Once, I said I was going to write a series of posts about and demonstrate the methods I use when preparing to write a novel. That series failed, but here’s the list of methods, some of which are not really preparatory, for casual perusal.
Method #1: fanciful dreaming, or the potent cocktail of psychoactive stimulants
This approach is based on questions spiraling out of control, and eventually back into focus. Most of these early ones take the form of What if …? or Why …? or How …? You start off asking as many questions as you can, related or not, until you start to see a trend—a theme you keep coming back to, or a situation you’re digging into, or a character who intrigues you. Once you find a question that feels like it could be the kernel of your story, you latch onto it and answer it, then ask a follow-up.
What if there’s a cat? What if a thief locks himself out of his getaway vehicle? What if a man drinks a glass of spoiled milk? and so on.
Method #2: running with it
This is a similar tactic, but it assumes you already have that kernel, and perhaps a vague sense of where you want to go, or perhaps not. It looks a lot like the above approach—and the two fit together nicely—but it’s more directed, since you start out more directed. Here, you start with your kernel and take it somewhere, see what happens. If it’s not working out, you go back to the last point you felt good about, or even earlier, and try another path.
A stray dog shows up in a girl’s back yard. Its tag says, “My name is Howie. If found, please call [some number].” So she calls the number and eh, never mind. The tag says, “My name is Howie. Please keep me.” So she talks to her parents, and they say sure, on the condition she takes care of it, so she’s walking it around the neighborhood one day and it seems really drawn to this abandoned house. No, the tag says, “My name is Howie. Don’t believe what I say.” It’s a talking dog who drives people to do terrible things by planting ideas in their head. Maybe it should be a cat … etc.
Method #3: stealing from screenwriters
By this, I don’t mean writing movie adaptations, although that’s also an option, I suppose. Of course there’s no one formula for a screenplay, but in a screenwriting class I took several years ago, we broke down like this:
Inciting Incident: This is the trigger that sets off the rest of the story. Man finds an envelope under his windshield wiper.
Turning Point One: This is the first big twist. Man discovers that the letter writer he’s worked to track down, Taylor, isn’t a woman.
Midpoint: Right around the middle of the story, sometimes the point of no return. Man lies to his family about where he’s going when he leaves to meet Taylor for a drug deal.
Turning Point Two: For the character, this might be the low point or the breaking point. Man discovers Taylor has played him.
Climax: Everything comes to a head. Man goes on the run to lead the cops chasing him to Taylor.
Resolution: What it sounds like. Cops arrest Taylor. Man returns to his family.
Denouement: Pretentious word for settling, where the audience gets closure. This might be like an epilogue. Man discovers the next morning that he parked on the street too close to a fire hydrant. Envelope under his wiper: a ticket.
This approach often works best in conjunction with one of the others—once you’ve got a sort of sense of the concept. It’s especially good if you struggle with knowing how to keep things moving during the bulk of the story—it’s easy to think about beginnings and endings, but mapping out other key points helps avoid a wandering middle that drags on and on.
Method #4: chapter breakdown
I admit, I rarely use this one for first drafts. I find it more useful when I make my first major revision pass, but it works for some people early on, too, so I thought I’d mention it. I’m going to talk about my use of it in that first revision, but a lot of it will apply regardless, I think.
This is the most organized approach. Depending on how you write and what works best for you, you go through either chapter by chapter or scene by scene and make several notes about it. My style is typically very fragmented, in the sense that my chapters are made up of scenes set apart by white space breaks, so I use the scene by scene style. For whatever reason, although I do most of my work on the computer, I like to do this by hand on a small-ish notepad, starting a fresh page for every scene. On it, I write …
Chapter and Scene #: Ch. 1, Scene 1
Setting: including place, time, and other noteworthy environmental factors. A bedroom on dark and stormy night in rural Maine
Action: the events of the scene, without extra description or extrapolation. A woman wakes up to a flash of lightning that illuminates a child standing in the bedroom doorway. She flips on the lamp, and the child is gone. She gets out of bed and searches for the child, finds nothing out of place. Shrugs it off and returns to bed.
Plot Function: what this scene does to influence to overall plot of the story, including setting up situations and planting elements for later. Introduce child illusion, show she lives alone.
Character Function: similarly, what this scene does to develop character, which often overlaps with the plot function enough that separating the two might not be worthwhile, although if you want to, the distinction I use is that plot things are observable whereas character things are inferred from observation. She is curious, able to confront fear.
Thematic Function: what the scene does to feed into larger themes, both in terms of mood/tone and in terms of statement/message. Aloneness, dominance of nature, illusion.
Some people might add a final item for transition—for instance, whether it’s an abrupt “cut to” or a summary of events till the next full scene—but because I typically use a white space break, there’s not much need. (Admittedly, on occasion my sections could perhaps be broken down into multiple scenes, but I can usually take the same approach.)
The danger with this as a preparatory technique is that it takes away a lot of flexibility. That works for some people who are better at envisioning details ahead of time, but because I often find myself with an unexpected problem or opportunity, I prefer to save it for after I’ve finished a draft.
Method #5: research everything
Maybe not everything, and this on its own probably won’t get you very far, although it can be used early on to generate ideas—for instance, go stumbling through Wikipedia and follow links at your leisure until something strikes you. Typically, though, I use this as a supplement throughout my preparation. It takes several forms—sometimes doing actual book/journal/web/etc. research on places or events or rare congenital deformities, sometimes doing imaginative research in the form of world building, developing character backstories, etc. It helps me put the core of my story in a more developed context, which in turn provides me more opportunities as I progress.