Mysterious Lack Of Conflicting Plans

I’m going to talk about how to plan novels.

Wait: where are you going? Why are you running away? Even if you don’t plan your first drafts beyond a few vague ideas and some character notes, you’ll need to know how to plan effectively when it comes to writing a second draft. (And really, planning first drafts can help. But I wrote my first ten or so novels with very little planning, so I get where you’re coming from if you don’t like doing that.) So stick around, kiddo.

The method I’m going to be talking about is combining standard three-act structure with something I read about called Conflict / Mystery / Lack. Now, not every novel fits three-act structure, I get it. But all novels should work with Conflict / Mystery / Lack because it’s not limited by how many acts there are.

This technique is to ensure you know exactly what’s causing the tensions in your novels, and trust me, it can help you figure out a lot about your characters too. How ‘bout that?

how bout that

So, you’re going to plan a novel. It’s going to happen in three acts (or not but roll with me here, ‘kay?). By the end of the first act, all your characters should all be in position for the Big Dramatic Events of the book. At the very least they are now on the road to coming face-to-face with the main antagonist and they know what their task is.

Like I said, this doesn’t work for all novels. But it’s a good rule of thumb if your novel is fairly standard in structure.

The second act is the longest, and when it ends, you should be on the brink of the climax. Which means that act three has everything exploding and the characters trying to deal with it. There are variations, but this is what we’re going with.

For example: our character is called Annie. At the beginning of the novel, Annie is a nobody. During act one, she gets zapped by some sort of magical thing that nearly kills her but survives and begins to develop powers. At the end of act one, Annie realises that she has to use them to take down the bad guy terrorising her town. Throughout act two, however, Annie runs into various difficulties, including enemies and obstacles, that make things harder. She overcomes them, and her powers get stronger. At the end of act two, she’s ready to face the bad guy … even if we’re not sure she’ll win. Act three comes along and there’s a big battle. Annie wins, but while doing so, loses something precious to her. The novel ends with Annie celebrating her victory but recovering from her loss.

So, you should be able to vaguely see where the divisions between acts fall, even if it’s a fairly dull plot because I just thought it up on the spot. Now it gets interesting.

bringing the party to you

Write a few lines about the events of each act and then, underneath, write three headings: conflict, mystery and lack. These are the things that we need to focus on.

What is the main conflict in act one? Annie vs magical zapper, because it nearly kills her, might be where we’re coming from here. It could be a simple as ‘Character X wants to go North but can’t because of flooding’. Conflict is two forces acting against each other.

What is the mystery? In this case it might be, “Why did this magical zapper give Annie powers instead of killing her?” Or there could be a secondary mystery, a subplot, which could relate to the antagonist.

And what does Annie lack? Does she lack the knowledge to use her gifts, or maybe just the courage? Is she trying to gain respect? She was a nobody at the beginning, so maybe she’s trying to improve her social status or gain friends. This is the one that will really help you develop your characters.

Act two should potentially resolve these three problems from act one (Annie didn’t die, the zapper gave her powers because she has a different blood type so it didn’t work on her as a weapon, she lacked strength but now she has magic) but introduce new ones (Annie v antagonist or obstacles, who’s behind all this?, and Annie still lacks the influence and social position to get close to the bad guy).

Then act three comes along and does the same thing all over again: Annie beats the bad guy, discovers his secret identity, and is rewarded with power and fame. Or, if this is litfic (though why it’d be litfic with magical powers I don’t know), she fails and everybody is miserable because society sucks.


Can you see how focusing on Conflict / Mystery / Lack helps to focus planning? Not only do you figure out key character motivations (seeking social advancement can be a pretty big motivator: see Jay Gatsby for an example), but also major plot points (face-off with the main antagonist) and tensions. It can help identify relationships, because they can often contribute to conflict.

And it makes sure your novel has tension and conflict the whole way through, because those are what make it exciting. (Plus, it ensures you don’t forget to resolve major plot points, although you can introduce further conflicts or mysteries or lacks in act three if it’s part of a series. I don’t necessarily advise it.)

Even if you hate planning, try sitting down when you’re halfway through your novel and taking this into account. Or before you write your second draft. Or, maybe, pushing the boat out and actually planning this one.

You never know, you might even like it.

Good luck to all taking part in Camp NaNoWriMo this April: just a few hours to go where I am.

-- Iron Man

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