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This post originally appeared on Medium in December 2020.
If you think about a novel that you really enjoyed and that stuck with you long after you read it, you’ll probably remember two things.
- You’ll remember the major plot points.
- You’ll remember how you felt while you were reading it. Were you on the edge of your seat? Were you saddened? Did you laugh out loud?
It’s important to remember that this is what a reader will generally walk away from a book with: a memory of the plot and the feeling they had while reading it.
Unless, of course, they had no attachment to the book or — worst case scenario — didn’t like it at all. How many of us have set a book down and immediately forgotten it? I certainly have.
While we can’t guarantee what experience a reader is going to have with our story, what we can do is increase the chances that a.) they will remember the major plot points and b.) they will have and remember having an emotional experience while they read.
We do this by knowing from the start both the events of our story AND what emotional change our protagonist is going to go through from beginning to end.
I’ve written before about not being someone who used to just write by the seat of my pants and hope that the creative muse would guide my words in a way that made sense…and how I don’t do this anymore.
When I talk about planning, though, I want to be very clear. This is not your high-school-English outline or your three-act structure. These tools, while effective for planning out the events, leave out the most important thing: creating that emotional connection with the reader.
Instead, I carefully align each major plot point with both the point I’m trying to make in the book by noting why this event is happening.
Let’s break this down into its two parts.
The Major Plot Points
First, when I talk about major plot points, I mean doing a very brief summary of what happens in each scene. And before anyone has a panic attack at the thought of having to do this work, or throws up their hands and says no way, hear me out.
First, if you do this in the beginning, it will of course be a working document that can change as you write and make new decisions. It isn’t set in stone. But it also is a tool that you can come back to when you get lost in the weeds, wondering where you’re going with this story. You can leave the scene that’s frustrating you and start a new one. It’s really amazing in this way — and those of you who always plot your story know what I’m talking about.
The WHYs of Each Scene
Alongside each of the major plot points I’ve summarized, I explore and decide the WHY of each plot point. What emotions in the character are driving her decisions? How did earlier events lead to this new one? What lesson is the character learning in this moment, and how is it changing her?
Of course, the answers to these questions aren’t going to literally show up on the page, as in “the lesson she learned when this happened was XYZ”. But what will happen is that you will be able to embed in the scene the emotion, the facial expressions, the sighs, the voice volumes, that get across the emotion and show the lesson that the character is learning. And THAT, my friend, is how you get the reader to have a feeling while they’re reading, one they’ll remember once they’ve put the book down.
And isn’t that what we all want?