Monday, August 22, 2005

Not Plot Challenged After All

I'm a member of a small online support group for writers. We've been discussing plotting a lot lately. I used to think I was plot challenged because I couldn't take my characters and figure out what was supposed to happen in the story. You know, figure out the story arcs? Or the beginning, middle, and end? I tried Holly's index card method*. I tried Sheila's plotting template**. I managed it twice. Once was when I was doing an exercise in the cause and effect aspect of plotting. But it was a horrible plot and I never was able to write the story. The second time was when I was working on a novel for the Wizards of the Coast challenge. The characters really didn't matter that much. WOTC novels are essentially an RPG in a book. Doing an outline of the external plot was fairly easy because the point of the book is external plot.

This past week we've had the week from hell. After Paul was laid off, our computer died, as I posted earlier. Then the car needed a repair. Yadda, yadda, yadda. So, my novelist's brain has been creating scenarios for a better ending. Some are realistic. Some are total fantasy. Some would work as fiction, with some changes to protect the guilty. I started to think about book I'd read, The Perfect Rake. The author could have changed the external events and still told the same story. The plot was the reaction of the characters to the events and to each other. The external events were a catalyst for the plot, not the plot itself. My personal life was the catalyst for the endings I was imagining. Without the specific people involved, the "story" wouldn't have worked.

AHA!! I get it. I'm not plot challenged, after all. I just approach plot from a different path. I start with the basic characters. I know the main conflict. I know the general ending. But, instead of figuring out the three-act structure or main complications or story arcs, I created a list of possible events, things the characters cared about I could create events from, potential general complications, possible clues, etc. Some of them must happen in order for the story to work. The rest I can pick from or use to springboard solutions to problems that come up as I write the book. I figured out the beginning. Then I looked at how the characters reacted and what their responses were to what I'd written. Then I figured out what needs to happen next. I'm using the list to keep the plot from meandering aimlessly. So far, it seems to be working.

To me, the important thing is to have a whole story when I'm done, not that I follow a particular process. I recommend that all writers try different things until they find what allows them to get their stories on the page. We can't assume that so-and-so's process is the only way to do it, even if so-and-so is a bestselling author. We can only try and see which, if any, of his processes work for us. The more I write, the more I think every writer has some things in common with every other writer, but no one is exactly the same as anyone else. We all have to find our own way in our writing, just like we do in life.

*Holly's Index Card Workshop

**Sheila's Plotting Template

Note: You have to be a registered member of Forward Motion to see Sheila's template. It's on a public board, but it's old so you need to be able to change the date limit in the member's preferences menu to maximum in order to access the template.