I first met bestselling author Jodi McIsaac when she joined our local speculative fiction writing group (IFWA), shortly after she moved from Vancouver to Calgary. Then I had the pleasure of attending one of her panels at When Words Collide, entitled “Plotters, Pantsers, and Quilters.” She was firmly in the “plotters” camp. And when I say firmly I mean…I could scarcely believe the amount of preparation that went into one of her novels! I imagined the book must practically write itself after such an exercise. (Right, Jodi? haha)
But it wasn’t just the extensive outlining that interested me, it was her emphasis on structure. How to construct each scene, each act, and the novel as a whole so as to maximize tension and readability–something every author wants; something I haven’t thought enough about and am very interested in learning. So I asked if she’d prepare a blog post on the subject and she kindly agreed.
What follows is an overview of her process…which I’m definitely going to borrow for my next novel.
I spend a lot of time preparing to write a novel. In fact, I spend as much time preparing as I do writing the first draft. Some days, I wish I could be a “pantser,” someone who sits down in front of a blank screen and just starts writing. But I’ve learned over the last three books that it just doesn’t work that way for me, as enticing as it sounds. I seize up when faced with a blank screen, overwhelmed by the myriad possibilities. I need a plan, a roadmap, a guide to the journey ahead. And so far, my plan tends to look something like this:
Others might prefer the Hero’s Journey. It’s a kind of structural analysis that works best with chronological or linear stories, which is what I’ve written so far. Propp describes thirty-one functions (which can be thought of as plot points or major events in the story) of the folktale, as well as seven character archetypes: the villain, the dispatcher, the helper, the princess, the donor, the hero or victim/seeker, and the false hero. These roles don’t necessarily need to each be fulfilled by one person–there might be several false heroes, or the helper and the donor might be the same person. The princess is the prize, what the hero is trying to rescue (and not necessarily a person). In my first book, Through the Door, the princess is the main character’s daughter, Eden, but it might also be “relational harmony” or another abstract prize or goal that the hero is trying to rescue from the “dragon.” By starting with these basics, I feel like I’m tapping into thousands of years of storytelling tradition and using functions and characters that will deeply resonate with readers, as they have for countless generations.
2. Outline Obsessively
My outline for Through the Door, the first book in the series, was eighty pages long. I’ve chilled out a bit since then and my subsequent outlines were around a dozen pages each. I start with sticky notes on my office walls (one column for each act), and then flesh out each scene or plot point in a Word document. As I outline, I write a description of what happens in each scene, as well as the following three points:
DRAMATIC DESIRE: this is what the point-of-view character in the scene wants, and it has to be “dramatic”–i.e., something I could show in the film version of the story. For example, the dramatic desire can’t be something vague such as “to gain her daughter’s love.” It needs to be something more specific such as “she wants her daughter to give her a hug and say that she loves her.”
GAP: this is how the scene will turn and head in a completely different direction. It’s the “gap” between what the character (and reader) expects to happen, and what actually happens. For example, if a character goes to the bank expecting to withdraw money, but the bank is closed, that’s not a gap (because his desire is still the same–to withdraw money–and he can just go to another bank). But if he goes to the bank and someone puts a gun to his head and threatens to kill him, that’s a gap. Now the story is headed in a completely different direction.
NEW DRAMATIC DESIRE: By the end of the scene, the point-of-view character should have a different dramatic desire than the one he or she started with. If we use the above example, the new dramatic desire might be to call the police without the robber noticing (as opposed to the old dramatic desire, which was to withdraw money).
There doesn’t need to be a gap and shift in desire in every scene (there actually shouldn’t be, or else you’ll give your readers whiplash), but the more scenes that contain these gaps, the more gripping and fast-paced your story will be. And for me, I want to be thinking about these things in the outlining stage, so I can make sure I’m clear on what my character wants in every single scene–and foil her desires as often as possible.
A good resource on structure is Robert McKee’s Story (which is about screenwriting but is applicable to novels as well).
Also maps, spreadsheets, timelines, and lists. I make what’s called a “character wheel,” with the main character in the centre and the secondary characters in a circle around her. On the spokes between the main characters and the secondary characters I write how the secondary characters illustrate one part of the MC’s personality. For example, my main character Cedar feels anger towards her ex, who abandoned her when she was pregnant. And so I’ve amplified that anger and given it in full force to her mother, who was also betrayed and allowed her anger to overtake her. So I write “anger” on the spoke between Cedar and her mother. Every secondary character should show us more of our main character’s personality as the two of them interact, so I often start by making a list of the main character’s traits and then doling them out to the other characters in the story by using the character wheel.
With all of this preparatory work, it’s a wonder I ever get around to writing the book! But I’ve found that by doing this planning ahead of time, I feel much more confident moving forward, knowing that I’m building on a solid foundation. It also means I (usually) have to do less re-writing, though one or two major re-writes is still the norm. Because no matter how much planning I do, my characters have their own ideas about what should happen. And I’m perfectly okay with that.
Jodi McIsaac is the author of the Thin Veil contemporary fantasy series, where Celtic mythology and the modern world collide. Into the Fire, the second book in the series, was just released on November 12. You can buy it here.
Through the Door (book 1)