The Big Picture—Before and After

Shonna Slayton — 


n my mind there are two Big Pictures when writing a novel. The Big Picture Before and the Big Picture After.

If I had to choose I’d say my favorite is the before. This is the daydreaming Big Picture when you get to doodle notes, follow new ideas, and go off on rabbit trails to see where they lead. This is the Big Picture that begins with a character who has been living in your head for weeks. You get to pluck that character out of your mind and drop him onto your notebook to see what he is going to do. (Kind of like how you create a “Mii.” You fiddle with the hair, nose, eyes, etc. then when you are done the Wii game spits him out to join the other characters and he bounces to life—my kids love doing that.)

The Big Picture Before is the easiest to write because there is relatively no pressure. A blank slate, endless possibilities. You can start with the basic plot-like questions and ask yourself:

What does my character want?
What does she really want (even if she doesn’t know it yet?)
What is stopping her from getting what she wants?

You can follow outlines like the Hero’s Journey or the Snowflake Method, or First Draft in 30 Days to help you get from beginning of story to end of story.

In the Big Picture Before you can easily play with different answers to these questions to see which sounds the most fun to write about. However! The key to the Big Picture Before is to spend some time looking at these possibilities and how they flow together. You can’t just pick random bad things to throw at your protagonist. They have to make sense—don’t just willy-nilly toss in a ninja attack, for example. (Think domino effect.) Even better, in the Big Picture Before you can change your mind without having to rewrite 100 pages to accommodate the change.

Which leads me to the Big Picture After. (Dun, dun, dun, dun…scary music.)

The Big Picture After is work. Lots of work. (If you don’t believe me read Jordan Rosenfeld’s post here about taking a plot inventory.) In the Big Picture After, you have to figure out if the movie playing in your head is the same movie that made it to the paper.

YOU know how the story plays out, but did you leave out the scene that reveals that the evil villain is really the hero’s separated-at-birth twin brother? Of course, if you are an outliner, you should have already accounted for every scene, right? That is, if you stuck to your outline.

The Big Picture After can also be fun. You’ve already written the thing! You’ve got your lump of clay formed. Now you just have to refine it. Sharpen some details. Make sure you didn’t leave off an arm

There is pressure, here, though. The Big Picture After is IT. This is your last chance to revise and revise before the story is told.

This month I’m working on my NaNo novel from ’07. This is the final edit I plan to give this baby before I tackle NaNo ’08. I didn’t outline it ahead of time so I am spending a lot of time in the Big Picture After trying to add more tension and highten conflict. I’ve revised it a number of times already, but decided to go ahead and take Jordan’s advice and do a plot inventory. I’ll let you know how it goes!


Shonna Slayton

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Shonna Slayton is the author of the 1940's YA novel Cinderella's Dress (2014, Entangled Teen) and its sequel, Cinderella's Shoes (Fall 2015) . Visit her website at sign up for her newsletter.