AHA · Authors Helping Authors · Writing Tips

“Plotting Your Next Novel” by Stefan Vucak

stefan plotting diagramDazzled by the brilliance of your inspiration for a new book, shaking off the urge to start pounding away at that keyboard, you’ve caught your breath and took stock of what you are really facing. Slowly, a sobering realization breaks through that dazzle: that book idea now needs to be translated into 100,000 words or so.


Where the hell will such a mountain of words come from, words that will inspire, or at least entertain? Perhaps it’s time to reach for a liquid morale booster.

Still determined to suffer the agonies of creation? If you are a disciplined writer, you’ll roll up your sleeves and get down to some serious work. It is time to plan all the elements of your novel. I won’t go into that now, but you can read how to go about it at: http://stefanvucak.com/planning-and-writing-your-novel/.

What I want to talk about is plotting your novel. At first glance, this is similar to writing an outline, and has the same components:

  • Define basic story scenes
  • Identify all characters
  • Outline the main plot and sub-plots
  • What are the human elements
  • Do the necessary research

‘Outline the main plot and sub-plots’, that’s what can ruin your day. Before you are in a position to write an outline, you need the book’s plot! It is at this point where your initial idea bubble could burst—unless you maintain your cool and stick with the disciplined approach. Believe me, it is not a good idea to dash off a few dot points about your novel in the belief you can skip the hard yards in between and jump on that keyboard while you are still bathed in that inspiration brilliance. Writer’s block and the procrastination demons will surely get you, as will depression and thoughts of self-destruction. Suck it up now and avoid worse torture later.

Make no mistake; plotting a novel takes hard work. However, the end result will be worth the sweat and some gnashing of teeth. If you don’t have teeth, you’re lucky. Anyway, how do you plot the damn thing? Your idea bubble was nothing more than one image in a possible book that drove you to expand into a full novel. It could not have encompassed all the scenes, characters, drama, and action a good yarn must have. No one is that good. The book idea is one jigsaw puzzle piece, around which you now have to build all the other pieces that form the final picture—the book. So, how to build those pieces?

If you are like me, when I pluck a book idea from a pool of other potential ideas, thinking about it, that idea generates a cascade of images. What I am doing is breaking down the idea into scenes. It is all rough at this point and the scenes may not have any coherence or logical sequence, it doesn’t matter. I am starting the plotting process. What I do is write down bullet sentences for each scene idea. At this stage, my head is buzzing with action images. Wearing a satisfied smirk, telling myself this one will be a blockbuster. I need that confidence booster to charge me up and keep me going through the inevitable dark patches. Another thing that can work is to write each scene on a slip of paper and keep them in a file or shoebox. Or you can use a spreadsheet. Again, it doesn’t matter what you do with them as long as you keep them somewhere. Inevitably, I reach a point when I cannot think of anything else and I am staring at a blank sheet of paper.

At this point, what I do is pull out all those scenes and start putting them into some order: the sequence in which the book will be written. Some scenes will fit and some won’t. Having built the initial skeleton, I identify more scenes until I have a beginning, as many main story elements as I can think of, and an ending. Getting an ending is important, as it will define the flow of the book, and it must not be a letdown! You must leave the reader satisfied, not disillusioned. What do I do with all those scenes that never make it into the skeleton? I keep them until the entire book skeleton is completely built, then I discard them.

Completely built? I may have the main story elements identified, but that’s not usually enough to wrap a book around, unless it is something short. So far, all I’ve done is work on the main subject of the book. It is time to add smaller bones and drape some flesh over everything. Remember the outline points: identify the characters and the human elements? I need to know who does what to whom and who gets paid…and why. Every book is about interaction between characters and their environment, whether natural, family, political, workplace, whatever. If you are not writing about characters, you’re writing a user manual. I think I said that somewhere.

Back to the drawing board and those bullet points. Getting the initial book skeleton takes work, but that’s the easy part. Working out the human elements is more tricky and can take some time, but the basic process is still the same:

  • Identify every character and define his or her role
  • Work out the interactions between every character
  • Insert motive, place and opportunity
  • What are the climax points
  • How do characters react to success, failure, possible demise
  • Set backgrounds against which the characters play

Once I have all this done, it is only then that I pick up my pen, make myself comfortable…and stare at the blank page of my notebook. How the hell do I write that first sentence? Well, I’ll talk about the pain of starting to write next time.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Stefan Vucak is an award-winning author of the sci-fi Shadow Gods series of books. His contemporary political thriller Cry of Eagles has won the coveted 2011 Readers’ Favorite silver medal award, and his All the Evils was the 2013 prestigious Eric Hoffer contest finalist and Readers’ Favorite silver medal winner. His Strike for Honor won a gold medal.

Website: www.stefanvucak.com

Facebook: www.facebook.com/StefanVucak

Twitter: @stefanvucak

Do you think Stefan’s approach will work for you? How do you plot your novel? Feedback is always appreciated.

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