Thursday, 16 November 2017


Hello, Dear Readers! This is the third and final part of the Turning Ideas into Plots workshop.

The last instalment introduced us to the basic plot diagram, like so:

Hopefully at this point you have enough solid story events fixed in your head to be able to fill in two or three of the points on the diagram, even if in quite a basic way. This, in turn, ought to give you a sense of the shape and pacing of the events you still need to devise. 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.

What? After all that??? Well, as I’ve mentioned before, plot and story are not exactly the same thing. Plot is the skeleton. Story is the flesh. It’s the muscles and tendons and skin that cover and fill in the gaps between the bones. Without the story, like bones without tendons and muscles, the plot can’t move. It’s useless.

This where that saying I mentioned in Part #1 comes from: ideas are ten-a-penny, but execution is key. The execution of the story, the way you put those muscles together and use them to animate the skeleton, the texture of the skin you cover the whole thing with, that’s 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 look at a story that we all know well: Cinderella.

It's fairly easy for anyone to see how the main points of Cinderella's story would 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 story – with the events which logically follow from First Plot Event to Character Action to Major Disaster and so on.

And here’s the fun yet terrifying (yet fun!) part: if you and I were both to start out with that basic plot diagram above? We would, inevitably, come up with two radically different ways to get our heroine from point one to point two and onto point three, etc. Our different versions would encompass not only different events, but different tones in our writing, and different character motivations. That's why this diagram is useful on its 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 own unique ideas develop.

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:

Although I like to know in detail what events I'm aiming for, when it comes down to how to actually realise those events, the atmosphere and tone and the character arcs which weave in and around them, I like the freedom to make it all 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 the 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 offering up a bare list of events.

The way you chose to write these events – in a grim, gothic style, a funny irreverent one, or a poetic lyrical one – will be the skin of your story. The outer appearance which 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 to create the impression you, the writer, want the reader to receive.

So, this is how *I* turn ideas into plots, and then a plot into a story. I hope it's been useful. But remember that the important thing – the only really important thing, in the end – 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'. Only the way that works for you right now.

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