Although every finished book has a plot, not every plot is developed in the same way. There is a long-standing debate between writers who plot before writing their story (plotters) and those who discover their plot as they write (pantsers). Unfortunately, most of the plotting books I’ve read are for people whose minds work in a way that lends itself to being a plotter. Books that explain how to develop a three-act plot structure, map plot points, or fill in character questionnaires before writing work for some writers, but not all.
So what can you do if plotting before isn’t working for you, but you don’t want to get sidetracked by too many ideas or secondary characters who try to take over as you write?
- Discover Your Main Character(s)
- Write scene sketches.
Explore who your main characters are and how they react. Don’t judge what comes out, just see if it fits the character. Don’t worry about whether it has a place in your manuscript or not. It might, or it might not. Remember, you aren’t doing this for the manuscript. You’re doing this for your character to show you what he/she likes/has experienced/how they react and interact with others.
- Write the same scene from another character’s point of view (POV).
I find this can show me a lot about how a character thinks/acts – both my normal POV character and the other one I am now writing from. It also shows me when an action I had my main character do might be off, since I am seeing it from someone else’s POV. I use this technique whenever a scene isn’t quite working, at any point in the writing process.
- Write their backstory, dig in deeper.
This can be written any way you want to write it or sketch it or think about it. It can all be telling, it doesn’t matter. Knowing what the character did, where the character lived, will help flesh that character out so that their reactions will be more focused and authentic. The more alive and real the character is for you, the clearer their evolution will be over the course of the story. For me, my character’s backstory continues to develop and deepen even as I revise the final draft.
- Discover the Character’s Emotional Journey
- Where does the character start out, emotionally?
This isn’t something I write down, but think a lot about. Is my character confident? Hurt? Resisting commitment? Wanting change? Scared of change? For me, this initial state is directly related to what I see them going through (which is usually the reason I want to write that particular story).
- Where do they end up (emotionally)?
Knowing where characters are headed, emotionally, will show you what kind of situations will push them to face (or let go of) the problem/issue/emotion they are dealing with. As you write forward, let the external situation either echo (to reinforce) or challenge (to create an obstacle for) the character’s inner situation. In other words, guide your characters toward situations that will keep the story moving forward by developing their inner journey.
- What if I have no idea where they are headed?
That happens, and it’s not a problem because you will discover it as you write. Let yourself write forward, or just write a few random scenes, and discover how the character reacts to different situations. Play with those situations until you feel an emotional arc that works for that character, at least for that part of the story. Discard the scenes that don’t fit. Keep doing this as you write forward. And if you need to skip a part in the middle, skip it. Write the next part that you know/see. The connecting part is usually clearer when you come back to it, since you know both where the character was and where they are going.
Whether you know your character’s emotional arc before writing the full story or only after it’s finished, by thinking about the emotional development of the character as you go, you’ll help keep the story on track toward a satisfying resolution.
- Write Forward and Discover the Story
- Keep the story flowing, focusing on what the main character is doing/feeling.
If you find yourself caught up in a subplot or a secondary character starts to take over, tell them that they can have their own book after you finish this one. Stay focused on your main character and his or her emotional journey. Subplots are great but they should only be there as a support/parallel for the main story.
- Remember That You Can Revise It After You Finish
Let go of the stress of needing to know where it’s all going, of the feeling that the first draft needs to be perfect – because it doesn’t, and it won’t be. Instead, enjoy your characters. Let yourself discover the world you are creating. By the time you get to the end, you’ll have discovered who your characters are, what they want, and what they go through. By the end, you will know your character’s emotional arc and the plot.
And once you have that finished first draft (mine are sometimes very, very rough), you can go back and deepen your characters, their reactions, their emotions. You tweak an emotion in one scene, and it impacts how the character enters the next scene – potentially changing how that scene goes. But now, since you now know how the main character feels, you also know how they can or can’t react. It’s all one big, amazing, 4D puzzle.
It’s a story. And it’s yours, no matter how you got there. So trust yourself and how your mind works. If you like plotting before writing, by all means plot. But if you need to have complete freedom to explore a character or a situation, go explore.
Or maybe, if you’re like me, you might find a balance between plotting and discovering that works for you.
Happy writing and happy revising!
Born in the US, Dina von Lowenkraft has lived on 4 continents, worked as a graphic artist for television and as a consultant in the fashion industry. Somewhere between New York and Paris she picked up an MBA and a black belt – and still thinks the two are connected. Dina is currently the Regional Advisor for SCBWI Belgium, where she lives with her husband, two children, three horses and a cat.
Dina loves to create intricate worlds filled with conflict and passion. She builds her own myths while exploring issues of belonging, racism and the search for truth… after all, how can you find true love if you don’t know who you are and what you believe in? Dina’s key to developing characters is to figure out what they would be willing to die for. And then pushing them to that limit.
[box] Ash Hunter knows what it is to run. A SEAL gravely injured in Afghanistan, he’s gone AWOL from the military hospital. Physically and mentally scarred, he returns home to his grandmother’s isolated cottage—and finds a beautiful, haunted stranger inside.
Like recognizes like.
Lia Stewart’s in hiding from the cartel she barely escaped alive, holed up in this small Rocky Mountain town. Surviving, but only just. Helping the wounded warrior on her doorstep is the right thing to do…it’s loving him that might get them both killed.
Soon, Ash realizes he’s not the only one tormented by the past. Pushing the limits of his broken body, testing the boundaries of her shattered soul, he’ll protect Lia until his last breath.
Buy a copy of ‘The Asset’ here. [/box]