I said recently, “I just found out how the story of Trevor Larson ends.”
I was referring to the novel I’ve been working on for the past year. Faithful reader Lee Anne asked, “Do you not begin with an ending in mind? I thought writers had a whole outline of the story complete before starting the words. How do you know when you’re finished?”
Many of you won’t be interested in this discussion, but some of my internet friends are writers or are contemplating writing a novel, so I offer this as a case study.
I’ve heard it said that novel writers are either “pansters” or “plotters”. The panster being one who writes by the seat of the pants with little or no thought to plot or where the story is going. The plotter, of course, plots out the story from beginning to end. I have a hard time understanding how you could be a panster and create a coherent novel that meets the expectations of the mainstream reader. Many writers succesfuly take this approach, but it would be hard for me to do without wandering down every side street available. So I guess I’m a plotter.
In fact, here’s what I did with the Trevor Larson story. I had an idea. A “what if” scenario. That’s the seed. So I think about the scenario and and whether or not there’s enough meat in the concept around which to build a novel.
If the answer is yes, then I think about character arc. In the case of Trevor, he encounters challenges early in the story. And the challenges keep coming. The arc is completed when he learns how to handle the challenges. When the novel ends, he has to be a changed person, for better or worse. Again, this is early in the concept stage.
Then I think in terms of three acts and the arc becomes more defined. My target word count is 80,000 words and for me, I average around 4,000 words a chapter. That would be 20 chapters, more or less. But if I’m thinking three acts, that would be roughly 7 chapters per act. Then I think in even more detail about the story and and will try to write a few sentences about what will happen in each chapter.
For me, that’s pretty serious plotting.
Things happen along the way. Characters that I thought would be minor rise up into a major role. Dani, for example. Characters that I thought would be significant fall away or even die. In Trevor’s story, it’s Jackson Little. And the characters go off and do something that wasn’t foreseen. I didn’t know Trevor was going to be such a gifted songwriter when the story began, but that ends up being a key plot device.
That’s the fun mess of writing. The characters come alive and tell me what’s going on.
Yes, Lee Anne, I had an idea of how the story was going to end, but the last couple of chapters were agonizing. My novels are low-key so there’s no final heoric scene or anything like that. I have to see how relationships develop and how and where to stop the story that gives the reader a sense of satisfaction. It’s pretty much where I thought it would be, just not exactly. But all along, it was entirely possible that Trevor could have gone off script. He has a habit of doing that. That’s what makes him interesting.