How To Prep A Novel, Part Two: Stepping Stones and Questions

STS-126 - An extravehicular activity (EVA) too...

I knew Zarka was trouble. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

All right. You’ve got some pieces—protagonist, antagonist, conflict, unicorn cavalry—and an Idea, and now you need an outline. You need a plan.

Three caveats before we begin:
1. Much like the Pirate Code, outlines should be treated as more of a guideline. Deviate as necessary for the story. Re-outline halfway through if you have to.
2. Try different methods. No one method will work for everybody, or even on person all the time. This is one method, but I use others.
3. Don’t get so caught up in the outline that you never get around to writing the damn thing.

Got that? Everyone holding on to their unmentionable bits? Then let’s carry on.

Step Four: You Are Here.

If you did the prep work, you’ve got some idea of where your story starts. You might have an idea of where it ends.* And you’ve probably got some ideas for things that happen in between. Start there. Write down all the things that you know happen. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a fucking clue how one leads to another. This is a work in progress.
Some people use index cards for this, others notebooks. I shift between one of those hardcover composition books, the index card function on Scrivener, and real life index cards. Sometimes all three. Whatever’s at hand and whatever I feel like working with. For the sake of this example, I’ll assume index cards.
Got your things written down? Good. Now, lay them out somewhere and start figuring out the connections. Ask questions. For example, if your beginning card is ’space debris is stolen from Jane’s lab in Connecticut’ and the end card is ‘Jane flies her ship into a star to kill Zarka the Destroyer before she conquers Earth’, there are some pretty obvious questions. How did Jane get into space? Did she steal that ship? Or was the ISS aware of Zarka’s plan and needed a plucky scientist to figure out a solution? Where did Zarka come from? Did she steal the space debris? Why? Or was her consciousness trapped in the debris and once she escaped did she build herself a new body from the materials in Jane’s lab?
Ask your questions and start filling in the spaces between the events that you first created. You can try to cross over the main plot and the sub-plot—really, you should, sooner or later—but I’d worry less about that right now than just making a path from A to B. You’ll probably find that the plot lines cross themselves over as you write, because that’s the way the human brain works.

Step Five: The Devil In The Details

Right now you’ve probably got a chaotic mess of scenes and characters, all jumbled together in a writerly orgy. It’s okay. Consider this the zero draft outline.
Take all those bits that you have, the questions and the answers and the cool stuff you want to happen, and start laying it out. This is where I like Scrivener; I can colour-code the cards according to plot or subplot or viewpoint character or whatever organizational system I’m using so I can see the differences. But you could also use different colour index cards, or highlighters on different lines.
As you’re laying it out, looking for the gaps. Is there enough time between the big events? Is the mystery solved too quickly? Or does that subplot about the waiter and the egg timer drag out too long? Spending too much time with one character, too little with another? The antagonist doesn’t appear until two-thirds the way through? Shuffle things around until you like what you see. Again, it doesn’t need to be perfect this time around. You’ll change things as you write, and in subsequent rewrites. That’s writing, like a virus that genetically reshuffles so it can’t be pinned down with a single cure. The point of this outline is to get an idea of where you’re going and how to get there. That’s all.
A gentle reminder: don’t fall in love with anything in this outline. It should all be open to change if the story demands it. You need the flexibility or you’re going to choke off any creativity. An outline is not a straight-jacket.

Step Six: The Big Questions

While you’re building that path discussed above, laying out your index cards like stepping stones, start thinking about the big ideas that will form the backbone of the story and how they fit into the events you’re planning.
For example, a couple of a years ago, I wrote a story that, aside from all the abductions and murders and threats, was ultimately about one character’s redemption. He started off the story just south of neutral—not evil by any stretch, but certainly self-centred, afraid, and weak. The point of the story was to put him in situations that would force him to choose between what was easy and what was right. All the other stuff allowed him to get there.
Think about big picture ideas like that. The term ‘theme’ gets bandied about a lot, but that brings back too many memories of high school lit class for some people. Try not to have a flashback. Just consider this: Star Wars is about Anakin Skywalker’s fall and ultimate redemption. The war and the rebellion and all the other stuff is important, but that one thread runs through it all. Find the thread that runs through yours and yank it until you find the other end.
The biggest question you need to answer is the ever-present why should we give a fuck? How can you force the reader to care? Because you’re going to need them to.

Coming next: Part Three, which includes finalizing the map before writing.

*I always like to have an idea of this, otherwise I end up lost. See here for more details.