Writing

Guest Post-How to Plot a Novel with Sunanda Chatterjee

Ah! That dreaded first draft!

Most authors have a favored way to creating their first draft. Some are “pantsers,” who dive in and start typing whatever comes to mind with just the basic idea of where the story will go, while others are “plotters” who plan every chapter and every scene. Somewhere in the middle are the “hybrids,” who have a fairly clear idea of what will happen, but only a vague idea of the where and why.

In this segment, I will discuss the “plotting” method, in which the author decides the overall plot of the story, including specific characters, with a well delineated plan for each scene, accounting for the character arc and the three-part story structure, and developing the story with every pass.

 

  • OUTLINE: Only the basic information on what happens and to whom goes into the outline. The point of view (POV) is not necessarily assigned. It’s all “tell” and no “show” at this point. I’ll share my method.  Using “Styles” in MS Word, I convert all the lines into “Headings” and turn on “view Navigation.” This allows me to clearly see what’s happening in the entire story, with the ability to move chapters around as needed. Using one line for each event, the outline for a 60K story can be written in one or two pages.

 

EXAMPLE: Married woman bumps into ex-boyfriend who didn’t want kids.  She doesn’t love her slob of a husband. Calls ex over for dinner. Husband gets jealous and has an affair. ? Hits wife or kids? Woman gets a divorce. Marries ex. (Silly plot, but let’s go with it).

 

 

  • DETAILED OUTLINE: Once the rough outline is done, I convert each line (the temporary chapter heading) into a paragraph. It’s still all “tell.” That’s my earliest draft, about 5-10K words. During this time, if inspiration strikes, I’ll write out entire scenes or dialogues, or I’ll leave it vague. It’s all loosey-goosey. Something like: “He proposes. Cafeteria? Beach? Restaurant?” The outline may change as well.

 

EXAMPLE: (Detailed outline of the opening scene)

On her way home after a long day at work, Susan stopped to pick up groceries. Peter, her husband, was such a slob. After losing his job, he called himself a stay-at-home Dad but did nothing all day. The kids would be hungry. At the entrance to the supermarket, Susan bumped into her ex-boyfriend, Ryan. They had broken up because he didn’t want kids. But she was shocked to see him buying diapers.

 

 

  • DEVELOPING THE FIRST DRAFT: I go back to the beginning and transform each line of the paragraph into its own paragraph, each paragraph into a scene, and a set of scenes become a chapter. The chapter lengths are fluid at this stage, and some may be combined later, moved around, or scalped altogether. Dialogue is written out without tags or actions, and definitely without inner monologue. Point of view may not be assigned yet. Even the outline is fluid, and details and order of scenes may change. That makes about 20K words.

 

In the next round, dialogue tags and actions are added. Once the POV is chosen, I add thoughts (inner monologue) to the dialogue and the scenes. POV may change for a particular scene. Now it ends up at about 40-50K words.

During each part, I may have an inspiration to add interesting imagery or ideas and I throw them in wherever they fit best.

EXAMPLE:

Exhausted from typing the brief, Susan wanted nothing more than to go home and crash. But she knew the kids would be hungry. She’d seen little Mark shake out the last drops of milk over his Cheerios this morning, while Miriam had half a cup of orange juice. Susan would have to make a pit-stop.

If only Peter would behave like a real father and help out once in a while… Sure, he’d lost his job, but looking for one wouldn’t hurt. If he could not help at home, at least he could earn a living. Susan sighed. It had been a night of terrible judgment that made her marry the slob. Now she was stuck with him. She knew he must have watched TV all day, chomping on chips and salsa. She dreaded the state of the carpet and shook her head.

It was up to her. As usual.

She made a U-turn into Broadway and drove into the parking lot of the A1-supermarket. Grabbing the cloth bags from the trunk of her car, she rushed into the store. As the glass doors slid open, she almost bumped into someone.

The man dropped his grocery bag, spilling its contents all over the entrance of the store.

“Sorry!” she said, bending down to help him pick up the bread and a bag of diapers.

“Susan?” he said, holding a six-pack of baby food.

She looked up at his face and gasped. Faded blue eyes, dirty blond hair, and that freckled nose. Those lips…

“Oh My God! Ryan?” Her heart was pounding. Her stomach was in knots and her mouth dry. How could it be that after ten years, he still made her feel that way?

He grinned, his eyes crinkling up just as she remembered, when she knew every line and curve of his face. She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and noticed he hadn’t grayed at all.

He pulled her up and grabbed her in a massive bear hug. “Susan! You’re still gorgeous! How have you been?”

She struggled out of his grasp, two thoughts battling for attention: He thinks I’m gorgeous! And the second: Diapers! Why did he buy diapers?

She wanted to yell, “Did you really not want kids or just not with me?”

But she said, “Great!”

***

PROS of Plotting:

  1. You can ask alpha readers early on if the plot works without changing much in your book.
  2. If you are not feeling inspired, you can continue detailing the scenes without pressure to make it beautiful.
  3. The next scene already has a one-line description and acts as a prompt to get the creative juices flowing.
  4. The middle of the book which sometimes begins to sag for pantsers, usually does not happen with plotters, because we are building the story up rather than paring it down. Of course, we may have to do that at some point.
  5. Working with an outline makes the story crisp and saves time.

CONS of Plotting:

  1. Some authors feel restricted within the framework. But if you are flexible, you could use the hybrid method.

So there you have it. If “Plotting” appeals to your writing style, try it out, at least for a short story and see how it goes. Good luck!

 

Sunanda Chatterjee is an author, blogger, and pathologist who loves heartwarming tales of duty, passion and selfless love. She is the author of six novels and has published short stories in anthologies and e-magazines. She writes women’s fiction and romance.

  • Follow Sunanda on Facebook here
  • See her website here
  • Check out Sunanda’s Amazon Author Page here
  • Follow Sunanda on Twitter here
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