Before you get pissed at me for calling you a dummy, know this. I'm the first dummy here, and this post is largely me shouting at myself. LOUDLY. It turns out that for the last four years of writing full-time I had no idea how to plot and did it by my gut, which sometimes led me out the other end (Rosehead, Irkadura, Janna), and sometimes not quite (Siren Suicides, The Badlings, TUBE). It was random. If I wrote for too long (Siren Suicides), I got lost in the details. If I got rerouted in the middle of writing (The Badlings), I lost interest in finishing the book and made myself finish it (not fun). If I took a too-long break between drafts (TUBE), I hated the manuscript when returning to it and wanted to trash the whole thing (and I did). Plotting my books ahead of time would've spared me this pain, only I didn't know it.
No more of this shit.
I will attempt to distill for you how to plot your novel from the position of a dummy, me, that is, doing it properly for the first time. (Haha! Properly. Right. Like I know what I'm doing.) So if you're far ahead of me in terms of plotting and have done it before, STOP READING THIS RIGHT NOW. Please read something terribly smart written by people with experience. Here is an awesome post by Chuck Wendig on 25 Ways to Plot, Plan and Prep Your Story, and here are two awesome posts by Rachel Aaron, How I Plot a Novel in 5 Steps and How I Went From Writing 2,000 Words a Day to 10,000 Thousand Words a Day. There are also a ton of amazing books on plotting, and I intend to read a bunch and tell you my impressions.
Let's get down to it.
1. WHAT IS PLOT?
"PLOT is CHARACTER revealed by ACTION." Aristotle said this. A long, long time ago. What a smart guy. In essence this means that if the character of your character (what a mouthful) is not revealed by action, you have no plot (duh). Your character must have a goal and must act to achieve it. Every act of achieving it is an event in the plot that leads to the next event (bad things happen), and the next (worse things happen), and the next (even worse things happen). If Event 1 doesn't lead to Event 2, then it's not a plot, it's a chain of linked events. This hit me a few days ago, so please forgive me for still reeling over it. I want to scream about this from every rooftop. WHY DIDN'T I KNOW THIS BEFORE??
But then again, remember, this post is for dummies. So. Carrying on.
2. HOW DO YOU PLOT?
There are a ton of methods, and it seems that different methods work for different writers. Here is a nice little article by LitReactor on 8 Ways to Outline a Novel (and again, refer to Chuck Wendig's 25 methods if you haven't already). If you like a visual representation of plotting, below is the diagram that makes most sense to me, clean and simple. It's based on the original Freytag's pyramid developed in 1863 by Gustav Freytag. And below that is yet another, more complex version of it, the typical Hero's Journey structure (click on the picture or the link below to see it the high resolution image).
Finally, here are The 36 Dramatic Situations developed by Georges Polti which cover pretty much all plots out there, just pick your favorite (a lot of them overlap, however). There is also The Snowflake Method For Designing A Novel created by Randy Ingermanson that I have tried a long, long time ago and didn't quite fall in love with, but I thought it worth mentioning for it's mathematical simplicity. I'm sure there are more methods out there. If I'm missing some, let me know which ones you heard of and if they're worth taking a closer look at.
Of course, there are additional elements to each plot, like foreshadowing (or sideshadowing that I'm used to, having read Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy who LOVE doing it), Chekhov's gun (which I'm very familiar with), red herring (which my mentor told me about and I had no idea), deus ex machina (avoid at all costs), MacGuffin (what the hell is this?), Occam's Razor (not sure I understand it yet), and then also basic seven plots and themes and monomyths and...let me take a breath here...different diagrams of plots that are Classic (triangle), Comic (cup-shaped), Tragic (hill-shaped), Modern (flat line). Oh, and how about the absurd, when the plot is all zigzags and loops? I grew up on absurdist novels and poetry, as in Soviet Union it was the preferred method of some writers to avoid censure.
Overwhelmed yet? I know I am.
So, with all these gazillion million plotting methods, where do you start? I suggest just picking one and going with it (close your eyes and pull out a bit of paper from the hat, if you have to, that's what I sorta did). It doesn't really matter what you pick. What matters is to start doing it. You'll try a few things, find what works for you, and will probably develop your own mishmash of methods, as I know I will. I love stacked lists with bullet points, and that's probably what I'll end up with. When I settle on it, I'll share it with you.
3. WHAT ARE THE PARTS OF THE PLOT?
Okay, if you're going with a list-thing like me, what do you start with? You start with a character who says, "Oh, shit." Quite literally, every story is about a character, and every story is about some shit happening to that character and that character acting to stop that shit from happening. Only then the shit gets worse, and worse, and worse, until it all comes to a head, and at the last moment everything turns upside down and shit stops happening, and the character is happy (or not, depending on your story, but changed, definitely CHANGED). Here are the basic parts I will cover in my bullet list (loosely taken from the Freytag's pyramid):
1. EXPOSITION (also called Setup, Status Quo, Introduction, etc.)
Who is your character? Where and when is your character residing? You're giving us a snapshot of your hero, like in a movie, an opening frame. It can be long. It can be short. Depends. Victorian novels loved to drag this one out. Lately we've gotten quite impatient as readers and like to know everything on Page 1. Make your pick from the books you love. Steal it. Because you've got to love writing what you're writing, otherwise, what's the point?
2. INCITING INCIDENT (also called Hook, Conflict, Trigger, etc.)
This is the "Oh shit!" moment. Something happens that kicks your character out of the normal flow of life. This better be big and very specific, or you have a risk of getting lost in your story. In other words, it's better to have your character want a cup of coffee than to save the world.
3. RISING ACTION (also called Call to Action, Plot Points, etc.)
Now that the "Oh shit!" moment happened, your character wants something and starts acting. This is where every action meets an opposite action by an antagonist ("You think you can get that cup of coffee? Haha! How about I lock you up in a closet full of old stinky socks?"), but your character is stubborn (And that's why we will root for your character! We love characters who don't give up!) and acts again, only the stakes are higher now (the cup of coffee is on the roof), and the antagonist acts again too (locks the protagonist in a basement with a deranged hungry roommate), and so it goes until it reaches some crazy proportions and comes to a head.
4. CLIMAX (also called Rock Bottom, Epiphany, Crisis, Turning Point, Truth, etc.)
At the very end of the Rising Action, just when your character thinks that there is a chance of obtaining that want after all (the cup of coffee is within grasp!), everything goes very very wrong on a massive scale (aliens obliterate every house in the neighborhood), and to your character (and reader) it looks like the end of the world. But then! Surprise! Climax! It turns out that the character gets that cup of coffee after all, or even something better (alien coffee that gives you a permanent high, or something). Or it's the opposite. The character dies in the blast. THE END. In other words, the character either completely wins, or completely loses. That very tip of the turning point is the very tip of the Climax.
5. FALLING ACTION (also called Winding Down, Aftermath, Return, etc.)
Now that we know that the character got that cup of coffee (or didn't), things wind down very quickly. This is the sweet payoff we get for sticking with the story till the end. This is where we smile, or cry, reading about the character enjoying the coffee (or not, because it's hard to enjoy coffee when you're dead). This used to be a long section in novels many years ago, but lately, since we got impatient, it sometimes fits on one page, or even one paragraph, combined with Resolution (I did this in Irkadura without knowing I did it). If you have subplots (and you will, one for each character), I suppose this is where they get closed, one by one, if you haven't closed them before the big showdown already (I have to research more about subplots).
6. RESOLUTION (also called Denouement, New Status Quo, etc.)
This part is sometimes completely missing in books, merging with the Falling Action, as mentioned above, or fitting into a few pages. But sometimes the author likes to show the character's future, and it fits here. I find in my novels I close things down very quickly (as well as open them), and so in Rosehead the resolution was just 1 last paragraph, with 2 chapters before that of Falling Action, and in Irkadura, as mentioned before, Falling Action and Resolution merged on the last page, with the last line effectively being the Resolution itself.
This is as far as I got with my plotting exercise. I hope I got most things right. If I didn't and you know better, please correct me. TOGETHER WE SHALL CONQUER THIS BEAST. And, of course, as I learn more about plotting, I will share it with you. So don't fret.
In the meantime, while you're patiently waiting (I know you are) for more of my wisdom, here is the wisdom of another, something for you to write on a piece of paper IN BIG RED LETTERS and stick above your computer (which I already did):
"The king died, and then the queen died, is a story, while The king died, and then the queen died of grief, is a plot." — E. M. Forster