To Plot or Not to Plot...That is the Question

Last time, I began by asking the question, “What should I write about?” This time I ask, “What is my process?” and by that I mean, “How can I set myself up for success and write a 50,000+ word novel in 30 days?” This begs the question, “What do I need to be ready on Day One?” I know, I know, I ask a lot of questions.

My creative process begins by brainstorming ideas.

When I get an idea, I imagine putting it in a chair and walking all the way around it, asking questions and looking for a place to begin. I take time to allow the ideas to coalesce, return the next day and work on it some more; eventually, a structured outline begins to form. How about you? Do you like to outline your stories before you write or would you rather just dive right in and see what happens? Week 3 of the NaNoWriMo Prep Guide asks, “Are you a plotter, a pantser (fly by the seat of your pants type), or somewhere in between?” Landing somewhere in the middle, perhaps I could use a little more structure; I took their quiz to find out. There are a lot of methods to choose from, take the quiz if you want to find one that could work for you. 

I got something called The Plot Roller Coaster, it has a basic outline, nothing too complicated; sounds like a good place to start. Using our friend (and my own personal plot generator) Ed the gargoyle as an example, here’s what my story might look like. 

1. Describe your set-up.

In one or two paragraphs, describe a few scenes that will happen at the beginning of your book to introduce your characters, setting, and main conflicts of your story. Think about showing your protagonist in their ordinary life, before everything changes. 

Ed the Gargoyle lives in a cage in the basement of the museum. He’s been there for many years, gathering dust. Ed dreams of being discovered, getting his story published, having an agent, and going out to lunch. But most of all, Ed dreams about standing up, stretching his limbs and climbing out of his cage to explore the world. One fine autumn day, a production crew arrives from Hollywood to make a movie at the museum (far fetched, I know). 


2. Describe your inciting incident.

In one paragraph, describe the event that causes your protagonist to begin their adventure. Think: "The moment everything changed was when..."

On a gray cloudy Thursday morning in mid-October, Ed is reading his book when the ground starts to shake underneath him. The stump he’s been sitting on for the last 100 years splits in half and Ed is knocked to the ground. At first he thinks it's an earthquake; he looks around and wonders what happened. Standing up, he realizes that he is moving of his own free will. The spell has been broken! He calls out to see if anyone is there but no one answers. Ed picks up a stick from the ground, uses it to jimmy open the cage and looks at the world outside. He can hardly believe his luck.


3. List events in your rising action.

Write a list of five (or more) events that build up to the climax of your novel. These are the steps that take your protagonist farther and farther away from their ordinary life, on the journey to get what they want. Keep increasing the conflict little by little. Throw obstacles in their way! Give them some hard choices to make! Add supporting characters to help! 

Ed decides his best bet, if he wants to maintain his freedom and explore the world, is to get as far away from the museum as possible. Before he can get far, he hears someone calling his name. He stops, turns around and answers “Yes?” incredulous that anyone would recognize him. Ed sees there’s been an explosion and the stars of the film are unconscious, along with a beautiful young gargoyle. He stops to help her and realizes she’s his childhood sweetheart Sabrina. They lost touch when Sabrina’s family moved away. While they are talking, the head of the museum shows up and tries to convince Ed to come back inside and resume his position, he offers to give him a place of honor and shower him with presents but Ed refuses.The movie director sees them and recognizes the golden opportunity in front of him. The film is recast with Ed and Sabrina in starring roles (the movie is a fantasy, after all) and they leave with the crew.


4. Describe your climax.

In one paragraph, describe what will happen in the climax of your novel. This is the "Oh my gosh, what will happen next?!" moment.

Fame and fortune comes fast for the pair, they marry and Ed is fulfilling his wildest dreams. One day, there’s a knock at the door. An old gargoyle named Bob appears on the other side of the door holding a very long magic scroll. The scroll is a contract Ed’s father signed, promising his first-born child in life-long service to the company that made Ed’s family rich and famous 100 years ago. That child, of course, was Ed. The owner of the museum still wants him back; Ed brings joy and happiness to everyone who sees him, there’s no way they can replace someone as truly unique as Ed, and Bob has certainly tried. At first, Ed tries to outwit Bob, then he attempts to destroy the scroll, finally, he tries to run away and ends up in a physical confrontation with the old gargoyle (surprisingly spry for his age) who overpowers him, there is no escaping his fate.


5. Describe your falling action.

In one to two paragraphs, describe a few scenes that happen after the climax. Does your protagonist get what they want? Does the antagonist get defeated? How?

While waiting to be sent back, Ed tells Bob that he’s homesick and convinces him to let him go see his wife before returning to the museum. Ed tries to convince Sabrina to come with him. Sabrina is very upset, as she loves her life in Hollywood and refuses to go. Ed knows that he can never live a happy life without Sabrina but the contract is ironclad and Ed is a very honorable gargoyle, so he departs with Bob and resumes his position at the museum. He no longer has his book or his spectacles and is a defeated and dejected gargoyle. He is very sad indeed.


6. Describe your resolution.

In one to two paragraphs, describe the scenes that happen at the very end of your novel. Try to show how your character and their world have changed. What is normal life like for them now?

The museum plans a huge party to celebrate Ed’s return, everyone is very excited to have him back; they make him clothes, provide him with new and improved furnishings, a special pedestal with superior lighting on the upper floor of the museum where everyone can come and visit him, but Ed is so sad that he doesn’t enjoy any of it; until Sabrina shows up at the celebration. She brings back his book and his spectacles. The two of them are free to roam about the museum and the grounds, they put on performances, entertaining the happy crowds (they’re musical gargoyles, who knew?). Eventually the old gargoyle dies, the magical contract (kept under special lighting in a glass case in the museum) disappears and Ed and Sabrina are free. They publish a book about all of their adventures.


I found this exercise helpful, generating some good ideas, interesting characters and simple plot points that can be further developed. Remember that emotional context matters too; keeping the character’s tone of voice in mind can be just as important as the words you use. Asking yourself, “What is my character’s attitude and how do they feel about what’s going on” helps set the scene. Comedian Steve Martin, was asked why he’s so funny and he replied, “There's a secret to it, it's no big deal. Before I go out, I put a slice of bologna in each of my shoes. So when I'm on stage, I feel funny.” 

I wish you continued success in writing,


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