Friday, March 20, 2015

Plot: Where are we going and why are we in this hand-basket?

Now. I know some of you are pantsers and you're not interested in what I'm selling. But hold on! This isn't about outlining. This is about plot. It's not the same thing. I promise!

And please stop leaning on the door, you're breaking my foot!

Thank you.

A little bit of definition and context for how I'm using the word plot.

Plot vs Story
Look at the term "Plot Twist".

plot twist (noun)
An unexpected event or development in a book or movie.

...event or development... keep that in mind.

The Story is what you want to tell: A janitor on an interstellar cargo ship saves the galaxy from nefarious space hippos! The Plot is how you tell it. It's the details. The series of choices that allow our intrepid spaceship janitor to overcome those space hippos.

Woah! Stop right there. Put that down... Now step away from it...

I know "series of choices" makes it sound like an outline, and it can be part of an outline, but it's not the outline. Plots run through every story, and it doesn't matter whether you figure them out beforehand or afterward. I find defining the plots of my stories key in making them flow and keeping them (hopefully) entertaining.

You'll note that I keep saying choice instead of events. That's intentional. The character's choices should drive the events of the plot, not the other way around. It makes the story more compelling and raises tension.

Whether you're plotting through an outline process or you've just finished your first draft and you're sketching out the plot for the first revision, try to define each point as a choice. Every event doesn't have to be a choice, but you'll find the most gripping moments in any story come as a result of a character's choice.

The harder the choice, the better the tension. Choices with no good options are best. The character needs stakes, therefore the character's choices need stakes, therefore the plot needs stakes. If you don't have stakes, you are screwed when the vampires come around. Oh, and your story will be boring.

With that in mind, it's time for me to wind up some of the outliners.

A personal hard and fast rule: Never let the plot dictate the character's actions. I don't care if I've plotted something within the outline with a really cool payoff, if the character wouldn't make that choice, that plot point is broken. I've re-outlined my current book twice already to fix broken plot points.

The plot (and in this case the outline), can be changed without changing the story. Don't shoehorn the character's choices and actions to fit it. You'll blow readers out of the story and ruin a perfectly good character's credibility.

So, beyond framing plot points as choices, how do I keep them interesting? By having consequences. There's a pretty cool new technology standard coming out that's based on a very old concept. If This Then That. Basically, you set up a series of conditions, and when met, something else is done.

It's a great concept to build consequences around for the choices that make up your plot. Always know the consequences to any choice, even if it's a small one. Whether you call them out in the story or not, it's key that you know they're there. Those unseen consequences can potentially lead to other choices/plot points.

They're one of the coolest toys in the writer's toolbox.

From something as little as a space janitor double-knotting his shoe laces: He may need to take his shoes off in a hurry later to get into an EV suit. Does he cut them or untie them? If he cuts them, what does that mean for when he needs to put his shoes back on later?

To something as large as the major story resolution: Does our space janitor turned impromptu hero release an untested genetically engineered pacifying agent for the space hippos that could save the galaxy? What if it doesn't work? What if it does? What are the side effects?

The consequences of both of those choices can lead to all sorts of further plot elements if you examine them far enough.

Oh. And the choices don't always have to work out. In fact, some of the best choices are the ones that fail spectacularly with the word "but". "But" always adds conflict, and conflict is good. And you can still have your character's deal with the consequences of having made a choice, and the resulting outcome, whether it's from their choice or not.

Our hero space janitor orders a secret release of the engineered pacifying virus, but it doesn't work as intended. Instead of pacifying all of the space hippos, it only has any effect on 3% of their population, and instead of making them docile and non-combative, it enrages them against their own kind sparking a small civil war.

Being the heroic sort, our space janitor sees an opportunity to help the warring space hippos with their incredibly aggressive minority and in doing so he negotiates peace. He's averted a war between his own people and the space hippos, but he's ultimately directly responsible for the death of 3% of the space hippo population. Even if they don't know it (yet), he does, and he has to live with that knowledge. So do his crew-mates, who will never look at him the same again.

See. A simple "but" put in there unleashed a whole LOT of potential plot and conflict.

Trimming the Cruft
Unfortunately, plot can be where a lot of unnecessary stuff and scenes get introduced to the story. This where "Kill your darlings." can readily apply. I know it does for me.

If a scene is there to further the plot, either highlighting a choice or a consequence, but it doesn't actually have anything directly related to the story or growth of a character, odds are, it can go. Figuring out which plot points those are, and whether they're key to your primary or secondary plots is one of the hardest things for me to do.

I've found a good exercise is to write out the "synopsis lines" for each scene. As much as I hate writing a synopsis, those 1 or 2 lines describing what happens in the scene with relation to the story are pure cruft killing gold.

If it's not advancing the story or integral to a character's development, it can go. No matter how cool it is, it can go. Even if it's the scene that triggered the entire concept of the story, if it's not moving the story or characters forward... it... can... go.

Let me know what tips you have for plotting, or your thoughts on any of my definitions or methods in the comments.


This is the fifth entry in a series of posts about my evolving writing process.

No comments:

Post a Comment