Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Plot, And Other Four-Letter Words

I have a new favorite blog. Now, before you click the link, just be warned that it is NSFW. At all. And if you're offended by curse words, you should skip it. And if you don't like fantasy or sci-fi (and if you don't, why not??), you should perhaps avoid it. It's called Terrible Minds, and it's by rather prolific author Chuck Wendig, who does not at all need my help to market him because his blog is hopping with comments, but I don't care, because it's a great resource for writers, and it's hilarious, and thought-provoking, and well-written.

Why do I bring this up? Well, I'm supposed to be writing a blog that gives you an inside look into the process of writing a novel (I am, really; it says so in big bold letters at the top of the page!!!), and I have yet to even bring up that huge, nasty, complicated four-letter word. Oh yes, that's right: PLOT. Before I can talk about the complex process of creating it, I need to talk about what it is. In a blog post yesterday about stakes, Chuck has this to say about plot:

"Plot is people. Or, more specifically, plot is the result of characters making choices and acting on those choices. Or, even more specifically, plot is the expression of characters aware of the stakes and who form goals in response to those stakes (correctly or incorrectly) and who attempt to overcome conflicts in service to those goals." 

This is a fantastic way to define that nasty four-letter word. I like it because it puts characters front and center, instead of somewhere off to the side, which is something I've been harping on about for a while. The action in the story should directly come from who the characters are: what makes them tick, what drives them batty, and what they really, really want. In fact, one of the well-known ways to come up with a story idea in the first place is to think of a character, figure out what he wants most in life, and then prevent him from having it. Voila - conflict, tension, high stakes. There's the beginning of your story.

It's also, however, an extremely writer-ly way to define it, so for the sake of clarity I'll just quote Wikipedia, here, and say that plot "is a literary term defined as the events that make up a story". In other words, it's what happens in your story.

It's also way, way, way harder to create than it sounds like it should be.

Let's go back in time, shall we? I'm working on Cloudland. I have a seed, and I've tortured myself into developing it and fleshing it out. I have some non-robotic, seriously psychoanalyzed, lengthily discussed characters. So, ummm... now what?

Now, of course, they DO STUFF! Really interesting, compelling, conflict-filled STUFF! And all that stuff happens in a well-conceived order, with carefully crafted building of tension, until we hit a thrilling, nail-biting climax that leads us right into a satisfying, moving, perhaps even thought-provoking resolution. And it all gets created in one lovely blue-y purple-y poof of MAGIC!



Even though characters, seed, and theme are essential, they don't create your plot for you, alas. I think I spent more time working on the plot than on anything else in the whole long brainstorming process, and that was a loooooong time. I had a few things to start with (after a great deal of brainstorming): 1) Jake and Sara were the main characters, and they were both going to lose a parent; 2) They were going to end up looking for their lost parents in a magical land in the clouds; and 3) They were going to have to confront, and deal with, the reality of their losses before the story could be resolved.

Awesome. So once again, now what? Besides extreme procrastination, of course. That's a given.

First: answer some questions.

1) Which parents, and how do they die?
- Jake's mom, and she dies in a car accident on a bridge over the Charles River, so that her body ends up in the water and is never recovered. This was important, because Jake is six, and therefore extremely literal. If there's no body, how can she be dead? And if she isn't dead, where is she, and how does he go about finding her? That's the entire impetus for the book - the inciting incident, if you want to use the technical term.
- Sara's dad, who dies after a battle with brain cancer that Sara's parents hid from her until about two weeks before his death. I came up with this specific death because I wanted a few things: a death very different from Jake's mom's (so no more accidents or sudden violence); a death that was sudden and unexpected enough that Sara would still have to deal with shock and denial; and finally, a death that involved some inherent tension and conflict with Sara's parents, because, well, honestly, because that would set her off and make a more interesting story.

2) and 3) What is the land in the clouds, what happens there, and how do Jake and Sara end up confronting the reality of their losses?
- If you think these three questions are enormous ones, you'd be right. The first question was a lot easier to answer. I spent quite a bit of time spinning my wheels and pulling at my hair as I tried to answer them, and in the end I wound up having to ask for help, from a very smart, fascinating, wise dead guy.

And you know what? He really helped me. I wouldn't have a plot if he hadn't.

More on week.

(see: cliffhangers and other manipulative plot devices)


  1. That's exactly it for me when it comes to plot -- give a character their motivation and something to strive for and then thwart them at every opportunity. And I'm generally a seat-of-my-pants writer, so I rely heavily on character action and reaction to propel my stories forward. :)

    1. I admire your ability to do that - when I fly by the seat of my pants, they generally end up muddy, torn, and hole-y ;)

  2. Yep, pantster here, too (for the most part), and I've definitely gotten my characters in some pretty difficult situations - ie, ones I have no clue how to get them out of! But somehow this method works best for me.

    1. Oh yeah, I know that scenario well! I usually end up arguing with my characters to make them do what I want them to do... which is another reason why I'm a compulsive planner! I admire you pantsters, I really do.