Plots and Characters

I’ve always taken a middle road on the plotting versus pantsing spectrum. I would argue for both sides as I have friends who manage both ways to varying degrees of success. That is not to say that there is any correlation between the success of those who write with full plots versus those who write off the cuff, but that each writer has a different degree of success with the method s/he chooses.

Lately I think I’m shifting more into a plotter. Okay, there’s no doubt about it. And the more I figure out the difference between figuring out a plot, the more I like it. Yes, the only part I loved about those little outlines with roman numerals was how nicely they lined up – the nerd in me has a sick fascination with overly ordered things like lined up books (alphabetized by genre, author, and title) in a bookshelf.

I know there is more than one way to plot. I wonder if many of the writers who say they don’t plot (yet there are inklings that their instinctual way of feeling through a story might be started off with organizing thoughts in a writer’s head) actually work through some of those issues but don’t formally write them down. For the rest, sometimes it’s about asking the right questions.

These questions are not just about plot. They’re also about characters and settings and anything else that makes it into the novel. One of the character templates a friend of mine loaned me always had a couple gaps though the questions themselves were exhausting. I’d pick and choose, but often I skipped things like “what would be in X’s wallet?” What does it matter? I’m in a fantasy universe and they don’t have wallets.

Maybe the point I should have been chasing was something broader. A wallet is often one of the things we won’t leave home without. We put things in it like identification and money and sometimes photos of our kids. We also grab keys, cell phones, and other items and stow them in our pockets or purses. [Or voluminous diaper bags – but that’s a different character.]

I’ve been checking into these and backing up. It might be the easiest thing to set down what the character physically looks like. An appearance trait that might even be changed down the road if I decide something else fits better. But the internal parts are not so easy to lay out on paper, and they’re also not as easy to change in a book. “Oh, Lucy isn’t recovering from an overdose of her mother’s guilt trips anymore because I decided her mother needed to not be in this book and I killed the character off.” So every reference to the mother needs to be removed, but also every time Lucy reacted to that guilt trip by doing something without her mother entering the scene. That rewrite would take significant effort to realize the changes in Lucy.

Also, I need to remember to put things in context for cultures if I make them up. It’s simply part of the world building that sometimes doesn’t make it to the character level. It’s one of the fun things about writing nonhuman characters, but also one of the challenges. What is fashion like for a race that doesn’t have a strong sense of vision? They rely heavily on sense of smell, so it makes me wonder if there are trends in scents, rather than colors. “Dogbreath is in this year. I think I’ll hibernate for the winter.” It just opens so many possibilities that hadn’t existed before.

I love world building. I worry sometimes that my races are too much to add into the fabric of the story, but it’s just too much fun for me. There are authors who have done it well, and I’m sure many more who have not that I simply haven’t read yet. As long as I don’t stop the action for info dumps, I suppose I’m not doing too bad.

The world building leads me back to the plot and the characters and the setting and all the rest. And as I’m looking at my worlds, I’m trying to stretch myself so I can ask the right questions and get the right answers in the beginning stages when changes are easy. Like if the character had to leave his residence in the middle of the night for some catastrophe (something on the order of a house fire), what would be the thing he couldn’t leave without? And not forgetting to find the unique voice of that character as we go. Because it’s different if he says “my firstborn” versus “I couldn’t leave without my beloved daughter.” And it’s knowing the difference that will make the novel great.

The Time for Plotting Never Passes

Some people can begin at the beginning and keep writing until the end. I don’t happen to be one of those people. I find myself mired in the ways that the story could go, and somewhere in the middle it fizzles out if I don’t know where I’m headed. Conventional wisdom says to dump something in a sagging middle like a dead body or have aliens land, but it doesn’t always work for me.

It always returns to plot. I have less trouble with my characters getting in line. I have been taking time out this month to try to correct my plot fizzling issues. Somehow I know there must be a way to carry everything through to the end while being true to my original vision of what the novel is supposed to say (and why I don’t have aliens land on the kitchen table in my contemporary YA).

To that end, I have been trying out several different ways to see a plot through, from randomly typing out from the beginning (which is why I know it isn’t working for me) to setting everything out scene by scene (which I know runs a large risk of me taking a left turn about halfway through).

I always liked the look of traditional outlines but never thought they fit me very well. Or maybe I just liked that they had such an orderly form with the roman numerals and all the other stuff thrown in. Lately I’ve also attempted to type a bare bones summary in prose form to see where that led me. Turns out the answer was ‘in circles’. I still use that method to organize my thoughts to find connections between pieces that I’m not sure fit together but seem to have possibilities.

Then I also stumbled into some worksheets. You can find them in books, too, like First Draft in 30 Days or Book in a Month. I haven’t progressed to filling them out in order, but taking time to pour over them has pushed my thinking into that kind of system. What was the climax? What is my internal or external conflict? What else do I need to get my characters from point A to point B or what obstacle do they need to overcome in order to get to this spot?

While they can be a good tool, I’m also trying not to stuff too much into them. I like giving my characters a little room to breathe while they get through the novel. When I originally drafted Don’t Tell Your Mother I only had a vague notion of what the end was going to be, and then as I got to each segment I’d write a sentence about what the next scene would be so I wouldn’t lose my place in the story if I got interrupted. [It really is a bummer, but there comes a time I must sleep.]

I’ve also read lately about Scrivener (which I thought I had blogged about, but apparently I just looked at it) being a good tool for novelists because of the functionality to rearrange things at ease. There are other software programs that also do this kind of thing, and I’m sure each has advantages and disadvantages.

It’s going to take some time for me to perfect my method of plotting, and I might just come to the conclusion that each project takes something different and it will depend entirely on my inner vision of the story. If nothing else, I’m enjoying learning the different methods and how each might be implemented to help (or hinder) my progress.

What do you choose to use to plot novels? Have you tried other methods? What did that teach you about your writing and plotting?

What’s the Worst That Could Happen?

Yes, I’m serious. We all have our characters we come to love when we write. We have to in order to make it through an entire novel with them. Do you ever make it too easy on your main character?

In my writer’s group, one of the contributors is working on her first fiction project. She’s got a wonderful flair for description and the short bits she reads us are vivid. I’m sure it helps that she’s got a long history in nonfiction. One of the veterans asked her the question: “What’s the absolute worst thing that can happen to your protagonist? Do that and you’ll find your plot.”

It’s not always how I think of it, but it’s very good advice. Sometimes people try to go easy on their characters if they like them, though the best thing is to torture the poor protagonist until he wants to give up – except you never, ever let that happen. Even giving up is a choice and bad things can happen from it. Just like a juggler who throws all the balls in the air and then doesn’t try to catch them – one of them will turn into the brick to land on his head.

When was the last time you read a book where the worst thing didn’t happen? Did you get bored with reading it? The other extreme might be where believability hits. Did you put the book down because the events just couldn’t happen that way? Within each story world there are possibilities and consequences for every choice made.

Pretend you’re writing a young adult novel and Mom forbids the main character from talking on the phone for a week. The main character has two choices, to follow the restriction or to break it. Either choice has consequences. It seems very cut and dried, but what happens when you add the love interest who’s expecting a call that evening? What happens when you add the mother’s incessant checking of the phone logs? Then a father who allows it because he doesn’t know about the restriction? Does your character choose to follow the restriction even if it means the love interest will be upset? Does the character come clean to Dad about not being able to use the phone (and maybe even why)? Or is it just a one time thing that the character hopes won’t be noticed? Suddenly there’s a plot!

Might not be an epic plot right now, but the more consequences and reactions the writer adds to make the choices more tortured adds to the reader’s pleasure. Somehow George R. R. Martin gets named in protagonist-torturing crowd. Readers might get mad at him for killing off their beloved characters, but as far as I know they’re still reading. And making movies and a game out of the story line. I suppose we can’t all do it that way, but kudos to him for making it work well!

Next time you take a look at your plot, whether you’ve finished writing or if you outline beforehand, really dig in to see if you’ve made your protagonist’s life as troubled as you can. That’s when you know you’re writing a good story.

Note: This is not to say that writers love to torture people. We’re pretty much just aiming to get readers, and we can’t overdose on all the sugary fluffiness that it would require to make an entire novel out of things happening that aren’t bad. 

Formula

In math, formulas are the keys to making things work. Once you understand perimeter, you can figure it out even if you don’t know the exact formula for a shape. It isn’t just geometry; math follows rules that can be put into formulas and remembered.

Stories are works of art, and I wonder if the underpinnings of formula really can be set out. It’s arguable how many plots there are out there and I’ve heard they’ve all be done before.

I guess the question is whether the formula accents the story or inhibits it. Characters and plot are two of the most important parts of the story. The formula is meant to be like a skeleton, giving a basic structure to build things. Each species has a unique skeleton (or not, in the case of invertebrates), but every type has a similar structure for a unique being.

Stories are like that. Each is unique because of the differences, not the similarities. Characters and plot lead the writer in different directions, even if the underlying plot is a formula.

However, there’s a point where the formula overrides the differences. It’s such a fine line between making it work and making it a flop. It’s not easy to know which it will be.

I’m not sure if I manage, though I try. Do you think the formulas are there because we expect them? Are those formulas there because, as readers, we find what we need from a story from the formula?

Ideas on the Periphery

One line of plot does not always get you from beginning to end of book. It’s one of those things that adds to length, either a sub plot or a plot layer. Neither is totally unrelated to the main line, but each adds different elements.

Mom delivered an idea that a friend of hers believes is underdeveloped in books. Oh, it’ll require research for me  because I’m not familiar with it. It will have good conflict opportunities for characters. The more I think about it, though, I’m not sure it will make a good central plot line for a book.

And of course, during a rewrite phase my brain starts bursting with new ideas to take off and write with! So I take a deep breath and take notes for when I’m finished. How irritating. Would that I had more hours in a day to write.

Like ten.

But I wouldn’t give up the evening I spent with my daughter outside. I wonder if I could manage without sleep… but that way lies madness. And not the kind that will get my written words more creative!

So I’ll add it to my notes and see what comes out of this when the current project is done. Because I am determined to get Don’t Tell Your Mother into great shape.

Maybe it will be ready to send out by the end off the year, but only if I get cracking on that rough manuscript. Yes, I think that would be a good goal. Let’s see if I can manage it. I like where chapter 1 is, and I have the rest of the rough draft in various stages. (Someone called it draft-and-a-half. That amuses me.) I also have notes on where the outline needs to change.

That should account for enough for me to keep rewriting. I think I have one more issue to tie up at the end.

New deadline: Revise ending in outline form by 1 June. Whee!

Plotting

I managed to get my daughter  down for a long nap this afternoon. (She really needed it – she didn’t get a good one in the morning.) While I also caught up on my chores, I got out my notes from the novel project I abandoned a couple years ago. About three, but who’s counting?

I didn’t completely abandon it; I just realized about seven chapters in that I didn’t have enough of a background in the world and I’d written myself into a corner, plotwise. Setting it aside for a time put things in perspective and made me realize what I needed to make it more real for me.

I’ve done some sketches since then. I have a couple left to do, but the approach now is completely different. Sometimes I wonder if my friends are going to yell at me since it’s going through such a large change in focus. Sorry, but you’ll have to live! I might be on the right track this time. I still have things to work out, so it’ll be awhile.

It just feels so good to be going back to it.

Translation to the Page

It’s always something about real life that doesn’t translate well to the page. Ever tried translating an actual conversation word for word? How about giving someone a blow-by-blow of something that happened?

Readers don’t want all the details. There is a point where you have to speed things up to make it – or keep it – interesting.

On the phone with someone you know, you ask about others to be polite or because you’re interested. In a story, your reader is going to wonder what the heck is up with Aunt Edna. If it doesn’t advance the plot, it shouldn’t be included.

Sometimes writers get so caught up in the characters, we see the whole thing about Aunt Edna, but we forget that it isn’t part of the story where Judy meets Robert and they save a dragon from the hunters.

I’m sure it’d be different if we needed Aunt Edna starting in Chapter 7 with a hideout or some other plot device. Always a good thing to check for during a rewrite to see if some of those things run away with you. They always seem to run away with me in the first draft(s).