Ask Questions to Nail Down Your Plot

I’ve got a pair of goals that I need to achieve by the end of March, a couple of main projects I’ve been working on this past month. First is my entry for the Writers of the Future Contest, a short story that I would love to finish in time to enter this quarter. I’ll do my best with that one, and if it isn’t quite polished enough by the time March 31st rolls around, there’s always next quarter.

My other project is the next big novel attempt. In an effort to push myself to write when I’d much rather pretend I’m a Snorlax, I signed up for Camp Nanowrimo this April. It’s just about the same thing as November Nano, but in a different month. And with more flexible word count goals and content rules. Pressing deadlines like that really get me moving through what is, for me, the worst part of writing so far – trudging through that first draft. I have a tendency to overthink my draft, sabotaging myself before the novel even gets a chance to bloom. So Nano deadlines = good. I have to finish my planning and outlining for this novel before April 1st. This goal is the more important one, as Writers of the Future is a contuous thing, but the next Camp Nano won’t be until … June? July? Something like that. And I’ll probably end up joining that one, too. (Have I mentioned I love Nano? ^o^)

This time around, I’ve been digging deep to get to the heart of my story. I’m insanely excited about this one. It’s a romantic fantasy, and will end up being young adult as well due to a lifespan issue with one of the main characters (his particular power doesn’t allow one to live much past the age of 20, if that). So, he’s 17.

I started by coming up with a brief synopsis, and as I read through and tweaked that synopsis I realized there were so many questions that I wanted to make sure I answered about this world and story – whether those answers be for myself, the reader, or both. Normally, I would just file these questions away in my brain and try to get to them when I could. I tried something different this time, something that really helped me sift through the nonsense and find the core of my story, the heart of my characters. Sounds so simple, I can’t believe it’s not something I’ve done before. 

I wrote the questions down. Went through the synopsis and wrote the questions down one by one as they came to me. What did I do then?

I answered them.

Yep. That’s it. Wrote down every possible question I could think of pertaining to my novel as a whole. Things I didn’t think ran together smoothly. Things I thought readers might notice or want the answer to. All the things that needed to be wrapped up (or cleverly not wrapped up) by the end of the book. As I answered these questions (which was really fun, by the way), more questions popped up. Wrote those down, too. 

I began to realize that as the story clarified, the synopsis needed fixing. So I went back and made the necessary changes and came up with new questions. And I’m going to continue to do this until I feel I have a good grasp on my plot and all the necessary elements of my story. Each time I’ve sat down to do this, I got to know my characters and story a little bit better. I’m bad at plotting and planning. Bad. So far, this is the method that has been the most fun for me. And once the process is done, I have no doubt that I will be able to sit down and churn out a beautiful, well planned outline.

I also have no doubt that the characters will betray my outline later, but hey. Characters are characters, right?

I’m going to give you an example using my current work in progress, just to give you an idea of where my brain went with these questions. This is the novel I’ll be writing for Camp Nanowrimo this April.

* * *

Stormtamer Synopsis

(Version 1 – The synopsis has evolved a little since working with the plot.)

My story takes place in Cro-ath, a world laden with lightning-infused magic that has always been wild and unpredictable with a mind of its own. When a storm charged with this lightning sweeps across the land, it tears a rift into another world. The magic of the other world seeps through and proves to be incompatible with the magic of Cro-ath, tainting it with malicious intent. Strange, hostile creatures begin to traverse the rift, and it would appear that the leader of the other world has taken an interest in Cro-ath.

The world has a champion set aside for such a dark time. It falls upon the shoulders of a young hunter named Grayson to find and awaken this champion – the Stormtamer, the only one with the power to control the wild lightning of Cro-ath.

Unfortunately, someone has already attempted to awaken the Stormtamer, taking the enchanted book that will activate the power within him… as well as his memories. Without that book, Cro-ath’s champion is nothing but a hollow shell of a man stumbling blankly through a world that has gone hostile.

Grayson must retrieve this book, or find a way to awaken the Stormtamer without it. If he fails, Cro-ath may very well fall to the hands of the dark being on the other side of the rift.

* * *

Short and simple, gets to the point.

Using the above synopsis, here is the first list of questions I came up with. Verbatim, copied straight from my notebook… so please excuse any bad language ;)

* * *

Questions: Stormtamer

  • How did the magic of Cro-ath work before story start?
  • Are these rifts to other worlds common? Why or why not?
  • How long ago was this rift created?
  • How is the new magic incompatible?
  • Compare “wild and unpredictable” with “malicious intent,” as far as the magic is concerned.
  • What are these “strange, hostile creatures?”
  • What kind of interest does the leader of this other world have in Cro-ath?
  • Now, how exactly do you “set aside” a champion?
  • Why does it fall to Grayson to wake the champion? What makes him so damned special?
  • Who is the Stormtamer? How did he come to be? Is he mortal?
  • Who attempted to awaken the ST? Why? And why/how did they only take his instruction manual?
  • What’s the purpose of locking away the ST’s power and memories? Particularly, why into a book? If it’s so important that the ST have this power and his memories, why the fuck would they be put into an item as potentially flimsy as a book?
  • The world has “gone hostile.” How so?
  • First, it falls to Grayson to wake the ST. Now, he’s the one who has to find the ST book. Again, what makes him so damned special? Why him and not someone more powerful?
  • Can the ST be awakened without the book?
  • If Grayson fails and the ST remains an empty husk, what will happen? How, and on what sort of timeline?
  • Who’s this “dark being” on the other side of the rift? Why does he want Cro-ath? What will happen if he gets Cro-ath?
  • Are there any other main characters?
  • Are there any subplots, and if so how do they enhance my main plot?

* * *

Not a very long list, but I felt these questions asked about all of the vital points I needed to make sure I paid attention to. Don’t be afraid to really challenge your ideas with these questions. I’ve already gone through this list and discovered what I needed to know about the Stormtamer as a character, not as a champion. I’ve made notes on how to revise the synopsis, and I’m making another question sweep this evening. I even gave the synopsis to my husband and asked him to go through it from a reader’s point of view, passing on to me any questions a reader might want to know the answer to as they journeyed through my novel.

Why am I sharing this with you? Because it was fun for me to get myself to think this way about my novel, and it helped a lot. I simply can’t plan my stories trying to keep the important questions organized in my head anymore. I have trouble with structure and plotting, so if you’re anything like me this might help you to stay focused. The nature of a question gets my mind working critically to find the answer, and so far it’s been a lot more effective than anything else I’ve tried.

And that’s part of the fun, isn’t it? Experimenting with different methods to discover your very own planning and writing style.

Until next time!



3 thoughts on “Ask Questions to Nail Down Your Plot

  1. Subtlekate says:

    I love questions that bring me back to the purpose and keep me on track.
    Good luck with your camping. I did August last year and it really did move me along.

  2. SJ Main says:

    I think writing out the questions is a fantastic idea. I am currently doing a similar exercise that I learned about in a plotting book by KM Weiland called ‘Outlining Your Novel’. The only difference is that she suggests you list every ‘what if’ question you can think of that is related to your story.

  3. […] Ask Questions to Nail Down Your Plot ( […]

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