Begin at the Beginning: Key Characters and Plot Outlines

Starting work on a new novel is one of my absolute favourite things to do. It has all the magic and promise of Christmas Eve – anything is possible! There are new characters to meet, new places to see, new lessons to learn and ideas to explore. It’s the beginning of a whole new adventure.

There’s an immense rush of excitement and it’s really tempting to dive straight into writing, but over the years I’ve learned that if I do that I rarely get any further than the first few pages. I find it’s better to hold off until I have a destination in mind – a clear idea of where the narrative is heading. Otherwise I go off on a random tangent (or several), after which I generally lose interest and the whole thing falls apart. That’s happened to me many times, which is why I go about it differently now.

Some writers prefer not to know where the story’s going to lead them, including some of my favourite authors, but after years of trying and failing to write that way I’ve found that this method is a lot more effective for me. Finding a method that works for you is far better than trying to stick rigidly to someone else’s, but if you’re like me and you find it difficult to stay motivated without a clear plan, maybe give this a go.

Drawing up a plot outline is a great way to capitalise on that initial rush of enthusiasm for a new idea, because by the time you’ve completed it you have a concrete plan that will allow you to direct your writing towards a specific end. I find this helps with motivation because you have something to work towards.

I will say at this point that the stage after the plot outline is developing the structure, which I’ll be explaining in the next post. Structure is hugely important for fleshing out the details more fully, but a plot outline gives you the key points of beginning, middle and end so that you have a framework to start building on.

My ideas for novels always centre on a character, usually inspired by a conversation I’ve had, a book I’ve read, a film or a song that has prompted me to ask a question about the way humans interact with the world and each other. I love people and I love delving into their minds to see what makes them tick; for me writing a novel is the ultimate exploration of the human psyche in all its beautiful complexity.

Other writers prefer to start with a place or a situation, a concept they want to explore or a particular feeling they want to examine. Regardless of what inspired you initially, you can apply the following method and it will give you a rough framework around which to develop your story.

One cautionary note: I find it’s best not to go into too much detail with plot outlines, because that can restrict spontaneity in your writing (which is really important) and expel whatever feeling drove you to tell that particular story. Stay brief and concise, just a sentence or two to cover each of the major plot points, with no peripheral detail unless it’s an important sub-plot that you don’t want to forget.

The following is the process I use for longer stories. For short stories I usually map it out in my head rather than on paper because I don’t go into so much depth, but it’s just as useful for either.

First off, before drawing up a plot outline, I always work on who my central characters are going to be and identify the main obstacle or source of conflict I want them to overcome.

Here are some questions I would recommend asking yourself before you go any further. You don’t necessarily need all the answers, but at least considering the questions will help you figure out what kind of story you plan to tell.

  1. Who is your protagonist?

Get to know them like they’re your new best friend. What’s their name? What do they look like? What do they do for a living? What kind of music do they like? Where did they grow up? Where do they live? How do they speak? How do they move? Do they have any habits or fidgets? What are their best qualities? What are their worst qualities? What do they like/ dislike about themselves? What’s their biggest secret? What’s their biggest regret? Who do they love/ hate? What are their eating habits? Do they have pets/ friends/ romantic partners/ family/ a car? What are they proud of? How do they come across to strangers?

Glean as much of this information as you can before you begin to work on the story. If you want your characters to jump off the page they need to be real people, and real people are complex. You will learn more about your protagonist as you go along, and your perception of them may shift; don’t worry if your answers change later on, that just means you’re getting to know the character better. If you really know them well, they will do things that surprise you and sometimes say things you didn’t expect them to. Writing becomes really easy once you know your protagonist, because you can just drop them into a situation and they do their own thing.

  1. What is the main challenge your protagonist will encounter?

This could be an internal conflict or an external obstacle, but either way you need to know before you begin to write. This is the main point of your plot and you’ll use it to drive the narrative forward. Once you know what this is going to be, you have progressed from having a character to having a story to tell about that character, and everything else will be built around this point.

  1. Who is the antagonist?

This could also be the protagonist if you’re writing about internal conflict, or it could be another person/ group of people or an obstacle that needs to be overcome. It’s great to have a second character as a physical manifestation of the problem because that gives you tension, and tension drives narrative, but you don’t have to. Even if it is a person they don’t have to be an ‘enemy’ of the protagonist, just someone who prompts the protagonist to act.

If you’re going for an external antagonist you need to ask all the same questions about them as you’ve asked about your protagonist. They are the opposite and equal force to your protagonist, so you need to give them equal weight in your mind.

  1. How will the story conclude and what will the protagonist learn?

I find this is a vital point for me to know before I begin, even if I only have a sketchy idea. Will the protagonist achieve what they set out to achieve? Will they fail but realise that was for the best? Will they fail and learn an important lesson that helps them to grow as a person? What changes will they go through between the beginning and the end? Will they make peace with the antagonist? What will they lose or gain through the course of the conflict? Will they go back to the same life they have in the beginning or will it be impossible to go back?

It’s ok if this last one changes by the time you get to the end, but it’s a good idea to know what you’re aiming for before you start so that you can direct the action towards that goal. It gives you opportunities to drop hints or plant false clues for the reader, work in subtext and tailor the behaviour of the characters according to how their roles will play out.

Once you know these four things, you can draw up a rough plot outline, with all the major plot points from beginning to end. It might look something like this:

1922, Shropshire – PROTAGONIST lives in a small rural town with her family on the large country estate where she grew up.

One day she meets ANTAGONIST who is her sister’s boyfriend, and who dreams of moving abroad. They stay up all night talking – sense of possible romance.

ANTAGONIST moves abroad unexpectedly and PROTAGONIST decides to follow him, abandoning her life and the family fortune. She departs from Liverpool docks.

PROTAGONIST journeys alone across the continent in pursuit of ANTAGONIST, coming across various barriers as a lone woman with no experience of travel. She makes friends with another woman who helps her, and they travel down the Suez Canal to reach India.

She arrives in India and her friend helps her locate ANTAGONIST in Ceylon before they part ways. She learns he has a tea farm but has been struggling with money/ business issues.

She travels alone to find him and is met by him at the train station in Kandy.

Their reunion is stormy. He tells her to go home but she refuses. He has received a letter from her family, threatening to disown her unless she returns. She ignores it and sets herself up in his house, taking charge of his finances and communicating with the local people on his behalf.

After months of working together, ANTAGONIST falls in love with her and they get married.

Years later, after India’s independence, they return to England with their children, alone and destitute. Liverpool has changed beyond recognition, as has the country they both knew.

ANTAGONIST dies less than a year after returning. PROTAGONIST is devastated, but doesn’t regret her decision to follow him. She sets up a small tea shop in Liverpool, watches her children grow up and watches the ships come and go from the docks, reminding her of her adventure and the years of happiness she shared with her husband. One day she is visited by the friend she met on her travels and they sit down to tell each other their stories.

 

As you can see, this is a brief summary without any detail or in-depth character motivations. It’s essentially a minimal synopsis, but it contains all the important information you need before you start: who the main characters are, where they start and end, the key turning points, what research you need to do, what themes might develop as you continue. It allows you to start imagining scenes you might want to include, the dynamic between the characters, the imagery and the tone. I’ve found this is by far the best way to begin writing a book, because you know right from the beginning that you can build a complete story that will work.

Let me know how you get on with writing a plot outline for a new novel, or if you have another method you’ve developed that works for you 🙂

Follow me at @RoseJamesAuthor to keep up to date with daily goings-on – best of luck and get writing!

Next Monday we’ll look at the next stage: Structuring a narrative.