Tuesday, 21 September 2010

TURNING IDEAS INTO PLOTS: Part Two

Hello, dear readers! I'm very sorry for not posting on Monday like normal. I spent the whole day in London and didn't get back until quite late, after which I zonked out completely. So I bring you my Monday post on a Tuesday instead, and hope you don't mind too much: Part Two of my plotting workshop, which I hope will be useful to everyone (like me) who ever had an amazing idea - and no clue what to do with it.

So you've had this idea. Chances are the idea is incomplete and actually has a few separate pieces to it. Mostly my ideas come with a vague sense of how it all starts, a couple of really strong, hit-me-in-the-head scenes that probably fit somewhere in the middle, and then a vague sense of how it ends. Your ideas might come with the beginning perfectly formed and no end, or a perfect end and no middle scenes. But whatever, you have to try and figure out how to fit these events together into a plot. How to bridge the gaps between them in a way that makes sense, that is entertaining to read, that is worth writing.

Some authors recommend making character or story collages, where you get yourself a huge pile of magazines and cut out any images - of people or locations or phrases - that 'sing' to you, as being something to do with your idea. You stick them all to a big sheet of paper and somehow seeing everything like that acts like a giant magnet for other ideas to start zipping out of your brain and attaching themselves to the original idea.

Some writers like to use index cards or bullet points to list everything that they know about characters, setting, story, mood. They find that as they write these down, more and more details materialise in their heads, until their bullet point list is twice as long, or their stack of cards twice as thick as they expected.

I think the really important thing at this point is to PIN THOSE SUCKERS DOWN. Otherwise tiny details can sometimes slither away from you and it's really hard to get them back. What's more, the very act of writing down your ideas makes them feel more concrete and get-at-able.

So, now you have a whole bunch of ideas, loosely linked. Great. The thing is, this scatter of ideas doesn't actually make a story. A plot for a book needs to be more than a series of events that happen one after another. There needs to be a shape, rising tension, rising stakes. The story needs to move through events of physical and emotional and mental significance (if it's going to be a really good book, I mean). Sometimes when you've pinned all your ideas down you still won't feel you have enough stuff to make a story. Other times it all looks like way too much.

This is where diagrams come in. Tada!


A disclaimer here: this is the way *I* think of plots. You might like a square, or a circle, or a list, or a corkboard covered in post-its. But fitting my puzzle pieces into this shape works for me. You might find that although following this exact method does not fit for you, trying it shows you the way you DO like to work. Anyway, let me 'splain.

  1. FIRST PLOT EVENT: This is pretty self-evident. It's the event that kicks off the story. It might not be the first thing the reader sees, though. Sometimes a story starts off by showing the character's normal world, leading up to a dramatic or significant event, as in the Lord of the Rings. But this event is what actually begins the story itself.
  2. CHARACTER TAKES ACTION TO CHANGE COURSE OF PLOT: A little more tricky, this one. Usually, after the first major story event the character will react with shock, fear, disbelief. They might refuse to react to what's happened, struggle desperately to get away from the new character or place that is threatening their world, try to get back their sense of normalcy. However at some point most characters that are strong enough to be a main character will get a grip and attempt to take control of their situation. Sometimes it backfires, sometimes it works but triggers further events. In any case, this is the moment when the character first begins to truly affect the plot and it's usually an important moment in the story.
  3. MAJOR DISASTER OR SETBACK: The events or backfire triggered by the interaction of the main character/s choices now reach a critical point. Things might seem to be going right - but at the moment when success seems assured, disaster strikes and changes the course of the story again. Often the reader will have seen this setback coming all along. Sometimes even the characters can see it. But they're powerless to prevent it.
  4. THE PLATEAU OF AWFULNESS: I read this term in a writing book and it's stuck with me. This is when, in the midst of the fallout from the great disaster, something even worse (and often contrasting to the main disaster) happens. Think back to the events at the end of The Matrix, where half the team have been slaughtered by a traitor and Neo is stuck in the Matrix fighting (and losing) against Mr Smith. Then the alarm on the ship goes off - a killer 'squid' is approaching. It starts ripping the ship apart and the only way the crew can save themselves is to set off the EMP. But if they do that, Neo will die. Things just cannot get any worse. The attack of the killer machine contrasts with the main disaster - Neo's fight - because while Neo is a blur of action, fighting for his life, the crew are forced into inaction, waiting, waiting, for Neo to get out of Matrix and unable to fight for their own lives. The stakes now reach their highest point. All or nothing. The character is propelled forward to the final events of the story.
  5. LAST PLOT EVENT: Hang on a minute, you say! There are only FOUR points on that diamond! How can there be five points on your list? Well, the last plot event is where everything comes full circle. It's where you fulfil the promises that you made to the reader at the beginning and the story comes to a natural close. Just like with the last plot event, this might not be the actual last scene, but it's the last point in the story where events are still in flux. Further chapters may tie up lose ends, but shouldn't significantly alter what has occurred in the last plot event.
Not all stories are going to fit into this exact pattern, but it's a good place to start. See if the events you have in your head fit these definitions in any sense. If not, how could the scenes you see lead to or lead from such events? Open your mind to the most interesting ways that things out play out. If you can fill in three or four of the points on the diagram...you're well on your way to having a complete story.

Stay tuned to this bat channel for the next installment of our exciting (well, kinda) plotting workshop, when we will discuss Cinderella and there will be more diagrams (yay!).

5 comments:

Meg, Caitlin and Laurie T said...

Thank you! This makes a lot of sense and can help me stay focused as I work on my WIPS.

Laurie

Zoë Marriott said...

I'm glad it's useful. There'll be more tomorrow (with added diagrams!).

Nattasha said...

Another great blog Zoe! My main problem with any writing is I just can't seem to plot or plan at all I just have to make it up as I go. I'm having to do my GCSE English this year because I was to ill when I should have done mine Grrr. I handed in the rough draft of my persuasive essay today even though I was given two weeks to have it done. I just find that when I start writing I can't stop and I completely obsess over it until I've finished. when I showed my friends they said I should be a writer some day but I just don't think I have it in me (which is why I really admire you =D) and I don't think I'm good enough either

Zoë Marriott said...

Thank you, Nattasha. But, you know, a lot of writers are just like you. For example, NYT Bestseller Nora Roberts can't even write a synopsis about her books because it completely puts her off. She just makes it all up as she goes. I tend to think that writers like that are ones that have an instinctive gift for story structure and don't NEED to plan. Whereas I struggle with it a lot, so I have to plan and plot and work it all out. Most writers have certain 'gifts', things they love and which come naturally. Don't dismiss them, embrace them!

Nattasha said...

Thank you Zoe =D

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