One of the main issues with writing big ol’ fantasy stories is the plotting. I will repeatedly get myself in a twist as I try and thread together all the parts of my story, then remembering I’d left Character 1 behind five plot points previously and how does Character 3’s story link in and what on EARTH is happening to my subplot?!
It’s also where stuff like NaNoWriMo comes in, with Chris Baty’s bestseller “No Plot, No Problem!” flying off the shelves here and abroad. (I’m halfway through at the moment. It’s hilariously good fun). Having 50,000 words to write in a month will do amazing things to your plot. And sometimes, if you’re not me, those things are positive!
Luckily I have had many people sit me down and point out to me the flaws in my plotting, and I’ve then gone away and tried my best to fix it. I’ve been taught a multitude of tricks to sort out plot over the years (which, when you look at my plots, is slightly worrying, as they still feel riddled with holes at times!) and as I am looking through my current novel’s synopsis, I thought I would share some of these gems with you.
1) The Hero’s Journey (as detailed here)
The Hero’s Journey is one of the first plotting devices I ever came across. I find it ideal for plotting longer stories and it especially lends itself to fantasy. It fits the tropes of so many books I read when I was younger that I find it very easy to comprehend, as I have plenty of points of reference. The first Star Wars film is a great example of the Hero’s Journey.
You’ve got the Hero, the Mentor, the Bad Guy, as well as Conflict and Obstacles. I sat one day in the barn at Totleigh and wrote out my whole plot based on Hero’s Journey. It still needed lots of work on causality and why my characters were doing certain things, but the peaks and troughs were far more concrete than they had been.
I find Hero’s Journey to be like a dummies’ guide to writing a big piece of music. It doesn’t tell you what notes to play, or in what order (!), but does give you those little tips like “well, here’s where you get an allegro movement” and “this is the forte bit”.
I don’t try and let myself get overwhelmed by sticking to Hero’s Journey precisely, but as a guideline it’s very useful.
2) The 20-point Plot Plan (as taught by the fabulous @malorieblackman at Arvon)
Causality was one of the details I appeared to have neatly skimmed over when Malorie looked over my synopsis during my Arvon week!
(I also don’t really think I can justify “travelling”, “some kind of battle” and “the end (?)” as valid plot points. Sigh.)
The challenge is essentially to write out your story in twenty plot points, not forgetting causality! If you’re like me and have plot points coming out your ears, I wrote one plot point and then sneaked what was happening to the minor characters into the same plot point (which leads on to my character timeline rather nicely, but I’m not sure it was what Malorie wanted me to do!)
By going back over my freshly drafted plot plan – after I realised I had leave my beloved narrator behind for the actual main character to do the talking (thank you Melvin!) – I saw I was missing rather a lot of causality. So then I went through and tried to join them together with “and then this happens next BECAUSE”.
Focusing on the “because” really helped with my causality, and hopefully my plot is much better for it.
3) The Character Timeline (one I amalgamated from multiple inputs)
This technique was borne out of me…
a) not knowing who was my main character
b) wanting to write from ALL the viewpoints! (not to be advised!) and
c) struggling to cram everything in to twenty distinct plot points!
So I decided I was going to write out each character’s journey, in separate columns (well, zig-zaggy brightly coloured mindmaps because my brain doesn’t do well with linear) and then see how they interacted and linked up at which places in the novel. That way, I know which characters’ plots I know the most about, and which ones perhaps need a little improving.
It was at this point I think I started to realise – but stubbornly ignored until Melvin pointed it out to me a week later – that maaaaybe I didn’t know quite enough about my narrator, and that actually I was spending far more time hanging out with my other main character. Who is now THE main character. And everything is going much more swimmingly!
It also helps plot where your antagonist, or Bad Guy/Girl, is throughout the novel. My villains used to just pop up, go “mwahahaha”, almost beat the Hero/Heroine, and then lose at the final moment.
That’s all well and good, but what on earth was my Bad Guy/Girl doing for the rest of the story?!
So I wrote his story arc too, in his own little timeline. Which, admittedly, had a LOT of blank spaces to start with, that I spent excessive amounts of time staring at in the hope that I’d be struck by a fantastic burst of wisdom. But by putting it alongside all my other characters arcs, I could see how they all interacted with each other, and presto! my plot started to look a bit more sensible again. Finally, different bits of the story were talking to each other.
Happy days! 🙂
The “oops/phew” model, as formed by the lovely Beth Webb, is a very basic way of plotting out your story, and dovetails nicely with Malorie’s plot plan. You essentially have the beginning, middle and end, except the middle is broken up into “oops’s”. Three is a good number to pick. Then see how your characters respond to these “oops’s”.
This is a wonderful way to address the problems your character faces, and can really help with the plot points. I realised one of my “oops” didn’t really follow on from the last one, and that really I was trying to blag my way from one to the other.
This was not a good idea.
By focusing on how your character copes with the problem, you also know far more about them. But I’ll save character for another day.
I hope this has helped people think about ways to approach their plot. It has certainly helped me, and still does very much! Now, with any luck, I can go and crack those last few problems…
Malorie Blackman is a hugely successful children’s and YA writer, whose books include the Noughts and Crosses series. She is the current Children’s Laureate and recently organised the inaugural YALC (Young Adult Literature Convention).
Beth Webb writes books for children and young adults. Titles include Fleabag, Dragons of Kilve, as well as her series for teens, Star Dancer, published by March Hamilton Media. You can find words of wisdom on writing and the courses she teaches at www.bethwebb.co.uk and www.kilvecourt.co.uk