As a writer, do you struggle with finding a way to go from start to finish in a novel?
Are you drawn to outlining but find most outlining methods too much of a cookie-cutter model?
Today, I’m going to share the method I use when I start a novel. I’ve called it the Fractal Method of Drafting because, as you’ll see, it proceeds much like a fractal.
Step 1: Start with a premise
The first step for me is always trying to come up with a sentence that tells me what the story is going to be about. This doesn’t have to be an exciting sentence. All it has to do is tell me three things:
1) Who the main character (protagonist) is
2) A bit about the setting
3) The main conflict and what comes of it
This is step 1, so it doesn’t have to be perfect. This also isn’t a “log-line” or “elevator pitch”. In other words, you don’t have to come up with something that would sell your book to an agent. Later on, you might get a better idea of how to make your novel sound exciting. For now, you just need a starting point.
Here’s an example:
A rural Manitoba boy will have to stop his new best friend when he learns that his friend extends his life by reading and capturing the souls of other children.
You’ll notice one important thing about this sentence: it is end-oriented. That is to say, it tells us where the story is going to end up. This is very important for this first step, as it will allow every other step to work.
Step 2: Expand your premise into a paragraph
Now you want to expand your sentence into a paragraph. You’ll do this by taking what’s there, breaking it into three parts, and zooming in to find more detail, much like in a fractal.
Here are the three questions to help you break your sentence up:
1) How did your protagonist get in this situation?
2) Who is the antagonist and what does he/she want?
3) How will your main character struggle and what is the result?
At this point, it will help if you make two cards. One for your protagonist, and one for your antagonist. On each card, be sure to explore the following:
1) What he/she wants more than anything
2) What’s stopping him/her from obtaining that
3) What he/she will do to get it
Don’t get carried away with hair color or mannerisms or occupation; simplicity is key. But keep this card as it will later serve as the place where you can develop these two characters. For now, stick to only these three things.
It might help to explore your characters before writing the paragraph. Or, you might try the two together. In fact, you’ll probably find that one will inform the other. You might write your character cards then realize more about the paragraph, and vice versa.
Don’t be afraid to rewrite your paragraph as you get to know more about the main protagonist/antagonist. Your goal in this step is to emerge with a strong paragraph that conveys how your novel is going to play out.
Following our above example:
Protagonist: Ronald Hall
Wants more than anything: to be able to escape to books instead of having to make friends in the small town where his family has just moved
What’s stopping him: his parents insist he make friends instead of reading, but he’s an introvert and gets made fun of by other kids because he’s geeky and awkward
What he’ll do to get it: he’ll befriend the stranger who he discovers living in the basement and keep the friendship secret from everyone so that no one will take it away, and trick his parents by having them believe he’s really out for the day when in fact he’s immersed in stories
Antagonist: Lucius Veritas
Wants more than anything: to live forever and read every book ever written
What’s stopping him: he’s mortal and is a very slow reader
What he’ll do to get it: he learned a way to split his soul from a Hashashin mystic secret society when he lived in Jerusalem in the 900’s, an act which requires absorbing one soul into his grimoire every 60 years
Ronald Hall has moved to Steinback, Manitoba, and he hates it. He has no friends and though he had few friends in Vancouver, at least in the big city he could spend his days in the libraries reading books. Now, his parents are insisting he make friends, but he doesn’t know how. To hide from his parents, he stays in the basement, which has several secret tunnels (his dad said it was for his “secret underground pot crops”). Because of this, he meets Lucius, a man who looks in his mid-30s and who knows a great deal about books. They become fast friends, but Ron has to keep the friendship secret because his parents also have taught him not to speak to strangers. No doubt, if dad finds out, that will be the end of Lucius. But soon Ron learns troubling things about Lucius, hinted at when the man tells him about tales from the medieval times as though he lived through them. Soon he finds out that not only is it true that Lucius is far older than 30 years, but that he might be after Ron’s soul to keep him alive. Ron decides to finally tell his parents, but Lucius won’t let that happen. He binds Ron in the cave where he lives and the only way out now is for Ron to discover the secrets within Lucius’ grimoire. Maybe that secret will tell him how his magic works, and there might be a way he can use it against him.
It’s very important to know that this paragraph is a sketch. You will be refining and changing its details in the next step. You don’t have to have everything figured out, but you should at the least try to expand around the 3 parts of the sentence from step 1 so that we understand how the protagonist and antagonist end up in the final situation toward which the novel will build.
Step 3: Expand your paragraph into a 3-part sketch
Your paragraph should already feel like it’s ready to take off. This step lets you indulge a little by take it to that next level.
Your task now is to break the paragraph into its natural 3 parts:
Focus especially on the end. In fact, work on the end first. Why? Because this is where the sentence came from. This is also where the story lives. A story is not about how it starts, but rather about something important that happens to your protagonist. Your beginning and middle follow how your protagonist gets to that point.
To help, as with the previous step, you might want to start making cards for secondary characters and key settings.
For secondary characters, focus only on the ones who are most relevant to the story. For example, in Ron’s story, a relevant secondary character at this step might be his father, since he’s an alternate opposing force in Ron’s life. A good guideline is to stick to secondary characters who you allude to in the paragraph in step 2. You might also add some for secondary characters who appear as you’re working through the 3-part sketch.
As with the main characters, stick to the essentials:
1) What does he/she want?
2) What’s in his/her way?
3) What does he/she do to get it?
For settings, focus only on the ones that appear in your paragraph, or that emerge in your 3-part sketch. For example, the chamber in Ron’s basement where Lucius is staying seems pretty important. I’d want to know more about what he’s hiding here, how long he’s been there, and more about its secrets.
You can be free with your setting card. Think of it as a sketching tool and later reference to help you explore the stories the settings themselves might tell you. One thing I often do is sketch the setting and try to visualize what’s in it. This lets me get a sense of items in the world that might exist there, which can be useful for further expansion in the next steps.
As with step 2, let the process of exploring cards and the 3-part sketch inform one another. Continue to revise until you’re satisfied.
Your 3-part sketch will be about 1-2 pages long, the length of a synopsis. It will be in paragraphs, probably a few paragraphs for beginning, middle, and end. The sentences might be less polished or read like notes, and that’s fine.
Try not to fill in everything that happens in your story beat by beat. Only focus on expanding from the existing paragraph from step 2. Expand a little, like you’re peeking around the corners and writing down what you see there.
Step 4: Expand your 3-part sketch into a 7-part sketch
Your 3-part sketch should now show you the framework of a pretty cohesive story, but it might still feel like big pieces are missing. In fact, pieces should be missing if you follow the advice I gave above. In expanding, you’re not linearly mapping out your story, front to back. Rather, you’re expanding from the critical parts of story to get a better sense of how, on a deeper level now, it will begin, it will progress, and it will end.
Now we’re going to push that a bit further.
1) Take your beginning and start thinking about:
- a) How are we going to first meet your protagonist and get invested in his/her situation? (Example: Ron escaping to his basement after pretending to go out looking for friends, exploring the tunnels and being intrigued by them.)
- b) What event is going to kick everything in motion? (Example: Ron meets Lucius and Lucius tells him to keep his existence secret)
2) Take your middle and think about:
- a) How does your antagonist complicate the problem? (Example: Lucius is nearing the end of his 60 years where he needs another soul, so he is now set on capturing Ron)
- b) How does your protagonist respond to this complication? (Example: Ron wants to make a friend and doesn’t see what Lucius is trying to actually do)
- c) How does the complication in a) and the responses in b) lead eventually to the end of the novel? (Example: Ron is bound in Lucius’ cave where he has access only to Lucius’ book)
3) Take your end and think about:
- a) How does everything come to a head for the protagonist and antagonist? (Example: Ron discovers Lucius’ secret weakness and uses it against him)
- b) How does everything resolve and what end state is the protagonist and antagonist left in? (Example: Ron will actually spare Lucius by becoming his first real friend, helping him die in peace after he lets Ron go)
For each point, you’ll write a bit more in-depth than you did in the previous step. The result should be something that shapes up to about 3-5 pages.
This might sound like filling in an outline, but I’ll tell you why it’s not the same. It has to do with what I mentioned at the end of last step. You’re not filling in every single thing that will happen in your story. You’re only peeking around the corners from your 3-part sketch. As you do this, using the 7 questions above to help, you’ll fill in more. The story that comes together then is disproportionate to the actual story that will become your draft, and that’s okay. Your goal here, as everywhere else so far, is to connect to the core aspects of the story’s conflict that you pinned down in step 1, centering around protagonist and antagonist.
Now, as with the previous steps, you’ll want to use your cards to help expand. This step is one where you’ll likely revise a lot to fill it in.
In the examples above, you’ll notice I left the points bare. In fact, 3a) is pretty weak. What does it even mean to “discover Lucius’ secret weakness?” I’m going to use this to illustrate how cards work hand-in-hand with the 7-part sketch.
Take your card for your protagonist and antagonist that you created in step 2 and work more on it. Develop it as you go, but pry a bit further to see if it reveals more to you at this stage.
Likewise, you might push your secondary characters further for secrets that help you clarify the 7 parts better. More importantly, now is the time to dig for another secondary character and see how that character adds to the story.
Coming back to the problem above, I need to figure out what Lucius’ secret is. That might lurk somewhere in a secret from an already existing character. Or it might come from introducing a new one. For example, Lucius, I decide, has a sister. She was the first person he bound to his book, and he kept a lock of her hair. As soon as it’s burned, his spells break. When I make up her secondary character card and explore her motivations, I realize that when she was first bound and realized what was happening to her, she wrote about this secret using a cipher so that Lucius wouldn’t read it and destroy it. To date, no one Lucius has taken captive has been smart enough to discover how to read the cipher (even Lucius doesn’t know about it), but somehow Ron is going to figure it out because he loves secret codes.
If that sounds like a lot of by-the-pants invention, it is. And this is exactly what happens here by exploring new characters as a way of trying to push deeper into the 7 parts at this step. But as you can see, this exploration now allowed me to discover something important about Ron, that he loves secrert codes, and I can work that into his character sheet and refer to it when I start actually drafting.
Do this with settings (old, and new) as well, and now at this stage you can start creating world cards.
World cards are simply cards that capture some aspect of your story world. For example, I’ve discovered that Lucius’ spell to keep his life going originates with a secret mystic society from Jerusalem in the 900s. That would get a world card that I’d label with the society name (or simply call “mystic Hashashin society”). Exploring that card will give me some answers, particularly about Lucius’ spell and how it works and some properties that might come in handy for the problem Ron has to solve.
World cards can cover items, religions, languages, societies/organizations, families, you name it. The idea is this is distinct from settings in that whereas settings are specific places that relate to your story, the world is the next level of abstraction (or expansion, in fractal lingo) outward from character and setting, the collection of elements that cohesively define the world in which they exist.
Step 5: Expand your 7-part sketch into frames
Your 7-part sketch now should be pretty cohesive. You’ll have cards for your protagonist, antagonist, most important secondary characters, most important settings, and important parts of your world like societies, cultures, organizations, religions, etc.
Where do you go next?
Not to drafting. Nor to scene sketching. This step is one step between, and here’s how it works.
At this point in development, no doubt you’re picturing parts of your story. In fact, you probably want to jump in and write those parts right now.
These are your frames. They are units of story that live in your head already and just need to get down on the page. Sketched out and put in order on the wall, they would become the frames of a storyboard by which you’d be able to walk something through a loose mock-up of your story.
For example, as I made up this example with Ron and Lucius, I can already see the scene where Ron explores his basement for the first time, the scene where Ron and Lucius first meet, and the moment when Ron spares Lucius as an act of mercy in the end.
At this point, you want to make a card for each of these and put them in order. Again, you’re not going through your story and filling in everything that happens. You’re capturing each idea for your story as it comes to you, then putting it in order. After you’ve emptied your mind of everything obvious, spend time peeking around the corners of every part of your 7-part sketch and look for more frames that come to you.
For each frame, there’s no hard fast rule what you have to write down. Just write down a sketch of what you see happening. Don’t overload it. Stick to essentials, remembering that you’ll come back to this for further development.
Spend lots of time with this. At this point, you can really push hard to complete your secondary character cast. You might also start to develop a tertiary character cast too. These are characters who might part of a given frame. They don’t get a complete card, but you might list them out so that you can make the frames in which they appear more complete.
You can develop more settings (even if you don’t use them). Spend time with each setting not just peeking around the corners for more frames of your story, but around the corners of what else that setting might reveal that will develop your story. Get especially in touch with what the setting looks like, what secrets it might have, what kind of history it has, and what items might be there and what you might see happening there while your story is progressing.
You can explore more of the world. Start organizing these into categories as they come together for easy access later. You can do this by thinking about what each element of the world is. Languages for example would go together, as would societies, as would families. You can expand the fractal another level here too by peeking around the corners of the categories themselves: as societies group together, what other societies are there in the world that might inform you more about your story?
Only one word of advice to make sure this stays on track: stick to your 7-part sketch from step 4. Use it as a reference. Remember, this is a fractal expansion, and this is the next step. It should emanate from that step. Try to peek behind as many corners as you can and everywhere you can, keeping in mind your central aim: to capture another frame of your story.
It will feel like you could keep going with some of the secondary tools like character, setting, and world cards. If you do, stop. You can (and will) always be able to come back and expand these fractals further, but it’s best to let them expand in proportion to the development of your story.
Step 6: Expand your collection of frames into a scene map
I want to say this step is optional, but that depends on what you prefer when writing. However, I do want to emphasize that this step is not the creation of a solid blueprint which you must follow when you draft. Rather, it’s one last deep glimpse into the story you’re going to write, as deep as you can go before actually writing draft prose.
Your frames, character cards, settings cards, and world cards are all going to tell you a whole lot at this point. In fact, it’s enough for you to write a draft that will be amazingly cohesive.
But you might want to dig into more cause-and-effect logic beforehand to make sure you don’t write yourself into a corner. After all, I’m really excited about Ron breaking the secret code and discovering Lucius’ sister’s locket, but how exactly is that going to work? Where would Lucius keep the locket, especially knowing it’s his weakness? How would Lucius not know how to break the cipher, given that he’s read almost every book ever written?
So in this stage, the idea is to actually start mapping out scenes based on the frames. If you want to refer to the storyboard metaphor from last step, this would be a more detailed version, more like the prototype made for a game before coding begins.
You might render dialogues in point form, or block out what will happen in individual scenes in the order you see. What you’re doing here is grouping your frames together by trying to imagine how everything will fit into complete scenes. You’re peeking around the corners from there to see what cause-and-effect trajectories might exist between these various frames. Some frames will be multiple parts of a scene, or might define one moment in a scene, and some scenes will be wholly invented based on your explorations in this step.
Just remember, above all, you’re not trying to fill this in linearly to get a blow-by-blow. The danger if you do that is you may end up with lots of unnecessary filler. Instead, as with each step, expand from the frames using questions to dig deeper so that what you’ll have is an exhaustive scene map to follow in the next step.
For instance, the three questions I asked about Lucius’ secret are worth fleshing out more scene material because they emanate from a core piece of the 7-part sketch. I might decide that we need to find out somewhere that Lucius has never read the letter with the cipher because it’s still sealed with wax and his guilty conscience has endowed him with a strange sentimentalism. I’d develop his character card, then in turn I’d think of a scene where that might go.
Step 7: Expand your scene map into a draft
Once you have your scene map complete, it’s time to start drafting. This is where you’ll likely want to start at the beginning. I know of writers who do not write books in the order a reader encounters them, but they are the exception. Narratively, it’s important to experience your story in the same order a reader will encounter it.
Approach this step just like the previous steps. Use your scene map, character cards, setting cards, and world cards to ground you as you expand. As you write your story, rather than thinking about what words to put on the page, instead try to think of how you’d expand what you see on the scene map into prose. Once more, you’re peeking around the corners, but this time it’s to help you see what will flow in the prose you’re writing.
Develop your cards (and scene map) as you go. Let the two components inform one another, just as they did in the previous steps.
This by no means suggests your draft will be perfect, only that you’ll have a helpful process by which to write a story that began, and evolved, as something grounded in the core struggle of the protagonist and antagonist. It will help you draft material that’s relevant and emergent from this, since every deeper structure of story originated from a previous fundamental structure.
Exactly like a fractal.
Steps 8+: Revision
You can imagine all subsequent drafts as step 8, step 9, and so on. In each step, treat your previous draft and the character, setting, and world cards that developed and evolved through the process as reference. Peek around the corners into a story that’s even more complete as you write a new draft.
Linearity is important in each step. To do this, spent a lot of time with the draft in the previous step going over and marking it up with “hit points”. These are comments you might make in the margins that tell you what needs to change. You can also explore your character, setting, and scene cards to help you see more that will help you make the best “hit points” for the next draft.
As you work on the next draft, proceed to rewrite it everywhere your hit points tell you to. These spots contain instructions on how to make the story truer. Go to town and rewrite completely in these spots, following your instructions in the hit points. I like to use a colored font to mark each draft so I can keep track over time what changed from the first draft.
As in a fractal, the steps expand infinitely inward, and hence with writing a book, you could redraft and redraft endlessly, only getting closer and closer to the heart of making your story better. However, eventually a given publisher prints your book and tells you you’re not allowed to improve it anymore, so that’s where you stop.
Then, you move on and write another, starting again at step 1.
Step 0: Extending to a series
Now, here’s where I might blow your mind. This process can be extended upward. By that I mean everything we’ve been doing from steps 1-7+ can itself be seen as steps emerging from a more fundamental “step 0” of a larger process. This is another property of fractals.
What the heck to I mean? I’m talking about a series. Yes, if you want to plan a whole series, then rewind to step 0.
Take everything you developed in steps 1-7+, and start to think of a more all-encompassing statement that covers:
1) What kind of adventures your character will have
2) What settings these will cover
3) How your character will struggle and grow throughout
This then becomes a new starting point. From this question branches the fractal structure of steps 1-7+ for each book in the series. This of course will evolve as you write your first book, but it’s a handy reference for you to think about the larger series arc of several books as you go through this method so you can appreciate how the fundamental conflict is developed in each book.