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Drafting Your Novel: The Netflix Road Trip

When it comes to life, I tend to fly by the seat of my pants. Of course, I’m capable of making plans and holding myself accountable (it would be almost impossible to work from home if I weren’t) but when it’s time to get down to plot, I tend to let my characters take the wheel.

Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

E.L. Doctorow

Alas, if you’re an indie author and don’t yet have the resources to hire four different editors, drafting your novel before you start writing can really help you achieve a clean final product.

So to give myself a hand, I’ve developed my own way of drafting that’s like taking the back roads and enjoying the scenery (without the dangers of going off-roading in a Honda Civic with no cell service). I call it: The Netflix Method, because mixed-metaphors. Yay!

What is the Netflix Method?

Essentially, the Netflix Method is just imagining your novel as one season of a T.V. show. Each chapter serves as an episode, and depending on the genre, you could have anywhere from six (à la Game of Thrones) to twenty-two (think good old T.V. classics like Buffy the Vampire Slayer) chapters.

Step 1: The Pilot Episode

All shows begin with a pilot episode, something that’s supposed to hook viewers and potential networks into picking up the series. This pilot episode is the equivalent of your first chapter. Your objective: hook potential readers. So grab a bowl of popcorn, close your eyes, and imagine the opening scene as if you were watching your story on Netflix.

Maybe your novel starts with a taste of the adventure to come, like the opening scene of The Magicians. Or maybe you prefer to take the in media res approach and drop in right where the action is. Whatever you envision for that opening scene, write it down and then ask yourself these four questions:

  1. What problem does my character face right now?
  2. What is the resolution of this problem?
  3. What solutions will the character(s) attempt in order to solve this problem?
  4. What next?

By answering these four questions, you more or less have an outline of your first chapter. As you’re writing, do keep in mind that just like a T.V. show, each individual chapter (or episode) has a contained plot, existing within the overarching story of the novel (or season). So when you reach the end of your first chapter, make sure there’s a logical conclusion that will leave readers feeling satisfied with the knowledge they’ve gained, but also curious about what’s to come next.

For more on logical conclusions, let’s move on.

Step 2: The Season Finale

If you’re like me, and you let your characters guide you, it can be tough to imagine the season finale when you’ve just finished the pilot episode, but it’s extremely important to have some sense of the outcome that you’re striving for. As with all things in writing, this outcome will likely develop or mutate as you work, but even if you’re “driving at night in the fog” with just your headlights, you should still have an idea of what your final destination is.

As with driving, the danger of not knowing where you’re heading at all is that you’ll probably get lost and end up having to sleep in a Walmart parking lot. Your readers do not want to sleep in a Walmart parking lot. For a real-world example of a story that just did not have any direction whatsoever, check out the “The Veil” (directed by Brent Ryan Green). It will haunt you for days (and not in a good way) as you’re left wondering, “What in the flying f*** did I just watch?”

Ultimate goal: Do not get lost with readers in the car, and know your final destination.

Step 3: The Rest Stops

Once you know where you’re heading, you can take all those juicy tidbits that you’re just dying to write, and separate them out onto post-it notes. Then, you’ll group your post-it notes together based on the problems they deal with, or separate them if they stand alone. These groupings will be your chapters, or episodes.

For example, if you have a side character that’s going through a particularly difficult experience that’s still relevant to the plot as a whole, you may consider setting aside a chapter just for them (think Supernatural, S11E04, “Baby”).

When you’ve finished your groupings, go back to “Step 1” and once again, ask yourself those four questions for each individual group. These mini-outlines will basically complete the “rest stops” on your Netflix Road Trip.

Step 4: Fill in the Blanks

Now, the only thing left for you to do is fill in the blanks, or decide which roads you want to take to reach your rest stops. This means it’s time to take a look at your entire story. If you’re still thinking in terms of a T.V. series, at this point, your popcorn should be gone, and you should be ready to revisit those four questions from Step 1 one last time (with a few slight variations).

  1. What is the main problem my character faces throughout the novel?
  2. What is the resolution of this problem?
  3. What solutions did the character(s) attempt in order to solve this problem?
  4. Was the problem solved?

Luckily, for those of you who are like me, and don’t necessarily enjoy planning, this is the step where you can just let loose and write. Fill in your story one chapter at a time. Let readers get to know your characters. Build an immersive world around your plot points. And if you get stuck, just imagine what you would expect to see if you were watching a show.

But keep in mind, the writing process is never perfect. It constantly evolves and mutates, and it’s okay if your method is full of mixed metaphors and nonsense, as long as it helps you find your way to a clean, workable draft.

If you have awesome drafting methods that work for you, let me know in the comments section below!

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