Saturday, June 24, 2006

Plot Habits

Very famous writers firmly believe in plotting out a novel. Other very famous writers don't. Both types have made, are making, and will make piles of money from their books. Thus the debate on To Plot or Not to Plot will rage on forever.

Plotting is one of my favorite things to do. I believe in it, I do it all the time, and it works for me. However, if you think plotting is unnecessary (or stupid, or pedestrian, or inartistic, etc. etc.), or if you worship writers who don't do it and resent the ones who do, or the thought of plotting your own novel makes you break out in hives, you should stop reading this post right now.

Yesterday Shiloh posed an interesting dilemma about plotting in comments here; specifically: any suggestions on how to actually get more into the habit of plotting something out?. I responded with some examples of plot-timeline and plot-summaryline methods I've used to teach writing students, but I really didn't answer her to my own satisfaction, and mulled over the question for a couple of hours.

This is what I ended up with: It's not how you plot as much as it's that you get into the habit of thinking about plot from the start of the novel concept. Doing that trains you to think in story versus detail.

Using the same premise I did in my response to Shiloh yesterday, let's say I have a wonderful idea for a character named John. He's a cop. He's also half-demon. But I'm going to forget about plot and concentrate on the details. John's cool. John has possibilities. For me, it's all about John.

(Several days later) Okay, so I've got John all figured out. What he looks like, how he talks, the clothes he wears, what sort of demonic powers he has, the type of ice cream he likes, his shoe size, etc. He's all dressed up and pretty and ready to make a novel with me. Now what do I do with him? What to do. What to do. I know, I could have him meet a nice human girl who doesn't know he's half-demon. Someone wants to kill them. They have to help each other. And then . . . what to do. What to do. (I've got to do something; I just don't want to think about plot yet. I'm too focused on remembering John's favorite ice cream and shoe size.)

Now, take the same wonderful idea for a character named John but let's limit the amount of detail via constructive character-building. Remember those three questions I keep harping on:

Who is John? He's a cop. He's also a half-demon.
What does John want? To be a good cop and live a normal human life.
What's the worst thing I can do to John? Make him use his demon side to be a good cop, and ruin his chances for a normal human life.

Those are all the details I need to know about John right now; it's time to make story.

I build my story around John and the answers to those three questions. John meets a nice human girl named Marcia at a Halloween party. She'd like to find a decent guy, settle down and live happily ever after. Only during the party she gets stuck with a stolen, cursed diamond and the thief who wants it back is sending demons from Hell after her.

Thinking through this scenario versus many tiny details allows me to sketch out the story in my head. It's progressive and the story is growing as I think about it, but my head's not cluttered up with details so I can still see the story.

Let's keep going: John saves Marcia's life and she's initially grateful; he's a decent guy and a cop -- the kind of guy she could fall head over heels for. But: Marcia discovers that John has a strange tattoo on his chest. And superhuman strength. And his eyes glow red in the dark. John is presently freaking out Marcia, but she doesn't have time to have hysterics, because now the thief is trying to kill both of them. (Note here: I'm still plotting, but John is also developing as a character via details from Marcia's POV. I've limited John's strangeness to three big things versus a thousand little things.)

Plotting from this point goes in all sorts of directions, as there are questions I have to answer, i.e.: How does the thief try to kill them? What sort of demons from hell are we talking about here? What's the deal with this cursed diamond? How does Marcia confront John about his oddities? How does John protect Marcia? Does he suspect that she stole the diamond? I need to work out these answers before I plot any further, but as with John's character I'm going to keep the answers simple so that again I don't get bogged down with a lot of detail. Just the facts, ma'am.

When you think in story versus detail, you're putting together a collage of ideas. Too much detail clutters the collage; it breeds and it obscures things and it ends up confusing you. Less is not only more, it's vital to get the novel sketched out in your head. You can always add more detail to the collage later; too much gets in your way and suffocates the story before it gets rolling.

I'm not sure I'm explaining it as well as I can, though, so does this help, or am I just confusing the issue more?


  1. Anonymous6:03 AM

    It makes perfect sense and, really, that's just about what I do. Start with the simple and expand outward, answering the questions as they come up. I have no idea what my characters shoe sizes are or if they like cherry pie. The only things that matter are the ones that serve the story. The reast is distraction. If some detail becomes important, I'm sure it will present itself.

  2. I'm one of those who don't plot, or at least, not intentionally. When I sit down to write, the characters already have a description and a personality in my head. From there, it's a matter of how they interact with each other to get the story done (I always have an ending in mind, the rest is up for grabs). I'm inside their heads while writing the POVs, watching the other characters reactions to that for each scene. It's what works for me. I tried formal plotting and lost interest in the way I'd plotted the story. I threw it out and went for instincts instead.

    I don't believe in sneering at anyone who can plot; but it's something I've tried and I don't have the talent for it. Lesson learned, frustration over come and I write the way I write.

  3. Anonymous8:38 AM

    Fascinating. I'm a founding member of the No Plot Brigade, but this is pretty close to the way I think about the story as well. Usually my starting image is a scene, and the story grows as I ask myself questions like: who is this guy? who are those people trying to kill him, and why are they trying? where does he run, and why? Jumping right into the story keeps me too busy to worry about what color his cloak is or exactly how you pronounce the magic incantation. That's what revision is for.

  4. My method is similar to your, Jaye.

  5. Well, it certainly helps ME.

    Useful stuff, PBW. Thanks.

  6. And when will the book be out? :)

  7. You nailed the reason I get so frustrated with books on writing and why I've struggled with fiction writing. I've read too many books (not lately, I tend to avoid them now) on writing which have you detail out a character to the point where you know what kindgarten they went to (does it matter to the story? Not in the least) but not so much what to do with all those charactes once you have them. They get trapped in the details.

    I get myself trapped in the details because I started out as a poet, which is all about the details in some many non-fiction-writing-helping ways.

    I've been slowly grasping the whole idea about plot vs characters and description, but you've just pulled all those convoluted thoughts out of my head and dumped them into a credible and easy-to-understand scenario.



  8. You make perfect sense. And I like that you start with character and the plot flows from that. A lot of times you see the opposite problem, where the story is all about the plot and there's no depth, or anchoring re characterization.

  9. I used to be a die-hard organic writer until I realized that I wasn't finishing anything. My novels would stall after several chapters. Plotting used to scare me, but now I have to say, I'm a convert. I do extensive plotting, much the way you've outlined. I also don't know much about my characters -- I discover it as I go. Thank you for sharing this -- it makes alot of sense. :)

    Erin K.

  10. That's pretty much how I plot as well. Try to keep it simple and the other stuff comes up later. My only trouble comes when I try to figure out the purpose for some character whom I need to help drive the plot.

  11. Anonymous1:29 PM

    Thanks for all the "got it" comments -- sometimes wanting to explain something and actually explaining it coherently can be a challenge, especially with something as abstract as plotting can be.

    Jaye wrote: Lesson learned, frustration over come and I write the way I write.

    I respect organic writers; I know plotting can be stifling to them. I also think you guys plot-as-you-go, too, but in such a way that can't be defined by plotters like me. :)

    Alison wrote: Okay, I have a question about this. This goal is very bland and generic *g* but I see how it fits in with the question/answer that follows.

    What I'm curious about is as you plot further, would John's goal become more vital to the story? Like saving the world, etc? Do you ever go back and amend your questions, or is that just a launching point?

    I sort of set this one up to be bland and generic, to illustrate the point rather than actually become a story (although if I keep going with this example, I may have to write it anyway.) That said, I do think goals should be simple and not too snarly with detail.

    Once your story gets rolling, you can go back and easily flesh out a goal of "be a good cop and live a decent life." You can also subtract added details without shaking the core goal.

    It's a little harder to flesh out a highly detailed goal, i.e. "get even with his father, The Demon King, who killed his mother on Midsummer Ever the night before John went to Prom and nearly wiped out his graduating class and decapitated his high school sweetheart with an uncontrolled spike of his demonic superpower, which alienated him from all his friends and drove him to suppress his powers, which The Demon King intends to use to get back the cursed diamond stolen from him by John's illegitimate half-brother, Ralphie." You change one thing about all those details in the story and it could derail the entire plot.

    Does that make sense?

  12. Anonymous2:13 PM

    These were the perfect posts for me at this time. I am switching from non-fiction to fiction, and started writing organically as an excercise to help me change-over mentally and stimulate my creative juices. I've had some interesting scenes, and also did PC Wrede's (sp?) excercise in world building, but I was stalled. Recently, I've had less than one hour writing chunks, and trying to grow a new nugget with the timer ticking has left me frustrated and without pages. I realized I was going to have to switch and start working with some sort of outline to re-direct my focus in a limited time.
    Your post yesterday was really helpful, as it gave me fresh ideas on how to work through the end.
    And today's post hit the nail on the head for me -- I am getting distracted by the details. Just knowing this has made the plot problem seem less inhibiting. Thanks again for such great posts.
    I love this premise too -- When can we pre-order? ;)

  13. Anonymous3:11 PM

    I second Gabriele C.
    Sounds like a fun read to me :)

  14. I'm going to start taking notes... ;)

    It makes perfect sense and it just may get me going a little better with the book i'm dealing with now.

    The 3 questions you posted before, who are you? what do you want? what is the worst thing I can do to you? definitely helped with the plotting out of my last book when i hit a stuck spot. After I'd answered those questions, it got much easier to write the story.

    But now i have another dilemma. I really want to hear more about John and Marcia. :OD

  15. Makes sense, and more similar to my process than I'd expect.

    So will John the half-demon cop be out in 08?

  16. Well, it makes sense to me because that's how I work as well. I didn't realize just how plot oriented I was until I gave in to the pressures to do character building. My simple plan for a short story was derailed into a two-book series because I fleshed out the characters too much. I also find if I do too much character building up front, my mind says that detail is already in the book when it's not.

    So I guess it just goes back to trying the various ways until you find one that works for you.


    P.S. I'd be interested in seeing this story go live too :).

  17. I need to remember to ask those three questions as well. Who are you? What do you want? What is the worst thing I can do to you?

  18. Anonymous9:09 AM

    I've always claimed to be a No Plot Writer, but this is actually the process I tend to go through when a new character pops into my head. I never considered it a plot, because the answers to those questions invariably get shifted around and made more/less important, so it wasn't rigid, the way I've seen most plot outlines turn out. I don't get to know details until I sit down and write, but I do have the answer frame to work in.

    So maybe I'm a Plot Writer, after all. *-*

  19. Anonymous2:23 PM

    A question: how would you apply this to plotting a series? I'm currently trying to plot the second novel of a series and keep getting stuck. Having written the first already, reading the above has made me suspect that the problems may be related to already knowing too much detail. I know what my characters would (and perhaps more importantly wouldn't) do, and this gets in the way.

    I know who my characters are and what they want. I have plenty bad things lined up to do to them. What I can't figure out is how to make what they want put them in a situation where I can make those bad things happen.

    Any ideas how to work around this kind of problem?

    (BTW, I often wonder if PBW is a Babylon 5 fan. Her three questions call the series to mind every time she mentions them.)

  20. Anonymous7:05 PM

    I respect organic writers; I know plotting can be stifling to them. I also think you guys plot-as-you-go, too, but in such a way that can't be defined by plotters like me. :)

    I tend to have a bunch of scenes I try to write toward -- sort of like key animation frames, I guess.

    I once had a story that I didn't like the way it worked, so I outlined/summarized what I wanted to do instead. And there it sat, because... I'd already told the story. That it was in a non-useful form was not important. The urge to write was... kaput. Gone. Just not happening.

    I might do better now that I've had experience in writing to deadline (hi, college papers!), but I can still feel it. If I outline... the story is told, and the muse is gone. (And I do have a grand unpublished novel which was written in this way, as well as a large number of short stories and novellas (some unpublished, some in fanzines or small press), to attest that No Outlines don't always stutter out...)

    And then there are people who have to nail down all the stuff in an outline so they know what happens, chapter by chapter, or they write themselves into a corner and never finish.

    Anyway, thank you for the entry!


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