Wednesday, February 17, 2010

How to Write a Novel 4: Plot, Part I

Quote: “The beginning is the most important part of the work.”

Song playing: 10,00 Fists by Disturbed

Again, because this post is so long, I am breaking it up into two (or three maybe, we’ll see) different sections. I am doing this for you, loyal minions. It’s a lot of information at once, so baby steps, baby steps.

If you have been following along, you probably have a good idea about your plot already. If not, that’s fine too, and you can certainly start from here. Most writers classify themselves as “character-driven” like moi, or “plot-driven”. The end result shouldn’t be too noticeable. It just means which aspect of the story you focus on first, and sometimes, what sort of ideas you have.

Most of my ideas come with at least one character attached, but it doesn’t have to be that way. You could come up with a really awesome situation, without a character in sight. Or the characters are hazy, and you want to develop the situation first.

If you have brainstormed about your plot, I suggest you keep notes about what could possibly happen. If you have forgone the brainstorming, you might want to start keeping notes now, just to jot the idea down. Again, most of this is assuming you are working this out ahead of time. Most seat-of-the-pants writers will be happily typing away at this point, and make the plot up as they go along, or just have some ideas but keep them very basic. Those writers normally go back and look at the elements we are about to talk about after their first draft is written. Again, that’s your little red wagon.

But if you aren’t a seat-of-your-pants writer, and you have a story idea, you may be looking at your computer screen, wondering how by all that is good in this world, to start. You have an idea; so what? Lots of people have lots of ideas everyday. Most people don’t, or can’t, or won’t turn those ideas into a story.

I like to begin with two pieces of paper taped together.

1. Set Up

Yes, I still type everything up online, but I find it useful, especially early on, to have something tangible to work with. I am a learn-by doing type of person, and this is no different. Ironically, I have a difficult time visualizing things sometimes. Not usually my story related stuff, but whether or not one last suitcase will fit into my trunk. I can “see” my plot, and what it’s missing better when I have something in front of me.

So, I take two pieces of paper and tape them together. I draw at the bottom left side a line going up and into the middle of the paper, peak at the dead center, and then drop in a slanted line down towards the bottom right of the page. It looks like this: /\ . At the bottom left I write The Inciting Incident, at the top I write Great Swampy Middle (more on that later), and at the right I write The Climax, and then under it, Resolution.

Now I make a bunch of tic marks leading up and down the plot arc, filling in what events I already know will happen. Usually it’s only one or two events, sometimes more. As I work through the plot and things develop, I write in the scene where it should go. This helps me see the logical steps that my characters are going to have to take. So if I have “Detective Brewster goes to work” as one scene, and then the next scene I have is “Detective Brewster talks to the robbers”, obviously there are events missing. I might not know what those events are, but I can clearly see that there are, in fact, scenes missing in the logical progression of the story. This is especially helpful for weaving multiple points of view (POV), keeping track of subplots, and the story events if the progression of the story isn’t linear. It helps me see everything on paper. I usually end up with two of these plot outlines on paper; the working version, and then when I decide on the final events of the story, final copy (only it’s not really final, because I use this during editing, so it gets marked up again).

I also have several documents I call templates I use to keep track of my plot. One I call Story Skeleton, a conglomeration of all of the elements of a novel: the theme, setting, characters, title, plot events, etc. Another is called Grow a Novel, that I use to develop the plot. Most of Grow a Novel are exercises from Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel, and exercises from Noah Lukeman’s The Plot Thickens. Both of these books are invaluable to me for developing the plot. When I read these books I felt like I had a writing mentor instead of just reading a book. I will discuss these books later.

Whatever works for you, find some way to organize everything in a coherent fashion. In case you haven’t already guessed, I am a little bit OCD about how things are done and organized, and though I may have “Make a to do list for XYZ” on my list of things to do that day (Yes, I am THAT OCD) I can tell you that organization is very important. It can be devastating to not remember where you put that new information on your main character, so make sure you know where it is. It could be under your coffee cup for all I care, but just so long as you have the tools you need to write the book. It’s hard enough as it is, try to make the technical details of the process as painless as possible.

I also have every book organized the same way on my computer. I make a new folder and title it what the book might be called, or a funny name that still lets me know which idea it is. Inside that folder, I make five more folders: Allusions (where I put song lyrics or poems that remind me of the book), Drafts, Novel Prewriting, Research, and Editing. Inside the Novel Prewriting folder, I further break it down into Characters, Plot, and Worldbuilding. Every single book is set up like this, so I know exactly where to put my various documents. You might not need separate folders for everything, but I tend to accumulate a lot of documents on my books, so I prefer this method of organization. Try to see what works best for you.

Now that you have the basics of the novel organized, let’s move on to the actual plot.

2. Premise

I have stated before that a premise (according to some people, people define this term differently elsewhere. Fun, right?) contains the end of your idea. In simple words, a premise is the basic gist of your novel. It contains the external plot line, the core conflict.

This is the premise of Beauty and the Beast:
“A vain man is cursed by an enchantress to be a beast until he can find someone who will love him selflessly. A farmer’s daughter stays at his castle in place of her father, and grows to love the beast, thereby breaking the curse.”

Figuring out the premise of your novel early on is important because it will help you remain true to your plot. If you were a court room lawyer, your premise would be your closing statement, your logical argument that when XYZ happens, this will be the result of those actions. The premise also has a hint, if not down right states, your theme. This is because by the very nature of you writing a story, and making it end a certain way, you are effectively saying this end is the result of this beginning.

Confused yet? (Try chocolate; it makes everything better) I know, it’s a lot of jargon, but really, very simple once you put it into practice. The most difficult part I have with the premise is figuring out what I want to say. You can continue to develop your idea before you know what your premise is, you can even write an entire first draft if you want to, but it’s much easier the sooner you know. Knowing what you want to say will help you figure out what events belong in your book, and what events don’t.

Once you start to think about what might happen in the story, who might be there, and what they might want, and what they do to get that, you might be attracted to certain reoccurring ideas or thoughts (I know I normally am. Again, like a rat terrier with a soup bone, once I think of a certain set of events in conjunction with my idea, I don’t let them go.). In our example with the hostage situation, as you develop Detective Brewster and the robbers, you might notice that thoughts about family, and putting yourself on the line for strangers, and honor and duty keep cropping up: Detective Brewster is dedicated to his family perhaps, he feels a sense of duty to his job, he feels he is doing what is morally just and right. So maybe your theme is: Honor and duty leads to great sacrifice but great reward.

This is a statement: Honor and duty leads to sacrifice but great reward. The events of the novel are points in this argument.

You might decide that this idea is something that appeals to you, something you want to write about, that the nature of honor, and duty, and sacrifice fascinates you. That’s great. This is effectively your theme. But this is just one of many choices you could make. There are hundreds of ways you could tell this tale about a hostage situation, and just as who the characters are will color your story, so will the events you chose to occur will color the story.

Certain events lead themselves to certain themes, but there’s no law stating you can’t write a romance set in irregular setting. Actually, it’s the successful combination of two genres that makes some books very popular. But when this combination isn’t successful, it’s as obvious as it is disastrous. Ever watch a movie that didn’t seem to go anywhere? Had actors and sets, and they went places, but nothing really seemed to happen? It was sorta random?

That, my friends, is usually because the director didn’t really know what he was writing about, or he was telling it ineffectively.

Now, if you’re frustrated because this sounds like a bunch of English school theme-crap, try to think about your favorite movie. I am using a movie example because they are quicker to watch than to read a book. If the movie is any good, every scene in the movie belongs there, because every scene in the movie reinforces the theme, what the movie is about. You don’t see a graphically bloody murder scene in a romantic comedy. Not just because of the genre, but because the subject material as well.

Let’s take Jurassic Park, okay? It’s an older movie, most people have probably seen or heard about it. A movie about genetic cloning, and the dinosaurs getting out of hand, and the people trying to escape off the island. You could pull several themes from the movie. You could say that nature can’t be controlled or contained, that Nature will, as the movie stated, “find a way.” Every scene in this movie supports that theme, that argument. You could say that “greed leads to ruin” and judging by the mess the island is at the end of the movie we can certainly agree that Ingen’s little project is ruined.

The point is to know what your theme is, and present a set of events about it, but hit the reader over the head with it. If you don’t like the word “theme”, if you’re having flashbacks of high school Lit, then just think of it as what your story is about.

Like it or not, when you write a book, it implies a truth. This truth is open to interpretation, sure, but the implication is there, if you don’t come out and state “When this happens to this person, these events will unfold.” It’s why we read and watch movies and listen to music, I believe. To learn about other people, and other experiences.

So: what is your book about?

Don’t know yet? That’s okay, we can move on. It will come to you eventually. If you know already, it just makes the plotting process a little easier, because if you know your theme “True love leads to victory” then you know you’re going to need events showing this to be true.

And that about wraps things up for a day. We’ll let things sink in, and tomorrow, talk about the Inciting Incident, and all kinds of other stuff!

So, what do you think so far? Am I nuts? A genius? Both? No guesses?

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