This is the fifth post in a series called The Bad Book Project, in which I prepare for Camp NaNoWriMo in April. I’m having so much fun preparing for writing and writing and reading these posts. In the last 4 post we have discussed getting started and writing characters, check out those posts here: 1, 2, 3, 4. This week Claudie’s post about how to get your plot rolling! I really love it, I hope you do too!
Four Questions to Get Your Plot Rolling
I spend a lot of time asking myself questions. No, no, not existential questions (though my mind can wander into pointless meandering it’s rarely of that nature). No, when I bust out the questions, it’s because I’m in plotting mode.
Before I go on, I tend to have Important Caveats ™ regarding writing advice. Everyone works differently, and sometimes your process will change from one project to the next! So everything below? I hope it helps you! But if it doesn’t at all, it doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong.
I like questions because they’re flexible. You never know which one will be the spark, but some should, in my opinion, absolutely be answered at some point in your writing. They’ll give you good landmarks to hit structure and pacing-wise, and as such, they are also good ways to get unstuck.
Anyway! Here we go with some great questions to get your plot rolling!
Question 1: What is my character’s biggest fear?
A lot of writing advice out there will say ‘make it happen’. As with most of the widespread writing advice, I’m iffy about repeating it, because it’s not always the best way. It’s important to understand why this works in many circumstances (it does) in order to use it when most appropriate. This question often comes with a few others such as “What would they never say? Never do? Never think?” The goal here is to know what makes your character tick—what will get a strong reaction out of him. Because when you plot, you need that strong reaction.
And yes, you do need to make some of those happen or to threaten your character with them. These will make the stakes of your novel personal. It will get the readers more involved. So list specific events that’d play upon your character’s fears and weaknesses and brainstorm on how some could fit your plot.
Question 2: What is my character arc, and how can I achieve it?
Characters need to evolve through a story. In the best novels, outside events bring about inward change. Sometimes, the best way to plot your novel is to determine what Point A and Point B of your character arc are, then ask yourself how such a change could come about. Try to find different increments. Most changes happen in steps.
For example, when I wrote Viral Airwaves, I knew I need Hans Vermen to go from a soldier obsessed with avenging his brother, killed by the rebels’ leader (Seraphin), to him falling in love with said man. Considering the importance Vermen put into duty (which included vengeance), that sure wasn’t going to happen overnight. So I went in steps, making him first befriend another rebel. Then choosing to save that new friend’s life instead of escaping, even though staying might mean execution for him. Seraphin stops that execution, and now the man who killed his brother also saved his life instead of ending it. Every new scene brings him a step closer to the end goal. When you plot, look to the next step. Find a concrete scene to accomplish it. Rinse and repeat.
Question 3: What is the point of no return for your character? When does it happen in your novel?
This question goes hand in hand with the character arc, but I want to dwell more on it. Baby steps along the character arc are good, but if it feels like your character could go back to the beginning easily, you’re doing it wrong. This is true for internal and external arcs.
And here’s the deal: that point of no return needs to be an active decision from your character. Seriously. Don’t just force them into it until they can’t bail out. Make them choose not to bail out. This is why Vermen chooses to save his friend instead of leaving. I did the same for that novel’s actual main character: at first, he flees the rebels and their very dangerous decision to fight, but I spend the first quarter of the book building personal reasons he should fight, and in the end, he cracks and volunteers. One scene later he is sighted with rebels, so I made sure to hammer in that he couldn’t chicken out anymore (as a side note, this actually happens more around 30-35% of Viral Airwaves and people frequently say the beginning is a bit slow—a direct consequence of how long it takes for the two character arcs to get going and the “set-up” to be complete, so watch your plot structure!)
Question 4: What needs to happen at the end to resonate with the novel as a whole?
One problem I frequently see with novels is an ending that contradicts either character arc or themes. Don’t go building so much only to destroy it at the end of your novel! If your entire novel is about how nobody gets left behind, nobody should sacrifice themselves. If it’s about avoiding violence and other means of success, then don’t kill the bad guy! Really take your time for this question. Look at your characters and themes. List what you need to get a satisfying ending—something that’ll resonate. Look at minor characters and side plots, too. Everything. Congratulations, you have a puzzle of everything that needs to happen to have the best ending ever. It might not be possible, but these will get your gears rolling in the right direction.
These questions have unblocked me at various times of my writing years, and I hope one of them helps spark your story! Don’t be afraid to explore ideas. Grab a piece of paper and push flash of inspirations to their end. Follow one question with another until you know why your plot is what it is, what works about it, what are the inner workings of your story. It’s not enough to string actions together. You have to know why you chose them, and when to unleash the events on readers for the best effect. But that last, I think, will be covered in the next post!
Are there any other questions you like to ask yourself when plotting? Please share them in the comments!
Claudie Arseneault is an asexual and aromantic-spectrum writer hailing from the very-French Québec City. Her long studies in biochemistry and immunology often sneak back into her science-fiction, and her love for sprawling casts invariably turns her novels into multi-storylined wonders. The most recent, City of Strife, comes out on February 22, 2017!
Claudie is a founding member of The Kraken Collective, a new cooperative of indie authors for LGBTQIAP+ SFF, and is well-known for her involvement in solarpunk, her database of aro and ace characters in speculative fiction, and her unending love of squids. Find out more on her website!
Thank you for reading and I hoped this helped you, a big thank you to Claudie for writing this amazing post and see you at the next episode which will also be about plotting!