Plot Questions

When I start working on a novel, I always outline the plot. By the time I’m halfway through writing the first draft, I may have to toss out the outline and do a new outline for the second half, because so much has changed. Nonetheless, I like having a map that shows me where I’m headed. I trust the adage, “Well begun is half done.”

The book I started working on last month is a bear to outline for several reasons, not least of which is that there are too many characters. It’s the third volume in a four-volume fantasy epic, and by this point in the story my main character has attracted quite a sizable band of followers, among them a thief, an ogre, and a concert pianist. Each of them needs something to do that will move the story forward — they’re not just furniture!

I dashed off a brief, sketchy outline, but I could see it wasn’t going to do the job. So I created a new word processor file called Twenty Questions. In no particular order, I started writing down detailed questions about the story. By now the file contains more like forty questions. After working on the answers for a week or so, I was ready to start incorporating them into a more detailed plot outline.

I commend this technique to the attention of aspiring writers because I suspect some people are prone to skate past the difficult questions rather than trying to nail down answers. If you dodge the hard questions, you’ll almost certainly end up with a dodgy book.

What sorts of questions might one ask? The questions will be different for every book. Below are some actual items from my Twenty Questions document. A couple of these may be minor spoilers, but the book won’t be out for at least a year, and by then you probably won’t remember.

25. At what point does water begin to flow again in the Heartsong Fountain? What causes it to begin flowing?

7. How extensive are the powers of the ecclesiastical court with respect to land ownership?

16. Romance subplots, C. How heavily involved do Kyura and Robner get? What causes her to break it off?

22b. Does Tornibrac manage to retrieve the Great Book from the luggage?

24. What is the most eerie, creepy, supernatural special effect that could spring up during this part of the story?

21b. How can the good guys destroy a railroad bridge without endangering the train passengers?

You get the idea. Working through the answers is not outlining. In some cases, the answer may turn out to be, “No, let’s skip that story element. It doesn’t fit.” But that’s useful information too.

Keep an eye on this space. Within a few months, I hope to have more information on the availability of the series. Maybe even a teaser chapter you can download and read. We’ll see.

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