Welcome to the Nitty Gritty. This is where your novel begins and your doubt gets left at the door. A lot of writers suffer from some form of self-doubt, so keep in mind that you are always going to be your biggest critic. It’s inherent to the craft. But that isn’t always a bad thing, and shouldn’t hold you back from reaching this goal.
We’re going to hit the ground running, so keep your notebook poised and ready. You may already know what you want to write about. To a degree. But do you know the ending? The midpoint where your character becomes committed to his/her/their primary goal and their own Fatal Flaw is tucked safely in bed in preparation for Act III?! If you answered yes to all of these questions, you’re off to a rolling start. But as I said before, we’re here to tackle some of the nitty gritty. The fine, detailed work that will comprise a lattice upon which your story rests.
Before we start plotting, we want to get everything, and I mean everything, on the page. For a successful fast draft, you’ll need to be adept at writing off the top of your head whatever comes to mind. Editing, of course, will be very crucial when all is said and done, but for a fast draft the key is getting the story out and polishing it later.
We’re going to use a brainstorming, thought-dumping, mind-mapping technique I found very useful when starting out with my story outline. First-time novelists are encouraged to use at least a rough outline for their first draft as it truly does help organize the plot and eliminate avoidable plot holes later on, while keeping both the story and its creator on track with story arcs. When writing a fast draft, you’re moving at breakneck speeds here, so you want to know exactly what your trajectory is before you hit Mach 5. Blasting from point to point with an outline guiding you is much more manageable than trying to sprint a mile. It also creates digestible segments with built-in stopping points where you can pick up and keep writing when you have to write in short bursts as many who write part-time often do.
For a good thought dump, we’re going to start small and build outwards.
You can use note cards if you have them handy, as they can be moved around on a tabletop or taped to the wall to make rearranging your map easier. If you don’t feel like keeping up with a hundred little cards you can just use a notebook and pen. I recommend using pen instead of pencil, and striking through old ideas instead of erasing. You never know when an old idea was just too ahead of its time when you called it garbage and erased it from existence.
For our first thought-dump we need to think of the main plot points.
Big question, I know, but bear with me and you’ll reap the rewards. We will be going into plotting in depth in a moment, including some very utilitarian structures that have been proven a million times to work. But first, we have to establish some tent-pole moments. They are: the inciting incident, the midpoint and the climax. These may end up changing as you write and your story fleshes itself out, that’s normal. But having something in mind as you write makes the process much smoother in the long run.
We’ll start at the inciting incident. What happens to your character in the very beginning that sets everything in motion? Think of it like the beginning to your favorite movie; in the animated movie, Spirited Away, Chihiro’s regular life is interrupted by her parents’ transportation into a magical realm full of spirits. In the Matrix, Neo doesn’t just start off all-powerful, kicking butt and taking names. He’s an average guy in a gray world who gets sucked into reality. These moments present opportunity for change in the characters’ world. You will build up the world as you write, and we can write detail into our outline, but for the thought dump, jot down any and all possibilities that come to mind straight away. Now strike through the first three you thought of.
If you want to do what has been done and worked, you can definitely continue with the first thing that came to mind, but there is always that looming chance that you aren’t the only one with that idea freshly lodged in their mind. Commonplace ideas might include: the usual love at first sight incident, the rogue cop who has to break the rules breaks a rule, someone wakes up with amnesia, etc. These can definitely be done with a fresh new take, but you should research what has been done to death so you don’t drown in a sea of repetitive content buy doing it once again.
Once you’ve thought of some ideas for where to kick things off, jump forward a bit and brainstorm what it would take to get your character to truly be the hero (or antihero) you need for your story. This could be the moment where they realize the government is watching them and they become 100% committed to taking down the dictator in charge. Or their soapbox derby car has come in last place at the qualifying rounds, so they must do whatever it takes to soup up their ride to free their love, or something like that. Around halfway through your plot, you want to have something big waiting for the reader. A payoff of some of the promises you might make early on.
In the Matrix, Neo’s training becomes increasingly difficult, and the Oracle presents him with an ultimatum. The promise made here was that Neo could potentially be the One; while the answer is left unclear at the midpoint, a technique I would encourage you to employ as well if applicable to your story, it reinforces that Neo has great potential, and that he is committed to finding out if he can save the world.
Commitment gives your characters flesh. Give them something to strive for, make it hard, and make them want it even more. This is how real people operate when faced with challenge; if you need to survive on rainwater until you can be rescued, you will find a way. We instinctively double-down on our goals, and setting up the stage to test your characters’ resolve will help them glow.
After the midpoint, you’ll need a climax. Where does all your story-stuff converge to become a final push to the end? This is not necessarily the ending, but it is the third tent-pole moment of a basic story structure where the hero (or antihero) either comes out on top of the final battle, or doesn’t. Maybe you don’t know where in the Blindgrull Forest your knight and legion will face-off with the white dragon from Neirland. But you should have an idea of who wins that fight. If you want your character to come out on top, it tells you ahead of time what types of roadblocks you should set up to prime the reader for the final battle and instill doubt that either side is guaranteed victory. If the reader can guess every point of your book, they will stop reading. But if you know you need to throw doubt upon a character to make his victory even more spectacular, it’s good to know this early on. As you change the character, or change your mind, you’ll want to be updating the notes you jot down at this stage.
If you simply wrote down ideas all over your page, that’s fine. Using simple lines and arrows, draw a map from the events that happen first to the ones that happen later or result from events. Jot down any scenes that come to mind, even if you don’t know how you’ll get there yet.
Once everything is connected in a sort of sequence, simply type or rewrite them in list form starting with your inciting incident and scenes and ideas related to that moment. Leave space for more ideas before adding the next two sections. Take this into the outlining stage to add some meat to the potatoes.
Don’t forget: steer clear of excessive real-time editing during the brainstorm phase. The key is to get your thoughts out and organize them after. Let go of the doubt, embrace the freedom of the thoughtdump and keep on writing!