Gail Anderson-Dargatz  

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the cure for death by lightningI’ve published twenty-one novels, so I’ve got something of a routine down when it comes to novel preparation and planning. But that wasn’t always the case. When I wrote my first literary novel, The Cure for Death by Lightning, I felt I needed to write “organically.” In other words, I thought I needed to go on a meandering journey towards finding my story. Sound familiar? And there is something to that idea. Writing literary is different than writing commercial fiction. BC writer Bill Stenson likens writing literary fiction to planning a vacation. You may organize the flight and hotel, but you want to stay open to the serendipity that pulls you this way and that along the way.

But here’s the thing: that first novel took me seven years to write. Seven frickin’ years! And I spent much of that time hitting my head against the desk. I finally realized that if I didn’t put the time and effort into fully understanding conflict and structure, and planned each project accordingly, writing a novel would take a very long time and be so much more frustrating than it had to be.

So, I learned about structure and outlining and hey, the next literary novel took way less time. I wrote it in about two years. And as my first novel had been, my second was also short-listed for the ScotiaBank Giller Prize, thank you very much. Now, I’m pulling together complete drafts of my more commercial projects, like my thrillers, in under a year, and my hi-lo middle school books in a month or two.

Okay, so I’ve sold you on the idea of planning your project. What does novel prep look like exactly? Here’s how I, at least, approach the preparation stage of writing a novel.

Draw mind maps.

I’m all about doodling. Years ago, when I was a cub reporter, I also published a weekly cartoon in the paper. So, even now, doodling is part of my process. I find the biggest pieces of paper I can find, and I make spider drawings or mind maps as I work out aspects of my projects. Here’s one I doodled for my hi-lo middle school novel Iggy’s World:

Iggy Spider DiagramAsk, is my big idea big enough?

As I’m doodling a mind map on my premise, or big idea, I ask, is the central idea of my project big enough to support a story? Is there enough potential for conflict, and enough potential for my protagonist to be truly active, rather than passive?

For example, with my first thriller The Almost Wife, the central idea was that a young woman, Kira, was caught between two warring exes going through a difficult divorce -- her fiancé, Aaron and his unstable wife, Madison -- and, more, that Aaron forced Kira into a position of protecting their baby and her stepdaughter from Madison.

Is there enough potential for conflict in my big idea? You betcha. Can the protagonist be truly active? Absolutely. She must protect the two girls from Madison as Madison stalks her. There’s my big idea.

If the idea isn’t big enough, or doesn’t offer enough opportunity for real conflict, or an active protagonist, narrative drive just won’t get up and running. For example, if Aaron, Madison, and Kira got along well, and everyone was happy, there really is no story.

a recipe for bees largeThen ask, Am I sure I know who my protagonist is?

Very often we think we know, when maybe we don’t. Most often we start with a passive protagonist who isn’t centered in the conflict. Instead, they observe and report on the conflicts of those around them, like we do.

So, as I’m figuring this one out (on my mind map), I ask this question: in this situation, who has the most at stake? Who should have the most at stake?

Here you also want to be clear on point of view because when it comes to plotting and structure, changing your point of view changes everything. For example, in my first draft of A Recipe for Bees, I had the protagonist’s best friend, Rose, narrating Augusta’s story. But it wasn’t Rose’s story. It was Augusta’s. My editor pointed out this POV problem and I rewrote that book, from Augusta’s POV. I would have saved myself so much work if I had asked these simple questions as I prepared to write this novel: whose story is this? Who is in the best position to tell this story?

Remember, plot arises from character desire.

As you can see, I’m thinking about the protagonist before I consider plot because, of course, plot arises from character desire. We’re talking story goals. What are your protagonist’s goals? What do they want? Once we’re clear on story goals (and have investigated structure), the story beats will start to slot into place.

Here again, as I do in each step of this planning process, I haul out the biggest sheet of paper I can find and do spider drawings, mind-maps, to work it all out.

To find story goals on that mind map, the questions to ask are: what does my protagonist want/need/desire? What is stopping them? And what are they actively going to do to reach those goals? That’s narrative conflict in a nutshell, and that nutshell holds the seed of your plot. Ask these questions of each scene, each sequence, each chapter and the project as a whole, and your plot will start to come into focus.

AlmostWife 003For example, in my first thriller, The Almost Wife, my character Kira wants a peaceful family life. What’s stopping her? At first glance, it’s her husband’s ex Madison, who appears to be stalking her and Olive, Kira’s stepdaughter who Kira has sworn to protect. What is Kira willing to do to reach her goal? She flees with Olive and her own daughter to Manitoulin to escape Madison. But only to find Madison has followed her. And the chase is on!

As you can see, working up structure goes hand-in-hand with working up a protagonist’s conflict and story goals.

Okay, so in brainstorming with mind-maps, we’ve come up with our premise, our big idea and we’re clear on story goals. The next stage in prepping to write your novel is choosing your story structure.

Explore story structures.

Just as every house has an underlying structure that holds it up, one that is covered by drywall, siding and paint, our stories have an underlying structure that supports them. These story structures differ according to type or genre, but the “bones” of the story remains surprisingly consistent.

This is narrative arc, the basic route all stories take, that three-part story -- beginning, middle, end -- that is as old as the art of storytelling. You’ll see this basic narrative arc in most story structures. And there are many story structures.

If you own a copy of Jack Hodgins’ A Passion for Narrative, take a look at his chapter called Structure: The Architecture of Fiction. You’ll see some of the more common story structures doodled there. Here’s a link that explores many others.

But as you choose the structure for your project, here’s the take home message: there is no formula or template to your story structure. Each story, even in commercial or genre fiction, really is unique. So, while we can learn a whole lot and find inspiration in these structures, that’s only the starting point. Your structure will evolve naturally from your character’s flaws and desires, their goals. But, again, mapping out your project using these structures can really speed up the writing process.

AlmostWidow 002One of the most commonly used structure is the Save the Cat! screenplay structure championed by Blake Snyder. Novelists have been using this structure for a long time to map out their projects. It’s far from perfect, as many novels don’t fit easily within the three-act structure, but it’s an excellent brainstorming tool. Jessica Brody has a great guide on that called Save the Cat! Writes a Novel. The nice thing about Brody’s guide is that it offers examples of how this structure may be applied to a variety of story types and genres.

I used the Save the Cat! structure as a starting place to outline The Almost Wife and for my second thriller The Almost Widow. In fact, I’m using it as the backbone of my upcoming literary project.


To get a handle on this basic three act structure, I suggest this exercise that I gave my MFA students at UBC, and it’s a deceptively simple one: watch a Hollywood movie and pick out the story beats or main plot points of the Save the Cat! structure. Sounds easy, right? But it’s really tough at first. Marvel movies work great for this exercise. Doing this exercise will help you wrap your mind around basic dramatic structure.

Before choosing your story’s structure, investigate many other structures:

Start with the hero’s journey. If you watched Star Wars, then you know the hero’s journey intimately. First championed by Joseph Campbell, the hero’s journey structure was used by storytellers long before we had a name for it. It’s a basic story structure that we find in so many world stories, and it’s often found in commercial fiction, in mysteries for example.

A structure you may be less familiar with is the virgin’s or female hero’s journey structure. A great guide for that is Kim Hudson’s A Virgin’s Promise. The virgin’s journey isn’t just for coming-of-age stories. It’s a really great backbone for any story where a woman is forging a new identity after a loss of some kind. And as it usually involves a woman struggling to free herself from a domestic cage, it’s also sometimes called the anti-hero’s journey, as women most often work against societal expectations in forging a new identify for themselves. So, it can be just as useful for male protagonists who are anti-heroes.

I often use the virgin’s journey in conjunction with the Save the Cat! structure to map out my story initially and review it later to keep me on track.

Coupled with the thriller structure, the virgin’s journey lends itself quite nicely to the domestic noir novel. But it’s equally useful in other genres like romance.

Literary writers often turn up their noses at genre structures, in particular the romance, but I definitely use it in conjunction with the other structures I mention above. And not just in a romance story. The romance structure can also be useful in mapping out friendship or mentorship elements within a narrative.

One of my favorite structures is the gothic novel. And I don’t have to wear black lipstick to use it. The gothic novel structure is all about meeting the monster within, and about transformation. It’s a truly brilliant structure and worth looking into further.

Write a synopsis first.

Now that you’ve settled on the structures you’re going to use in your project, take the time to write a synopsis. A synopsis is a tool that’s usually used to sell a novel to an agent or publisher. It’s a dry document that can be a huge pain in the ass to write. However, it’s incredibly useful in hammering out situation, point of view and story. It other words, it’s a really excellent brainstorming tool.


IggysWorld3When I taught at UBC, as an exercise, I asked writers to apply for a provincial or Canada Council grant or at least pretend to. And while this sounds like a lot of work, I suggest you try this at home. You don’t have to fill out the whole application. What I was most interested in was the description or summary we are forced to write when applying for a grant. In other words, we have to write a synopsis of our project. It forces a writer to really think about situation and what their story is really about, and to map out the basic story beats.

But who knows? A grant project may arise from this exercise. It certainly has for many of my students.

To map out the story beats for the synopsis, of course, you can look to any of the structures I point out above, depending on what kind of story it is. Find the main turning points in those structures and use these to decide what those main turning points are in your project and then build a synopsis around that. Here’s another link on how to write a synopsis.

The first step in this process is to brainstorm, again using these structures I mention above. And here I again I use mind-mapping, those spider drawers, to doodle out ideas. Here's an example, a doodle I did for my hi-lo middle school novel Iggy's World:


Then outline:

The next step in the plotting process is, finally, outlining. I use that detailed synopsis to craft an outline. To do so, I map out the Save the Cat! story beats on Scrivener first, as a starting place, and then plug in my existing main plot points from my synopsis. For those who aren’t familiar with Scrivener, I suggest checking it out. Scrivener allows a writer to create an outline as we write scene, and you can move those scenes around easily as things progress.

If you don’t have Scrivener or a similar writing software, you might simply list each of the Save the Cat story beats in a Word document and then plug in your plot elements. This may only be a sentence or two per story beat. Not sure what all the story beats are? Fake it! Trust that your plot will manifest in the process.

Once my outline has gelled, I then work up a chapter-by-chapter outline. This more detailed outline is the road map that I follow when I sit down to write that first discovery draft.

Research and interview.

Kate Interviews CatSome writers do all their research up front, but in the early stages, as I’m working up my synopsis and outline, I only research as needed.

Having said that, doing your research and especially interviewing up front can save you a lot of writing time. We often go into a project with preconceived notions, ones that can waste a whole lot of writing time when, later, we find out we were wrong. So here again is where doing prep before sitting down to write is a good idea.

However, researching is one way we procrastinate. That’s why I research just enough to get the project up and running, so I can sit down to write. I continue to research and interview throughout the actual writing process.

Seek feedback.

At each stage of the outlining process, from synopsis to chapter-by-chapter outline, I brainstorm with readers I trust and with my agent and editor. I can’t tell you how important that feedback is in catching problem areas before I begin to write. Again, it saves so much writing time and frustration.

So, as you’re working up your synopsis and outlines, I highly recommend that you find yourself informed readers and a brainstorming buddies who can help you stay focused on story goals and conflicts and root out inconsistencies in logic.

Schedule writing days and commit to word count goals.

Once I’ve got my chapter-by-chapter outline prepared and set up on Scrivener, I turn to my calendar and schedule my work days, creating a plan for the work ahead. I put my writing sessions in my calendar just like any other important appointment that I need to keep. That way, I’m less inclined to procrastinate or give up my writing time in service to family or other work obligations.

I strive for clear daily word count goals and deadlines that keep me motivated to move forward. Scrivener has a built-in word count goal feature which makes this easy.

If I fulfil those goals, I reward myself with small daily treats, usually a piece of chocolate, and larger rewards when I’ve completed my goal for, say, the month. I make a point of celebrating the completion of that first, crappy discovery draft as it’s a huge accomplishment.

Okay, so I’ve used mind maps to work up my premise, decided on my protagonist and their story goals, chosen a structure, written a synopsis, outline and chapter-by-chapter outline. I’ve researched and received feedback. Made my revisions on the outline. I’ve scheduled my writing time and decided on daily word count goals. After all that prep, it’s time to dive into that discovery draft.

Prep for a day of writing the afternoon before.

But now it’s worth taking the time to prep for a day of writing. I find if I do some legwork the day before a writing session, I get into the flow so much more easily the next day.

To prep for a day of writing, I do whatever research or interview is necessary to write the scene, and, keeping an eye on my chapter-by-chapter outline, I use a mind-map to doodle out the details of the scene I’m about to write. That way, my mind has time overnight to work on the scene. In the morning, I’m in a much better headspace to write than if I jumped into the day of work cold.

I also keep a stack of very different novels on my desk. I’ll often read short passages from each of these novels as a way to prime my brain for writing.

And I make a point of getting up for a stretch every half hour or so, and I’ll go for a walk after a couple of hours of writing. Like many of you, I’m sure, I find movement gets the ideas flowing. Many of my best ideas come after a day of writing when I leave my desk to do chores. So, of course, I always have a notebook or project journal handy.

Yes, as you can see from the length of this blog, preparing to write a novel is a lot of work. But I also know that the planning and prep work I’ve done will save me months if not years of writing time. And, you know, I’ve come to enjoy the preparation stage. It really can be fun. So fun, in fact, that at some point I simply have to tell myself to stop the prepping, already, and sit my butt down to write.

(Parts of this blog were originally published as Gail on Plotting Your Novel on this website.)

Resource Categories

Blogs on Craft

On the Building Blocks of Fiction

Tips on how to craft vivid scene that allows the reader to experience events right along with the characters.

On Finding Your Big Idea

Insights into the writing process and what a writer's day really looks like, as well as perspectives on research and writing from real life.

On Getting to Know Your Characters

Advice on the many ways you can make your characters come alive on the page for both you and your reader.

On Deciding on Point of View

What is the best perspective from which to tell your story? Writers discuss how they made choices on point of view and voice.

On Choosing Your Situation and Setting

Writers talk about how they use situation and setting to build story and convey emotion.

On Developing Conflict and Structure

From how to work in different genres to finding the real story, writers offer good advice on building conflict and structure.

On Revising

Tips on how to gain distance from your work and to how to re-imagine your next draft.

On Publishing

Writers offer practical advice on the business of writing and promotion, and on the importance of finding a writing community.

On Making a Living as a Writer

Writers offer words of wisdom on living on less.

On The Writer's Life

Writers talk about their life as a writer.

About Gail

Gail's novels have been national and international bestsellers and two have been short-listed for the Giller Prize, among other awards. She works with writers from around the world on her online teaching forums.