How Much Can You Plot the Heart of a Story?

I’m not going to lie, Squiders. I’m having a ton of issues with the edit on the first book of my fantasy trilogy. I’m getting nowhere fast, and even when I do get somewhere, it’s only to find myself facing a cliff face with insufficient climbing gear. I’ve never had so many issues. Normally, when I do an edit, it’s more of organizational exercise, with clear goals in sight. This is just a mess.

As a short background, I decided to write this trilogy at 16, based off some roleplaying I’d done with some friends (not your classic ‘I’m going to write a novel off my D&D campaign’ riff though–this was based on Star Trek). For my second Nano in 2004, I wrote the first draft, mostly based off my 16-year-old thoughts. That draft was extra terrible, but it was the first draft I ever finished. In 2009/2010 I wrote the current draft of the story, addressing a lot of worldbuilding issues from the original draft, as well as some plotting issues. That’s the draft I’m working on now.

When I revise, I tend to follow the method Holly Lisle lays out in her How to Revise Your Novel course, with some modifications, since I’ve used the process several times over at this point and know where I have issues. (For example, I always lay out a calendar and place key events on it, so I have an idea of what happens where and can visualize time passing, which is not something she includes but is something I need.)

(It’s an excellent class and I recommend it, but I don’t believe it’s currently available.)

Normally it’s just the process of going through everything and working through it, and then I’m good to go for the actual revision. This time it’s like pulling teeth.

During the fourth step, you’re supposed to identify your core conflict. And it took me several days, and even then, I had to go with a different conflict than is written in the book, because the current core conflict doesn’t work. The current step is to identify what matters about the story, the reason people will care about and remember the story for. I spent about half an hour last night just staring at my notebook. Overnight I think I’ve worked something out, but I’m still not sure it’s quite right.

This morning I had the thought that instead of hodgepodging this book together over 15 years, I wish I had outlined. But then I got to thinking, well, yes, the plot is a mess and could have maybe been saved if I had outlined (though I think I did outline the current draft, at least a bit), but what about this heart and soul sort of stuff? Can you sit there before a story is written and say “these are my core themes, this is why this story will resonate, and this is why people will care”?

I’ve certainly never done it. But normally, when I go through this revision process, that stuff has already been built in subconsciously. And maybe this story had this too, once upon a time, but it’s gone through so many iterations and rewrites and complete upheavals that whatever that original core was is gone. Or maybe, when I first started this story oh so many years ago, I didn’t understand that a story needed that sort of thing.

Who knows? But now I face the laborious task of adding it back in. Do not envy me, Squiders. This is not fun.

What do you think, Squiders? Can you plot out the core of your story, or is that something that has to come more naturally?

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