Hello, dear Readers! Following the HOW I PLOT blog from last RetroFriday, I've decided to dig out and repost a detailed three part series that I wrote last year, since it's probably about as useful as I get when it comes to talking about my own personal nemesis - The Plot. Look forward to parts #2 and #3 next Friday and the Friday after!
RetroFriday: TURNING IDEAS INTO PLOTS #1
All right my lovelies, I've had a look at my previous posts about plots, and it occurred to me that, while they might be interesting to a writer who has already completed a few stories or books and who needs some advice about a fine-tuning technique for pacing and structure, it probably wouldn't be terribly helpful to someone still trying to work out what a plot actually IS.
I started thinking about how much I used to stress out about not doing things 'properly' or 'the right way', and how I used to get stuck in the middle of stories with no idea where to go next, a cold sweat broke out on my brow. I decided it might take more than one post to cover this sprawling topic in a useful way.
So here, in Part One, I'm going to look at putting plots together from the point of view of one of those young writers who often emails to ask me the immortal and much groaned over question: Where do you get your ideas?
Because the standard response to that one is rather dismissive - that ideas are easy to come by, and it's execution that counts. But what I think those young writers are really asking, a lot of the time, is actually more like: How do you turn an idea into a story? How do you know what happens next? How do you fill a whole book up with all that STUFF?
I get it. Really.
Most writers that I've talked to or read articles by say that when they *get* a story idea, it's usually actually the result of two or more little idea fragments which were spinning around in their head frantically until they all collided. The POOF! Suddenly there's a story there. Only it's not a complete story. This is what I need to get across to you guys. With some notable exceptions, stories, characters, plots, settings - none of it appears in the brain fully formed. You might get some sort of inking of how things kick off, or maybe one or two vital scenes from the middle, or a faint impression of how it should end. Or all of them. Or just a vivid image of a certain character or place.
It's vital to realise at this point that those impressions? Aren't set in stone. They're giving you hints about what you want your story to be ABOUT, hints on the themes or particular twists you want to explore. The fact that you clearly see a fearless heroine fighting a Samurai in the middle of a bleak orange desert could mean that you want to write about a kick-ass girl's adventures, or that you want to write about the desert, or a lonely Samurai who wanders across the world, or that you're interested in having a romance where the couple fights each other with swords for fun. The important thing could be the tiny snatch of dialogue you get where they taunt each other about bad technique, or the colour of the sand, or the general bleak tone of the thing. OR NONE OF THE ABOVE.
This is your brain opening doors and showing you possibilities. Glimpses of what could be. They're telling you your characters *could* be these kinds of people, or your world might be like this. They're inviting you to think long and hard, make choices, sink into the mind of the people whose story you need to tell, to immerse yourself in their world. They're inviting you to walk through as many of those doors as you like, have a curious wander around, then either move in or walk away and close the door behind you.
So you have an idea for a beginning, a couple of middle parts and an end that have nothing to do with each other and you have no idea how to get from one to another? That's fine. It's way too early to panic and give up. It might be that you'll be working things out as you go along, just writing until you hit one of those key scenes. Or it might be that you never actually write any of those middle scenes because by the time you get to the middle you realise an event like that simply couldn't happen in the world you've created, or that your character just wouldn't act that way. The same with endings. You could be like J K Rowling and write the final scene seven books in advance and stick to it (yikes) or you could be like me and aim for that final scene as a guide but usually end up realising the actual events are all wrong, and it's just one or two things, like a character's feelings, or the location or mood that you need. Or you might be like Leah Clifford and have no IDEA how it's going to end (she's a better man than I am, Gunga Din).
This point, where you have the compelling image and some odd bits and pieces of a story is usually the point where beginning writers plunge in and start writing, carried away with the desire to see What Happens Next. If that works for you, fine. But a lot of the emails I get come from young people who've had this AWESOME IDEA OMG and started writing right away and then got lost after a few chapters and now they don't know if this means the idea was just wrong to begin with and they should give up, or what.
So, in the next post, we're going to look at a couple of ways to work out WHAT HAPPENS NEXT, including revisiting that diamond-shaped diagram that I showed you before. Stand by for that. And if anyone has any more specific ideas about plotting, toss them in the comments and I'll try to work them in.