What to write about? How to approach it? Do I have to think of the entire plot in advance? What’s the right amount of plot versus the right amount of character development? Do I even need a plot?
Of course you need a plot! The plot is the storyline that holds your novel together. Without it, your novel is just so many journal entries (and even those have a real-life plot behind them).
Here’s how I do it. Your mileage may vary. Let’s take the first book in the Broom series as an example. I was sitting in a long (three day), boring meeting in Maryland in July of 2005. I’m a Harry Potter fan. The engineer in me was daydreaming of how a broomstick might really fly. Dynamics and that sort of thing. I decided that I’d describe a broomstick’s flight capabilities entirely differently from the Harry Potter version.
Being an engineer, I thought of various backstories that might have led to a flying broomstick. Somewhere, somehow, it would have to get the power to levitate. And, of course, a real flying broomstick over the skies of Ouray County, Colorado, would create some excitement.
On the United flight from Dulles to Denver, I spent every moment scratching ideas out on a sheet of notebook paper. I didn’t use my laptop because my thoughts at this point were wildly disorganized. Many of my notes were single words. By the time I was home, I had several competing ideas banging around inside my skull.
In August, September, and October, I worked and reworked those ideas. Oh, and created characters (see my blog entry on creating characters). By the time I was ready to write, I had 26 pages of single-spaced notes in Word, organized by character bios, plot points, and more details than you would imagine about how broomsticks really fly.
For reasons I can’t fully explain, I decided to make myself the main character and treat the project as though it were my recollections of how the flying broomstick came about.
I decided that the power to levitate would come from a “good” (as opposed to “evil” or “occult”) source. Thinking back to my childhood Sunday School training, I remembered that Moses and Aaron went to see Pharaoh to demand that the Israelites be freed. At one point (Exodus 7:10), Aaron throws his rod (staff or walking stick) in front of Pharaoh and it turns into a snake. Pharaoh summoned his wise men and sorcerers and had them throw their rods down; these became snakes also, but Aaron’s snake ate the others. Well! Here I had something. For the sake of simplicity I concentrated solely on Moses. There was something special about that staff—I decided that the staff itself held at least some of the power that the Lord displayed to Pharaoh. What, I asked myself, had happened to that staff through history?
Oh, and there’s another object that still fascinates. At the Last Supper, Jesus drinks from a cup. In many interpretations, that cup is the Holy Grail, meaning something long sought after (because no one has yet found it).
So, let’s invent an organization. We’ll call it the Fraternal Order of the Grail, a small, highly-secret fraternal order that has as its purpose preserving the two artifacts just mentioned: the sole remaining remnant of Moses staff, now worn down to about 14 inches long and a half inch in diameter, carved with ancient Hebrew phrases attesting to its power. Oh, the other artifact? The Holy Grail itself. The story I thought of is that Peter, thinking the cup might have some significance, grabbed it off the table as the party left the upper room. The cup made its way to Rome and eventually to Londinium, the Roman city that would eventually become London.
So, you see how the plot begins to emerge? We can start with my stumbling into this organization while my wife and I were in London. I’m accidentally inducted. I’m given a faithful copy of the remnant of Moses’ staff and receive the Power.
Well, what comes next? Create a broomstick that flies! Then learn how to ride (tame) it.
In every good story line there’s conflict. Conflict can be between a protagonist and nature, between the protagonist and himself, between the protagonist and external forces or other people. I set myself up as protagonist in the first Broom book (we have different protagonists in the second and third books, although I continue to narrate). The conflict is this engineer who stumbles into a way to make a broomstick fly and then all the trouble he gets into because of it. There’s conflict between the protagonist and the broomstick (it does have a bit of a mind of its own), the protagonist and the news media, the FAA, etc.
Do you see how the plot develops?
But it’s not necessary to have every little step choreographed. In fact, I’d advise against it. What you might want to do is define your characters and then put them in a conflict situation and watch them behave. You’ll find that some of your original ideas won’t work, but new ones will spring to life as your story evolves.
In a future post I’ll talk about when to stop writing and assess where your characters need to go. In other words, what to do with the second half of the book.
In the meantime, happy plotting!