Thank you to Janice Hardy and to Writers in the Storm for this excellent article on plotting the novel.
Unless you’re playing with a non-chronological story structure, plot unfolds as time marches on in a novel. It starts when the problem is discovered (more or less), and ends when the problem is resolved. But just because the story is in chronological order, doesn’t mean we need to plot it that way.
I’m currently working on the outline for a novel a bit outside my normal genre. It’s still science fiction, but it’s a detective novel at heart, with all the twist and turns and plot requirements that entails. Information needs to be revealed in the right way, otherwise my plot might feel too rushed or too slow, and some of the logic leaps my detective has might not make sense. This holds true of most stories, regardless of their genres.
Luckily, there are pinch points I know I’m going to have, such as finding the body, uncovering the killer, revealing key secrets and clues. These clear moments are “destination points” for me to plot toward.
Pantsers just write their way there and see what happens, but I’m a plotter, and I need to have a solid outline in place before I begin a novel. When I can’t find my way forward, I skip to the end and go backward. Because of those destination points, I know exactly where I need to be.
With a genre as structured as a mystery, this is even easier. For example, I know my detective will discover the killer’s identity at a certain point. So I start there–what specifically reveals this? What clue leads him to this discovery? How does he find that clue? What is he doing when he discovers this clue? At each point, I figure out what had to have happened to get him there.
Let’s look a little closer.
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Write Your Novel From the Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers and Everyone in Between by James Scott Bell is not a comprehensive guide for fiction writers; neither is it a book for beginners. For someone who has at least written a complete first draft, it would be helpful in focusing your rewrite. In your subsequent stories, Bell’s technique will save you much grief, because you’ll know what to do in the dreaded middle of the tale.
Bell says there is a pivotal moment of truth at the midpoint of the story that pulls together the entire novel. Here the main character does one of two things:
- In a character-driven story, the MC looks at himself and makes a decision about the person he’s becoming. Does he like himself? Does he have to change the way he operates? How is the struggle he’s involved in affecting him?
- In plot-driven fiction, the MC evaluates her objective and realizes that going forward is going to cost her dearly; she will surely die, if not physically, then emotionally or professionally. And she makes the decision to go forward. (If not, end of story!)
I was relieved to discover my work-in-perpetual-progress does have this defining moment close to the midpoint, without me knowing Bell’s theory or planning for it. (Phew!) Bell’s research shows that it’s virtually universal in successful books and movies.
Interestingly, Bell discusses this most important information in Chapter 5 of 9. A coincidence?
After Chapter 9, he also includes five helpful writing tips.
Write Your Novel From the Middle is a quick read. I have it on my Kindle, but if you prefer hard copy, it won’t take up much space on your writing books shelf, where it would be a valuable addition. I rate it four stars out of five: what it does, it does well, but it won’t solve all your writing problems, nor does Bell claim it will.