Six impossible things

Later developments

The ideas I was talking about in the last post are seldom ready-to-write when they arrive. Even the ones that look ready to go often turn out not to be when one gets right down to it. I’ve talked before about the pre-writing story development, so this time I thought I’d talk about the other sort. Especially as I am currently at exactly that stage in the WIP – I have been stuck three chapters in for a couple of months now, because things need more development than they got at the pre-writing stage.

Some of the reason I’ve been stuck has been exogenous and environmental – taxes due, a series of trips and workshops and other obligations – so it’s been easy to ignore the manuscript, despite the looming deadline. I knew that it was going to take some serious skull-work to straighten it out, and the first three chapters weren’t entirely satisfactory anyway, so I poked at them and made some progress and poked at them and didn’t push much more than that for lack of time. But really, what I was sure I needed was to sit down and figure out in more detail how to get from where I am to where I thought I was going, and that sort of figuring out takes a chunk of time I didn’t have.

I was right about the sit down and think part.

When I finally got around to one of my standard let’s-have-dinner-and-plot-noodle sessions with one of my writer friends, what she said (after half an hour of me rehearsing where the plot was and where I thought it was going) was “You have three plotlines here, and I think you need to start by untangling them so you can see what each of them needs.”

She was absolutely right, and it was clear in not-very-much time that two of my three plotlines – including the primary action plot – were seriously under-developed. This is the sort of thing a really good plot-noodler does: They give you a lot more work to do.

The thing is, I thought I was in good shape. I had a plot outline; it filled a reasonable number of pages. I’d done my usual pre-writing work. By three chapters in, things should have either begun coming together, or else stalled in that peculiar way that every manuscript seems to stall somewhere between Chapter Three and Chapter Ten (which is both annoying and promising, because after thirty years at this, I am confident that when I hit that first veil, it will eventually break loose in extremely useful and more interesting ways).

This story, though, turns out to be the sort that needs additional development once I have enough of it down to get a sense of the thing. It’s not the same kind of developing I do during the prewriting stage. When I’m going from idea to story-developed-enough-to-start-writing, I’m adding things: characters, background, plot twists, all manner of incidents and dialog and other bits and pieces that could happen on the road from Chapter The First to Chapter The Last. I know they won’t all make it into the finished book – lots of them don’t even make it into the plot outline – but at that stage, almost anything is possible. The process is one of collecting the odds and ends that are floating around and checking various bits against my fuzzy overall vision of the story, to see what fits and what doesn’t, what makes the vision sharper and what muddies it up.

When I’m three chapters in, and it becomes obvious that the story needs more development, I don’t start by looking outward at the idea-stew, or forward toward the ending I’m expecting. I look at what I have.

By three chapters in, I have generally introduced several of the main characters and at least a few of the secondary ones. I’ve established the time and place and described them to a certain extent. I may not have laid out the central story-problem just yet, but if I haven’t, I’ve at least pointed in its general direction and set up enough minor problems to keep the reader interested and lead in the direction of the main one. Unless the first three chapters are totally throw-them-away impossible, looking at them will therefore tell me one of the following things:

1) Something critical is missing. The main character has no stake in the story, no reason to head off to drop the One Ring into Mount Doom. Or there’s a character hole – I forgot to give the Hero a needed Sidekick, or the Villain a Minion. Or the murder-mystery can’t get started because the Murderer seems to have no inclination to actually murder anyone. Or the story doesn’t seem to be set in any particular place or time – it could be Victorian England or Tang Dynasty China, for all the description and cultural background that’s there. Or the main character has no past (and I’m not doing a Clint Eastwood Man With No Name).

2) The fuzzy story vision is still way too fuzzy. “The Heroine has some adventures and then succeeds in her Quest” is not enough if I don’t know whether the Quest is to find a magical doohicky, rescue a dragon, graduate from college, or steal the plans for the atom bomb. The plot outline, when examined, has lots of great incidents – that bit where she argues with the vampire about the best way to diagnose anemia, for instance – but they don’t connect to the three chapters I have written. The story doesn’t know whether it’s trying to get to San Francisco or New York, much less what route to take.

3) There is too much story. The plot outline takes our Main Character not just to San Francisco, but all the way to Beijing, with stops in Anchorage, Hawaii, and Sydney. And it’s supposed to be a road trip.

4) I’m writing a completely different story than I intended. The first three chapters are clearly leading up to everybody going to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, but the plot outline says it’s supposed to be July and they’re supposed to be planning to spend August at Disneyland.

5) I’ve mis-identified the main story. I thought it was going to be a dramatic action-adventure, but the characters want it to be comedy-of-manners. Or I have a great romantic comedy plot outline, but the story wants to focus on an angsty man-learns-lesson near-tragedy.

For me, in almost every one of these cases, fixing the problem means tossing out my original plot outline (and often the specifics of the plot-idea that started it) in order to let the story go in the direction that the actual first-three-chapters are taking it. Once I have my head pointed south instead of west, then I can dig through all my possible plot-twists and incidents for the right ones to make the story work. Sometimes, I can salvage bits of my original plot outline, but more often not. Whether I can or no, it won’t start happening until I let go of all my original plans and just look at what I have written – what is there and what isn’t, what it implies about the characters and their problems and their future. Because my backbrain is much smarter than I am, and whatever it has stuck into those first few actual chapters is almost certain to take me to much more interesting places than my plans and outlines.

7 Comments
  1. I haven’t published fiction, but have written book-length manuscripts with a significant creative component in other fields. One thing I’ve noticed is that those exogenous and environmental factors are far more distracting when I want to be distracted, i.e. when I’ve got a fiddly bit to deal with and I don’t really feel like working right now. In fact, they can be a useful early warning sign that the bit that’s coming up is going to be more fiddly than it looks.

  2. Yes! This is the problem I run into the most frequently. I have several manuscripts saved to my computer that only made it through the first couple of chapters. The one I’m working on now, I’ve tried to rework the second chapter so many times. I think I’ve finally worked through some things though. Fingers crossed!

  3. Even the ones that look ready to go often turn out not to be when one gets right down to it.

    Story of my writing life, that is….

    “I know what happens! They do X and Y, and then they defeat the bad guy.”

    Start writing… “X is fine, but how do they get from there to Y? And exactly how do they defeat the bad guy? I have no idea what happens!”

    The ability to creatively back-fill may be one of the most important writing skills I’ve developed.

  4. It helps to run a dating service for ideas. Seldom can a book-length work actually rest on a single idea.

    • Hey, does your dating service accept entries from other authors? I have several ideas that have been sitting all alone in their files for Way Too Long.

  5. I really enjoyed this post! Plot noodling with writing buddies has been one of the most useful writing tools I’ve come across. Now that I have writer friends, I have no idea what I did without them. They take the blinking of cursor of death and turn it into a delightful coffee date, and then you go home with lots of work to do and the impetus to do it.

  6. I’ve been stuck at chapters 1 & 2 for a few weeks now. Part of that was disinclination to write (lots going on, environmental Things Happening etc) but part of it was something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I knew what the story was doing, where it was supposed to be going, and even (unusually for me, as a pantser) how to get there. Then I had one of my sit-down sessions where I think and plot and talk to myself a lot with a mainline of tea and a pile of doughnuts, and realised what the problem was. Well, problems.

    The first was that one of my MCs had no real stake. That was easily fixed, as he was a minor character in another story, and it was just that I hadn’t logically followed through on his story and his character development.

    The second was that I hadn’t worked out the dynamics of the relationships between the three MCs. One of my big starting points with writing is always the relationships between characters, whether those are familial, friendly, romantic, tension-fraught, outright dislike, etc. I usually come up with that before anything else.
    I only just noodled that out the other day, which in turn teased out an emotional subplot with a climax I might have to write down before I forget it, and fixed the halt I’ve been at with this particular MS.

    So now I just have to fix my laziness problem!

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