We're choking on acronyms. We're knee deep in initials. We all have our particular set, maybe several sets, and I'm not talking about S. A. for Stella Alicia, or whatever your initials happen to be.
We're MD--could be medical doctor, you think. I mean manic depressive. Or ACOA. Adult children of addicts. Or PC. Politically correct. Then there's PMS or PMS. We all recognize those letters. PG. You may think of parental guidance--I think, pregnant. BP isn't British Petroleum in this context, it's Bi-polar. VP could be, very popular, I suppose--or it could be vice president. PTSS. Post traumatic stress syndrome . . .
I'm OC. Anyone want to take a stab?
Obsessive compulsive. I've always been obsessive compulsive, as in I was an obsessive compulsive child. Whatever I do I do to the exclusion of anything else, and I do it right. If I feel in danger of failure--that is failure to get what I'm doing right (substitute perfect if you like) I become quietly angry. If I weren't obsessive compulsive I might choose not to do it at all at that point. That doesn't happen. I work, and work, and work until I'm satisfied I've done what had to be done.
Those who are CP--chronic procrastinators--might dream longingly of some drug that would turn them OC. I'm convinced the best ground lies somewhere in the middle.
BUT, writers who are also OC's plot well because they don't quit until the project is utterly exhausted. This means we explore and expand every element, every avenue, every tiny detail relating to character, conflict, motivation, complication, setting. We worry the W's to death. The who, why, where, what, and when's, and, H, how, gets minute examination.
So, rather than writing about plotting, I probably ought to be designing a crash course in OC behavior for SW's--serious writers.
Seriously, I believe you have to be OC about plotting. You have to be very detail oriented. But to expand on that statement I have to move from personality/peculiarity typing to the concrete in:
SIX STEPS TO A PERFECT PLOT
Already I betray myself--again. The title Six Steps to a Perfect Plot shows I can't be trusted. There is no such animal as a perfect plot, only a plot as near to perfect as the writer can make it, and, more importantly, a plot that works.
What doesn't work in a plot is what doesn't work. If the reader stops, frowns, re-reads, and stops again--there's something very wrong. The cause of this pause may be loss of viewpoint control, chronological slips, failure to provide adequate pegs into the setting or, much more likely, an inconsistency in plot. These inconsistencies, whether they result in an uneasy sense of implausibility, or actually slap the reader between the eyes with an impossibility--these inconsistencies result from careless plotting compounded by either failure to double check each development, or some vague, but suicidal conviction that no one will notice the blunder!
My job is to help you learn how to assemble a plot, and how to bullet proof that plot.
1. Gathering. The question I often hear and always groan over is: "Where do you get your ideas." A natural question from a non-writer, I suppose, but a puzzling question from someone who is a writer. We get our ideas from a place we can't see or touch--our imaginations. What sets the fiction writer's imagination apart from other types of imagination is the way it collects and organizes. The way it gathers.
A painter may look at a tipped vase, strewn flowers, spattered water and see--a tipped vase, strewn flowers, spattered water. A composition of visual fact to be translated onto canvas as close to reality as possible.
A fiction writer might look at the same assembly and see, what? A tipped vase, strewn flowers, spilled water--what comes to mind for some of you?
I'll play with the image for a moment: She opened the door to find a bouquet on the step--a bouquet with a card on top, a card from? The card is signed by a man employed by the advertising firm she works for. She calls a female co-worker and excitedly tells her Mr. X has sent the flowers. Is she excited enough to be less than cautious, maybe? That's possible. Excited enough not to question someone else (we don't have to know who it is at this point) someone else arriving at that exact moment with a, "Surprise! Surprise!" approach?
Into the kitchen. Guard down. Take down the vase. Cut the stems on the flowers. Fill the vase with water. Drop in the flowers. Laugh. And die?
That's how the mind of this fiction writer works. That's where my ideas come from--in there, somewhere. And I suspect many of you would go through a similar process.
Think of yourselves as gatherers. Cultivate the shady side of your minds where impressions can grow freely, where those impressions can take root and spread into fully expanded ideas and the realized basis of plot.
This gathering is license to designate a favorite place to do absolutely nothing but think. That would qualify as a job benny, folks.
The gathering phase of plotting also expands to incorporate a host of concrete and not so concrete tools of your trade. A magazine or newspaper article presents a story. To you, this story presents an idea, a foundation for something quite different. You'll save that article. A snatch of something on the car radio starts the mill turning. You'll write that down when you can, and save it. A movie, a television show, a stage play or musical invokes a mood. Examine that mood as soon as you can--preferably in your favorite thinking spot--make notes and save them. The title of a song, or a line from the lyrics suggest a scenario. Save that. Scenes snatched through the car window--save them. Scents are evocative. Poke around in the sensations evoked by scent, write down your conclusions, and save them.
Become the owner of many file cabinets. Or many cardboard boxes. Or heaps of brown paper sacks, or whatever you can assemble to hold your "string and sealing wax and lots of fancy stuff." Gather, gather, gather.
And if you need a nice solid assurance that all this gathering of stuff isn't so much flim flam, remember your childhood. I remember mine. I was a gatherer then, and I wager you were, too. We collected things to use in various games. And we saved them in boxes and bags and drawers. And we put those treasures through their paces, talking as we played, usually in different voices for different characters. And we invented stories, and created sound effects. Often we returned to one of our wonderful invented worlds again and again, picking up the action as if developing a serialized piece, an endless soap opera-like drama.
Watch children now, your children or someone else's, and you'll see them repeating the process.
It works, this gathering. It works for children's play and it works when adult writers take and refine the system to launch themselves into a plot.
And there will be a wonderful added benefit to validating your special gifts here. You'll finally know you don't have a PD. Personality disorder.
2. Selection: This is the simple point. When you're ready for the serious plotting process, choose the strongest idea. Or let it choose you. Sort through your mind, and the boxes, and bags, and drawers--and bam, the strongest idea will convince you you've chosen well. In fact, you'll wonder why there was ever any doubt.
This is also the time to assemble all the balls of string and sealing wax that relate to the idea you're going to run with. Notes jotted on napkins, pieces of paper torn from notebooks, entire notebooks, photographs--and maybe you need to listen again to a piece of music while recalling a scent through the car window in early fall. A map, a building plan, reference books on an industry, occupation, or location. Perhaps you need to make some charts. A family tree. A chronology chart. A floor plan for a house of your own design, or a garden layout.
Select and expand, and immerse yourself in your wonderful idea and its trappings.
This might be a good spot to noodle around with your spilled flowers again: Perhaps you find a clipping from a newspaper about a woman who faked her own disappearance. And you draw a plan of the lower floor in the house where the flowers were delivered--and the garden through which the person who brought them walked. Then there's a map of the town where the woman who got the flowers lives--and a reference book or two on the advertising business, and some details on insurance and claiming insurance with or without a body. You decide to read up on faking ID, and on the legal aspects of arrest on suspicion of murder. What you don't do at this stage is set out to become an authority on any of these subjects. You concentrate on knowing only what you must know to tell your story.
This is what can happen when a fiction writer remembers a vivid impression he or she has gathered and plays a little "what- if," then reads a selected newspaper article, and makes a connection to the impression. You can then announce with pride that you are AB. Absolutely brilliant!
3. People: I call this step "people," rather than "characters," because more, and more, I am convinced that in good, fully realized fiction, we people our storylines with real people. Too often I find myself reading, and failing to actually see the people come alive. I've decided this happens because the writer created "characters" that were more caricatures than people. This means, too one-dimensional to be mistaken for people.
In truth, throughout every phase of the plotting process you're working with your people, your conflict, and your setting. The obvious question is: which comes first? The answer to that is: bits and pieces of all elements come at the same time, they come side by side, falling over each other, spurring each other on, adding to each other, puffing up the caricature into character, and people, and giving them bones to fight over, and a place to hold the fight.
We have to have a place to at least think of as the start, so I start thinking about gathering ideas, move to expanding ideas, then to developing the people.
The hero and heroine are, naturally, the most important members of the cast. These two have to fit the roles you've developed from taking an idea and expanding that idea. Their backgrounds, personalities, and skills must make them appropriate.
As you build these people, you constantly check and cross-check their history, past and present, to make sure you haven't chosen poorly. It's paramount to give them the right kind of baggage to drag with them. The heroine who takes her first breath on page one of your book is an obvious 130 lb newborn. She's got a lovely, but empty face, no wrinkles in her clothes, and no wrinkles in her soul. Her heart is empty of anything but emotions she'll start learning at 25, the age you've given her. She's boring. She's already dead, so don't expect us to care about her.
Back to the story that's brewing--the flower story: Her name is Emily. She's twenty-five and ought to be pretty. She is pretty if you don't look too hard. The eyes take it. No hope in there--that beaten-down-and-don't-care-anymore hopelessness. A smart woman. Smart but trapped by old patterns, old habits. Men treat women badly. She knows this because she grew up watching it. She was never going to let it happen to her--but she did. But she broke free. At last she broke free--or did she?
Emily is the woman who opened the door to flowers on her doorstep. We're building here.
One character doesn't make a novel. I need a hero. I need secondary characters. I need traits and agendas for those characters. I'll build them just as I built Emily.
Mike is a man who knows what he wants. He was born knowing what he wanted and he's been going after it ever since. He's also honorable, loyal and smart--and confident. Understanding women isn't something he's worked real hard at, he never had a reason to before. He does now. There's a woman he thinks he wants, and wants very much. She works at the office and he's tried to get to know her but she doesn't cut him any slack. He doesn't like that, but he can't get her out of his head. It doesn't help that she applied for the promotion that was given to him instead. Nor is it a plus that her ex-husband is one of the firm's biggest accounts and that it's rumored the guy still thinks of his ex as his property.
I've started to make a hero. He's taking shape. Not a perfect man by any means. In fact, he's full of flaws and I'll find a whole lot more as I work with him. I think he'll do just fine. I like him already.
Major characters lead to secondary characters. Major and secondary characters lead to minor characters. The time you spend fleshing them out depends on the weight you intend to give them. That was a pun. No acronym comes to mind.
4. Wants(alias conflict): Aha, but we've already started building conflict as we built our people, haven't we? Exactly. No part of the plotting process exists on its own. When we work on characterization, we always work on conflict. Unless we're too busy with silver eyes that shine like a polished coffee urn, and arrogant, sardonic eyebrows that slash heavenward like dark thunderbolts prepared to challenge God. And unless we present these facts without using them to convey mood, setting, action, and so on. Get hung up on the lovely bodies and you'll miss the fascinating guts.
Cut to the guts and you'll reveal conflict.
Remember the golden rule of story. Only trouble is interesting. And if your story is to capture a busy reader's attention and hold it, your characters must be in trouble and get into more trouble. The root of all this trouble comes from want, that's why I called this step, "wants." Each of your people must want something they can't simply ask for, or buy. They want so badly they hurt from the wanting. The hurt can only be eased by keeping on, keeping on after what they want. They have to get what they want or they're doomed to eternal unhappiness or, almost worse, a passionless existence--or, they may even die. Too extreme? No way. The more extreme the better--as long as you keep your idea in view, your contributing factors appropriate, and your characters in character.
Remember: Trouble is story. Want causes trouble. Two characters=twice the want=twice the trouble. Your people must have the potential to stop each other from satisfying want, and the capability of healing/fulfilling want.
This theory extends to secondary characters. They want, too. Even if their primary want is to help the hero or heroine get what they want--they want, and because they do, they are in place to help complicate story.
Let's revisit our "blossoming" story: Emily wants to be free of her overbearing ex-husband (you did know Emily was the woman Mike wants, didn't you?). Emily's ex-husband was physically and mentally abusive, and continues to make threats. She is afraid of him. He's told her that if he ever sees her with another man, he'll kill her--and the man. Emily wants peace. Emily wants, for the first time in her life, to make decisions based on her own wants. Emily wants to love and be loved on her own terms, eventually. Emily does not want to be pushed, or frightened, or drawn into complicated relationships, or to look over her shoulder expecting to be shot. Emily is ambitious and wants to advance. Emily wants Mike's job and believe's it should have been hers in the first place. BTW--that's "by the way" as any messer-about-with-computers knows--btw, Emily does rather want Mike, too. Emily wants a lot, and everything she wants adds conflict to her life, conflict to the story.
It's growing. I feel it. Now I'm ME. Manic Euphoric.
5. Motivate: But we've been motivating.
Of course we have. As I've already mentioned several times; this is a CD process. It's co-dependent, one facet facilitates another, and another, and all facets facilitate the whole.
But we make mistakes--mistakes of innocent omission. Story is not life, but an author's vision of a fabrication of a selected sequence from life. In the process of plot, in the rushes of enthusiasm, the pits of despair followed by the relief of, "I've got it!" inconsistencies creep in. They happen to all of us. Those moments when, if we don't catch the problem, the reader goes back a few pages, or a few chapters, searching for what he's certain he must have missed--the part of the sequence that motivates a later action. If he doesn't discover he read a little too fast and that what he thinks isn't there is, in fact, clearly stated, the writer's in trouble.
A writer who repeatedly tosses action into a plot, gets it on the page--and past her editor--without adequately motivating that action, is going to be SOL, simply out of luck, when that reader sees another book by the same author. The reader will buy someone else's title instead.
Motivate. You can motivate anything. I particularly enjoy playing with motivation. I have a large, loose-leafed binder with dividers in it. I mention the dividers because they happen to be there. They don't mean anything but I think they used to.
At various stages of a book I stop and pose questions to myself. These questions get a page each. I think through the plot, consider each action I've initiated, and address the following question: Why? Often I follow with another, why? Perhaps there are a series of whys. Then, where? Then I add, how? And often, what? Frequently, in the intrigue portion of the plot, I have to use, who? I cross-check as if I were in the cockpit of a plane and about to take off. Back and forth, back and forth.
Hearts and Flowers, cont: Mike is thirty-two years old and has never married. Why? He didn't meet anyone he wanted to marry until Emily. Why? Because his needs were met by those relationships he did have. And he never felt an emotional connection to a woman before.
Emily is abducted and the scene left behind suggests she was attacked. She will be presumed to have been murdered. Why? Because she's convinced someone to help her scare her ex-husband into leaving her alone. How? By framing him and getting him arrested on suspicion of abducting her. Why? Because he's a coward and won't hold up. And Emily thinks that if the truth about his behavior is in the open, he may leave her alone--actually, this is Emily's faint hope--she's desperate and grabbing for any vague chance of freedom.
This exercise goes on and on until there are no more questions. But then, it has to be exhaustive because I'm OC.
6. On Location: This is where you decide on the scenes you will use to tell you story. Oh, but we've done that--sort of--because we've asked "where?" In this case we haven't done that at all. Until now, "where" has been a general question. Where? New York. That type of where. Or where?--at home, or where?--in a cab.
Now you choose location for impact, not just for setting. Now you start organizing a few pivotal scenes that act as anchors to the entire plot.
I don't outline a book in detail. I do make many loose outlines. Armed with my proposal, which reads like a long cover blurb, I decide how the book opens and what the first scene will be. This scene must be designed for maximum impact and is probably the most important scene in the piece. Before someone disputes this point, we don't have to argue that there are other, more pivotal scenes in any story--this is true. But if the first scene doesn't reach out and take the reader by the heart or the gut, the crisis scenes may never get read.
**I invite you to read some of my first scenes. These are available elsewhere on this site. Each one was written and written again to accomplish what I know is so important as a story opens.
First scenes are about heart, about mood, about pace, about making the reader want to know what happens next, and next, and next. First scenes are about making the reader care. If you can pull that off, you've succeeded with one very important part of your task.
Now you proceed, scene by scene, chapter by chapter, to build your story. You don't really build it like a brick and mortar house because although there may be wonderful eye-appeal in a brick house, there isn't the type of drama we're looking for. You build a brick house and there it stands. It's a fact. How about building your story the way you build a cathedral of playing cards? You choose the position just right and if you don't choke you keep building to the tippy-top. Choose wrong, and the whole thing falls down.
Decide what the next scene must convey, how it will move the story forward, change the characters, complicate the plot. Then decide what scene you will use as a platter to carry all these tasty morsels.
More Hearts and Flowers: The scene must reveal the identity of the person who delivered the flowers to Emily, the person who, supposedly, abducted her. Actually, she wasn't abducted. Emily staged the whole thing and dropped out of sight. When she called her co-worker and told her Mr. X. had sent her flowers, she was setting him up. Mr. X., who works for the same firm as Emily, has been keeping her ex-husband informed of her movements. She wants attention focused on Mr. X. because she expects him to squeal on her former husband. He will, she's sure, finger the other man to get himself off the hook.
We're in New York. This is a huge scene. We want to pull out stops, add as much drama as possible. Do we set the stage in an anonymous office, or do we have our Mr. X. confronted at the American Cafe at Rockerfeller Center? Skaters on the ice. The hunted man sees the police approach, cut off from view in snatches as if they were disjointed frames in a movie. Are they coming toward him? No. He's meeting Emily's ex-husband. It's cold. His breath makes clouds in the air. The scent of charbroiled steak sickens him. There are snow flurries. He's cold. No, he's hot. The police are coming toward him. People around him are slick, befurred, bejewelled--expensive. He's worked too damn hard for a place among them to be humiliated in front of them.
We've got it, folks. This is where our scene will unfold. This is the assembled cast, the emotion of the moment, and we know what's going to happen. At least we know the police are coming to ask him questions, probably to ask him to "assist them in their investigations." We're going to have drama.
* * *
Six steps to plotting your novel. I might have said, six possible steps to plotting your novel, or six of the steps you'll use in plotting your novel--but I didn't, and I don't. The plan isn't perfect. It isn't the only plan, but it's a very workable plan.
Let's play with it a little:
1. Remember your reactions to my first mention of the tipped vase and write it down.
2. Choose something from an imaginary box of gathered treasures and write that down--thinking about your reaction to the vase and flowers.
3. Reach out and grab the bones of your heroine. Grab them and slap on some meat, the important meat--the innards--and put her on the page in a paragraph.
Go for a hero, too. Thinking about the idea you gathered, the selections you made, use a few quick, broad strokes and give him a paragraph.
4. Think about what these two want. What they want that will put them in conflict with themselves and with each other and with the world around them. Jot down what comes to mind.
5. Take the want you developed, devise an action taken to get the want, then motivate and qualify the action with the who, when, why, what, how sequence.
6. A scene. You need a scene to present the idea you gathered, with the help of whatever you selected from your box of treasures. To execute the scene you'll use the heroine and hero you fleshed out, and some of the want that stops them from leaping into each other's arms and living happily ever after on page one of your book.
7. Read over the six points you've written.
8. Combine them into a paragraph that captures the essence of the story.
3. Pens on the paper, don't stop writing--just keep on writing. Think, "this is what I would tell an editor about my story," and write.
This is also a plot outline.