Raw Materials: Plot
I know there are two schools of thought when it comes to approaching the blank page at the start of the novel: outlining and pantsing (ie. writing “by the seat of your pants”). I’ve tried pantsing in the past with short stories, and I’ve enjoyed it. It’s really fun to just start typing and see where your mind takes you. In fact, for a while I used this approach for a morning writing practice I followed. I published the results in a book called Morning Wood. It’s not great literature, but it’s good for a laugh, and it highlights the fun that can be had with this approach.
However, for me, the thought of approaching a novel-length work in this way is too daunting. I can’t hold all of the elements of a novel in my head at once (not yet, at least), so I feel like I would need a blueprint, a map of some kind to ensure that I don’t lose my way. Otherwise, I’d end up with a blob of text that I would need to sift through to find the novel hidden within. Unfortunately, revising is not one of my strengths. And, since I’m a husband and a father and I work a demanding full-time job, I want a more efficient writing process right now. Given my skill level and my time demands, I need an outline.
Outlines center primarily on the plot and structure of the story. Character is crucial and interwoven, of course, but the outline I’m after would tell me what happens next, so that, when I sit down to write, I know exactly what I’m doing and I can concentrate fully on writing an evocative scene as efficiently as possible.
Sadly, plot is also not one of my strengths.
There are any number of books to be had on the subject of plotting. I’ve read dozens over the years, but nothing has stuck. I have a vague sense of the Hero’s Journey and the Seven-Point Plot Structure and the like, but I struggle to identify anything other than the main turning points in most stories, and I don’t have a clue where to start when I’m inventing my own. I read constantly that writers have no shortage of ideas, and yet I don’t know where to begin. For me, I feel like I could have a lot of ideas if I only knew what an idea looked like, and how to turn it into a story.
For that, I turned to several books. I chose these because they just happened to cross my path at the right moment in time. I could have chosen others. Others may work better for you.
There are a lot of screenwriting books in this list, simply because I find that screenwriting books generally present plot and story structure in a straightforward way. Screenwriting, I think, lacks the stigma against “formula” writing that fiction still seems to carry. It’s an unnecessary stigma, for a solid structural foundation is no more a formula for cookie-cutter fiction than a human skeleton is a formula for cookie-cutter humans.
That said, here are the books I chose:
- Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder
- Take Off Your Pants! by Libbie Hawker
- Screenplay, by Syd Field
- Scene & Structure, by Jack Bickham
- Materials from an online screenwriting course by screenplayscripts.com
I’m not going to detail the contents of these books or materials here. Instead, I’m going to focus on the comparisons I made between them to arrive at a practical understanding of story structure that I could then use to create a useful story outline.
(By the way, the content links I post will be to the Apple Books versions of these titles, whenever possible. Just because. But, of course, most of these titles are available anywhere.)