Do you have an idea but no clue how to make it blossom? I’ve talked to authors who battle this too, so I’m going to outline a four-step process I’m familiar with and use often.
Here are the steps we’ll cover:
Step 1: One line.
Step 2: One paragraph.
Step 3: One page.
Step 4: Chapter breakdown.
This four-step process starts with that little flash of inspiration. Use this initial idea as a one-line description of a future book. (This will change as you go through the steps.)
I’ll use one that I recently developed. FYI, I’ve decided not to use this plot. You are free to steal this like an artist, which is to say, take it, twist it, and decorate it enough to make it your own. More on ethical stealing in another post.
I was in the grocery store at the courtesy counter waiting for stamps for Christmas cards. I looked over and saw hunters’ guides wedged between the candy canes and trinket bracelets. That was enough to spark the idea of a hunter holed up in a cabin in the middle of nowhere. (Hold your applause, that wasn’t really a stretch.) It was enough to give me one line to work with.
Step One: A hunter alone in the woods.
Of course it begs the question, why is he there? I got the dark feeling that he wasn’t there with buddies or simply to hunt meat for the season. So I followed the dark.
Oh, crap. He’s there to kill himself.
The next obvious question is, why?
I got my stamps and didn’t find the answer there, or on the clerk's face or within the next three people who passed me. So I wandered around the frozen food section looking at ice cream—I really shouldn’t have, because I’m growing more lactose intolerant by the day. I shivered and realized it’s winter. (For the hunter as well as for me, standing next to this wide-open freezer.)
Here’s where it really helps to turn off or ignore your phone and listen to or watch for the clues all around you. Don’t be afraid to look like an idiot in a public place. Your job is to be there in the moment when these ideas are flowing. I promise you, sometimes I wander around, afraid to break the flow of ideas, and I’m sure there are people who think I’ve lost my “handler.” (It’s easier to get away with this in Walmart. Just saying.)
Back to following the clues. I have a hunter alone in the woods in the middle of winter and he wants to kill himself. Why?
A woman gets too close to me, jockeying for a spot to grab the Breyers that’s on mega sale. I swipe the last Death by Chocolate and come nose to nose with the little poodle dog in her purse.
Double crap. He kills (or plans to kill) his dog. He must be really serious about this to put down his loyal dog before doing himself in.
Now there’s some woman who’s lost her husband in the grocery store and she’s being rather loud about it. I could tell her to go look for him in the bakery, but I’m too busy realizing that there is a woman who comes up on our hunter right before he does himself in, saving the day.
What the heck is she doing there? Doesn't matter right now. It’s enough to complete my one-line description.
Step one complete: A hunter about to commit suicide is unwittingly saved by a woman lost in the woods.
Step two is to pull threads and push possibilities to expand that sentence to a paragraph. It’s also a safe time to leave your spot of inspiration. I find once there is a complete one-liner, the idea is less likely to flitter away like a butterfly.
Write your one-liner in a new document as soon as you can. Then work on expanding it by asking the typical who, what, where, when, and why.
Why is the woman lost? (Wait, is she lost? Yes. She is lost.) Okay, maybe she was camping with her friends. Caught her boyfriend cheating on her. Or he chose this horrible moment to break up with her. Let’s go with cheating. It’s more dramatic and more feasible that she’d go for a long, hard walk and end up lost.
Age . . . I’m thinking late or post-college. Mid-twenties. That feels about right.
So that explains the how and why she’d stumble on this cabin right before he pulls the trigger. We can visit her later. Let’s go back to him.
He wants to kill himself because . . . his girlfriend cheated? Too close to her problem. Too much of the same thing. PTSD? A veteran? That could work if we paired it with an igniting problem when he came home. Girlfriend moved on? Died? We’ll work that out later.
Something happened that was one straw too much. You’ll ask yourself many questions here and discover a lot in the one-paragraph description.
Here’s where I start filling in X for a male character, Xx for female, and I talk to myself a lot.
Step Two: X decides to kill himself (and his dog) and heads to a remote cabin in [location] to do it. Xx discovers her boyfriend—No! Fiance. That ups the emotional ante—her fiance is cheating and she leaves the campsite in her anger and gets lost. Wait. It’s winter. How is she camping in winter? Because she’s driving, not camping! Still discovered her fiance cheated and took off, making a few wrong turns in her emotional state. I’m really wanting to keep the winter theme because after Xx discovers X, something needs to keep them there at the cabin. I know I’ll need a blizzard later. Cue the snow.
Once she’s at the cabin and disrupts his plans, I’m thinking that not only is she hurt and not very trusting right now, she’s a bit spoiled. Materialistic. (Thank you, angry woman wearing Prada yelling for her husband.)
A Kardashian shell protecting an Audrey Hepburn heart. (Now I realize this is a romance and I’m not going to use it. But I’ll keep plotting because it’s good practice.)
They are polar opposites on the surface. Which means I have to get them to come together and in doing so, he saves her just as much as she saves him. (Through a three-day blizzard or something.) There’s room here for the required push-pull of a romance. There is a happily ever after and in the end, they leave the cabin with all the promise of a new life together.
There lay the barest bones of a novel.
That’s a pretty sloppy summary, but it answers vital questions. You can either rewrite the summary neat and pretty or you can move on.
Step Three: Expand this summary to one page, gleaning more details, learning more about your characters and setting. (I won’t suffer you through that here. This post is long enough and hopefully you have your ideas starting to swirl.)
From your one-page summary, you move to step four and your goal is twofold.
Step Four: One, give each main character something from yourself right now. A like or dislike. A personality trait. A favorite color. Anything. See my blog post on creating dynamic characters to explain why. Your second goal is to break the page down to thirty chapters. (This is not concrete, just a starting place.) The wonderful Scrivener program is perfect for doing this.
Review your one-page summary and reduce each “event” into a one-liner again.
Chapter One: X decides to kill himself and travels to (location).
Chapter Two: Xx discovers that fiance is cheating, takes off in car heading north.
Chapter Three: X is holding his dog, reviewing his life (could show some good backstory here) getting ready to put him down. He’s crying—it’s the eleventh hour and all hope is lost. (Feel free to add details as you see them.)
Chapter Four: It starts snowing and Xx slides off the road. X sees it in the distance as he’s taking his dog outside to say goodbye. He’s forced to take action and investigate the accident.
Chapter Five: He finds her (conscious? unconscious?), and the story of mutual salvation begins.
I won’t go through all thirty chapters. You get the idea.
Now, after you have one-liners for each chapter, go back and add even more. You’ll find that some chapters swell and you’ll need to add more to even things up. Writing often starts here as you see some scenes more clearly than others.
Keep fiddling with it, reading over it, asking and answering questions until you have a good guide to follow as you start writing. Setting it up in this fashion allows you to write faster later since the roadmap is already laid out.
A word of warning: characters are like children. They aren’t going to listen. They will not respect the life you had planned for them. They will rebel. Keep that in mind as they start to veer off the summary into a new direction. Follow them. It is doubtful your end product will look exactly like the breakdown you’ve created. It should be better if you’ve created authentic characters and let them drive after you’ve created the map.
Poof. A novel.