Wednesday, 22 September 2010


Hello, my lovelies. It is now time to launch into the third part of the Turning Ideas into Plots workshop.

You have your basic diagram, like so:


(For more information on what this means, flick back to yesterday). 

You have enough solid story events now fixed in your head to be able to fill in two or three of the points on the diagram, which means you're on your way. You have, effectively, the skeleton of a plot. Possibly when people ask what you're writing about, you can give them a brief summing up which touches on those main plot points, and they go 'Wow, sounds interesting'.

But you still don't have a STORY. Because the story is like the flesh, the blood, the muscles and skin that cover and fill the gaps between the bones. Without the story, the plot is useless.

This where that commonly held saying comes from that ideas are ten-a-penny, but execution is key. The execution of the story, the way you put those muscles together, the texture of the skin, is what turns your story either into a beautiful, vibrant, living creature - or a hulking, mouth-breathing Frankenstein's Monster.

To illustrate this, let's take a story that we all know well. Cinderella.

It's fairly easy for anyone to pick out how the main points of Cinderella's story fit onto the plot diagram I showed you. Hence:

However, each of the sides of the diamond shape now need to be filled in with events which logically follow from First Plot Event to Character Action to Major Disaster and so on. If you and I were to both start out with that basic plot diagram above we would probably come up with radically different ways to get our heroine from point one two point two (hence what I was saying about execution being key) involving not only different events but different tones in our writing and character motivations. That's why this diagram is useful on it's own, even if you don't want to fill in anymore details - because it gives you that structure, that framework, within which to let your ideas develop.

However, the way I normally work this out is to try and fill in the first side of the diamond in as much detail as possible before I start writing. Then I put in whatever details I can think of on the other sides. Like so:

Because although I'm an outliner, and although I like to know in detail what I'm aiming for, how to actually write those events, what the character feels about them...that I like to make up as I go along. And usually I find that by the time in my first draft I've reached point two (Character Action) I've grown to know the world, story and characters well enough to be able to go on ahead and fill in the next side with a few more details too. The story teaches me about it as I go on. By the time I hit the halfway point I've got something that looks like this:

This is a story now, not just a plot. It includes scenes not just of action but reaction. It shows you what events I (as the author of this particular Cinderella retelling) think are significant enough to dramatise (lots of emphasis on the magic) how I'm going to handle the romance (love at first sight) ideas about the of emotional significance of events (Cinderella calls to the spirit of her death mother before the fairy appears - could it really BE the ghost of her mother?) and it makes you ask questions, rather than just being a bare list of events.

The way you chose to write these events - in a grim, gothic style, or a funny irreverent one, or a poetic lyrical one - will be the skin of your story. The outer appearance that people will probably react to first and with the most conviction, just as humans react to the colour and form of other people's outer shell in real life. But without the plot skeleton and the muscle, flesh and blood of the story underneath, the skin is worthless. All the bits of the story's anatomy need to be working together.

So, this is how *I* turn ideas into plots, and then a plot into a story. I hope it's been useful. Remember that the important thing - the only really important thing - is to work the way that helps you and makes you feel comfortable. Use a circle instead of a diamond. Don't draw at all, if you don't want to! There is no such thing as a 'right way' and anyone who says there is? Is talking like the B*tSh*t Crazy Lady (remember her?).


Alex Mullarky said...

This is really, really useful. I'll probably use it in future!

Zoë Marriott said...

Oh, good! Thank you for letting me know.

Haakon B. Dahl said...

This is amazingly useful! This post, and the idea it bears, are the sort of pedestrian, workaday, merely utilitarian tool so plainly useful that it transcends to inspiration.
You, Dear Lady, have just waved life back into a stalled book project.
Thank you!

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