I think the first thing you have to keep in mind here is that there are two groups: plotters and pantsers. Knowing which group you belong to might help you figure out things. Plotters tend to plan a lot before writing, pantsers tend to write as they go and see where the story takes them.
For my first story, Starstruck, I was very much a plotter. But then I started writing Under The Dark Clouds, and that whole system went overboard and I turned into… a plantser ;-) For UTDC, I honestly did a bit of both. Most of the story and where it had to go was in my head. Some scenes/important plot points I would still discuss with my critique partner. And now, for my current project, I’m somewhere between a plantser and a plotter. This, for me, has to do with the fact that UTDC is a contemporary, and stand-alone, whereas my WIP is a high fantasy that is going to need several books. I need to know the main plot points and ending to be able to divide it into several books, and make sure all of them have a healthy balance of the different elements. So there's more planning/plotting involved--although I still write many of the scenes 'as I go'.
Something else you should perhaps consider: Are you sure that you need to know everything before you start writing? Are you sure it’s not a ‘safety net’ so you can keep telling yourself it’s okay not to write—for whatever reason? If you are truly honest with yourself, can you admit that the above is not what’s holding you back? Good, that means you can write. But if you secretly, deep down, know something else is holding your back, let go of whatever it is. Your first draft does not need to be perfect (funny I say this… *coughs*). Write that first draft for yourself. Even with Starstruck, I didn’t know everything—some things I just figured out as I wrote.
Right, now on to the actual question: How do you plot a book? This is tough to answer, because I suppose this is different for everyone—so I can only tell you what I do. For me, plotting a book is about these points:
-Characters (and their journey);
-Conflict (what keeps the characters from accomplishing what they want?);
-Outcome (how everything gets solved (or not)—a.k.a. the end of your book).
To talk about this, I have to tell you how come up with a book idea. It starts with a certain vibe, scene, image, character—anything. UTDC is a YA contemporary set around storm chasing in the USA. If you follow me on Twitter, you might now that I’m a hobby chaser and a bit of a weather nerd. The idea for a book set around storm chasing had been on my mind for a very long time, but I wanted to experience it before I even thought about writing a book. In the spring of 2015, a long-lived dream finally came true. Back home, I first wrote Starstruck and edited that, then gave myself a break as I was querying, and slowly started thinking about the next story I wanted to write. Many ideas crossed my mind, and I started writing several stories, but not the storm chasing one—because I felt like I had not found the right characters to write that book yet. Because that’s where I start: with my characters.
In March 2016, I suddenly had this image of a teenage girl as a storm chaser—and being damn good at it. I asked myself who this girl was. What was her family like? Her life growing up? Why the heck was she out chasing storms on her own? As I thought about that, I saw the scene in my head that ended up being the first chapter of the book, and another character wandered into my mind. Again, I asked myself the same questions.
Knowing your characters and their background is vital to your story. Most things will never end up in your book—but you’ll want to know. You need to know. And by knowing who they are and what their background is, I know what they are dealing with—or should be dealing with, and that’s how I figure out what their journey throughout the book is going to be.
If you’re writing a fantasy, the most logical step from here (for me) would be to discover the world. What does it look like? What do people wear and eat? Any traditions or culture, possibly magic? And so on.
Since UTDC is a contemporary, I did not have to ask myself the questions about the world—because I already knew. I can look up Oklahoma online, see pictures and maps—heck, I’ve been there. I’ve experienced the world of storm chasing myself. So for UTDC, once I had the plot, the characters and their journey, I could connect all of this and I knew where to go.
For my current WIP (a high fantasy, as mentioned), I’m working with two ‘original’ stories—one set in the middle east, one set in China—and am mashing these up. Honestly, it's a story very much inspired by Mulan and Aladdin that's turning into in my own version of Once Upon A Time. Having two different worlds, countries, cultures and religions leads to a lot of other questions: what does my own world look like? How do they fit together? Which aspects am I going to bring in when it comes to culture and religion? Plotting this takes a lot more time.
To give you an idea on a time frame here: I started thinking about UTDC in March, then wrote a first draft from April to July 2016. This fantasy series I’m planning? I first started thinking about it in August 2015. A lot has changed since then. Most of the ‘original’ idea has been thrown out, replaced by new ones. And I’m still not there, even though I’m getting closer and closer. I currently have two chapters written, just to get a feel for the characters and the story. These chapters might not end up staying, but just diving in and writing also helps me discover.
As you can see, the process for my stories depends on what the story needs. Some stories take longer to figure out than others. Some stories I plot in detail, some I only know the basics of and I figure things out as I go. Either way, before I start writing, I want to know my characters, the setting, the conflict, and the end. But that’s me—and you have to try and find something that works for you.
To round this up, I would like to share a few posts written by the fabulous Susan Dennard. These things—especially magical cookies and emotional dominos—are things I use when plotting my books or unsticking my plot if I’m stuck during writing. Also, it really doesn’t hurt to check out her other articles. *hint*.
1) How I Plan a Book, Part 1: Of Plotters and Pantsers
2) How I Plan a Book, Part 2: Before I Start Drafting
3) How I Plan a Book, Part 3: Scene-Level Planning
4) How I Plan a Book, Part 4: Coaxing Out the Magical Cookies
5) Simple Tricks to Unstick Your Story: The Domino Effect
6) Simple Tricks to Unstick your Plot: Where Is Everyone?