Last time on Cover to Cover, I introduced this series of articles, which follows a novel from birth to potential publication. The previous entry was all about ideas. How to grow them, nurture them, and expand them.
This time I’m going to show you how to take that idea and mold it into an actual story. This can be a daunting process.
So your idea is born. You’ve done your “What iffing,” your brainstorming, your smashing of numerous breakable objects. Now you have to go forward. The idea can percolate for a bit, but soon it needs to become an actual story. A story that has characters, a plot, a setting, and all that wonderful, wonderful magic that is going to consume your readers and give them many sleepless nights.
In my last entry, which you can view here, I mentioned my idea. But, alas, dear fellow writers, I fell into the evil tiger trap that so many others do. I looked at my idea and said, “No, this isn’t quite what I want.” So I put it aside for a while, and my idea actually spawned another idea.
My idea evolved. Yes, this is perfectly normal and organic. Allow it to happen. It’s best when it happens early in the process, before you’ve written too much.
So my idea became “What if a celebrity monster hunter kills a holy being from another dimension, and thus becomes the most hated person in the known world?”
This idea intrigued me more because I wanted my main character to kill something so widely revered, that others would have no choice but to hate her. Making my MC public enemy number one will enhance the tension of the story as she tries to redeem herself and lift a curse put upon her at the same time. She not only has a ticking clock that is slowly withering her humanity away, but she must also strive to protect those who hate her so deeply.
Next, I had to decide on my key story elements: character, plot, and setting. I believe that tone, themes, and other elements are also important, but the three core elements a writer should first decide on are character, plot, and setting. Other elements emerge from these.
I’ll discuss potential ways to suss out these elements, whether you’re a pantser or a plotter.
How to Build Characters as a Pantser
If you’ve ever played a video game or Dungeons and Dragons, you know that creating a character can be one of the most fun parts of the game. Pantsers can just create and go. Get basic ideas down such as the character’s personality, job, and goals, and then just put the pedal to the metal.
Try writing short stories that feature your characters. This is a way to discover who your characters are without doing a lot of planning. Just dump your characters into a story and see what they do. How do they react to a goblin barber trying to scalp them? Or how do they feel about blood magic? These are aspects of your characters that you can explore through short stories, even if you don’t plan to do anything with the stories afterward.
Do a character sketch. Actually draw your character. Sometimes a person can tell a lot about a person by how he looks. Does he have scars lacing across his cheeks? Does she have a crooked smile? Does he have long hair that’s never been cut? Physical features don’t always determine a character, but they can go a long way if you experiment.
How to Build Characters as a Plotter
There are numerous ways to build characters if you’re a plotter. You can try Antonio del Drago’s great book, The Mythic Guide to Characters, which has all manner of ways to create convincing characters. You can delve into your character’s psychology, family, and feelings about the world.
You can also try expanding on the techniques listed in the above section (writing short stories, drawing the characters), but just go into more detail than you would if you were pantsing.
How I Did It
I’ve used a combination of both approaches, actually. I wrote a short story about my MC, Marla, first, but her character has changed a lot since then. Whereas before she was a spoiled celebutante, now she is a character that had that lifestyle forced upon her. Marla has to wear a wig to cover the tattoos that depict her monster hunter training because they’re “scary.” She gives monster hunting tours to the privileged. A dancing bear for their entertainment.
I used The Mythic Guide to Characters to further build up Marla and several other major characters. I could look at her beliefs about the world, her family, her upbringing, love life, and overall psychology. You can go as deep as you want. There were some aspects that I didn’t include, but you can focus on those aspects which are most important to you.
For the next article in this series, I’m going to go more in-depth into characterization.
How to Build Plot as a Pantser
Just write. Plot comes best to pansters when they just follow whatever path their characters go down. If you at least have a loose idea of where your plot is going, you can develop it as you go along. Just be aware that you should have some kind of ending in mind. Pantsing seems to work best when there is at least that inkling of an idea.
It may also be good for pantsers to write out a brief mind map. It will allow you to branch off various ideas without getting too in-depth, so that you will still surprise yourself as you write.
How to Build Plot as a Plotter
Building plot as a plotter should be easy, right? It can be. Outlining is one of the best ways to ensure that your plot is tight and makes sense. If you have a solid outline, finding the right course can be as easy as taking each step as it comes. You don’t get the spontaneity of pantsing, but you can still rewrite your outline if things feel too rigid and forced.
Outlines can be as detailed and hardcore as you like, but they can also be as simple as a scene list. Just make a spreadsheet with a list of all the scenes you want in your story. If that method doesn’t work, just write them all down in notebook. Why is each scene important? What does it do for the overall story? Does it advance the plot? These are the questions you should ask yourself as you develop your plot.
How I Did It
The Snowflake Method is a method for plotting that I highly recommend. It takes the smallest kernel of an idea, and expands it more with each step. A plot can be born out of this method very easily. As you expand each layer and make the story bigger and bigger, you can see the whole plot lay itself out before you.
I recommend checking out Randy Ingermanson’s posts about The Snowflake Method over at his website: How To Write A Novel Using The Snowflake Method.
How to Build Setting as a Pantser
If you start with a small village and expand the world outward as you go, you can build your world without first working out the painstaking details. Allowing your characters to discover your world as you do may offer a sense of wonder and exploration that could be missing otherwise.
Drawing small maps or sketches can also help you to figure out where your characters are going, so that they don’t end up lost.
You can also try the Dungeon Master approach. If you’ve ever played a tabletop RPG, the best times are when you spring things on players without knowing what’s going to happen. Someone could die, someone could run, someone might lose a limb. That level of excitement and unpredictability can spur your story forward in many unexpected ways.
How to Build Setting as a Plotter
There are many programs that can help with building setting. Kitty Chandler has a template for Scrivener called the World-Buidling Leviathan, which helps writers to hammer out many details of their worlds. She also has other tools for writers on her website: KittySpace – Writing Tools.
If you don’t want to use software, you can always do world-building the old fashioned way in a notebook. Try to get the major things like races, countries, and creatures ironed out first before going much deeper. However, going as deep as you like will ultimately help when it comes time to craft your story.
How I Did It
I’m still working on this, actually. Setting is one element that’s hard for me to pin down. I want to focus on a world that is connected to many different dimensions. Therefore my setting, as it stands now, comes across as a 17th century world. There are guns and cannons, but there are also swords and axes. The technology isn’t advanced enough to tip the scales.
I’m still working on building the various dimensions. Instead of using dragons and other typical fantasy monsters, I am including a more Lovecraftian horror element, with all manner of terrible, nightmarish creatures haunting the world. So in my story you may see a sleek, tentacled beast getting mowed down by a row of cannons.
Once you have these elements pegged down in your own story, and know how you’re going to approach them, you can get closer to a finished product.
So now I have a question for all of you:
Have you tried any methods to develop the key elements (characters, plot, and setting) of your novel? If so, which methods have you found to be helpful?
Signing off, this is Philip Overby. See you next time on Cover to Cover, when I’ll discuss different approaches to characterization. Until then, get to writing and level up!
For discussion of all things fantasy-related, check out Philip Overby’s Fantasy Free-for-All.