This is the first installment in a series I'm writing for The Master's Artist. I'll be cross-posting the material at Write About Now, since it's practical, writing-related stuff. If you have a comment, you can post it here or there, whichever you prefer!
Planning the Novel, Part 1: The Grid
In honor of National Novel Writing Month, I'd like to begin a series of posts about how to plan a novel. Notice I said plan, not write. Over the next few weeks, I want to consider the thought process that goes into the novel before the writing begins. I realize that, for many of us, that amounts to approximately nothing. We start planning a few minutes after we start writing! Even so, the things I'll be discussing might prove helpful -- if not as action steps, at least as a conceptual framework to keep at the back of your mind.
Planning a novel is not like drawing up plans for a house. You're not going to create a blueprint, perfect in every way, that can then be executed. Instead, planning a novel is like planning a military campaign. You're going to marshall your forces, get your supply lines sorted out, and do everything you can to make sure that, on the day, you can improvise as needed.
Like a battle, your novel has a landscape. It's going to take up space, so we'll start by thinking about the conceptual landscape of your book. I'm going to call this the grid, for reasons that will become clear in a moment. So, what's the grid?
It's a structure, but it's not the same as your story's structure. Some people use three-act or five-act play structure to conceptual stories, but that's transposing a literal division from drama into a metaphorical context (since few novels are divided into three or five chapters). So the grid reflects your book's real structure: it's a network of chapters and scenes.
When I start a novel, because I know I'm in for a lot of work, I like to break things up as much as possible. Staring at a stack of blank pages, the task of filling them seems daunting, but if I can divide them into ten piles, then divide those ten into ten more, suddenly anything is possible.
For my first novel, I had a very rudimentary sense of the grid. I decided in advance that the story would be divided into thirty chapters, and I told myself each chapter would run about ten pages. Of course, as I progressed, the page limits went out the window, but knowing I had to sustain a story over thirty intervals helped me figure out where the high points needed to be. Since then, I've played around with different variations. The book I'm working on at present is divided into ten chapters, and each chapter consists of ten scenes. The chapters themselves run twenty to thirty pages in length. So you can imagine a chart on the wall with ten columns -- one for each chapter -- and ten spaces in each column. That's a visual representation of my novel's blank space.
I'm going to fill that expanse with a story. Next time, we'll look at a way of developing that story in advance without spoiling the sense of discovery you like to have while writing a first draft. For now, think about how the conceptual grid can help you develop a balanced plot.
Go back to that five-act structure. Typically, you want your story to begin with an initial complication, then progress along a rising arc of tension. Your hero has a goal, and as obstacles come along, the action builds to a peak, and then there's a reversal and a falling arc that signals resolution. The pulse-line of a typical story looks a bit like a mountain in profile, only the peak is off to the side. Now imagine that line superimposed on top of the 10x10 grid I already outlined. Each of my five acts consists of two chapters, and while Chapters 5 and 6 are at the center of the book, it's really 7, 8, and 9 where you'll see the peak, then 10 will be the landing.
You might have twenty chapters in your book, or thirty, or a hundred. You might have five scenes per chapter, or two, or twenty. The point is, if you work these things out in advance, you have a grid to pin the drama to, as you work it out.
Sure, this is easy. You can work out a grid in seconds. But as simple as it is, this is the beginning of a much more complicated piece of work. Whether you've done it consciously or not, you've probably been working out grids all along, for whatever kind of fiction you've been writing. By making this a more formal process and getting it down on paper, you can start coming to grips with the story's necessary shape.
That's all for now. Next time, we'll start talking about ways to work the drama out before you begin your first draft.