Amy Sterling Casil on Plot: WTF is Going On?

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OK, sit back and enjoy the ride. Here’s some plot advice from someone who had to teach herself how to plot with a sledgehammer and crowbar.

I went to the Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop at age 21 and didn’t know what a story was. I estimate it took me another 10 years to finally comprehend plot in the form of a short story. I then wrote 3 novels (2 “for hire”) and finally began to slightly comprehend plot at longer lengths. By working on scripts I began to understand “A” story and “B” story. I finally began to “get” how the skeins of plot come together to form a cohesive whole.like-fire-beta

Plot is what happens in the story because of who the characters are and what their context is – time, place, and above all, circumstance.

Just as in real life, we all have choices. And in the story at hand, so do the characters have choices. The way they choose will direct the entire rest of the story, won’t it? A “plot arc” is the trajectory of the character within the context of the story – time, place and circumstance. This should be, in a novel, both internal and external.  Internal refers to the way the character views or feels about things. External refers to where they are in time, place and circumstance at various points in the story.

Readers only turn the page for a few reasons. First, they might turn the pages for the reasons we did when we were young – for example, to get to the next “juicy” part. Second, they might turn the page in order to find out what happens next in a more general sense. They are compelled to find out what happens to the people they’ve been reading about. If they “relate” strongly to them, so much the better. Then they are part of the adventure and along for the ride. And the ride is: plot.

I do a lot of market research (reading). To date, the contemporary writer I most admire for plotting ability is J.K. Rowling. To me, the plot of the Harry Potter books, in each character arc, is masterful. Apparently, she had this whole vast story in mind before she started the first book. After all the books have been finished, I got a Hermione bone to pick with her, but it’s a pretty small little bone, all things told. Snape: one of the best stories ever told. Snape was reportedly inspired by J.K.Rowling’s high school chemistry teacher (“potions”). Thinking about that helped me to think of the book I recently finished , so thanks to both of them.

Here’s some quick and dirty plotting tips: First, the seeds of the ending are always sown in the beginning. Second, s*** happens. It had better happen. Otherwise, you’ve written a boring book. Third, when s*** happens, the characters had better do something! Third, learn this Russian word: skaz. Formally, this means a story told in a character’s unique voice and dialect “as it happens.” Informally in my perspective, it means “surprise and delight.”

Surprise for you, the writer, as well as the reader. I was very fortunate in the book that I just finished, Like Fire, in that I included characters inspired by those I knew and loved in this fantastic, fantasy world and story. I began with a flirtatious working relationship between two of the main characters, Astá and Broos. Well, over the course of the story, the two fell in love, as people will do facing near-certain death while fighting in a post-apocalyptic magical world in which deadly danger abounds.

What a wonderful surprise. Not plotted, not planned. But the linchpin of the plot and story as it now stands.

Their motivation? Well, Astá wants to keep everyone alive. Broos just wants to kill enough people so he can quit fighting, retire, and be with her.

There is a magical creature in the book as well, Shula the immortal Salamander. Shula has been imprisoned and tortured to obtain the use of her magical powers, which include enough fire to burn the entire world to a cinder and teleportation to any location desired. Men in the past tortured Shula, so she hates and mistrusts all men. Only a trusted, gentle female can deal with her – and then, only barely.

amy february 2014So, Shula isn’t a “ring of power” or a “magic spell.” She’s a living creature, with hopes, dreams, desires, loves and bitter memories. And the price she’ll exact upon those who seek to use her power varies depending on her mood, the day, the time, and the circumstance. She may seek to exact the ultimate price even upon those whom, on her good days, she loves and trusts.

You might call Shula a plot device. I call her a Salamander. Or a wild card. Or the foundation of which dreams and nightmares are made.

What happens next – to all of the characters and Shula … that’s plot. The more true you can make it to who the characters are, and the realistic context (time, place, circumstance), the better the plot will be.

Amy Sterling Casil is a 2002 Nebula Award nominee and recipient of other awards and recognition for her short science fiction and fantasy, which has appeared in publications ranging from The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction to Zoetrope. She is the author of 26 nonfiction books, over a hundred short stories, primarily science fiction and fantasy, two fiction and poetry collections, and three novels. She lives in Aliso Viejo, California with her daughter Meredith and a Jack Russell Terrier named Gambit. Amy is the founder of Pacific Human Capital, a founding member and treasurer of Book View Café author cooperative and former treasurer of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, and teaches writing and composition at Saddleback College, after receiving her MFA from Chapman University in 1999. She is currently engaged in founding a new publishing company for the 21st century, Chameleon Publishing.

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10 comments to Amy Sterling Casil on Plot: WTF is Going On?

  • Andrea

    Great post, Amy! And I like your definition of plot.
    As a Harry Potter/J.K. Rowling fan myself, I am curious about your ‘Hermione bone’. Anything you want to share?

  • Hi Andrea – thank you so much! OK, with Hermione, the resolution of her story was that she marries Ron. That’s it. I know the story was about different things, but in the 3-friend dynamic, obviously J.K. Rowling found an outside partner for Harry (well, somewhat – LOL) thus leaving Ron & Hermione to pair up. She did wonderfully in the last book. I just think with this huge story, that young women might have wanted to have a bit more than “Hermione and Ron get married and live happily ever after.” But all in all, that’s a very small bone to pick, and doing it differently would have taken away from Harry’s grand story.

  • Personally, I thought Hermione ought to have been invited to teach at Hogwarts. But that’s just me.

    As to plot, I love how you boil it down to s*** happens. It happens in real life, too, but in a story it had better happen more often and a whole lot worse!

    Hope you become a regular around here, Amy! I love how you put things into perspective! Great post!

  • I agree Lyn – that’s sort of what I was getting at. McGonagal was like the most powerful witch, and Mrs. Weasley got a few good cracks, yet I would have liked to have seen more action on the part of the females.

    If y’all will have me I would love to be a “regular”! This is a great community of writers and readers!

  • Andrea

    I agree that we could have “expected great things from Miss Granger”. Marriage doesn’t exclude everything else ;-), but it does appear that she hasn’t become head mistress of Hogwarts. Although I think she is definitely head mistress material. A brilliant successor to McGonagall (who is one of my favorites as well, btw. Well, I’ve got a lot of favorite characters, when it comes to the Harry Potter books.)

    And I always thought Ginny, being a seventh child and later Harry’s girl friend, would play a larger part in the final book.
    I wasn’t a ‘shipper’, but the seeds for Ron and Hermione’s relationship were planted early on, and at the time, I guess I just accepted the ‘canon’ as it was presented.

    Btw, I love this! 🙂 Seven years after the last book was published and we’re still discussing the series as if it was only last week. Which reminds me (not for the first time these past weeks) that I want to reread the series again.

    Amy, I’m not sure who decides on you becoming a “regular” or not, but you have my vote.

  • Hi Andrea … you know what you are right about Hermione being headmistress material! And you’re right about the staying power of those books. I am sure they’ll be much-read and loved 100 years from now or more. That is all any author could ask for, as well as the world at-large. How lucky we are to have been in the time of these books and stories. They make me think of Oliver Twist and other greats of the 19th century.

  • Quote from Amy: “If y’all will have me I would love to be a “regular”! This is a great community of writers and readers!”

    HINT, HINT Admins! HINT, HINT!

  • Oh Lyn – you haven’t even seen my two other posts. They could be awful! And my book? Possibly not even readable! My publishing company – a failure! I’m up to about $21,500 per-book per launch which is difficult to cost out over 7 years (that was a way of saying, “I doubt it will be a failure … but it will take 7 years to work that out”)

  • But Amy – no one ever said it would be easy! You had great advice to give. You’ve “been there, done that!” and can point out potholes. Your language is tart and pithy and bone-deep honest. And, probably most important for any pursuit: It is not by our successes do we learn, but our failures.

    I’m sure the next two posts will be as excellent and interesting as the previous; I, for one, am looking forward to them and hopefully, many more!

  • Wow – thank you so much Lyn! “tart and pithy and bone-deep honest.” Someone else said it was “elegant” today. In one day??? I’m sure glad I made the pot roast I made. It smells great, looks great, and darn – I deserve it!