Sunday, September 10, 2006

Plot Tigers

In Craft & Technique, one of Paul Raymond Martin's little writing instruction books that I keep pushing on other writers, he said something that simplified the whole business of plotting beautifully:

"There are three elements to every plot: Get your character up a tree. Put tigers under the tree. Get your character out of the tree."

I like that, although tigers and trees are a bit tame for me. Dump a bunch of injured characters into a sinking lifeboat, surround the boat with starving sharks, and then send in a cat 5 hurricane before they try to get out -- that's more my style. Still, if you're having trouble with roughing out the basic plot of your story, Paul's three phase approach can be a great starting place.

One of the books I just finished had a plot tiger running around in it that I didn't even see until the third pass. Even stranger, the tiger was setting, not a character or active conflict. The thing was, this one aspect of the setting kept bugging me, and not for the usual reasons like I hate writing it and would that everything could take place in a dark featureless void etc. It sat there acting like a big lump until I rearranged a scene and then wham, it snarled in my face. I hate making changes, but I took the tiger off its chain and let it run. The end result was amazing stuff that didn't alter the story but actually pulled it together, almost as if that was the way it should have been written in the first place. Whether it was the subconscious parallel plotting or just pure dumb writer's luck, I was glad it happened.

Does this happen to anyone else out there? What sort of plot trees or tigers do you find in your stories?


  1. Anonymous7:47 AM

    One of my best plot tigers recently came in the way of a small character trait of my MC. On a pre-revision read-through I realized she sounded kind of blah, so I decided to pull out her love of airplanes a bit -- and hot damn. Not only did it perk her up, but it wove awesomely into the main plot, ended up presenting new (better, more logical, tougher) problems, inventive ways for her to get out of other problems, a general tightening of the whole story, and other super cool stuff I never saw coming. It's affecting the majority of the book and is a big rewrite...but just like yours PBW, it's feeling like it should have been written this way in the first place.

  2. I was there this week, too -- stuck mid-chapter. I had too many scenes and too much dialogue and I wanted to condense it all and build more tension. After letting the problem simmer, everything fell into place. All I needed to do was a little scene, sentence and paragraph reshuffle and ditch the extra clutter. Watching my dog rescue her fuzzy pink toy from a flock of pesky house finches took my thoughts away from the story long enough for me to laugh. Problem solved.

  3. Anonymous11:52 AM

    Not sure where Paul Raymond Martin falls into all of this, but I first caught sight of this in Bob Hope's biography explaining how they structured all of the Hope-Crosby "Road" movies.

    "Get 'em up a tree, throw rocks at 'em, get 'em out of the tree" is how it went. It's the basic plot sturcture taught to all budding screenwriters in film school.

    Chicken or egg, don't know which came first, it's all still good advice.

  4. And if you want to complicate things...make it a killer tree...

  5. Yes, and I love it when that happens!

  6. I'm playing with tigers and trees in my WIP. I have the tigers and the way out of the tree but I've just realized by protagonist isn't in the tree at all, she's on the swings in the backyard. This is why I outline, right?

  7. I've found my biggest plot tiger was overthinking/thinking too far ahead. At heart I'm a pantser writer, so if I try to mentally move too far ahead in the story (in minute detail mode), then I find my writing suffers.


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