My post-apocalyptic thriller novel The Thaw has had some positive feedback on the third draft from beta-readers, which is really encouraging. Some of the most heartening feedback on this draft has been on the quality of the planning.
This surprises me as the planning for The Thaw took me a long time, and looking back on recent techniques I am currently learning about such as Save the Cat, Story Grid etc – excellent planning resources I want to definitely invest time in for future ebooks – I think it’s right at this stage of the project to look introspectively at how I planned the book and what I would do differently.
One of the key comments that inspired this was from beta-reader Bethany Votaw. She said that I “know plot”. This is a happy coincidence because looking back at the plan in my OneNote file for The Thaw, the plan is of a fairly prehistoric format that I would in retrospect not use again.
The plan took several goes to get right, and I think this is true for most novel plans. It’s great to get ideas down, throw them against the proverbial wall and see what sticks, which is something I did do. My earliest plan is dated April 2014 and takes the format of a series of paragraphs outlining the plot. That’s it. This is perhaps what the film world would call a treatment.
This was a document that took approximately from April 2014 to July 2015 to create – this stage of planning is crucial and also very difficult as it requires that magical quality of conjuring something out of nothing. Looking back on this document for this blogpost I see a lot of cool ideas that didn’t quite make it into the draft as it came out and stands today. But crucially this outline captures the synthesis of the idea into something that resembles, cobbled together and vague as it may be, a story.
My second stab at the outline is dated January 2016, which marks the point at which I decided to motor ahead with the story, taking it from concept to something resembling an outline of a cohesive story, with plots, characters and settings. I decided with this outline to get down to basics, and bullet-point the events of each chapter.
It’s perhaps important to note the context of the time at which I was writing this outline: I was coming to the midpoint in my first year of studying Creative Writing at Kingston University and I felt I was able to really take the idea of The Thaw forward. (Interesting note: the working title for this book was After the Winter, alluding to the “nuclear winter” we are so accustomed to in post-apoc work) However, I didn’t have any great knowledge of advanced techniques of story structure – beat sheets, the story grid etc. Indeed, one would correctly argue that was why I elected to study Creative Writing at University, but the success of that in my particular case at the University I attended is a topic for another post.
Eventually it was time to outline. In creating the outline I would later write the book from, I used what seemed to be the archetypal planning methodology: the three act structure. But for what became a 105,000 word novel, I feel that I pulled this structure to its logical limits. I planned the book in three “acts” (the beginning, middle, and end), and each of these acts was formed of three groups – a beginning, middle and end – and each group was formed of three chapters – to form, yes, a beginning, middle, and end.
This worked moderately well, but I feel a lot of the issues (and hence this plan took a lot of time to come together) came from relying on having three acts but being less sure of what story beats or narrative points belonged in each. The middle was especially difficult to plan without each event feeling like a contrivance to getting to the final confrontation, and I still feel the middle part of the book suffers from some degree of inevitable “sag” that a lot of middles often do. That said, I did come to realise some narrative points that I am extremely proud of, especially when making the protagonist’s personal arc also emblematic of the world as a whole.
Looking back now, I wouldn’t plan a book this way again. While the three-act structure is venerable it is also prehistoric when relied upon solely, as it was by me for The Thaw. It is to my own credit that my beta readers so far have engaged with the plot and reflected this in their feedback but I can’t help but think it’s to some degree a fluke, as my use of the three-act structure in this instance certainly didn’t help in planning the story beats (indeed, if you gave me a list of the common story beats such as those used for Story Grid, I would be hard pressed to tell you where these beats existed in The Thaw. They’re there, but this is not something I wish to repeat).
For a couple of short stories I’m working on so far this year, I’ve started experimenting with a four-act structure (Act 1, Act 2a, Act 2b, Act 3) for layout, and I’ve also started using spreadsheets to structure these plans (with excellent results). Using a structured layout in a spreadsheet, and also putting those story beats or elements in there really early allows you to have much more granular control on the act structure.
But my general approach on looking at some of these methodologies is that perhaps the best approach is not to treat them as hard-and-fast, set in stone commandments (my Plotting vs Pantsing post springs to mind) but rather guidelines to make planning easier and less of an exercise in frustration when staring at a blank page.
I suppose in retrospect I was quite cavalier with the plan to The Thaw, but it worked out for me in this particular instance, but going forward I hope to learn and improve on my planning both on the reflection I’ve had here and make the planning process for future books and stories a lot less emotionally draining and less lengthy and agonising!