Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Plotting mischief

You know how sometimes the safest course of action is to admit when you don't know much about a thing? That's me and plotting. So if you're looking to learn plotting from a maven, you've got the wrong girl. I've taken scads of workshops and read even more craft books about how to properly plot a book, but I still do it all backwards.

By that I mean I typically start a book or story not with a plot but with the theme, the why. "Why am I even writing this story? What can I, and by extension my characters, learn form it? Why does it matter?" To mangle a Nietzche quote, if I know the why of a story, I feel like I can get away with a whole lot of absurdity in the how.

After figuring out how I want readers/characters/me to feel or what I want us to think about, my next priority is character arc. Because the best way of getting readers to think about or feel things is to put a character through some harrowing experiences, right?

And I ... guess that's plot? The experiences the characters have to endure?

In reality, I don't think too much about plot until a book is done. At that point, I lay structures over the top of my just-drafted mess -- I like Save the Cat and Michael Hauge's structures for this step, and Jami Gold has wonderful resources on her site for beat-sheeting these things -- and see how well my organically-grown series of hows fits. Usually they align fairly well. There are patterns in how Western folks tell stories, and we tend to follow those patterns even when we don't realize we're doing it.

After tweaking to make sure the story roughly fits a recognizable shape, I do a hunt for story promises. If I have a character behave one way at the beginning and a different way at the end, I need to make sure something plotty has happened to effect that transformation. Sometimes this step requires new scenes or scene rewrites or complete re-thinking of a whole section. Identifying and making sure to pay off story promises is my second layer of plotting, and it's probably the most important one for genre fiction. People on airplanes and beaches and up late at night don't read to be confused or dismayed, and if I promise them something, I for damn sure must deliver. (Can't say the same for students in literature classes, so the rules in literary fiction may vary.)

Finally, I have my poor critique partners read the story, and they almost always tell me my ending sucks. It's okay. They are of course right. You sort of expect endings to suck when they haven't been precision engineered by an expert plotter. But even at this point, when I'm trying to hit the final beats strong, it's still more about the why than the plot. I don't do a five-point finale for the sake of having five points. If the princess actually is in the tower and the why of the story doesn't need a high-tower surprise, I won't add stuff just for the sake of tidy structure.

Here's what I never do: plan plot twists before I start writing. If a plot twist happens and it's right for the story why and the character arc and it passes all the structure and promises tests after the draft is done, that is the BEST MOMENT EVER. I love plot twists!

I just don't know how to craft them from outside the story. I gotta be in the trenches when those bombs land on me. And you know what? That's okay. Your process is not my process, and we all need to do this writing thing the best way for our unique brains.

My brain plots by flinging why-sauced spaghetti. And I own that.