Wednesday, 8 November 2017


So you've had this idea for a story. 

Chances are the idea is incomplete and actually has a few separate pieces to it. Mostly my ideas – the ones that spark the desire to start a new book – 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.

At this stage, 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. Often as you begin to write them they will expand right there on the page before your eyes, drawing other ideas from your subconscious and weaving them in, until your snippet of an argument suddenly has three compelling characters, or your image of a setting has a tragic situation and two more settings nested within. It’s magic!

So, now you have a whole *bunch* of exciting ideas, loosely linked, that makes your gizzards positively tingle with excitement. Great! Well done. Now for the bad news: this scatter of ideas still doesn't actually make a plot.

A plot 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 my 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 neat lines of 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. 

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, illustrating 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 Fellowship of the Ring, where we're introduced to the idyllic Shire and Frodo's well-hidden 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. And for some genres or some particular stories, that’s OK to do. But it’s not vital, and there are many books which do no such thing. What is vital is 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. 

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 The Fellowship of the Ring again, this is moment when Frodo, having reached the safety of the Rivendell, and having been given a viable chance to step out of this life-or-death adventure, instead steps forward and volunteers to take the Ring to Mordor. 

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, realises her plan isn’t going to work, and casts a spell to enchant the Prince and make her his own. Ariel wakes up full of joy, goes running off to see her Prince, and finds him suddenly engaged to another woman. Noooooo!  

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. It's the part of the story where things literally cannot get any worse. There's no way back. It's do or die. Think back to the events at the end of The Matrix, where most of the crew of the ship 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.

The attack of the killer machine contrasts beautifully 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. All their hopes rest with him. In some stories the PoA might be emotional in contrast to an action Major Setback. In others it might be a new attack, but from an unexpected direction. In books which are totally on their game, it could be about both action and emotion. The important thing is that this is where the character is forced to throw everything they have at the obstacles that face them. Their last hope has gone. In despair, fury, new determination or sudden revelation, they are now propelled forward to the final events of the story. 

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 loose ends, but shouldn't significantly alter what has occurred in the last plot event. 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. It's when when Triton takes pity on his daughter and transforms her into a human for good and she is reuinited with Prince Eric.

Now, as I said above, not all stories are going to fit into this exact pattern – and that is fine! – but it's a good place to start. The simple structure makes it very easy to see how events you might already have in mind should be spaced out, and again, the act of placing the ideas you do have in this form can often draw other ideas out of your subconscious as you realise that if there’s a Plateau of Awfulness here, then surely the best event to follow it would be this or this... See if the events you have in your head fit these definitions in any sense. Perhaps the scenes you've got are the lead-ins or sequels to such events? 

Open your mind to the most interesting ways that things could play out. If you can fill in three or four of the points on the diagram, even if it turns out you have three Major Setbacks and two PoAs, you're well on your way to having a complete story. And if in the process you realise that diagramming works better for you if you break your story down into six main plot events, or that you prefer a circle, or a line of Post-Its, then hurray! You’re already beginning to discover your own individual plotting style.

Stay tuned to this bat channel for the next instalment of our exciting (look, *I* find it exciting, OK?) plotting workshop, in which we shall discuss no less a person than Cinderella and there will be many more diagrams (yay!).

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