The results of our first Magical Words poll indicated that many of you are interested in posts about (among other things) character development and plotting. So I thought that today I would take on plotting, at least in a general way. I have no doubt that my MW colleagues will have much to add, either with comments to this post or with posts of their own, but I’ll take the first whack at it.
Developing the plot for a novel, or even a shorter work, isn’t easy. Nothing else in writing is, so why should this be different, right? In a way, though, developing narrative is harder than most other things. There is a certain uniformity to the essentials of character development (for instance) that makes writing or speaking about it fairly simple. We all know what makes people tick, and so as we develop our characters we have some sense of what questions to ask: What’s character X’s family life like? What kind of childhood did she have? What does she do for a living? Etc. Plots vary so much from book to book that it’s harder to come up with questions beyond: How does it start? How does it end? What happens in between?
More to the point, with plot advice process often gets in the way. Many writers use character sketches to get started with that aspect of their projects. But there seems to me to be greater variety in how people approach plot. Some writers always outline. Others absolutely don’t, ever. And there is a wide range of intermediary approaches between these two extremes. This makes it difficult to offer advice of a general nature. And yet, here I am about to try.
First of all, let’s clarify a bit. When we sit down to plot our books, chances are we’re not starting from scratch. We have a general idea of what our books are about, right? Those questions above that I offered so glibly are actually quite important, and chances are we’ve already answered them in our heads. Even if we don’t outline, we know how our books begin and how how they end; we probably even know a bit about what happens in between.
Well, there you go. We’re on our way. But we all know that we’re still a long from solving our plotting issues. Let me pause here to say it’s not surprising that character development and plotting led the way in our poll. Not only are both crucial to good storytelling, but they are deeply interconnected. When we write our stories there should be a powerful synergy between character conflict and development on the one hand and narrative flow on the other. What happens to our characters should steer our plots, and our plots should have a direct impact on our characters. And so as we try to figure out our major plot points we need to turn to those who are most likely to influence the path they follow: our characters.
Let’s say we’re writing a story about two star-crossed lovers who desperately want to be together, but are thwarted by an age-old feud between their families. (I actually wouldn’t recommend that you write such a story; it would never sell. Well, I suppose it might if you made them vampires. But we’ll use it for the sake of argument….) Well, immediately you can see where your two lead characters are going to help you figure out the details of your plot. If, say, he is bold and romantic, he might sneak to her home and cast lines of iambic pentameter at her bedroom window. She, in turn, might consent to a secret marriage, while also speaking in verse. Other characters — perhaps bothersome parents and meddlesome, sword-wielding cousins — might be moved to intervene, to the detriment of all. And before we know it, the motivations of our characters have given us ideas for our plot.
All kidding aside, figuring out how our main characters will respond to circumstances and events is often the best way to come up with plot points. It can even help to make a list of possible character responses to certain happenings — you can almost give yourself a menu of plotting possibilities. If you know your characters well, and you have some idea of how you want your book to end, it won’t take you long to choose the appropriate options.
A couple of things to keep in mind: In some ways, plotting is just like real life. Our needs and the needs of those around us dovetail at some moments and diverge at others. These are often the agreements and conflicts that drive the “plot” of our lives. So is it with books. On the other hand, fiction usually has clear cut protagonists and antagonists — plotting in stories often includes people who want things that are diametrically opposed. And protagonists often have nemeses, be they the Skywalker/Vader sort or the Seinfeld/Newman sort. Real life rarely has that kind of clarity. My point being that in piecing together our narrative, we need to find the balance between being “realistic” and creating a story that works and flows and keeps our readers interested.
Quite often though, even knowing the basics of plot and figuring out how characters will deal with certain situations isn’t enough to get a plot figured out. We can get much of it that way, but we’re still going to run into problems. Sometimes, we’ll find that there’s simply not enough meat there — we need more plot points. Or we’ll find that our story is flat and needs more punch. One way I have dealt with both of these problems is to go back to my characters again and ask myself “What would be the absolute best thing that could happen to my ANTAGONIST and the absolute worst thing that could happen to my PROTAGONIST at point x in the plot?” And then I make that thing (or, on the off chance that they’re two different things, both things) happen. Voila! New plot points! Action! Tension! Fun!
At other times we might find ourselves with plenty of plot points, but no sense of how they fit together, or of the order in which they ought to occur. This is often a trial and error situation. I might write chapters in the order that feels right at first, only to find that the chapters need to be shuffled (and any key chronological corrections made) later in the process. There’s nothing wrong with doing things that way.
Occasionally, when we’ve already tried some of the tactics outlined above, we’ll still find that we don’t know where to go next. We might know where we need to end up eventually, but the path from where we are to the ultimate goal has vanished. At times like those I’ll often just write anyway. Weird, I know, but here’s what I do. I might have a sense that my main character has to visit a certain place, or maybe I’ll know that characters A and B need to have a conversation. I’ll simply start writing those scenes and see what happens. In a way, I let my characters and the world I’ve created for them act as my guides. I don’t force the action or the dialogue; I follow it. This might sound hokey; it might seem like I’m simply accessing my creative subconscious. However you want to describe it, I can be very effective. Sure, sometimes the scenes I write this way don’t amount to anything, and I get rid of them. But at other times, writing the scenes without any initial agenda takes me (and my story) someplace new and exciting and completely unanticipated.
There is much, much more I could write about plotting. But this is already long enough and I have no doubt that our discussion will take us to some of the other places we need to go. So what plotting issues are your dealing with? What solutions work for you? To quote from one of my favorite movies, “Let’s work the problem, people.” (Can anyone name the movie?)David B. Coe