Maybe you had a very clear vision for the first few chapters of your novel, and you zipped through those, typing so fast that your fingers blurred on the keyboard. Or maybe you started with the ending, scrawling out a climax of epic proportions, and getting the characters exactly where they needed to be.
Problem is, what do you do with the rest of the story?
This is a difficulty that doesn’t just apply to the non-planners among us. Even faithful outliners may realize that they have a gap in their carefully-constructed plan that they don’t know what to do with, or that can’t be fixed by what they have as a placeholder right now.
When that happens, I say, go back to elementary school.
Before deciding that I am completely unqualified to be writing this blog post, hear me out. I know an elementary school teacher who explained to me once the methods she uses to engage students in reading. “We have them make predictions and connections,” she said. “Sometimes it even helps them to show events in a visual way.”
She spread out a series of charts and diagrams and organizational maps in front of her. Normally, I flee at the sight of anything that looks remotely structured. When I saw those charts, though, something in my brain clicked. These activities help kids because they take them outside of the narrative structure and help them see the big picture. What if the same thing would work for writers?
That said, here are some fourth grade tools adapted for use by the big kids.
Timeline: This is a popular get-to-know-you activity, along with a family tree, probably because they look good on bulletin boards. Both are also great for helping you understand your main character better—your protagonist’s family and the events of his or her life, even before the story starts, are going to have an incredible amount of impact on your story. Alternately, a timeline can be useful to plan the fictional history of a fantasy or science fiction world. Think about how much our nation’s past influences what matters to us now. It will be the same with your fictional world.
Venn Diagram: There may be other ways to use this, but the single most useful on for me has been a Venn Diagram answering the following question: “How is this story similar to and different from my own life?” Drawing those two overlapping circles has shown me that my protagonist is basically me in a different time period, helped me understand that I was working through my own sense of grief and loneliness in one story, and given me ideas for how I should change the setting of a fantasy so it reflects a different set of values than contemporary America. A self-aware writer is a better writer, and sometimes activities like this can help us connect things that we wouldn’t have otherwise.
Book Report Forms: Kids get all of three lines of space to explain the plot of the book. This is excellent practice for a writer. When you have to distill your book idea to a few bare sentences, it will come out focused in your mind in a way that it never has been before.
“If/Then” Statements: This is one teachers use to ask students to make predictions. Usually at the end of a chapter where a character is presented with the choice, they’ll have the students write out several options, and the consequence of each. If your character is wandering around with no idea of what to do next, write out a few possibilities this way and see if something clicks.
Mind Maps: Picture a circle with a central topic written in it, then a bunch of lines exploding from that topic with subtopics, which each have lines leading to other bits of information. This is one of the best generic templates for getting unstuck known to mankind, because it lets your brain do what it naturally wants to do: go on sidetracks, associate related information, and throw out a bunch of stuff into one slightly-organized mass. If you need to plan possibilities, map out possible sub-plots, or think of a character to introduce who would challenge your protagonist in some way, this is a great method.
Brainstorming Session: Sometimes, strict organization is the way to creative ideas. But if you tend to already be a Type-A writer, you might need to let loose a little. It’s very possible to have a lot of mediocre ideas and no bad ideas. It’s rare, though, to have great ideas with no bad ideas in the mix. So do what some elementary classes do—as well as the animators at Pixar do during the planning stages of a new movie. Write down all your ideas, whatever comes to mind, on notecards or sticky notes. All of them, without stopping to shoot any down. Then, combine the ones that are similar. Get rid of a few outrageous ones. Tweak others. Put two unrelated ideas together and see what happens. Do the opposite of another. Eventually, find a few that really stand out and use them.
Besides being really helpful for writers, these methods are just plain fun, even for me, and as I’ve mentioned, I’m not much of a planner. Don’t let the blank page stare you down. You can beat it.