Inquiring Muses Want to Know: Using Questions to Plot Your NovelI spent several years as a production editor working on education textbooks—books that teach teachers how to teach. I learned a lot about the methods that teachers use, and one of the popular teaching strategies I encountered was called inquiry-based learning. In inquiry-based learning students take a scientific approach to problem solving. Students are given a topic or question to research, and they discover the meaning and importance of it through a series of steps leading to a conclusion. I've adapted this technique for plotting a novel.
The main components of inquiry-based learning include
- A question related to the topic to be explored (the problem statement)
- An investigation and gathering of information related to the question (data collection)
- A discussion of findings (the analysis)
- A reflection on what was learned (implications or conclusion)
- Choosing the main issue your story will resolve (your problem statement)
- Gathering details related to the issue (motivation, characters, time period, and setting)
- A discussion of findings (creating an outline)
- A reflection on what was learned (creating your first draft)
Choosing your Main Issue
Problem Statement (What happens?)Your problem statement describes your plot--the structure of your story. It’s not only a question of who does what to whom during the course of the story, but it’s also a question of what do you want to write about? What is the message you want to send, or the theme you want to work with? In romance, readers expect that boy will meet girl and live happily ever after. In space opera the readers expect that the universe will be saved from evil. Your problem statement is a chance to point out the things that make your story unique.
Gathering the Details
Motivation (Why does it happen?)Your characters need external and internal motivations for dealing with your story problem. If they’re chasing a murderer, it’s not enough that they want to catch the killer, there needs to be a deeper reason driving them. Think of Batman. Batman fights crime, but he does it because Bruce Wayne struggles to find justice (or revenge) for the murder of his parents.
In romance there needs to be a reason that the characters fall in love (“because they’re the main characters” doesn’t cut it). How do they complete each other? How are they stronger together than apart?
Characters (Who does it happen to?)If you’re not comfortable with your characters, your readers won’t be either. What is your character’s ordinary world, and how does it change during the course of the story? Whether you’re looking for something as simple as a few questions about the character’s background or as complex as a complete psychological profile, taking the time to flesh out your characters gives them depth. (Examples of character questionnaires here.) You might not think your heroine’s favorite flavor of ice cream is going to come up in the story, but you might find a place for it (especially during NaNoWriMo where every word counts!) and details like that can make a scene feel more authentic for the reader.
Time Period (When does it happen?)What is the time period of your setting? If you’re writing a historical, are you already familiar with that era or will you need to do research in order to accurately describe it? How will you locate sources on your time period? If your story focuses on a specific event (i.e. a Civil War battle), it can be helpful to create a timeline of the historical event and then add the events of your novel to it. Timelines can be useful for any story when you have several events occurring in quick succession.
Setting (Where does it happen?)If you’re working with a real-world setting, research it. Find a few location photos and keep them near your writing space for inspiration. If you’re working with a fictional setting such as fantasy, draw a map of your kingdom. Filling in details such as trade routes, topography, and major geographical features can help you work out your storyline and add flavor to your plot. I used index cards to create the layout for the space station featured in my 2015 NaNo project. (I'm sharing more about how I'm plotting this year's NaNo in a later post.)
Discussing your Findings
Creating an OutlineThe outline is the spine of your story, listing the events that happen from scene to scene. Programs like Scivener and WriteWay are great for creating outlines, but note cards can be a quick, easy, and inexpensive method as well. Select 10 cards, numbering the first card 1 and the last card 10. Describe the beginning scene on the first card, and the resolution scene on card 10. Then fill out a card for each step that needs to happen to get from 1 to 10. Once you have 10 cards, additional cards can be added between scenes as needed. These cards can then be used to create a written outline or storyboard. Each card should have the GMC for that scene, describing who the scene is about, what they want (Goal), why they want it (Motivation), and why they can’t have it (Conflict).
Reflecting on your Story
Creating your First DraftIn school a term paper is created from your research, and the same is true with your novel. Once you’ve determined the problem you want to solve and answered the questions related to it, you have the content to construct a story. If you get stuck, reviewing the questions can help you come up with new approaches to your plot. And always, when in doubt, think of what’s the worst thing that could happen to your characters, and then do it to them. To quote Jim Butcher, “My business is making Harry Dresden suffer, and business is good.”
About the Author
Robyn Bachar enjoys writing stories with soul mates, swords, spaceships, vampires, and gratuitous violence against the kitchen sink. Her paranormal romance Bad Witch series, historical paranormal romance series Bad Witch: The Emily Chronicles, and spicy space opera romance trilogy Cy’ren Rising are available from Samhain Publishing. Her books have finaled twice in PRISM Contest for Published Authors, twice in the Passionate Plume Contest, and twice in the EPIC eBook Awards. As a gamer, Robyn has spent many hours rolling dice, playing rock-paper-scissors, and slaying creatures in mmorpgs.
Five supernatural thrillers packed with action and romance, each introducing you to an exciting series. Honorable heroes, strong heroines and relentless suspense combine to bring you five page-turners you won’t soon forget.
Veiled Target—USA TODAY bestselling author Robin Bielman: Tess wants revenge, but thrust into an inconvenient alliance with her sexy enemy, she must trust the shifter she’s supposed to kill or risk losing everything.
Blood, Smoke and Mirrors—Robyn Bachar: Hunted by a powerful evil, exiled witch Cat must entrust her fate to the man who betrayed her. Now Lex faces the fight of his life to keep her safe. If they both survive.
Slayer’s Kiss—Cassi Carver: Fallen angels Gavin and Julian have been sent to protect Kara, but she’s determined to track down a killer, even when she realizes her target may be the creature hunting her.
Soul Bound—Anne Hope: Jace is no longer human. Something dark and powerful has taken root within him. Something that that could destroy the one woman he’d sacrifice everything to protect.
Phoenix Rising—Corrina Lawson: Everyone looks at firestarter Alec Farley as a weapon. Beth is the only one who sees a hero. But proving that could be deadly.
Warning: Contains shifters, vampires, witches, fallen angels, a firestarter and troublemaking faeries. Watch out for gratuitous violence, gripping emotion, unconventional sex, some foul language, and a love triangle that gives new meaning to the term hot-wings.
Five Past Midnight is available for only $4.99 for a limited time at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, All Romance eBooks, iTunes, Kobo, and Samhain.
“I’ll be here as long as you need me.” Lex looked down at me, seeming sincere, and I shook my head at him.
“Don’t, Lex. You’re only here on orders. You’ll be gone and on to the next as soon as this assignment is over.”
“What if I don’t want that?”
“What if I do? I’m all for the life-saving thing, but I don’t want you in my life again.”
“Are you sure of that?”
Scowling, I took a steadying breath and prepared to launch into an explanation of the myriad reasons why I wasn’t about to go through another round of heartbreak with him, but before I could speak he leaned down and brushed a kiss across my lips.
A warm tingling suffused my body as soon as our lips met, the sort of electric reaction I usually associate with casting magic, but much, much better. He was hesitant at first, probably afraid I’d slap him or zot him with a spell, but when I didn’t object he slowly began to deepen the kiss. My knees went weak as my good sense vanished, and I slipped my arms around him to steady myself. Lex held me close as he continued to kiss me, and I leaned into him. I’d forgotten how well we fit together. He sighed, as though my lips were delicious and he savored them.
“This is a bad idea,” I murmured.
“No, this is a good idea.” Lex nudged me back toward the couch, and I sat down in a less-than-graceful flop. Next he joined me and drew me into his arms.
“Oh yeah? How?” My hormones were obviously happy to see him, but I still had a little bit of brainpower left, enough to be skeptical of the situation.
“Because letting you go was a bad idea. I don’t want to make that mistake again.” His voice was low and strained, and I wished it wasn’t so dark so I could see his expression. I sighed, a mix of old pain and new uncertainty, but he kissed me again and I stopped arguing.
I relaxed into the embrace, returning the kiss passionately. I felt better instantly—safe, warm, desired. Lex stroked my braided hair and let his hand rest at the small of my back. I ran my own hands up and down his back, debating whether or not it would be a good idea to tug his shirt off, but then I felt him unhooking my bra. My pulse jumped, and my magic decided to take that opportunity to wreak havoc on a pair of unsuspecting table lamps. With an electric sizzle followed by two sharp pops the light bulbs flashed and exploded. Startled, we jumped apart, the mood broken. We stared at each other, and I felt a guilty blush heat my face.
“Cat—” he started, and I held a hand up to stop him before he could say anything further.