No one is ever going to have every conversation meticulously planned out for every character/chapter, or have a concrete layout of their world from the beginning. That's impossible. Only John Milton did it, but he was nearly blind, which doesn't leave a lot of time to do things other than just sit and think.
To demonstrate my method I'm going to take a simple idea and stretch it out:
"Everyman, Mr. Smith, goes to Washington"
The above sounds a lot like a very familiar movie, sure. Mr. Smith's idyllic journey from his altruistic beginnings to the withering and corrupting ecosystem that is Washington DC is, in fact, a fairly archetypal story. The everyman has ambition, journey's out of his comfort zone, becomes disillusioned, confronts his disillusionment, and then grows from the experience. But how do you stretch it out?
Most people trying to write a book have a good idea of where they want to go. For instance, with the above, I have a couple of scenes in mind that could go into the story. But what goes in between?
Every book needs a basic outline.
I make three sentence summaries for each chapter. This allows me to explore the entire plot, very quickly, without too much effort. For example, assuming this book has 10 chapters, this is what I would do:
- Mr. Smith is encouraged by his local congregation to explore local politics, in lieu of his grandfather's historic tenure as the first mayor of the town. He talks to a local councilman to get pointers. Mr. Smith runs for mayor and gets elected narrowly.
- After 1 year of serving as mayor, he meets with state officials to discuss a new highway that will be running through his county. Edward McElroy, the representative of his congressional district is attending. They hit it off, and discuss politics, leaving Mr. Smith wondering what more he can do for his country.
- Mr. Smith announces at a press conference that he wants to runs for the U.S. House of Representatives. He challenges the encumbent of his district (the very same McElroy). They have a series of town hall debates, with the last one Smith challenging McElroy directly.
- With the help of harnessing the local community, though piggy-backing off the goodwill earned by his grandfather, Mr. Smith faces a difficult election day. Smith goes door to door on election day, early in the morning. Smith narrowly, again, wins the council district.
- Smith goes to Washington DC (finally) and moves into his office. He meets his staff and other congressmen. Big players like the House Speaker and Minority Whip are eating lunch in the commissary and having a lively conversation about X, a regular debate.
- Smith's first day in the House. Still learning the social etiquette of his new job, Smith makes several mistakes. Smith votes against his party and gains some enemies.
- Smith Encounters corruption in both parties, with the Speaker and the Minority Whip taking concessions from two lobbying industries. Smith confronts them and is bitterly dismissed. Smith brings up his objections the following day regarding two pieces of legislation that are being debated.
- The House Speaker and Minority Whip pass their laws successfully. Smith is discouraged and goes out to drink at a bar. The following day reporters confront him and he is ashamed of his lack of decorum.
- Smith reads a letter from one of his supporters and is reinvigorated, admitting fault in a public statement. An amendment to one of the laws that passed the previous day is proposed, which Smith filibusters. Smith collapses on the house floor and suffers a stroke.
- Smith awakes 4 months later from a coma and learns about his example in the House. His willingness to standby his principals garnered him sympathy, but also encouraged others to look into the House Speaker and Minority Whip. Extensive corruption is uncovered and Smith is celebrated in his home town.
I wrote the above in less than an half hour, but I was able to create a story from it. That's what matters. After all, we don't live forever.
Forget What You Saw Here
While the above is useful for crafting a general idea of where the story will go, the above will drastically change over the course of the actual novel writing. New ideas, new characters, new plot devices will emerge, and directly conflict with the original outline. This, believe it or not, is totally fine.
So, assuming that I wanted to write this book, I would write my first chapter right away. But, before I do this, I will write an extended play by play of the chapter, consolidating the chapter into a series of beats (scenes) that will compose a story within a story. (Even chapters have their own flow and drama.) To demonstrate will randomly roll a ten sided dice. (Yes, I play Dungeons and Dragons... wanna' fight about it?)
Okay...I rolled a 6...
For chapter 6, I originally laid out the first day of Mr. Smith in his freshman role. Assuming nothing has changed, before I write anything concrete, I would jot out a series of beats that I want to take place in the chapter:
- Smith is nervously smoking a cigarette in his dim office, trying to shake out his nerves.
- Helen, Smith's secretary comes in, gives Smith an itinerary, and shows him to the chamber, feeling bad for his nerves.
- Smith Enters the chamber, almost late, and takes his seat. The representative next to him is idly chatting with a fellow party member.
- Smith introduces himself
- Trying to butt in on an ongoing discussion over a bill, Smith is chastised by the House Speaker and Majority Whip for his indiscretion.
- Smith fumbles with his briefcase, spilling his papers on the floor.
- A bill is being discussed and brought to a final vote. One of the bill provisions will negatively affect members of his district, and others in his home state.
- Smith voices his objections and he votes against the bill.
- After the session, two of his fellow party members angrily accost him in the hall. They demand to know why Smith voted against them. When Smith divulges his reasons, the party members cruelly laugh in his face and insult him saying that "party above policy" is what wins votes.
- Smith's assistant bleakly smiles and escorts him back to his office
The above is an example of what I would do when writing a chapter for the first time. Everything there constitutes a solid scene where I can explore the character and their motivations. This also helps to defeat writers' block because you have a road map for your narrative.
Keep Calm Write On
One thing about writing a chapter is that there will be varying levels of interest regarding each beat. Some you will feel are compulsory. Beat 3 of 10 is only there to move the plot along. Beat 6 of 10 is the sweet spot. Regardless of the context just shit it out. There are so many opportunities to expand upon previous sections during later drafts and revisions, so try not to dwell too heavily on these beats. Chances are, while writing a later chapter, you will want to come back to a previous chapter and re-write it to reflect a sudden epiphany.
If you have any comments or questions regarding the above, please hit me up in the comments below.