You probably wouldn’t sink a million dollars into building a home without a blueprint. You certainly wouldn't begin creating something as intricate as a cathedral without detailed plans. So why would you spend a year or two composing a novel without plotting it?
Should I Outline?
Some people advocate “pantsing”—writing without outlines. It can be fun and freeing. Heck, I’ve even written an unplotted novel or two. But as I found myself backing my characters into corners and losing the thread of my plotlines, I realized that outlining is easier.
If you plot a novel beforehand, it leaves your creative mind free to focus on constructing scenes and sentences. Stephen King advocates pantsing, but he has intricately plotted so many books that he has internalized a lot of advanced concepts that might seem foreign to you.
There are a lot of ways to plot. I use what some call the “Mountain Peak” method. With over 50 books written, I’ve also used “The Snowflake Method,” “The Hollywood Method” (four of them), “The 3,2,1 Method,” and one favored by poets that doesn’t even have a name!
Listen: find out what tools are available, then use what works!
For example, the Snowflake Method might let you envision scenes that stick together in your mind, generating an exciting opening, but might not help with your ending. So you can switch to the “3,2,1 Method” and imagine how you want the story to end, then plot backward until you reach the middle. Thus, by combining techniques, you solve your problem.
Of course, this means that you need to master different strategies.
I’ve even found myself stuck in a novel and tried “pantsing” a few scenes until I found a plot thread that excited me.
There is no wrong way or right way to plot. But for me, some ways work better. That’s why I have been returning to the “Mountain Peak Method.”
How to Use the “Mountain Peak Method” to Outline
First, I built a timeline for my novel and used it as the bottom axis. Then on the vertical axis I planned out the emotional intensity of portions of the novel, like so:
I simply imagine that my story will have various “high points,” and I plot each one individually. Here are the parts to my story:
1) The opening introduces my characters ...
2) ... in a setting ...
3) ... with a major conflict that contains an “inciting incident,” the character’s recognition that she has a problem that she must solve.
Think for example of Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. There’s a big problem lurking in her town in West Virginia as a corrupt regime enslaves Katniss’s people, but when her sister is conscripted into the Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers to take her place and is thrust into the heart of the conflict—sent to a hunting preserve where she must battle other children to the death.
4) The first attempt to resolve the problem. This almost always ends in failure because the character underestimates the immensity or complexity of the problem, but as I’ll show later, there are other options.
Where does Katniss begin attempting to resolve the problem? One could imagine that she starts when she begins training, but of course if we’re looking for sizable mountain peaks, major moments, we should probably go to her first life-or-death battle.
If you imagine yourself being at this high point in the story, you can envision what leads to this mini-climax, and you can also easily see what will happen after. Thus, each high point is thought of as a mountain peak.
5) The second attempt to resolve the problem. Again, the character struggles and fails.
We watch Katniss fail to kill other children when she could. (But of course, her failure to follow the ruthless plot of a murderous dictator is a win for her conscience.) It’s just that sometimes it seems she would have been better off hunting down her enemies.
But the real high points for Katniss are when other people try to kill her and she manages to escape or turn the tables.
6) The climax. The point where the protagonist makes one last-ditch attempt to resolve the problem and is either destroyed, accepts defeat, or manages to win the day.
In The Hunger Games, that climax comes when Katniss proves that she would rather poison herself than kill a friend. She gains enough sympathy so that her tormentors have to back down or face a revolution.
7) The resolution. The ending lets the reader know how the conflicts were all resolved.
Don’t be fooled by the chart’s deceptive simplicity. My book Million Dollar Outlines goes into it at great depth, but let’s explore each point in more detail.
Every story has to have a main character. How old is your character? What nationality? Just choosing a gender for your character can be tremendously important.
A survey taken a couple of years ago found that 32% of young men felt that they couldn’t relate to a female protagonist, so boys were less likely to buy “girl” books.
But 18% of women couldn’t relate to a male protagonist, and they wouldn’t read books about men either.
A reader’s ability to empathize is controlled in part by the levels of oxytocin in their blood, a hormone that enhances human bonding. Interestingly, 14% fewer boys will read across sexes than will girls. It is probably no coincidence that on average, women produce 14% more oxytocin than men.
In short, reader preferences are driven in part by biology—the gender and age of the reader.
Of course your protagonist doesn’t even have to be human. It can be a Teddy bear, a dog named Beethoven, or a brave little toaster.
More important than the species for your protagonist are certain attributes. Is your protagonist “likeable”? In other words, does your reader sympathize with the character? Creating a compassionate protagonist who is desperate to help others is just one way to gain reader sympathy. Putting the protagonist in pain works, too.
But face it, protagonists don’t always have to be likeable. They might just be fascinating. Giving a character a mysterious background or interesting abilities will do that. Luke Skywalker was kind of dull, but his eagerness to save Leia endeared him to audiences, and as he began to master the ways of the Force, he enthralled us.
The time and place of your story. If you look at the top-selling movies of all time, you’ll find that they transport the audience to another time and place. Either they will carry the audience into a fantasy world, or they will transport them back in time. So we see top movies like Avatar, Titanic, Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Batman, The Godfather, and so on.
Even the standouts, the movies like Jaws that did have a contemporary setting, carried us to an intriguing place. The director for Jaws struggled in every shot to get the ocean in the background, to transport the viewer into the water.
We often talk about the central conflict in a story, but every good story has several conflicts.
We might have a life-and-death conflict with a character like Mitch McDeere in The Firm, but Mitch isn’t just trying to get out alive, he’s trying to save his romance with his wife, so there is a love conflict. He wants to rescue his honor and reputation, so there is what we call an “identity conflict.” He wants to bring about justice, so he needs to turn the tables on mobsters.
In short, in every good story there are layered conflicts that you as a writer need to track, and most must be resolved by the end of the tale.
The First Attempt
Your character will usually try to resolve a conflict ineffectively at first. It’s usually messier than imagined. For example, when a secretary is fired, what does she do? She talks to the boss. In real life, that might work. But in a story, it can’t.
In talking to the boss, she might discover that she was fired because he feels she’s getting too old, or his niece needs her job, or the company is going under. The problem is too big to be easily resolved. She might need to call the ACLU, knock off the boss’s niece, or figure out how to save the company.
Sometimes the protagonist solves one problem only to create a mess. Sure, killing the boss’s niece was easy. She never even spotted our protagonist’s car as it veered across the highway. But now our secretary has Sherlock Holmes on her trail!
At other times, it is perfectly acceptable to have a conflict that is successfully resolved. For example, in the “Star Trek” reboot by J.J. Abrams, a starship captain discovers some Romulans from the future. The Romulans attack the captain’s ship and he fends them off just long enough so that his wife and infant son can escape. That infant son, in the heroic Greek tradition of course, inherits his father’s disposition and gains revenge later on.
The Second Attempt
In the second attempt, the protagonist fails again, usually because the antagonist recognizes that there is a would-be hero in town and manages to ruin the hero’s day. As the inmates used to say when I was a prison guard in college, “A Hero ain’t nothing but a sandwich.”
Typically not only does the hero fail, but the problem grows: it can broaden, so that it affects more people (think of a serial killer taking a new victim), or it can deepen, so that the hero finds himself emotionally devastated by the villain’s actions.
Most of the time, your protagonist is going to have some weakness that makes it difficult for her to resolve her problem. This weakness needs to be discovered by this second attempt. The weakness is usually some sort of personal weakness like cowardice, lack of self-control, or perhaps greed, as we see in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
There are only a few ways to successfully handle a climax. The protagonist can win the day decisively, usually after trying a new method to handle the problem. For example, we saw Scrooge repent of his greed and prove by his generosity that he became a new man.
Sometimes, a protagonist discovers that the thing he thought he wanted isn’t what he really wants. Do I want my fancy new job in Paris or would I be happier with Cheryl?
Of course, your hero can be destroyed in a successful tale. Yes, in Braveheart, William Gibson gets his guts ripped out, but the outrages done to him spur a revolution. So his cause lives on.
Your story doesn’t have just one ending scene. In a big novel, you might have three or four protagonists. Each of them might have a love interest, a personal problem or two, and a very public war that they’re fighting.
You need to resolve the conflicts of each of those characters, and that might require multiple scenes just to wrap things up. I had one novel, In the Company of Angels, that had to resolve the stories of dozens of historical characters. The ending kept the audience in tears for 200 pages and the book went on to win the Whitney Award for “Best Novel of the Year.” Nailing the ending made all the difference.
Plotting Can Be a Blast!
Every novel has various parts that you can study independently. You will have to analyze each one at some point, so it makes sense to do it before you begin writing.
I recall once sitting in a beach chair in Cabo San Lucas, eyes closed, while fishes jumped out in the ocean and a warm breeze blew. The sun was rising in a pink ball out over the water as tourists passed by. I was furiously plotting a novel, and I thought, “I wonder if those people have any idea how hard I’m working?”
Yeah, plotting can be work, but it can also be a blast!