To Catch a Story Line…

Every author at some point is asked the very same question: How do you plot a book? In fact, entire books have been written about how to plot books. I’m sure there has even been a book about how to write a book about how to plot books. So I’m not going to write one here or tell you every little detail about all the ins and outs necessary to construct the storyline of your next (or first) novel. This is a blog, not a library. But I will attempt to offer a summation of the basic principles that guide plot creation and how to envision the entire book before you write it.

By the way, this is something I wish I’d known before I wrote my first book, Absolute Authority. Had I known then what I know now, it probably would not have taken ten freakin’ years to write it! Here goes…

Pardon me if I employ an over-used analogy, but I can think of no better comparison for plotting a book than a road trip. I frequently drive the twelve long hours from St. Louis to Hickory, NC, and have become fairly familiar with pretty much every landmark along the way. (Even ate at the original Cracker Barrel in Lebanon, TN.) Somewhere along the way, as I was staring at yellow hash marks zipping by my car in the middle of an incredibly boring stretch of Interstate 40, the description of a book plot as a road trip began to gel inside my gray matter. I thought, mapping out a book is like mapping out a trip: you have a starting point, an ending point (or at least an idea of where you want to stop), and a whole series of individual landmarks along the way that you must pass to get where you want to go.

But how do you break down a road trip/book plot into individual chapters? And what do you do with said strips of boring highway that will surely lose the reader along the way? Well, how do you stay awake and alert when you drive that far? You make it interesting, right? So do the same thing for your readers. The beauty of writing fiction is you get to make stuff up. So what if it’s not real? Who cares? It’s a novel, for cryin’ out loud!

So here’s how you take a road trip and turn into a  story line.

First, understand where you’re starting and where it’ll end. No, you don’t have to have to the final sentence in your head already, but you do need to have a general idea of how you want the story to play out. I didn’t have that when I wrote my book, and it caused me much consternation when I hit the 70,000 word mark and froze. I had four different plot lines that all had to miraculously tie together in the end. And it took exactly that: a miracle. Had I followed my own advice, divine intervention would not have been necessary. Now I know. And so you do. Start with the end in mind, at least generally. This gives you the, ahem, bookends of your story and provides a framework for everything else you’re going to write.

Now on to Chapter One. But don’t write it yet. Think of each chapter as a landmark along the way. For instance, if I start in St. Louis and head to Hickory, the first thing that happens is I drive past Busch Stadium, whiz past the Gateway Arch, cross the Mississippi River, and I’m in Illinois. Stage One complete. That could be the first chapter.

Each subsequent chapter would simply be the next landmark along the way. For instance, I always stop at the Phillips 66 gas station in Mt. Vernon, Illinois, right after I change from I-64 to I-57 on my way south. But what about all the distance between downtown St. Louis and Mt. Vernon. Do I include that in my plot? Is it necessary? It’s mostly boring, flat farmland. Interesting? Not really. (You ought to see it in the dead of winter. Talk about dull!) Would someone think it is? Probably, but not enough readers would care for me to put it in the story. So I would leave it out and move along to the next landmark: Chapter Two.

And so it would go for the rest of the trip. Each landmark and the space between it would be a chapter or section of the bigger plot that would all come together to form the story. Filling in details is where it gets fun…and separates good writers from, well, not so good writers.

For instance, did you see the size of that deer carcass lying beneath the billboard for the adult superstore? Yuck! Times two! Think readers might find those details amusing? You’ll probably want to leave them in. Unless you’re writing a YA novel, in which case the adult superstore may need to become a Stuckey’s truck stop.

But you get the point. Plotting is the road map for your book. You have to know your destination to know where to go and what’s important along the way. Filling in the details makes the journey more interesting.

Follow this simple framework and watch your next novel flow freely from your fingers onto the screen.

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One thought on “To Catch a Story Line…

  1. You are going to come into my classroom and teach this to my students, aren’t you?? The map analogy may be overused, but you explained it very, very well.

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