You know at school when they told you writing a story was easy? All you needed was three things: a beginning, a middle and an end and voila, one book in a nice tidy package.
They might have missed a few things.
In reality, the stories we are writing today as adults are somewhat more complex. Normally, there are at least two main story arcs (or if you are more like me, six or seven), there is that annoying niggly issue of character development to keep an eye on, there is this “pacing” thing everyone keeps going on about but you aren’t 100% sure what they are on about, there is the whole “it needs to make sense” thing and then, if you are particularly adventurous, it may not even be presented in chronological order. Someone said to me once, “writing a book is like braiding hair”. At the beginning you know what you want it to look like but actually finding a place to start is difficult. While you are braiding, you have your hands full of about a million different strands and clumps as you try and weave them together. And then all of a sudden, you are tying the band around the end and somehow, you’ve pulled it all together and even Katniss would be proud. Oh, and it takes years of practise to perfect, and even then, there are somedays no matter how hard you try, it just won’t come together right.
Thus ends my short stint as a hairstylist.
But the analogy holds steady. A book is about strands. A good author can juggle a half dozen and pull them together into a mostly neat ending. A brilliant author does so without you even noticing. Just look at JK. Love her or hate her, she is the master at pulling together all those tiny little details. A single line of dialogue in book one that suddenly makes sense when you get to book seven. And that whole symmetry across the series thing… that is pure talent.
So how does she do it? Or more importantly, how do we?
Different places call it different things (You’ll hear “narrative arc” a lot) but it is essentially the same process of drawing out your plot into a visual form so you can see how it builds. Moreover, you can draw all of your arcs on top of one another to make sure the book is balanced and always has something happening to further at least one of many plots you are juggling. Different people like to use different imagery but the basic steps are the same.
For example purposes, I’m going to use Hunger Games.
1. Identify all your key characters.
Vitally important. You need to know who is important before stuff can happen to them.
HG: Katniss, Peeta, Gale, Prim, Haymitch, Effie
2. Identify all your key “action” arcs
Most books will have one of these that will form the backbone and then a load of splinters that drift in and out as required.
HG: erm… The Hunger Games…
3. Identify all your key “emotional” arcs
Again, self explanatory. Note down all the development you want to take your characters on, either in relation to one another or on their own.
HG: Katniss and Peeta. Katniss and Gale. Haymitch from drunk to mentor. Katniss from illegal hunter to victor.
4. Map each arc.
For now, ignore all those niggly rules and just focus on what you’ve written/plotted. Draw out each key moment representative to the length of the book. The high points, the dormant moments, the low points etc… Literally go scene by scene and pull the story apart.
6. Lay the “narrative arc” template over it
The aim is for the overall plot to look something like a heart monitor of a someone in cardiac distress – it should go up and down but in a roughly symmetrical fashion. If it doesn’t, it may need some rearranging. Play with chapters and the order of events. If there are any moment when all the plots fall quiet and nothing appears to be happening, those are your sections you need to address to keep the book moving.
However, note, not all books work to this format. This is only a general rule. Some books are written to deliberately defy this model. At the end of the day, trust your writer’s gut. Be honest with yourself and write what feels right to you.
Personally I prefer to map using journeys rather than questions because not all posed questions will be answered fully in one novel (particularly if you are working with a series) but this a great technique to really SEE your book. It forces you to focus on the key elements, to identify your key arcs and you can see how they are building. It shows you the dead weight you are carrying that you can get rid of and it shows you were your plot may need bolstering.
You don’t even have to limit it to plot arcs. Why not map out your themes?
Just to throw it in here, it can be as detailed or as high level as you wish. If you want to know detailed plotting, Google JK Rowlings Plot diagrams for HP. Wow. That is all I say. Wow.