Monday, March 17, 2008

Plots That Work

Again, riding on Cindy's coat tails here...

There is no one right way to plot a book. Like Cindy, I'm a pantser or rather, I was more of a pantser than I am now. I guess I've morphed, after several mutlibook contracts, into a plot-ser. Half plotter, half pantser. Deadlines can have that effect.

But not everyone starts out a pantser. Last summer, author Stacey "The Silver Spoon" Klemstein and I did a plotting workshop at Archon, the science fiction convention held annually just outside St. Louis. Entitled "Plots That Work" we approached the same subject from two different angles: hers and mine.

Here's the breakdown from Stacey's handout:

Stacey Sez…

*Stephen King says, “…my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow (and to transcribe them, of course).”

*Start with a situation: create a truly difficult situation and watch your characters struggle to find a way out of it. Don’t help them and don’t manipulate the situation to get them out—just watch and write it all down. (I’m paraphrasing Stephen King here, again!) Use “what-if” to test your situation’s strength.

*“Through a mirror, darkly”—Sometimes I can’t see much beyond the initial situation. I know someone is on the run, for example, but I don’t know why. That’s where GMC (Goal, Motivation & Conflict) comes in for each of the main characters, including the antagonist. (I don’t use the word villain because every villain is the hero of his or her own story—at least, that’s the way it should be if you want your hero to have a worthy opponent.)

*Imagine your story on a continuum. Your character is a certain way and in a particular situation at the beginning. Events transpire to change both of those elements, resulting in a changed character and situation by the end.

*Christopher Vogler says there are common elements (events, if you prefer) in every hero’s journey. Changes in the hero’s external situation match up with the changes that are happening inside him or her.

Ordinary World
Call to Adventure
Meeting w/Mentor
Limited awareness of a problem
Increased awareness
etc etc...
Recommended Reading:
The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler
On Writing, Stephen King
Goal, Motivation & Conflict, Debra Dixon
Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott

Linnea Sez…

1 – What is a plot? A plot is a series of events—both internal and external—that comprises the character(s)’s journey through the story.

2 – Plot is the power source that makes the story happen. And conflict is the energy fueling that power source.

3 – James Scott Bell (Plot & Structure) sez Plot answers the questions:
· What’s this story about?
· Is anything happening?
· Why should I keep reading?
· Why should I care?

4 – Your plot is inextricably tied to your characterization. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a plot/problem-oriented writer (let’s write a story about an evil galactic empire challenged by a small band of freedom fighters called Jedi Knights) or a character-oriented writer (let’s write a story about a young orphaned man who wants to be a Jedi Knight and help wrestle his world away from the evil galactic empire). It is the main character(s) that the reader will consciously and subconsciously relate to and identify with. Your characters provide the answer to Why should I keep reading? And Why should I care?

5 – Who, What, When, Where, Why & How:
· Who are your characters?
· What is the inciting incident and/or external conflict that launches the story?
· When does the story take place?
· Where does it take place?
· Why does the external conflict threaten your main characters?
· How will your main characters resolved the conflict?

6 – Utilize the Concept of Rising Action. Make it worse, make it worse, make it worse. “How could things get worse? And when is the worst moment for them to get worse?” –Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel

7 – “Follow no rule off a cliff.” –C.J. Cherryh

*Recommended Reading:

Plot & Structure, James Scott Bell
Techniques of the Selling Writer, Dwight V Swain
Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass
Prescription for Plotting Popular Fiction, Carolyn Greene

Stacey's into Vogler. I follow Swain. That doesn't make Swain right and Vogler wrong. It means I follow the plotting method that sets me all a-flutter. That works for me. If it works for me, it'll work for my muse.

Follow your muse and the plotting method that sets you a-flutter. You'll be the stronger writer for it.



  1. As a book reviewer, the problem I see in most Romance novels - even SFR - is a weak plot. I read a lot of books only half-way through because of this. Since it's Romance, I know the couple will live happily ever after. The process by which they get there is not enough for me. I need the plot to Twist-Scream-Twist-Scream all the way to the end.

  2. And I think it helps to know people who plot differently. When I'm stuck and all my tried and true methods aren't working, I email Linnea (or consult Swain's book) because I know she'll have a different perspective and usually that's enough to generate some other ideas and help me get past being stuck.

    : ) Stacey

  3. The difference between those who just wing it after the idea explodes into consciousness and those who have to work out every detail first is not so much a matter of "whether" they plot, or even "how" -- but of "where" they plot.

    If the subconscious is rigorously trained in the specific artform, the idea won't explode into consciousness until after the subconscious has arranged the plot to fit the genre rules.

    If the writer hasn't trained his/her subconscious, or doesn't have that cozy a relationship with their own subconscious, they may have to agonizingly detail the plot first.

    In general, it's best to put into the outline whatever aspect of the story you don't do "naturally" -- i.e. subconsciously, and leave all the rest for the seat-of-the-pants ride through the story.

    My post this week is about some of the issues one focuses on to train the subconscious so you don't have to plot consciously.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  4. Amen to the point about strong characterization. Like Kimber an, I'm a plot gal, but after I finish the book it's the characters that linger with me, more often than not.

    I love being surprised by what risks characters are taking, and it's a sign the author is pushing the plot as far as it can go.