Monday, April 23, 2012

Let's Talk About Plot

One of the toughest parts of writing a good, solid novel is plotting. And it's something I struggle with on every single book.

I've tried a couple of different methods to find out which one "works" for me. Here's what I've discovered.

No outline. When I decided to write without knowing a single thing about my characters or about the plot, I had a great time - for awhile. But then it all came to a crashing halt when I didn't have solid goals or motivations for my characters, and I discovered what was supposed to be a "historical" setting was more or less window dressing.

Result? I wasted months revising it all.

Detailed outline. A few years ago, I had an idea for a modern-day novel (new for me since I write historical) that was set in my great-grandparents' hometown of Volpiano, Italy. I made lots and lots of notes. I plotted the entire thing out.

Result? I had pre-planned so much of the novel that I sucked the magic out of it all. I didn't even want to write it anymore, and I haven't looked at it in years. I hope to return to it someday.

So what's the solution? Middle ground, obviously. I usually like to know the basics about my character, but making an extensive list of their likes and dislikes is out for me. I discover those things through the story itself. But I need to have the bare bones of the plot, a sort of roadmap to where I'm going. But here's the thing - my course can change at any time. Detours are a part of it all. As long as I get from point A to point B, it doesn't matter how I get there.

However, I sometimes feel like I need a better process.

This is where you, my lovely followers and readers and lurkers, come in. What is your process for plotting? What books would you recommend?

Spill in the comments!

22 comments:

  1. I use the 7 point story structure as outlined by Dan Wells.(http://www.youtube.com/view_play_list?p=C430F6A783A88697)

    It gives me just enough to know where I'm headed without having to suck the magic out of my story. When I tried to pants it, I just felt like I stared at a blank page or, like you said, revised for eternity. =P

    I liked the approach of knowing where it all ended and then using a mirroring kind of technique to know where it all starts.

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    1. I'm going to check that out, L.T. Thanks for the recommendation!

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  2. I write plays, but with my standard two act scripts, I make a list of general characters (no names, just titles such as Mom, Husband, Mailman, etc.) and I decide what I want to happen at the end of the first scene. I also give myself a page estimate. Then, I just write. I take those characters and draft a scene. It's amazing how the general character types that I came up with become three diminsional, almost on their own. Once I have the first scene, I then decide what I want to happen throughout the play and outline in moderate detail the order of events for the end of the first act and beginning of the second act. I then write that. Once I have that written, I decide how I want the play to end, and then just write until it happens. I estimate lengths for all of these sections and try to stay within a few pages of what I originally planned. A play has to have an appropriate length, after all. This has worked out wonderfully. I just received my third publishing contract last week. (Just bragging through my excitement, haha.)

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    1. I think there's a lot to be learned from screenwriting techniques, too. I enjoyed reading about your process. Congratulations on your publishing contract!

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  3. It's really difficult isn't it? I need to know where the story's going but not too much or I get bored with it. I guess we have to work out what works for us. Good luck!

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    1. That is so true - we all work differently, and what works for someone may not work for someone else. :)

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  4. This is exactly my problem as well! I always start with the character, or the character in a certain setting, because that's how ideas come to me. I used to "just go" from there, but then the story just died, because I didn't have a clear idea where it was going. I've come to the conclusion that I need to plot more, yet the two times I tried to plan all the different steps, I got so discouraged and so bored that I had to give up the projects completely.

    The one thing that works okay-ish for me (but is far from perfect and not enough), is to ask 'why'. I start with a simple statement about the character, something I already know, and then keep asking why and answering that question. You just go until you come to the end. Then you start again with another loose end. Actually, I guess it's more of a brainstorming method than real plotting, but it usually helps me to move forward when I'm stuck. :)

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, Wordsurfer! I like the question of asking "why" when you're stuck. I'm not sure I've tried that before, so I will definitely keep it in mind. :)

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  5. I have done both of what you did and too have found that I need to have the basic goals and motivations set up for my characters and then roll with the rest or I get bored and don't want to finish it.

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    1. I think this speaks to the process of discovery that writing can bring. If we know everything about the characters, some of us can't get the urge to write their stories. I like finding out things about them as I go along. :)

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  6. I've tried both as well and had the same results. 15,000 words that need to be totally revised or 3,000 words that have no life to them.

    I think a middle ground is good. For my first book I wrote, I had a general idea of the plot and then I wrote down a bunch of scene ideas and picked them as I went.

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    1. That's a good idea, too. I need to write down the scene ideas I've had and realize that I don't *have* to use them, but at least I won't forget them.

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  7. I found that I need to know the end. Not just wrapping up the plot, but a sense of where the character is emotionally and how he/she has changed. It's not set in stone, but I have to have some idea where I'm going. I usually have a couple of key turning points in mind, too.

    I have the same problem with rigorous outlining: no magic left. I realized that what pulls me forward is wondering how it all happens. :-)

    Re books on plot, The Plot Thickens by Noah Lukeman is good. I also like Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass.

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    1. I think knowing how our characters will be emotionally changed is an excellent thing to know before even starting on the first draft. I need to incorporate this into my pre-writing session.

      I have the Maass book but not the one by Noah Lukeman, so I'll check it out. Thanks!

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  8. I too have found it hard to write if it's too mapped out. I like the freedom for the characters to take me to different places and for new and unexpected characters to just turn up. As long as I know where I need to end up and have a lose framework of pivotal plot points, I find it not only easier but much more fun.

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    1. I agree about it being more fun. And if we're not having fun writing, then we're not doing it right!

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  9. I'm like you, middle of the road for the most part. A few novels have required extensive outlines, but I prefer to start with some loose sense of plot and characters, then see where I land. Or they land, but in the end, someone's landed. :)))

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    1. I love the discovery process involved in writing. That's what it's all about!

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  10. Very interesting that plotting too much can suck the life out of a novel! I agree with you about characters - I find that my characters at the end of the book are entirely different than the notes I made ahead of time on them! I used to use the Hero's Journey for my plot outline (books 2 and 3, book 1 was no outline- what a learning experience!!!) but for my most recent I switched to Save the Cat beat-sheet.

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    1. Margo, what is the Save the Cat beat-sheet? It sounds interesting!

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  11. Melissa, I'm lapping up all the advice from other writers here-thanks for bringing up this subject:)

    And it's so exciting to see your links on the right to America in WWII and Nebraska History Magazine! A big high-five!!

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    1. Thank you! :) I can't wait until you start writing your first novel!

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