theme in one sentence. Now that you have the bare bones of the novel outline, decide what the theme of the story really is. This must not be a three paragraph explanation of the intricacies of using the force. It should be stated as simply as possible. Such as, Revenge only destroys, but Love heals; or Learn your past before you decide your future. Sometimes it can be stated as simply as Hatred vs. Kindness. I’m not going to speculate on what the theme of A New Hope is, because there is no clear consensus. I’d love to read your comments on what you think the theme of A New Hope really is, but understand that flamers will be deleted.
- Now that you have the theme, go back to step 1 and review each item in turn. Do you need to make any changes? Now is the time, instead of when you have 50,000 words written and still have no idea what the novel is really about. (I’ve been there and done that.)
- If you still feel stuck, loo
k at the part between the decision the hero makes and the midpoint. This is where you can fill it in with fun and games, as they say. Luke learns to control the force, a little. Han Solo kills Greedo. Then go to the part between the midpoint and the ending scene. Usually, immediately after the midpoint, the bad guys close in. The hero doesn’t see it coming, because he’s too distracted by his false victory, or overcome by his apparent defeat. This is when the Death Star captures the Millennium Falcon.
By now the major bones of the story are in place, and all that is left is to make sure your characters are healthy enough to make the transitions between these steps interesting to read.
For other Novel Nutrition discussions, see Novel Nutrition: Proper Feeding of Characters
These steps are based heavily on the Save the Cat methodology of telling the Hero’s Tale. For more information on this methodology, and how it applies to most of the movies on the big screen (or the little screen at home), visit savethecat.com