a Women Writers' Showcase

From Idea to Plot
Robyn Jackson

So you've got a great idea for a novel. You're eager to write it, you're sure agents and editors will love it, and readers will snap it up.

But how do you go from idea to plot, and from plot to rough draft?

First, let's get real. Is there a market for your book? Publishing is a business, and publishers want to sell books and make money. If your book doesn't seem to fit into a genre, such as romance, mystery or the currently hot "chick lit," you're going to have a hard time finding a publisher. Do your homework. Check out the best seller lists and see what's selling. Does your idea fit one of the genres? Does it bear any resemblance to what's on the lists?

Read some of the novels that bear a resemblance to yours. If you want to write mysteries, read a few of the series that are currently hot. If you want to write romances, read books by the top authors in that field, such as Nora Roberts. Pay attention as you read, maybe even take notes. What makes their books so successful? What is it about the characters that makes them memorable? Does the story grip you from the first page? What emotions does the author evoke in the reader? Fear? Dread? Disbelief? Boredom?

The goal is not to write like Nora Roberts, but to learn from her. What you want to do - what publishers want you to do - is take the basic elements of a novel and create one with a fresh spin.   

Think about mystery series for a moment. You don't have to write a mystey set in an English manor. Please don't. Agatha Christie may have perfected the model we enjoy today - a lovable character who solves murders in a series of novels - but the current crop of mystery authors have added some new twists.  Janet Evanovich injects a lot of humor into her Stephanie Plum series, which is set in New Jersey. Tony Hillerman's mysteries take place on the Navajo reservation in Arizona and New Mexico, and he weaves Native spiritualism and belief into the plots while focusing on the private lives of his Navajo cops Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. Alexander McCall Smith writes about a plus-size private eye named Precious in his "No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency" series, which is set in Africa.

Notice a theme? While the authors are dreaming up murders for their main characters to solve, it's the characters we remember. It's the characters, and their complicated, changing lives, that keep readers coming back for more. Honestly, in most mysteries, the murders are just a plot device to give the characters something to do. Most are forgettable. I mean, can you remember the murder in Tony Hillerman's latest novel, "The Sinister Pig"? Probably not, but if you're a fan of his books, you probably remember that this is the one in which Jim Chee finally starts to acknowledge his feelings for Officer Bernadette Manuelito.

Once you've nailed down genre - or rejected it - it's time to begin developing the story.

What's your theme? It should be the focus of your novel, but it is not the plot. A theme is usually a universal problem, a moral issue - the struggle to do the right thing even if you have to suffer for it, to resist temptation or to overcome something beyond your control. The theme of Charles Dickens' novels was often to expose judicial corruption and mistreatment of the poor in Victorian England (think "Bleak House" and "Oliver Twist").

What about your plot? There are no new stories, so if you're writing a romance novel, push yourself to come up with something that will make it unique. Take that old boy-meets-girl plot and give it a new wrinkle. Steer away from obvious choices. Ask "what if" a lot. This adds layers to the story and opens up new plot twists.

Give your protagonist a difficult goal and then put obstacles in her way. Leave a question in the reader's mind about whether or not this goal is achievable. Make the reader feel something, give them a reason to get involved with the story and characters. 

You must create tension from the first page or you'll lose the reader. Try to hook them within the first three paragraphs. Readers have a lot of competition for their time, and if you don't hook the reader quickly, you might just lose them forever.

What about a subplot? Supporting characters? Your main character could use a best friend, someone to talk to about her problems. The best friend has her own set of problems. Maybe her misadventures add an element of humor to the plot. Humor is good. You want to evoke all the emotions in your reader. Think about the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "Carousel." The main characters, Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow, have a torturous love story. Billy is physically abusive to Julie, and he robs a man at knifepoint. Julie endures Billy's laziness and bullying because, for some crazy reason, she really loves him and she knows that in his own warped way, he loves her, too. Julie's best friend, Carrie Pipperidge, adds a welcome dose of humor through her romance with successful fisherman "Mr. Snow," who "can't seem to lose the smell of fish," as she says in one of her songs.

What point of view will you use? First person viewpoint means the protagonist narrates the story. First person can be limiting in that the story can only be told through one character's voice, although there has been a trend in the last decade to write novels using multiple first person narrators. Third person/singular viewpoint and third person/multiple viewpoints are popular, but the multiple viewpoint has advantages because it allows the writer to tell the story through the eyes and experiences of more than one character. With the omnicient viewpoint, the story goes beyond the focus of the two main characters. The writer can give the reader information that the characters would not know, such as historical context.

"The choice of a viewpoint character or characters can strengthen or weaken not only the novel but also its salability," Phyllis Taylor Pianka writer in "How to Write Romances" (Writer's Digest Books).

Should you write a detailed outline? That's a personal preference. Many writers prefer not to use an outline. I heard a short story writer say recently that she never uses an outline because it spoils the surprise, and as a writer, she wants to be surprised just like the reader is.  Most writers who don't use outlines know how the story begins and ends, and they have an idea about what happens in the middle, but they enjoy watching the characters come alive and take over the story, driving the plot to new and exciting places.     

Best-selling Christian fiction author Gilbert Morris, in his book "How to Write (And Sell) a Christian Novel," (Vine Books) offers a six step framework for constructing a novel:

1. State your genre in a single word or phrase.
2. State your theme as simply as possible.
3. State your plot in a single sentence.
4. Divide your plot into sections.
5. Create single sentence chapter headings.
6. Fill out chapter headings into paragraph summaries.

If you prefer not to write a detailed outline, you can skip steps 5 and 6, but tackle the first four.

Don't forget about your book's setting. The setting is often a major part of the story. Many Southern authors are said to write with "a sense of place." That might mean describing the flat vistas of the Mississippi Delta or using colloquialisms in dialogue. In my novel, "Lakota Moon," the characters are Sioux Indians who follow the buffalo for their survival, they live close to the land, so the landscape and the plants and animals of the prairie become part of the story.  Readers need a sense of the environment, whether it's a description of a blizzard or of a house.

One more question: Does your story have a purpose?

In "Writing the Breakout Novel," (Writer's Digest Books) author Donald Maass says unforgettable novels have a purpose. "Breakout novels are written from an author's passionate need to make you understand, to expose you to someone special, or to drag you somewhere that it is important for you to see. No breakout novel leaves us feeling neutral. A breakout novel rattles, confronts and illuminates. It is detailed because it is real.  Its people live because they spring from life, or at least from the urge to say something about life. Their stories challenge our hopes, plumb our fears, test our faiths and enact our human wills."

Prepare to spend many months writing and rewriting, never settling for being just "good." Your goal is to craft a real page-turner, and that takes time and commitment.

Copyright (c) 2004, Robyn Jackson

Robyn Jackson is a newspaper editor and the author of the historical novel "Lakota Moon." She writes a weekly column on writing and publishing on her Web site, www.robynjackson.com.