Thursday, June 10, 2021

Plotting and Discovery

In the June issue of LOCUS, Kameron Hurley writes about how she gets from the beginning of a story to the end:

Endings and Beginnings

I'm always interested in the techniques used by other writers, and Hurley's current procedure isn't quite like any I've come across before. She describes how her method changed from free-writing in a process of discovery all the way through a piece of fiction to a hybrid of freeform and outlining. Early in her career, she "began every story with a scene, an inciting incident, a mood, a situation, and wrote until [she] figured out what happened next." She ended up with "dozens and dozens of beginnings, a few middles, and not a lot of endings." As she points out, it's hard to sell beginnings and middles to publishers.

Now she free-writes the beginning, works on it until the characters and their motivations become clear, and then plots the rest of the book. She needs to write a story opening that establishes all the vital ""problems, relationships, tensions, and setups" before she can move forward. Judging from the rest of the essay, Hurley seems to be very much a character-driven rather than plot-driven writer. She finds that, for her, it's "impossible to write an ending unless the beginning works." She concludes the essay with the principle, "Get the first part right, and you'll find the ending was staring at you all along."

This method runs contrary to the common advice to write the ending first and then work out what needs to happen to get there. Even if a writer doesn't literally compose the final scene first, it's generally assumed that for effective fiction writing the author has to know the culmination all along. On the other hand, Nora Roberts, in answer to a question at a conference session where I heard her speak, claimed she didn't outline her Eve Dallas mysteries (published under the name "J. D. Robb"). She was as surprised by the twists and turns of the murder investigations as Lt. Dallas was. The notion of writing a detective story that way boggled my mind. Imagine the backtracking and revision that must be required to make all the clues fit the solution. Yet clearly this method works for Roberts, who dependably releases two Lt. Dallas "In Death" mysteries every year in addition to the Nora Roberts romances.

I'm one of those dedicated outliners Hurley mentions, who would find her old process, if not exactly "horrifying" as she puts it, distressingly inefficient. As a novice writer, I surged forward through my narratives on waves of inspiration. In my teens, writing short pieces, I found that approach could work well enough, in the sense that I finished stories. (Whether they were any good is a different matter.) Holding a short-story or novelette plot in my head from beginning to end wasn't hard. When I started trying to create novels, though, starting at the beginning and charging forward to the end resulted in often not reaching the end because I'd get bogged down in the middle. I realized I needed to know where the plot was going and the steps along the road. For the same reason, although I used to occasionally write scenes out of order (as Diana Gabaldon, a bestselling "pantser," does), I've long since switched to linear scene-by-scene composition following my outline. With my early novel-writing attempts, if I yielded to the temptation of writing the most "exciting" incidents first, I tended to get bored with the necessary filling-in work. Some "pantsers" find an outline too limiting. I feel just the opposite; the outline liberates me from the fear of getting stuck in the middle and losing interest in the project.

Regardless of one's favorite method of composition, one of Hurley's discoveries has general application: Plot doesn't consist of "what happened to people"; it's "how people respond to and influence the world around them."

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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