I start with an outline, a road map of my story. It isn't long, usually not more than four pages. I begin with a log line, a short descriptive overview of the story, the kind of thing you would find in TV Guide or such; usually only one or two sentences long. After that I figure out five things: opening, ending, Plot Point 1, Midpoint, and Plot Point 2 (PP1, MP, and PP2, for short). These are the main parts of my story, the road signs that tell it what direction to take.
The opening and ending are fairly straightforward: what is the hero doing at the beginning of the story before they get into their situation; do they win in the end or lose? These are usually pretty easy to figure out.
PP1, MP, and PP2 aren't quite so easy. In a two hour movie these usually happen about thirty minutes, sixty minutes, and ninety minutes, respectively, into the movie. These are the points where the hero (or heroes) have to make their decisions or something drastic happens to them at this point. Often in action movies PP1 is when the hero learns what the villain has done or trying to do and PP2 is when the hero is captured or when the villain has almost started his final plan. Once I figure out these two points, I have signs to direct my story towards. As I think and write my outline these may change over time but the function of them don't. They are there to anchor my story. In Adventure Hunters, the opening is the three adventurers in the ruin, the ending is telling their last story, PP1 is deciding to search for the Lambda Driver and PP2 is when the golems are activated.
After figuring out those four points, I write an outline, having split my story into four acts. The traditional story structure is three acts, but with the MP coming in the middle of Act 2 and splitting it in half, it's easier for me to think of them as four separate acts. Act 1 ends with PP1, Act 2 ends with PP2 and Act 3 ends when the story ends. I then write fourteen "scenes" for each act, rough outlines of all the major scenes in my story. These descriptions are brief and don't include every detail, they are just general outlines to give me a rough idea of what my story will be like. This is, without a doubt, the hardest part for me, especially Act 2. Syd Field calls writing the outline (or treatment) a "kick in the pants" exercise. Now I have to take my half-baked idea and turn it into a narrative.
I don't have every detail worked out, only the major parts. There are many things I'll leave blank and figure out as I am writing the story. Some take me by surprise. An example of this is in Adventure Hunters when the three heroes go to meet the gargoyles. My outline had it written as a very straightforward "gather their collective breath and get information" series of scenes. But as I was writing their journey through the forest I needed more tension. I needed a character to be scared of the gargoyles who lived in the forest. Neither Regina or Artorius fit the bill, it wasn't in their character. That left Lisa. So as I wrote the scenes, I made her first be angry and racist towards the gargoyles. But that didn't work, so I changed it into a fear bordering on a phobia. But why was she scared? I eventually wrote a scene explaining why, tying it in with a traumatic experience with her parents from her childhood. This was something I never planned on when I created Lisa and wasn't in my original outline, it grew as I was writing and was a pleasant surprise.
Syd Field says to write a four page outline, Stephen King makes it up as he goes along, and Jeffery Deaver writes 100-200 page outlines for his stories, knowing every twist and turn along the way. I'm aiming for somewhere in the middle. Without an outline I write about thirty pages and get lost and frustrated, I've done it before. But a 100 or 200 pages outline? I might as well just write the novel. Deaver is a thriller writer and a master of plot twists, he needs to know every twist and turn in advance to make sure everything fits together. There are merits to all three approaches, I think.
After I'm happy with my outline and hopefully find it without too many plot holes, I'll start writing. I refer to my outline and use it as a map but it isn't gospel, I'll change it if I think something else works better. Along with my outline I have a word count I try to shoot for. Again, this number isn't ironclad but if I get close to it I'm happy. I think it helps me out, knowing that I'm inching closer to a goal and giving me a feeling of accomplishment. However, I won't write just to fill up a word count, if my story ends and I have nothing else to say, it ends. I don't want to stuff it with useless filler.
So there you are, a glimpse into my writing process. If any other readers out there would be willing to share their process I'd love to read them, just write in the comments box. As always, thanks for reading.