I. Power to the Story
I've seen story plot defined by writers in a dozen different ways. Some consider plot to be an orderly plan for writing a novel; others see it as an intricate and sometimes confusing tangle of characters, settings, conflicts, running threads, revelations and resolutions. There are pro-plotters out there who won't write a story without first plotting it, anti-plotters who see plotting as beneath them and sniff over anyone who does it, and plot-phobics who avoid plotting like it's got eight legs, poison-dripping fangs and wants to eat their muse alive.
Today I'd like you all to think about plot a little differently. Imagine it working for your story as electrical service does for your home.
II. Why Wire a Story?
If I were to show you how your house is wired for power with individual circuits, it would probably look something like this:
Confused? Don't worry, so am I. Even color-coded and simplified, all those individual circuits bouncing around the rooms make it look like someone just blew up a bubblegum machine in there. Writers face the same sort of dilemma when they try to write a story without having a plan of some sort -- during the creative process, they have so many scenes, characters, storylines and ideas bouncing around inside them that confusion is inevitable.
What we need to do is go back and begin where everything starts; at the source: the main electrical panel for the house. This is where it all begins:
The same is true with plotting a novel. We're going to plot out a story as if it were an electrical panel that provides main power, channels it to the appropriate places, diverts and uses it in various outlets in order to make the entire story system work.
III. The Main
In an electrical panel, the main is where it all begins; the primary source of power for an electrical service. It's why the power company bills you each month, and what they shut off if you don't pay the bill.
In your story, the main is your main conflict. It's the Why? of the story, the reason all of the characters in all of the places do and say all of the things that occur in the story. It's the source on which everything else depends, and it has to be powerful enough to run everything else depending on it.
Choosing your main conflict may be the most important decision you make for a story. A weak main won't carry the entire story; inevitably it collapses under the strain. An unfocused or unstable main will result in story lag and confusion. The main may not be the first decision you make when writing, but it demands you make it a strong, focused statement when you do:
A Russian captain defects with a prototype silent-running missile submarine.
A secret about Jesus Christ is hidden in a Da Vinci painting.
A misfit girl falls in love with a vampire boy at her new high school.
Remember the main in main conflict. If you don't supply enough power to a characterization, or a setting, or an exchange of dialogue, you may lose that part of your story. If your main conflict doesn't have enough power, no matter how great you've wired everything else, you lose the entire story.
IV. Setting -- the Bus Bars
In an electrical panel, the bus bars channel the main power to the breakers. They are the foundation to which everything that needs the main power is attached.
The bus bars of your story are your settings. The Where? of the story may not seem as important as the main, but think of that Russian sub captain trying to defect in the middle of South Dakota, or trying to find the secret of the famous Da Vinci painting in Antarctica, or the misfit and the vampire trying to fall in love in the Sahara desert. Choosing where your story happens channels the power from the main to the appropriate place.
In this part of your diagram, you don't have to get too detailed. Pick the general locations where your story happens according to the scope of the story -- if you're going continent-hopping, select the cities and countries. If you plan to stick in one city or town, use general locations within the city limits. Once you have your locations picked, you know where your story plays out and can do your research accordingly.
Again, this might not be the first decision you make for the story, but it's also one you need to think out carefully. You may love the idea of writing a story set in the middle of Antarctica, but if you've never been there you're looking at extensive research (unless you like penguins, can make the voyage and find a scientific expedition willing to let you tag along so you can get the authenticity via personal experience.)
V. Characters: The Breakers
Breakers are the places in the electrical panel where the power supplied by the main and channeled by the bus bars start to go in different directions. Breakers split the power up to different circuits (all those bouncy lines up there in the household wiring diagram) and provide power to the different outlets.
In your story, your characters take the power from the main conflict through the settings and basically run with it through the story. How many characters you put in your story can affect how well the power of your main conflict is distributed; too few and you don't use your power effectively; too many can cause an overload situation.
Just as a breaker should divert a portion of power to where it's needed, a character needs to do something with the main conflict that serves the story. Look at each of your characters and what purpose they serve in the story. If you've got a lot of characters feeding off your main but they're not doing anything but creating a drain on the system, put them to work or get rid of them.
VI. Main Events: The Circuits
Circuits are the wires that run from the breakers to the outlets; the true "wiring" in "wiring diagram." They run through every part of your house, in the walls, under the floors and through the ceilings. There isn't a room under your roof that doesn't have a circuit in it.
Your story circuits are the main events that happen. You've heard me refer to using timelines for plotting, the main events are what constitute a timeline. Generally the main events follow a logical chronological order: this happens, and then this, and then this, and so on. Or, if you prefer the traditional story construct, beginning, middle, end.
Figuring out your main event circuits can put you into a snarl unless you remember a simple rule that applies to basic wiring as well: deal with one circuit at a time until you've traced it out and resolved it, then move on to the next.
VII. Scenes: Outlets
We've come to the end of the household electrical service system: the outlets. From the main, through the bus bars, divided up among the breakers and running through the circuits, the bulk of the power ends up waiting to be used at these little receptacles called outlets.
In your story, each scene is an outlet. It depends on one of your main event circuits, which was diverted to it by your character breakers, that was channeled to them by your setting bus bars, and empowered to all by your main conflict. The scene is the end of the line for your story elements, because here they all come into play to make the story work.
Scenes are where the magic does or doesn't happen. If you've wired your system properly, at this point they should write themselves. If there's a problem up the line, the scene won't work.
VIII. Hey, We're not Electricians!
I had planned to provide you all with a template for the wiring diagram, but I don't have a photoshop program working on the new monster computer yet (it refuses to take my Photo-It software and I think it ate part of my backup freeware.) Also, as everyone will have different amounts of characters, settings, events, scenes, etc. it would be hard to come up with a one-size-fits-all-stories template. But to at least give you a visual, here's a very simplified example that I made with Word.
(Added: Things are running a bit better this morning, and I was able to upload a better example over on Scribd*; I filled out this one with the plot for John & Marcia's book to demonstrate how it works. Here's a blank version you can use as a template.) *Note 9/3/10: Since Scribd.com instituted an access fee scam to charge people for downloading e-books, including those I have provided for free for the last ten years, I have removed my free library from their site, and no longer use or recommend using their service. My free reads may be read online or downloaded for free from Google Docs; go to my freebies and free reads page for the links. See my post about this scam here.
I remember the first time I looked inside an electrical panel. I was raised to believe that females were not supposed to touch anything with wires. Plus just seeing all those mysterious switches and lugs and knowing high voltage came through this thing -- who in their right mind would mess with that?
I also remember not being able to afford an electrician, and desperately phoning my dad, who talked me through changing out a fuse (this was back in the days before all these nice neat breakers they have now.) After the lights came back on, I felt like running around my neighborhood shouting Look! Look! I fixed the electric! And I'm a girl!
For those of you who want to try wiring your novel, I hope you'll give my diagram idea a test drive. And please feel free to adapt it to your particular writing style and needs.
As for whether a writer needs to plot or not, I've learned to respect writers who say they can write without plotting, because I've seen them do it and produce amazing work. But for most of us who don't have that incredible gift of spontaneous genius, plotting is useful and helpful.
Today's LB&LI giveaways are:
1) a BookWish (any book of the winner's choice which is available to order online, up to a max cost of $30.00 U.S.; I'll throw in the shipping)
2) a goodie bag which will include an unsigned hardcover copy of The Pajama Girls of Lambert Square by Rosina Lippi, and unsigned paperback copies of The Hob's Bargain by Patricia Briggs, Wild Hunt by Lori Devoti, Pleasure Unbound by Larissa Ione, At Risk by Alison Kent, Through the Veil by Shiloh Walker, signed paperback copies of Evermore and Twilight Fall by Lynn Viehl as well as some other surprises.
If you'd like to win one of these two giveaways, comment on this workshop before midnight EST today, July 28, 2008. I will draw two names from everyone who participates and send one winner the goodie bag and grant the other a BookWish. Everyone who participates in the giveaways this week will also be automatically entered in my grand prize drawing on August 5, 2008 for a brand new AlphaSmart Neo. All LB&LI giveaways are open to anyone on the planet, even if you've won something here at PBW in the past.
Other LB&LI Workshop Links (due to different time zones, some of these will go live later in the day)
Creating Great Beginnings - the Why and How by Sherryl Clark -- If your beginning works, the rest will follow. We're going to look at why it's crucial, what is the contract with the reader, Dos and Don'ts (and why/why not), story questions vs hooks, situating the reader, and writing backwards. I'll also invite readers to send in their first 200 words for feedback.
Verbs Rule, Adjectives Drool by LJ Cohen -- a week of workshops using poetry and poetic techniques useful for novelists (tune in each day this week as LJ presents different poetic tools with examples of how to use them in your own writing.)
Gender Differences for Writers by Cheryl Corbin -- Male and female body language, speech and thinking differences.
Marketing on a Budget by Moondancer Drake -- How to make the most of marketing your book on a limited budget.
Writing Effective Description by Karen Duvall -- a week of workshops on how to write vivid description using all the senses, covering one for each day of the week.
WRITING PROCESS: Conceive, Develop, Write by Jamal W. Hankins -- An overview of my writing progress from story concept to actually writing a story.
The Voices in Your Head by Alison Kent -- When discussing "voice," where and how do character voices fit in?
Everyone has to Edit by Belinda Kroll -- Five steps to edit: putting the first draft away, being brutally honest, showing not telling, telling not showing, and focusing on those nitty gritty details.
Balancing Motherhood and Writing by Dawn Montgomery, Kim Knox, and Michelle Hasker -- How to write a 1000 words in the zen of toddler meltdowns. Motherhood is a full time job and holding a family together is only half the battle. How do you find *your* time to write without losing your mind?
Self-Editing by Emma Wayne Porter -- The things your editor secretly wishes you'd do before submitting, and how to survive Track Changes afterward. Checklists and Stupid Word Tricks included.
Not Going to Frisco Workshop by Joan Reeves aka Sling Words -- Writing Biz Reality
Astronomy for Writers: Look to the Sky
by Suelder -- What do you see when you look up? The Sun, The Stars, The Moon, Effects of the Moon (the first in a five-part workshop series on basic astronomy and how to think about it from a writer's perspective.)
Begin with a business plan by Charlene Teglia -- the first in Charlene's workshops this week on the business of the business.