In this series, I will be talking my process for writing novels. I’m a “pantser” so often I don’t think about the steps I take in an organized way, and it does vary from novel to novel. But there are definite steps I take in the novel-writing process that are similar in each stage. If you’d like, check out Part 1: Inspiration and Part 2: First Lines.
Plot Points & Structure
Before I begin writing the first draft, I usually have an idea of the story or character arc.
This does vary, however. Sometimes I just know how I want it to end: the character starts in this place, and ends up in that place. Other times a story is more internal, and I know how the character will change by the end. And there are stories where I know the midpoint reversal, but not quite how it will all play out in the end.
This is the point where I often come up with my novel’s structure, if it differs from a straight one-character POV.
A few examples:
- The Last Time We Met – This story had a lot going on, and it’s highly structured to help make sense of it. I knew the soulmates would meet right away, and that meeting would spark some past life memories. I wanted them to meet before COVID hit so that they really had time to fall in love and deal with the past lives thing, before dealing with being apart and the fears and anxieties that COVID would bring up. The flashbacks to other lives could be shorter, but each section of the present was 3 chapters. To balance it out, I had three 3-chapter sections of a past life from the early 1900s, 3 single and one 3-chapter section for a past life from the 1980s, and a couple of other one-off past life memories. The arrival of COVID was going to hit at the midpoint. I also knew that the main character’s arc was going to go from emotionally alone to emotionally attached to fear of losing love to acceptance of love.
- Mitzi & Oz – Originally I had thought this would be a rom-com with a disastrous first meeting. I knew I wanted alternating chapters from each POV, where they might interpret each other’s actions differently, and that they would meet up and become friends at the midpoint. I also knew that Mitzi’s character arc was going to be about becoming more confident and true to herself, while Oz’s arc was more about working with others.
- The Victim’s Ball – I wanted the midpoint to be the place where my main character went from intent on revenge to being afraid, with the conclusion of her arc ending in realizing that revenge was an empty pursuit.
- The Art Kids – In the first drafts, I hadn’t actually gotten to the twist yet. This was more about character arcs and Sophie struggling to understand why her friend group is turning away from each other (originally, it was because of a new girl who dated two different guys in the group). Once I had the twist, which I figured out in revision, the structure came together.
- Hitchhikers – I began with a pretty strong premise from the short story: the boy is on the run after killing his father and uncles three years ago. In the original short story, the dog who begins to follow him as he hitchhikes ends up dead, but in this draft the “dog” becomes a catalyst for him to realize that he’s a werewolf at the midpoint, because the dog is actually a werewolf. I wanted to put a twist on the hero’s journey and have Dan accept a role as a warrior rather than as an alpha.
- Waiting Room – I knew I wanted alternating chapters, though in third-person POV. The midpoint was going to be when Ryan’s mother dies, and where Jacky decides to wait for Ryan to deal with his grief before coming out. Despite all the angst, I knew I wanted a happy ending where Ryan and Jacky would come out as a couple.
A novel with a strong structure is a lot easier to write than one without. With Warriors, for example, I wanted to rotate between three different perspectives, with an alternating fourth perspective thrown in every few rounds. And this made the story strangely easy to write. I knew who had to be doing something when, and it kept the story moving forward even if one character was stuck. The Horizontal Ladder had a similar structure with the added layer of the school year. There were four parts, one for each year of high school, and each part had a chapter from one of three different characters in each month of the school year.
You can also structure a novel by thinking about classic novel structure, with Act One, Act Two, and Act Three. I don’t usually look at this type of structure until revision, but I also like to feel my way through a novel. The more you read, the more this story structure is internalized and it will happen without you thinking about it, which feels more intuitive to me. That being said, I often know what the inciting incident will be, what the midpoint reveal or reversal will be, and either the climax or the result of the climax. These are major plot points in the classic three act structure – the inciting incident leads into Act Two, the midpoint marks the middle of Act Two and the beginning of the build to the climax, and the climax leads into Act Three.
At this point I may have already written a first line, and so by now I have some idea of the narrator’s voice and have usually decided if this will be told in first-person or third-person, so it will help with the structure.
A few resources for novel structure:
- Save the Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody – the Save the Cat beat sheets are good for plotting out the major moments in your novel, and there are several different “formulas” for various genres
- The Plot Whisperer by Martha Alderson
- Jami Gold’s Worksheets for Writers – a collection of various worksheets and checklists to help with plotting and revision
- Good Story Company’s Novel Outline Worksheet
- Curiographic’s Story Spine – super basic, but it’s all I normally use when I set out to start writing.
- The 3-Act, 9-Block, 27-Chapter Method – there are several great articles out there explaining this method of outline, but I like that this one uses The Hunger Games as a master text. I used this structure while I was writing We Live in the Dark. Katytastic also has a video explaining this one, if you prefer (and she has lots of other writing videos too!)
This all looks super official, but here I’ve not even started writing yet! I usually don’t write any of this planning down. It’s a weird superstition that if I write down the ending I won’t make it there. Like, I’ll get bored with the story or something, because I already know the ending. Even though in my head I already know the ending?
And I do think that there is something real to this superstition. Sometimes I won’t even talk about my novels as I’m writing them, because if I start telling people what the book is about and what’s going to happen at the end, it’s the same thing.
*whispers* but if the ending stays in my head it’s still a secret!
So yeah – if you’ve already told the story, but none of it is written down, why do you still need to write the story? The magic of discovering what happens is gone.
That magic of discovery is the whole draw of being a pantser!
We’ve got our idea and our first line and our plot points… Next week we’ll actually start writing in Part 4: The Rough Draft!