Friday, 29 July 2011

RETROFRIDAY - TURNING IDEAS INTO PLOTS #2

Hello, dear readers! It's Friday again and I have the most awful edit hangover.

An edit hangover? You ask. What on earth is that? Well, let me tell you. An edit hangover is what you get when you stay up until 2am doing edits and then get up at 7am the next day and YOU STILL HAVEN'T FINISHED.

*Clutches head*

Why did I write such a long book? Why? It's like I enjoy punishing myself! It's not that there's any problem with the edits themselves. It's just that I've been trying to get them done all week while at the same time being frantically busy with other stuff (like vet appointments, optician's appointments and major cleaning/gardening projects) which means that instead of being able to blissfully barricade myself in the Writing Cave, I've been snatching ten minutes here and half an hour there, always keeping one eye on the ticking clock. I hate that.

Never have I been more grateful for RetroFriday, the one day of the week when I get to dazzle you guys with my brilliance without actually have to write anything new. Here's Part Two of the TURNING IDEAS INTO PLOTS series. I hope it's helpful!

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 proper. It might not be the first thing the reader sees, though. Sometimes a story starts off by showing the character's world, ilustrating the most important characters in their life or establishing their ambitions or deepest wishes. Leading up to a dramatic or significant event - as in the Lord of the Rings, where we're introduced to the idyllic Shire and Frodo's longing for adventure - allows us to understand what is at stake for the protagonist when the first plot event occurs. Some writing books will tell you that you must cut straight to the action, but I don't think that's necessary. What you must do is make sure that you begin with something RELEVANT to the story, something which will show its significance when you light the fuse and let the plot explode.
  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 accept what's happened, struggle desperately to get away from the new character or place that is threatening their normality. 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. Using Lord of the Rings again, this is moment when Frodo, having reached the safety of the elves and Gandalf, steps forward and volunteers to take the Ring to the Crack of Doom.
  3. MAJOR DISASTER OR SETBACK: The events triggered by the interaction of the main character's choices and the plot now reach a critical point. Things might seem to be going really well - 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, either because of an essential flaw in their own character or strategy (established prior to this, of course) or because the forces of opposition are overwhelming. For example, in Disney's The Little Mermaid, this is where Ursula the Sea Witch sees that Ariel and the Prince are falling in love and casts a spell to enchant the Prince and make her his own.
  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 that 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 Agent 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 battle against the Agent - because while Neo is a blur of action, running and fighting for his life, the crew are forced into stillness, silence and inaction, waiting for Neo to get out of Matrix, 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. In the Matrix, this is the scene where Trinity kisses an unconscious Neo and tells him that she loves him - and he responds by proving he is The One and destroying Agent Smith at the same moment that Morpheus presses the EMP button and kills the squid that is tearing the ship apart.
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!).

10 comments:

Vivienne said...

*saves post for future reference* You are just like my own fountain of knowledge.

Zoë Marriott said...

*Flutters eyelashes* I do try my best :)

Jenni @ Juniper's Jungle said...

Oh I love this so much! I'm bouncing with excitement that I've managed to fit my plot onto the diamond - maybe I'm not as clueless as I've been feeling lately. Thank you!

Zoë Marriott said...

Jenni: Oh, I am glad! Plotting can be such a confusing thing to keep a handle on, so helping people feel a bit less clueless is half the battle!

Lauren said...

This *is* useful. Just the fact that I can actually relate what I'm writing to these different plot points is reassuring. Looking forward to the next post on this!

Zoë Marriott said...

Lauren: Yay!

Isabel said...

This post is even more helpful than the first! Your posts always seem to come at good times -- thank you very much for reposting!

I'm sorry about your edit hangover. Hopefully you'll be able to relax a little more this weekend? Sorry. :(

Zoë Marriott said...

Don't worry, Isabel - I finished my edits, so I can leave the hangover behind this weekend :)

Isabel said...

Zoe: Oh, yay! I'm very happy to hear it. Well done. :D

I was just reading Shadows on the Moon, and couldn't stop reading it until my sister came into the room and started blasting music, argh. I don't want to say anything before I'm finished and can tell you all about what I thought, but wow -- I have to say that it is INCREDIBLE so far. You've really outdone yourself. I can see your growth from Daughter of the Flames, and a LOT from TSK, and it's really cool to see how your skill is developing. I just finished Part 1 -- "Suzume" -- and I kept on shivering and squealing through my fingers because it's just so exciting and intense! Yee! :)

Zoë Marriott said...

That's the nicest thing that a writer can her, Isabel - that they've grown and developed. I'm very glad you think so. Keep reading!

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