When I started writing my first novel, I didn’t have any story. I just had one incident in mind that I witnessed as a little girl back in India.
The son of our landlord, who lived in England, came to visit his parents. At their insistence, he had to marry a local girl before he left. A wedding was hastily arranged and we kids had a ball participating in festivities.
Once back in England the reluctant son wrote a letter to the girl that he was already married and had two children. He said he can’t get her to join him in England and she was free to do whatever she wanted.
I was too young to understand all the details (why didn’t he tell his parents that he was already married) but months later I visited that girl with my mother. I still remember her face. She was beautiful. I couldn’t understand how anyone could leave her in the lurch. My mother was furious though. How could someone destroy a life like that, was her infuriation. Her life was ruined for sure. She would always be treated as a second-rate woman.
This incident became the first plot point for my novel. I just added a twist to it with a “What if” question.
What if the girl went abroad and then found out that her husband was already married.
The second plot point also came from another real-life incident. Years ago an acquaintance of mine confided in me the ‘most weird thing’ that her boyfriend had done to her. I can’t disclose it here (it will give away the twist in the novel) but I knew instinctively that I have to use it in the novel.
The third plot point came from a single shot of a TV series that I had watched as a teenager. It was an image that implied more than any amount of dialogues or skillful plotting could (again disclosure will give away the story). All I had to do was to combine it with a number of real-life scenarios I was aware of and it would give a perfect ending to the book.
At this point, I had a loose storyline. What I needed was a method to plot it and to turn it into an outline.
I used three methods rather than just one. Each one of them strengthened the story in a different way.
1. A combination of Three-Act Structure and Seven-Plot-Points Method
The Three-Act Structure is a narrative model that divides a plot up into three sections – setup, confrontation, and resolution. These sections represent rising and falling action. Although it is time-tested, easy to master structure that is the basis for almost every Hollywood movie, its main drawback is that it is too broad and it doesn’t give much help in plotting the story.
It is best used in conjunction with the Seven-Plot-Points method which entails – the hook, the first plot point, pinch point 1, the midpoint, pinch point 2, second plot point and the resolution.
The following diagram beautifully blends the two methods.
At this point, I had no outline in place. The ‘what if’ scenario gave me a storyline and I was able to write a few more chapters. But then I stalled.
2. The Snowflake method
The strength of the Snowflake method is that it forces you to think of marketing first. It
In nutshell the method is:
- Step 1- Write a one-sentence summary of the novel.
- Step 2 – Write a full paragraph describing the story setup, major disasters, and ending of the novel.
- Step 3 – Write a one-page summary sheet for each major character.
- Step 4 – Expand each sentence of your summary paragraph into a full paragraph. All but the last paragraph should end in a disaster. The final paragraph should tell how the book will end. The whole thing should be no more than one page.
- Step 5 – Write up a one-page description of each major character and a half-page description of the other important characters.
- Step 6 – Expand the plot synopsis of the novel developed in step 4 to a four-page synopsis.
- Step 7 – expand your character descriptions into full-fledged character charts detailing everything there is to know about each character.
- Step 8 – Use the four-page synopsis to make a list of all the scenes that you’ll need to turn the story into a novel – write one line about each which includes point-of-view character and what happens.
- Step 9 – Take each line and expand it to a multi-paragraph description of the scene.
- Step 10 – Commence writing the novel.
The first step is the hardest. But if you can write the once sentence summary of your book at the onset, you will not waste days or months (or maybe years) figuring out what your novel is about.
Once the summary is done, the Snowflake method is an excellent tool to expand and discover the story in manageable chunks.
But there was no way to know whether the storyline had enough ups and downs. Whether it will keep the reader’s interest.
This is when I came across the book Save The Cat by Blake Snyder and learned how to balance the story and keep the momentum.
3. Save The Cat Beatsheet
Though written mainly for screenwriters Save The Cat gives an excellent tool to present the story in such a way that it keeps the readers interested.
The book divides the story into 15 beats. These beats are well described in Jessica Brody’s Beatsheet.
Once I familiarised myself with the 15 beats, it was time to apply them to the outline of my novel.
I did that in four steps:
- Estimated how long is my novel was going to be.
- Divided the number of words into acts.
- Divided acts into scenes.
- Figured out where the story beats should go.
Let’s say my book is going to be 80,000 words long.
By the 3 Act Structure
- First Act represents about 25% of the total word count
- Second Act represents about 50% of the total word count
- Third Act represents about 25% of the total word count
So, that means the breakdown for my 80,000-word book will be:
- First Act (80,000 x.25) = about 20,000 words
- Second Act (80,000 x.50) = about 40,000 words
- Third Act (80,000 x.25) = about 20,000 words
An average scene is about 1000 to 2000 words long, with the sweet spot being of 1500 words. I estimated how many scenes I was going to have in each act and ultimately in the book.
- First Act (20,000 words / 1,500-word scenes) = about 14 scenes
- Second Act (40,000 words / 1,500-word scenes) = about 28 scenes
- Third Act (20,000 words / 1,500-word scenes) = about 14 scenes
That means I am going to have approximately 56 scenes in the book. Now I can start figuring out where each of the 15 story beats will go.
In Save The Cat Blake Snyder lays out where each beat should go:
- Opening Image – 0% to 1%
- Theme Stated – 5%
- Setup – 1% to 10%
- Catalyst – 10%
- Debate – 10% to 20%
- Break Into Two – 20%
- B Story – 22% )
- Fun and Games – 20% to 50%
- Midpoint – 50%
- Bad Guys Close In – 50% to 75%
- All is Lost – 75%
- Dark Night of the Soul – 75% to 80%
- Break Into Three – 80%
- Finale – 80% to 99%
- Final Image – 99% to 100%
So, to figure out where the beat should go in my novel I took the total number of scenes and multiplied it by the percentage listed above.
For example, the Midpoint occurs around the 50% mark of a story, (56 scenes x .5 = Midpoint occurs in the 28th scene).
It can also be done with total word count (80,000 words x .5 = Midpoint occurs around 40,000 words).
To learn more you can go to the beautiful post written by Savannah Gilbo How to Outline Your Novel with Save the Cat!
Hope this will help you to outline and plot your novel.
Do write to me about your experience or your way of outlining your novel.