Rachel Caine — On Plot


author Roxanne Carson at home

I promised you we’d talk about plot. Oh, the dreaded PLOT. I talk to a lot of writers who are mystified by idea of constructing a logical sequence of events. My favorite question I’ve gotten from one of them is, “But doesn’t that make your writing artificial?” Dude. We are making things up. That is what writing fiction is all about. It is, by definition, artificial, because you control what happens in the story. It’s not real life, which is random; fiction has process.

It’s popular to say that your characters control the story, and maybe to some extent it’s true—a good writer will be able to listen to the characters as they whisper in his/her ear about amazing, unexpected twists. But however you want to dress it up, the writer is the one directing the story. You can listen to your characters, but at the end of the day it’s your fingers on the keyboard, your name on the book, and your responsibility.

Which is why plot is important.

So what exactly is plot? A character is presented with a problem, which requires him/her/it to overcome challenges and achieve some kind of resolution. Basic stuff. The creativity is in making that plot something that appears new. (It rarely is new, because roughly 2.2 million books are published worldwide every year, and you, dear writer, are probably not the Stephen Hawking/Einstein of fiction. Please note: it is perfectly okay to not be Stephen Hawking or Einstein in this scenario. I’m certainly not.)

(Although a great plot could be an alternate universe in which you are Stephen Hawking, only, y’know, as a space pirate. With a pet leopard. And a sentient ship. With a sidekick robotic Einstein. I’m just sayin’.)

So, there’s the dreaded blank screen with the mercilessly blinking cursor. How, then, do you come up with a plot?

I can’t guess how you will do it, but my plots most often spring from observations and incongruities. The Morganville Vampires novels in YA (fifteen of them, which comes out to approximately 1.25 million words) came from a simple, weird observation while driving at night that the streetlights were unnaturally far apart. Why? Obviously, because something was lurking in the shadows. What kind of something? Vampires. Wait, how could vampires influence the distance between streetlights? Easy, they designed, built, and own the town. Which is set in the isolated, insular wilderness of West Texas.RachelCaine-CoverMorganvilleVamps

That isn’t the plot, you notice. That is the environment. It’s important to recognize that two are very different, as is situation. A situation is a problem a character faces in an environment, which advances an overall plot. In road map terms, the environment is the road you’re on. A situation is a stop at a gas station. A plot is the total journey.

S0me very accomplished writers start with a character and situation, and let the plot and environment develop around them. It’s a perfectly acceptable way to approach things, but be warned: it’s harder than it looks to look back on a logical and emotionally satisfying progression at the end of it. Some writers can pull it off with amazing regularity; those people we call pantsers, or seat-of-the-pants writers.

Here’s the fun thing: it doesn’t mean that they don’t plot. It means that their subconscious is so well developed and attuned that they don’t have to think about the plot. It seems like it just “comes to them” but in fact, a significant part of their brain is busy doing all the behind-the-scenes heavy lifting.

Plotters, by contrast, are front-of-mind people. They like to outline. They like to have the trip mapped out in advance, with planned stops and pre-booked hotels and an itinerary with time stamps, and that’s great too. Pantsers are often baffled by this, and think that it must result in a more “artificial” plot … but it doesn’t. It’s just a different way to process information. Plotters don’t like uncertainty. They like to know where they’re going, because it helps them build all of their subplots and characters in an orderly manner, and get them where they’re going efficiently.

These two types of writers rarely meet, but there are some (like me, in fact) who are hybrids … who like to outline to avoid the inevitable dead ends and bumpy dirt roads of the journey, but who also like to take unplanned detours and explore new territory. The virtue for me of the road map (or plot) is not that it’s a rule, but a suggestion, and if I see a new road (plot) that looks more interesting, I take it. If it doesn’t work out, I can find a side road back to my original route. I prefer to be a pantser, but deadlines (four novels a year, for many years) and the need for speed mean I have to be a plotter in some ways.

So, then. How do I go about constructing a plot? First, I have a character, and I have a problem … in the Morganville Vampires example, I have a teen girl moving to a town controlled by vampires who doesn’t know the score. That’s her problem. The plot, however, is the sequence of events to move her from clueless newcomer to savvy resident by overcoming those who want to hurt her, kill her, or get her out of town. So my ultimate goal at the end of the plot of Book 1 is to have her remain in Morganville, acquire some measure of safety, and open the door for the next chapter in her story to come.

Knowing those beats makes it possible to write situations that steadily build tension; the releases in those scenes should never be enough to make us feel everything is completely resolved, and the next scene should take the tension higher, to the climax of the story. There are lots of resources to show you graphically how that looks, and I won’t put my highly doubtful drawing skills to the test, but you instinctively know this stuff. You’re a storyteller. You understand that you should build and release tension, leading to the ultimate payoff.

So that’s plot. Note that I haven’t said what you should write. Just given you my perspective. Like all journeys, your mileage (and speed) may vary.

Also: wrong turns are okay. Sometimes, the very best destinations end up being the ones we never expect.

Next time: writing life. Because it’s hard.


Bio: Rachel Caine is the author of more than forty novels, including the internationally bestselling Morganville Vampires series in YA, as well as the popular Weather Warden, Outcast Season and Revivalist series in adult urban fantasy. Her newest release, PRINCE OF SHADOWS, is available now, wherever books are sold.



9 comments to Rachel Caine — On Plot

  • Thanks for this, Rachel, and thank you again for joining us this month at MW. As you may have noticed from my post yesterday, and Chloe’s the day before, this is plotting versus “not-plotting” week here at the site. (“Pantsing” is not a term I dare use again . . . see yesterday’s comments . . .) I love the Stephen Hawking idea and definitely think you should write it. And, more seriously, I think that the “environment” versus “situation” versus “plot” distinction is incredibly helpful, and you explained it beautifully.

  • I really like the front of the brain versus the subconscious heavy lifting explanation and the itinerary description. I don’t like planned and scheduled, follow-the-tour-guide trips, either (yeah… not a dyed in the wool plotter, here). Your descriptions and explanations, though, make me realize that I do plan things out. I just don’t write them down, and while I do occasionally end up down that long, long road that ends with a barricade, razor-wire fencing and mean-looking dudes with dark glasses and big guns, well, that’s MY journey. And sometimes that’s exactly the road I needed to find (although when it happened in real life, I turned back the way I came!).

  • This has been a great week on MW for plotting. I got all sorts of ideas for the WIP.
    And having you here has been so much fun!

  • Thank you for the wonderful post, Rachel! Sometimes I think I try plotting too much and my creative well gets used up in the plotting part. Then when it comes time to write the actual words, I’m dried up. But if I write the story as I plot, I write a lot more but with less quality. I wrote 65,000 words of a story and then got to the end and decided that it needed to be chucked due to fatal flaws.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Hello again, Rachel! I have to second David’s comment that your break-down for ‘environment’ vs. ‘situation’ vs. ‘plot’ is most excellent, as is your example for defining a ‘plot problem’. I always have a terrible time figuring out where I’m going with my plot, but I think perhaps if I keep your example in mind some of the stuff I’ve been struggling with might actually start to make sense.

    This, of course, is why it’s so great having this site where so many different people can offer their advice. Even if some people are giving the same advice, the fact that they don’t phrase it in quite the same way means that there’s a higher chance of something getting through. 😀

  • Thanks for this great post! It’s neat because you’ve described my process. Everything I’ve written has come from a moment that’s occurred to me. Sometimes it’s a bit of nifty dialogue, and then I learn more about who said it, why, where, etc… sometimes It’s an event. Sometimes it’s an environment. But all of it is some kind of instant not unlike your “why are the streetlights so far apart.” One of mine was “what if a woman hit someone in the head with a fireplace poker and got ash and dust instead of brains and blood…” and a novel came out. A talking cockroach was a short story. Some things veer WAY FAR off from the original moment, but that’s fine, the original moment was just the inspiration. Like a YA or NA I’m working on now that started out as a foray into erotica (it’s not erotica anymore, for rather obvious reasons.)

    I think I’m in between plotting and pantsing, too. Happy to plot stuff out, but also willing to see where other roads go, when they show up. That’s what makes the writing fun for me–the unexpected stuff that turns into “well duh, that’s how it should have gone all along…” moment. Thanks again for the great post!!

  • Razziecat

    Hi Rachel!! First, Prince of Shadows = YAY! Loved it!! Read it, you guys!!

    Anyway – all the posts this week are helping me to understand my own process a little better. I like the road map quality of a detailed outline, but it turns out that too many pre-ordained details kill my story. It seems that yes, my brain does things all on its own and flings them at me as I write – if I’m really “in the zone” I’m plotting several scenes ahead as I go along. This, and the surprises that come seemingly out of nowhere, are the best part of writing for me. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ve learned that if I know where the story is supposed to go – at least the basics of what the ending will be – I can move along pretty darn fast. I guess what I’m doing is working with a mutable outline that’s in my head – rather than on paper or in a document.

  • sagablessed

    Again welcome back and an excellent post. The whole thing of environment and so on is quite illuminating. Never thought of it that way. Now I do.
    So much to think about.
    I personally am torn with the pantsing/plotting thing. Half of me screams “GET OUT OF THE WAY”, and the other half hollers “IDIOT! FOOL! WRITE IT DOWN!” I think I need to find a nice balance that placates both sides of brain.
    I hope you become a regular here, Rachel. You fit right in.

  • Developing and controlling the plot continues to be the part of writing I struggle with the most–this week of posts has been great! I feel like I’m getting a degree in how to do it better.