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How to plot a story when you're clueless

(Photo: otografierende on Unsplash)

Words by Ricardo Elisiário

When it comes to writing a book, it's usually not so much a matter of not being able to find the words as it is not knowing where they should be leading the story.

There are various moments during the process when this feeling of cluelessness about the next step to take comes to scare you, and facing it can be very dull.

Regardless of how and when it strikes, it’s your responsibility to minimize the toll these blockages take on your progress. Since idleness is the opposite of publishing, and you probably have other things to do with your day apart from writing (despite how much you wanted this not to be true!), there are some effective ways to deal with it.

Length matters

Usually, a smaller book asks for less plotting than a big one, and if it does need as much plot, the body of it will inevitably be more condensed. Ultimately, the longer the piece, the wider your plan for story action needs to be.

If you’re writing a tiny novel that barely stretches over the 50,000 words mark, you may be fine limiting it to no more than a dozen fat chapters through which you’ll draw your tale’s beginning, middle and end.

Otherwise, you need to adapt your series of intertwinements and character development to the expected length of your work.

Make sure there are no evident low points, and that every bit adds value to the whole picture, and you should be off to a good start.

Point it out

Every writer starts a new story with the simple vision of a single event taking place somewhere within. That’s the primary pole around which the whole story should develop and acquire shape.

Assuming that you begin by knowing at least one main point, draft it – preferably on paper.

Next, write a few key sentences to describe each chapter you envision making it to print.

Several of these ideas will adapt, be deleted or even become a whole new different novel, sometime in the future. That’s no problem. The trick is to think of something – an idea that moves a scene forward and moulds the chapter – and push it down the hill until it flies off.

March it out

Even if you've yet to decide what you want to say, throw yourself into the work. There’s a certain magic to putting words down because many ideas will un-roll as you get closer to the moment you need them to turn up.

To break through your creative dead ends, march forward regardless. You may frequently find yourself wondering and guessing at what must come in the next chapter, when all you had to do was write one ongoing chapter to its end.

Allow the plot to lead you there naturally.

Check your chapters

Predicting a size for your finished book, and dividing it by a rough estimate of the number of chapters you think you’ll have, will leave you with the number of words you’ll need in each section.

This is important because, at this stage, you will barely know what the structure of your book is supposed to be. The skeleton of chapters will impact directly on what you’ll do with the storyline’s flow.

The length of a chapter will condition how you develop the scene(s) within. In this way, the planned length of the book will influence the arrangement of the story, and the way you’re led to tell it.

Find your faults

It can feel like straightforward prudence to dodge our own plot holes or imperfect narration. While mentally reviewing the thread of your story, you’re reliving the action you've written rather than looking around for trouble spots.

These imperfections can occur in self-sealed scenes, which then impede their amalgamation with adjacent scenes. They can also pop up in inconsistencies that would be an easy red-flag for any reader with an eye for slips.

Striving to find the defects in your prose will create a better, richer draft – and this is the mindset you must adopt all through the task, for as long as it takes you to go from the first sentence to the last in your manuscript.

The objective of successful plotting is to make plain ink propel the reader and turn piles of words alive, page after page.

That being so, be sure to spend your writing breaks thinking about how you could bring further authenticity to everything you’re creating, and how to better articulate all its unique parts.

The truth is that these goals are sooner achieved if you don’t abstain from seeking a solution.

Wondering what to write next won’t bring miracles, nor will failing to write down the words you've wondered about.

Follow Ricardo on Twitter here.

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