GP: How to plan a novel by Mel Carter

This week’s guest poster is the awesome writer Mel Carter who discusses the technique of planning a novel.  Enjoy!

Title Image: Guest Post - How to Plan a novel by Mel Carter. Outlining a novel. Planning a novel

Planning can have a bad reputation, infamous for being the killer of creativity and being the king of procrastination (and it totally can be), but planning a novel doesn’t have to be a mountainous task.

Small notes about the actions/choices your character must make can save you from pages of indulging in character romances or writing yourself into a corner.

Planning isn’t for everyone, and those who do plan will do it differently, so rather than bombard you with how I do it, below are a few key areas to have pinned down before you write.

Plot development

Goals

Goals are a vital key to unlocking your plot. Without a clear goal (it doesn’t have to be a moral or deep goal) your character will wander aimlessly through the novel.

Plot goals (long-term goals)

This is the thing your protagonist wants above all else, it motivates them to endure all the horrible things we do to them, and drives all of their actions/choices.

All scenes (yes, even sub-plots) within the novel need to move your protagonist towards this goal (they can fail, or it can blow up in their face, but the idea is that they are trying to get to their goal).

Characters can have more than one goal, or their goal can shift throughout the novel; however, this is a tricky idea to execute.

Treat each goal as important as the last, also create a connection between and reason for the multiple goals. Sometimes multiple goals muddy the plot and leave readers confused or disinterested, so tread carefully.

Plot goal examples: solve a murder, win the love interest’s heart, or defeat an evil villain.

IMPORTANT: Each important character needs their own plot goal or a unique spin on the group goal (driven by different motivations and desires).

Situation goals (short-term goals)

Short-term goals give your scene’s purpose, they bridge series of actions (scenes) and make moving toward your plot goal easier to manage. Situation goal is the plans the protagonists make in order to reach their overall goal, and are the bulk of your story. They help your character move physically, mentally or emotionally (etc.) toward the plot goal.

Examples:

Plot goal: Defeat the villain

Potential situation goals: Find allies, learn to kill things, snoop on the villain, gain confidence, meddle in the villain’s plans, etc.

Conflict

Let’s make life miserable for our characters. Conflict is everything that stops your character from reaching their goals.

External conflicts

These are the outside forces/obstacles that character must overcome to keep progressing towards their goal. This could be presented by the antagonist, other characters, nature, landscape, distance, etc. and it often forces the character into action.

They are the most common type of conflict within the plot. Remember: You want to make it as difficult for them to reach their goal as possible, hit them with a bunch of external conflicts.

NOTE: External and Internal conflict are often locked in a dance and influence each other, try to create connections or causality between types of conflict.

Internal conflicts

In this type of conflict, your character is getting in their own way. It is when two opposing emotions and/or desires war within the character. This conflict will cause the character to suffer mentally (teehee) and will often cause inaction until it is resolved.

Examples:

  • Wanting to do something that the character knows is wrong
  • Desiring to flee expectations but fearing the outcome
  • Addicted to a substance yet resenting self for needing it

NOTE: This type of conflict is useful for slowing down the plot

Dilemmas

This is by far the evilest (read: fun) conflict type. Dilemmas reveal a lot about the internal workings of a character, it can highlight positive/negative character growth or force them to realize a belief they have is wrong/flawed. Present your character with a limited set of choices and make sure they have:

  • Each option has equal value to the character
  • Both choices are a limited offer (you can only have one)
  • The outcomes will impact the event/character/setting
  • An ethically wrong action produces a desirable outcome (with moral consequences)
  • An ethically correct action that produces an undesirable outcome/sacrifice
  • Two (or more) options that have equally good or bad outcomes
  • Choose between an internal or external conflict resolution
  • Not choosing has an undesirable outcome

Cue evil chuckling.

Mechanics

Sequencing allows you to look at what nasty things you’ve concocted and string them together logically, and hint at their arrival (like the mad genius you are).

Responsive plot

The best plot comes from actions which inspire further action. Linking scenes through causality will give your plot a natural flow and (in theory) should minimize plot holes.

For example: Event A happened which caused Event B. The outcome of Event B meant that Event C had to happen… etc.

Add notes to yourself with the events/goals you’ve planned about how it connects to the next event/goal. This will focus your writing, and help create a smooth transition between scenes/goals/events.

If it’s not working, try rearranging any event that has no natural flow to see if there is an event with a better fit.

Foreshadowing

Twists are lots of fun, but if you don’t leave tiny hints and sneaky clues your readers will feel tricked and disappointed rather than amazed. Foreshadowing is important because it builds anticipation and gets the reader trying to guess how your hint will play out.

  • Decide what to foreshadow – not everything needs to be foreshadowed, only larger events and twists.
  • Planting the hint – establish the rules/objects/peoples that allow the twist to happen early in your novel. The sooner you plant the hint the bigger the impact.
  • Subtle is best – the best hints are the ones you only notice upon rereading or after the twist occurs.

Examples of foreshadowing:

  • A smaller sneak peek of an important scene that will be revealed later
  • The classic prophecy, riddle, omen that spills the beans in the most unhelpful or misleading way
  • Have something dangerous, or a lack of something important close by – the veiled threat of danger
  • Misdirected concern – have a character fear/worry about another character’s safety when they are the one in danger
  • Symbols that repeat until their connection to the twist is revealed
  • A character says/thinks something that reveals something
  • Have your characters express irrational emotions (apprehension, worry, nervousness, etc.) linked to the foreshadowed event but do not name the reason for the emotions
  • Name the event/person/object that is coming but not its importance (do that later)

Ways to hide the hints for your twist:

  • Pope in the pool – hide the juicy tidbit in the background of a larger event or revelation
  • Red herring – draw attention to another, unimportant element, in order to mislead the reader

IMPORTANT: If you don’t hint at large surprise events – especially at the climax/end – the readers will feel like you have robbed them of a proper resolution. It’s called “Deus ex machina” and most people hate it.

About Mel

Photo of writer Mel CarterMel Carter lives in Mexico with her husband, there she teaches online, rescues orphaned opossums, and spends way too much time in her hammock.

Between writing a collection of fantasy short stories, Mel is writing a series of YA/NA fantasy novels.

She is also exploring blogging and other forms of creativity — obsessively listening to K-Pop counts as creative, right?

 

Connect with Mel

Website: Mel Carter Writes

Twitter

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Big thanks to Mel for her article on planning a novel.  Do make sure you check out her website and social media.

If you have any questions or queries for Mel, please leave them in the section below.

I’ll be back tomorrow at 18:30 (BST) so I hope you pop back 🙂

Happy writing

Ari

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5 thoughts on “GP: How to plan a novel by Mel Carter

    • I loved it when I heard it at a writing class. I mean it wouldn’t matter what was said, I would be so distracted by a Pope in a pool that I wouldn’t hear a word.

      I’m glad you liked the post.

      Happy planning.

  1. Such a great post!! This is super-relevant for me. I often joke that I would have made a great writer for the show Lost, because I can create a ton of tension, suspense, and intrigue… and then just leave it hanging with no foreseeable end 😕

    After writing myself into corners several times, I’ve come to admire the structure of planning.

    Thanks for sharing all these tips,
    Yari

    • This happened to me when I tried to pants. I love pantsing when I write short stories, but I struggle with anything over 10K if I haven’t planned it.

      Good luck with all of your projects.

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