Dear Mr. Bell,
I recently finished reading your books Super Structure and Write Your Novel From the Middle. They’re awesome, and have taught me a lot about how to better structure a novel. I’ve now sketched out my current novel with the Super Structure beats and feel like I have a solid framework. But the problem I’m running into is filling the spaces between these beats with enough scenes to create a full novel. I’m using Scrivener’s index card feature to write out my scenes, but my poor corkboard looks awfully sparse. 🙂
Do you have any tips or suggestions on how to come up with enough plot to make a whole book? (This is actually a recurring problem for me. I struggle with plotting terribly.)
It’s a great question. Today’s post is my answer.
In Super Structure I describe what I call “signpost scenes.” These are the major structural beats that guarantee a strong foundation for any novel you write.
The idea is that you “drive” from one signpost to another. When you get to a signpost, you can see the next one ahead. How you get to it is up to you. You can plan how, or you can be spontaneous about it.
Or some combination in between!
Now, those who like to map their plots before they begin writing (like my correspondent) can map out all the signposts at the start. But let me give a word to the “pantsers” out there: Don’t be afraid to try some signposting yourself! Because you’ll be doing what pantsers love most–– “spontaneous creativity.” Indeed, signposting before you write will open up even more story fodder for you to play around with. That’s how structure begets story. That’s why story and structure are not at all in conflict. In fact, they are in love.
So let’s discuss those gaps between the signposts. How do you generate material to fill them?
- The “white hot” document
I discussed this recently in my post about chasing down ideas (under the heading “Development.”) This is a focused, free-association document. You start with one hour of fast writing, not thinking about structure at all. Think only about story and characters, and be wild and creative about it. Let the document sit, then come back to it for highlighting, new notes, and more white-hot material.
A few days of this exercise will give you a ton of story material and fresh ideas (hear that, pantsers?). Then you can decide on what’s best and where to fit it.
- The killer scenes exercise
One of my favorite things to do at the beginning of a project is to take a stack of 3 x 5 cards to my local coffee palace and jot down scene ideas as they come to mind. I don’t censor these ideas. I don’t think about where they might go in the overall structure.
When I have 20 or 30 cards, I shuffle them and pull out two at random, and see what this plot development this suggest. Eventually, I take the best scenes and place them between the signposts of Super Structure.
It’s also a breeze to do this in Scrivener, because that program works off an index-card style system. I create a file folder called “Potential Scenes” and put my cards in that file. The added benefit is that I can actually write part of the scene if I want to and it’s all associated with the index card.
- The dictionary game
I have a little pocket dictionary I carry around. When I hit a creative wall, I may open the dictionary at random and pick the first noun I see. I let my mind use that word to create whatever it wants to create, with a little nudging from me toward the actual plot.
- The novel journal
I got this idea from Sue Grafton, who is someday going to break out, I’m sure. She keeps a journal for each novel.
Before she starts writing in the morning, she jots a few personal thoughts in the journal––how she’s feeling that day, what’s going on around her. Then she begins talking to herself about the plot of her book. She works things out on paper (or screen).
This is a great way to talk to your writer’s mind and figure things out. Ask yourself questions about plot gaps that need to be filled or strengthened. Make lists of possibilities.
When I wrote my drafts in Word I used to create a separate document for my novel journal. Now that I draft in Scrivener, I make use of one of its nifty features: project notes.
You can float a notes panel over your Scrivener window that is dedicated to your project. Here is what that looks like (click to enlarge):
Try these techniques (you too, pantser) and you’ll be pleased at how the material piles up. Then it won’t be a matter of wondering what to write, but what to leave out!