Saturday, January 9, 2010

It's all a plot

I remember dreading discussions of plot and theme in literature classes. It always seemed plain to me that the plot is what happened in the story and the theme is what the story is about. However every year instructors seemed convinced that I was either missing essential layers of nuanced meaning or was being deliberately lazy. (Most began the term believing the former and ended the term convinced of the latter.) As a student, I never earned more than a "C" in a literature class.

As a writer I've never given a moment's thought to theme.
But as a writer I'm thinking about, and working on, plot all of the time. Because without a plot there is no story. Beautiful sentences, evocative settings, scintillating dialog, compelling characters -- all of these things are wonderful, but if nothing happens it's not a story. If you're a storyteller, you're a plotter.

With plot such an important element, you can be sure many writers spend a great deal of time working out every detail of the plot. One friend of mine, science fiction and mystery writer Ilsa Bick, produces 20,000-word outlines for 100,000-word novels. While not everyone is this meticulous, it is common for writers to thoroughly map out their plot before writing. Political thriller writer Allen Drury developed formal outlines for each of his subplots and main storyline before writing. Stephen King works out summaries of each chapter before he writes. The strength of this approach is the writer is never taken by surprise; never at a loss as to what to do next. One trap of this method is crafting the perfect outline or summary could become an end in itself consuming creative energy. Another potential problem is the writer missing opportunities in the writing process, not exploring options that are not in the outline.

Other writers are plot deniers, and I know several of these. They start with a blank page and begin writing. These writers often describe the writing process as letting the words flow. Many say things like their characters just take over the story and all they did was watch and listen and type what happened. Of course what they're doing is using their subconscious to plot, a process not unlike directed dreaming. The primary problem with this approach is -- as anyone whose ever tried to recount the events in a dream will tell you -- the subconscious is not big on logic. Just as there are holes in your dream there will be holes in your plot. And with this seat of your pants method there is always the danger of writing yourself into a box; or finishing a killer scene and having no idea where to go from there; or starting with a love story that becomes a mystery that ends with a gunfight and a Broadway musical medley. Most authors with collections of half-finished manuscripts began with little or no plot laid out in advance. But there are also successful writers who earn their livings writing this way every day.

Most writers employ elements of both of these extremes. They block the main events of their novel -- where it begins, where it ends, major decision points between the two -- but do not think through the steps between each plot point in much detail. One writer has described this as seeing each major point as a mountain peak above the fog. She knows there's a road connecting the peaks, but the actual path is in the fog. She sets out on the road knowing she will find her way by keeping the peaks in sight, but that she will also discover things she had not anticipated as she goes. She does not worry about how winding the road is as long as she keeps moving toward the next peak.

I call my own method composting, though it's been suggested percolation may be a more accurate metaphor. I think scenes through, sometimes for days before writing. My family is used to me muttering snatches of dialog unrelated to anything happening outside my head, missing turns, mowing the hostas, or calling home from the grocery store to ask what I had been sent to buy. Though I seldom have a detailed outline, I do have key elements thought through and set -- with minimal descriptions jotted in a pocket notebook -- before I ever sit at the keyboard. When I seem to simply sit down and type more often than not I'm writing down the highlights of days of guided daydreaming.

A common tool for keeping track of events while plotting is storyboarding. The writer starts with a stack of index cards, then writes one-sentence descriptions of scenes and key plot elements on each card. Then the cards can be laid out or tacked to a bulletin board. This gives the writer a visual overview of the novel as a whole, allowing her to see where what she is writing at a given moment fits. I have used this method with some success, and found it particularly useful when the flow of Wolf Hunters was not working: I was able to shuffle and rearrange the cards, playing with plot structure until I found a combination that worked. For short fiction I often use graph paper and create a very rough flow chart of events to help me remember sequence and context.

However you do it, and whatever tools you use, if you're going to be a writer you must be a plotter.

How about you? How do you plot your stories? And what tools do you use to help you stay on track and turn that plot into a story?


Kaz Augustin said...

How nice it is to meet another planner, KeVin! Especially when most seem to be of the "I just go where the winds of destiny take me" school. In comparison to them, I sound like a veritable stick-in-the-mud.

The method I use comes from a computer programming technique I learnt at Uni called "stepwise refinement". I start with the traditional 3 Acts, and put down what my goal is for each act. Then I break each act down into chapters and plot out what needs to happen in each chapter (thence broken down into scenes) to achieve the goal of the Act.

I leave about 10% of the book blank because there are always tangents that crop up that I don't see when I'm doing the broad plotting. The scenes feed into chapter goals, the chapters feed into Act goals, and Acts (hopefully) feed into the ultimate goal of having a readable story that people enjoy.

No special tools. Just a pencil and two blank pieces of paper. And, like you, lots of strange mutterings as I replay scenes and plot points over and over in my head until I have it at a stage when I'm happy to put fingers to keyboard.

Marissa Monteilh said...

Hi KeVin, nice post! I was a "seat of my pants" writer at first, but now I write a 10-20 page outline of how I think the story should go - I then format my Word doc into 30 chapters, and write a one-sentence heading for each chapter of what is should be about. I guess that's a short version of story-boarding. I try to stick to the outline but yes, it changes often, though I do find this a better way than having no direction. I admire those who can start a blank page and not know where to begin, but also, I guess starting with one-sentence and letting your characters have at it in that scene is also a way to be taken by surprise. You look up 3k words later and say, "Wow, where in the heck did that come from?" Fun! :-)

Jewel Amethyst said...

Thanks Kevin. Just the other day I sat down to write after a few weeks haiatus and realized for the first time I was blank. I didn't know where the story was going. That's when I realized I did not plot out my story.

I usually plot in my mind. However, I realize it's not effective when writing multiple stories. So from now, I will pay more attention to detailing my plots. Of course I'll give myself lots of wriggle room to let my dream guide me.

Liane Spicer said...

I'm an outliner, but definitely not of the 20,000 word variety. I leave lots of room for the intuitive process which, as you so rightly pointed out, is the subconscious plotting on the writer's behalf.

In my second novel the outline worked until I was about halfway through and then I hit a wall. I put the story aside and allowed the subconscious to do its behind-the-scenes processing. It took a week or so, then the solution to the tangle popped into my head while I was doing dishes or something like that and not thinking about the story at all.

[What did you mow? Now if you cross hostas with shasta lilies... :P]

KeVin K. said...

Good catch, Liane. Fixed it.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps many "seat of the pants" writers are reluctant to plot because they fear it's too prescriptive, as you've suggested in this article. That never phased me though because, you see, you can use both approaches. You can write raw with no plotting, what I call the bottom-up approach, to build up a collection of useful scenes and characters but not necessarily any particular place to put them. The top-down approach is where you plot and storyboard carefully before writing the scenes. The fiction you end up with can be made by utilising both of these methods.

Another thing that writers perhaps forget or don't realise, is that once the storyboards and plot are written, they're not set in stone. It's perfectly okay for them to be as fluid as the writing, provided they remain logically consistent and believable. You can still be totally creative in the ground-up writing. By all means unearth those hidden treasures, all you have to do is adjust the plot/storyboards/synopsis as you go along.