Yet Another Novel Writing Guide

Having finally finished my first novel, I obviously know everything and anything about writing another one, right?

Um, no.

In fact, in some ways I feel more confused than ever about “how to write a novel”. Everything I read beforehand basically expressed two fundamental ideas:

  1. Novel writing is ephemeral and subjective, and it depends on a lot of factors — you experiences, your temperament, the story you want to write, where you are in the process of developing your ideas, if the moon is in the seventh house, etc, etc. It’s impossible to definitively define the process of developing a plot. Rules can be broken, and often are.
  2. Having said that, here are a set of definitive steps that can help you write your best-selling novel! Only $19.95, plus tax — or $18.99 just for you (because you are a special and unique snowflake like <put your favorite author here>), but only if you buy within the next five seconds!

Ok, perhaps that’s a bit of an exaggeration; many of the sites I’ve read (including the ones I’ll link, later in this post) provide quite a bit of free useful information.

What I Learned About Novel Writing From Doing It

Interestingly, my experience validated point 1. above much more thoroughly than point 2. I ended up using a mixture of techniques and methods to write my novel, and often found myself improvising and going off track from the steps I’d tried to follow. Ultimately, I like the novel I wrote. (I’m sitting on pins and needles waiting for the reaction of the beta readers, though — next time I’ll find another place to store the sewing kit.) However, on reflection I’ve realized that the steps and suggestions they made were incomplete. As a first time novelist, I found myself floundering in quicksand, even at the places where the steps said I should be on solid ground. Therefore, what follows isn’t a fool-proof plan for writing a novel. Instead, it’s my “New” structure — a hodge-podge of ideas from the three most influential sources I’ve had on developing plot and coming up with an outline. It’s not complete, by any stretch of the imagination; I’ve put it together specifically to address the part of writing that I have the most trouble with — formulating and organizing the basic plot structure. In other words, I’m working on it as something that will help me as I work. I’m posting it here so that I can reference it from wherever I am; if it helps you (or anyone else), so much the better.

As I’ve said, many of the ideas and terminology are drawn from the three most influential sources I’ve read on plot development: How to Create a Plot Outline in 8 Easy Steps, The Myth of 3 Act Structure, and Save the Cat! (I have not read the book, nor do I follow or read the website.) This is an experimental tool for me; I hope that it will help, but I may end up abandoning it if it doesn’t make things easier. (Of course, nothing is easier than writing about writing a novel instead of actually writing the novel. But please ignore that for now.)

Experimental Novel Plot Guide

This guide is loosely based upon five Acts, separated by four special events that I’m going to call Signposts. In my mind, Acts are long lines — basically they’re the thread of the story. The Signposts, on the other hand, are points — they’re the nails upon which the thread is hung. Following the thread should lead to a nail; the nail then changes the direction of the thread. In the same way, an Act should lead to a Signpost, which then influences the direction that the next Act proceeds. Each step (Act or Signpost) ponders a question (or set of questions); the answer(s) should lead naturally to the next step. (At least, that’s what I’m hoping!) Ideally, at the core of each Signpost is a character decision, and each Act explores the implications and consequences of that decision.

I’ll say right now that there are a lot of steps necessary to get from these questions to a completed novel; however, this asks the kinds of questions that I wish I’d asked before writing my first novel — and they’re the kinds of questions I need to ask myself as I revise that novel. I also hope that this setup will help me better implement some of the other awesome suggestions from the three sites above. (By the way, if you are a writer, I highly suggest that you look into the three sites above — I’ve found How to Create a Plot Outline in 8 Easy Steps to be an absolute treasure trove of ideas.)

Enough with the exposition! On to the guide!

  • Act I: The Setup (Or, “Introduce tree, characters”)
    • What is the pre-existing situation? What are the seeds of the coming conflict?
    • This establishes the condition of the world before the story, and introduces the reader to the characters, setting, and established relationships. It also should introduce the story’s central question/theme.
  • Signpost 1: The Inciting Incident (Or, “Put character(s) up in tree”)
    • What changes the status quo?
    • This is the event that sets the plot into motion.
  • Act II: The Basic Conflict (Or, “Why being in a tree is bad”)
    • What are the consequences of the Inciting Incident? How does it affect the characters, and how do they react?
    • This should set up the conflict that will drive the plot, and explore it’s immediate or obvious consequences.
  • Signpost 2: The Reversal (Or, “Set tree on fire”)
    • What is the non-obvious result or implication of the Inciting Incident that has a significant impact on how the conflict will proceed?
    • This could be a decision, a complication, or a surprise, but it should require that the characters re-assess and re-evaluate the situation.
  • Act III: Raising the Stakes (Or, “Why being in a tree on fire is worse”)
    • How does the Reversal increase either the investment required or the severity of failure? Who suffers (or will suffer) from the Reversal, and who benefits (or will benefit)? How has the situation gotten horribly worse?
    • The situation should get horribly worse. The consequences from the Reversal should pile on top of the consequences from the original conflict, or somehow make those original consequences much, much worse.
  • Signpost 3: The Major Victory (Or, “Still in a tree on fire, but things are looking up”
    • What significant advance do the characters make (at great cost) before things turn horribly against them?
    • In either case, the Major Victory should set up the potential for a major reversal of the characters’ fortunes.
  • Act IV: The Spiral of Doom (Or, “Things are no longer looking up”)
    • How does the situation quickly spiral out of control due to the Major Victory (or Defeat)? How do the characters react and respond, and how do they try to regain control before failure comes crashing down upon them? How do those efforts go horribly and repeatedly wrong (thus eliciting new reactions, and new attempts at salvaging the situation)?
    • The keyword here is “urgency”. There is no time left, and the characters are about to fail big.
    • As a suggestion, the characters should be least likely to try anything new during this time; the rate at which the situation develops should keep them on the defensive, and reacting out of habit — regardless of whether or not those habits work.
  • Signpost 4: The “Dark Night of the Soul” (Or, “Decide to get out of the tree”)
    • What traits/behaviors led the characters to this point, and what does it all mean?
    • This is the final moment of reflection and thought about why everything happened the way it did; it ends with the Big Decision that will resolve the conflict and lead inexorably to the novel’s outcome. The decision should be directly tied to the question/theme introduced back in Act I.
  • Act V: Resolution (Or, “How it all ends”)
    • How does the conflict resolve? What happened to the characters due to the Big Decision? What are the long term implications?
    • Tie up your loose ends, and revisit the theme; often the answer to these questions determine the “moral of the story”. The Hulk suggests that you summarize your point and drive home your theme with a fine-tooth hammer.

Will all stories fit into this structure? No, probably not. Will following this structure automatically result in an awesome story? Again, probably not. However, the problem I’ve had is making sure that I have an understanding of what’s happening when, and why, and I think this outlining tool will help with that. I’ll let you know how it goes as I try it out on my next few creative projects. In particular, I would like to try integrating several plot threads into a single novel, as suggested by How to Create a Plot Outline in 8 Easy Steps; so far I’ve had trouble doing it, but hopefully this guide will make the transition easier.

If you end up using this guide, or you have thoughts or suggestions, please leave a comment below! I’d love to hear how it works (or doesn’t) for you.

Ok, back to writing!

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