Six impossible things

Plot is Hard, part 1

Plot is hard. There is no getting away from that. No writer I know says plot is easy; even the ones who supposedly got it for free don’t say “plot is easy” – they say things like “Well, it’s not nearly as bad as doing characters.”

Plot is complicated. It has to hang together logically, it has to make a plausible pattern, and it has to come to an emotionally satisfying conclusion (which usually means some level of closure). It has to fit the characters and the structure of the story (or those things have to fit the plot; it depends which you come up with first). And it has to do all those things at more or less the same time, and that’s before we even get into subplots.

Most advice about plotting is analysis – it talks about Aristotle’s three-act structure and Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”; whether the characters have a goal, scene-and-sequel, planting questions/mysteries, disasters/decisions, “and then” vs. “because.” All of which are good and useful things to know, but they’re all tests you apply after you have at least a vague notion of what your story is. They’re ways of checking out whether whatever you’ve come up with will actually work as a plot, but I, at least, have never found any of them particularly useful for coming up with the plot in the first place.

One way to come up with a plot is to swipe it from somewhere else – usually a fairytale, a myth or legend, or a Shakespeare play, alone or combining motifs from several things at once. This works very well if you begin with the idea of retelling a familiar story in a new setting with new characters, and then develop your version, but it can work equally well if you begin with several interesting characters and hunt around until you hit on the folk tale, legend, or Shakespearian play that suits them. Adapting a fairy tale or three isn’t actually any less work than making it all up from scratch, but it’s a different kind of work, sort of like riding a bicycle with training wheels. If anybody wants a detailed how-to walkthrough, I can do that, but it’s probably a series of posts to get specific enough.

Making it up from scratch is another matter. On the one hand, you can’t give people a recipe for doing it that is guaranteed to work, because people get ideas and develop stuff in different ways. It’s called “creativity,” and while they have learned a lot about it, they haven’t learned enough to lay out directions that will work reliably for even a smallish number of different people.

On the other hand, there are some places to start and directions to look that can help.

The first one is to look at yourself. Writers get their ideas from all sorts of places, but there are usually patterns one can spot if one has been doing this for a while and paying attention. What kinds of things can you identify that triggered a “good idea” – any idea? A painting? A conversation with someone? A poem or song? A place? Taking a shower? Listening to music? Reading a really good – or really bad – book that you want to emulate or do better than or have more of? Learning something new? Watching TV? Make a list, and see if there is a pattern.

Then look at what you like best about the plots of your favorite stories. Not what you like best about the story – for people who have trouble with plot, the thing they like best is often the characters or the style or the setting. What you like best about the plot, even if you weren’t paying much attention to it. What events and patterns tend to stick in your mind, and why? If your favorites are the sort of uber-literary novels that have little or no plot, well, that might be why you’re having trouble. If you’re a character-centered writer and all your favorite plot points are places where the characters got to shine, that’s not surprising…but it still tells you something about the kinds of scenes you’ll want in order to keep yourself interested.

Finally, if you’ve been working at writing for a while, consider what kinds of things you tend to make up during the process of writing the story, and how that affects your writing. For instance, when I get to a scene that is missing a crucial bit of setting or background, it stops me dead in my tracks, sometimes for weeks, while I work out what needs to go in that empty space. On the other hand, I’ve several times had mid-scene revelations about a character’s backstory, and just sailed merrily along even when the result is going to end up changing my plans in major ways. And I have no problem letting go of a plot-plan in mid-book, if things seem to need to go in a different direction.

I have a good friend who’s the opposite – she can make up background and setting on the fly, but really needs to know where her characters are coming from and why, and who really needs to pants the plot if she wants to keep any flexibility at all. Knowing how much you need to know and how much you need to not know can save a lot of grief later. If you don’t have experience to base this on, go with instinct. If it starts feeling as if you’re making up too much, or if you are just itching to get on with actual writing, stop the making up and start the writing down. You can always come back and refine the process later.

All of these are extremely personal parameters that will affect how easy or hard it will be to make up your plot and how much trouble you will or won’t have once you get started writing that plot. First, though, you actually have to come up with the plot (this is really all just prep work, so far). I’ll talk more on that next time.

7 Comments
  1. Once again, this is so eerily timely that I suspect telepathy. 😉

    A lot of my ideas come from songs, though not in a way that anybody else could necessarily identify. The rest I suspect is an amalgam of old TV shows, conversations, and showers, composted into unrecognizability.

    I like the suggestion of looking at what you like best about the plots of favorite books. Unfortunately, I’m having trouble pinning down any examples — probably because I’m one of those people who wasn’t paying attention in the first place. This may take some further study.

    Looking forward to next time.

  2. For me, it’s coming up with plot endings that is especially hard. When I pull up sticks to check for barnacles I get lots of beginning barnacles, a few middle-barnacles, but hardly any ending-barnacles.

    So if I want to riff off of Andromeda, I have a beginning-idea of Andromeda and the sea monster being mind-swapped, and then sea-monster!Andromeda is chained to the rock, giving Andromeda!sea-monster a chance to come up and reverse the mind-swap (Just *why* sea-monster!Andromeda gets chained to the rock is another plot problem I have trouble figuring out, but a relatively minor one). And there’s the complication of performing the reverse mind-swap without the monster simply going ahead and eating Andromeda afterwards.

    And here is where I get majorly stuck: What *is* the clever plot twist, idea, plan of Andromeda to let her reverse the mind-swap without getting eaten immediately afterwards?

    (And I’m wondering if it being hard for me is because or despite it being my favorite plot-bit in other people’s stories.)

    • This sounds very familiar. I am in need of a clever plot twist myself, and… I got nuthin’. So, major sympathies.

  3. I’d love to see a post or series of posts about adapting fairy tales sometime! I’ve never tried doing it myself, but I’ve always found fairy tale retellings fascinating to read.

  4. I couldn’t begin to explain what my plotting process is, even though I’ve done it pretty much the same way with everything I’ve written. A random line about something falls off my fingertips onto the page/screen, and I plow blindly forward to find more about this person/thing/event. I write for the same reason I read—to see What Happens Next. Plot, character development, setting, atmosphere, and the other elemenopi that make up a story just sort of occur along the way. Whatever it is I’m doing works—and with surprisingly little rewriting; glob only knows how or why.

    The times I’ve attempted to plan in advance what sort of characters and events should occur have resulted in flat, linear, predictable blandness.

    Of course, this extremely organic approach requires an enormous amount of Trust In The Process. And when I get stuck, I get really stuck.

  5. And this is why I like to travel as much as I do, because plot tags for me tend to come from weird things I see on the road, historical markers and wow what a great time travel device that geyser would be and why is there a plaster pig in that store window?

    But I’ve seen so many weird things, and so few of them actually develop into real plots [sigh].

  6. I have plot-bits or world building bits that hop up and declare they are totally in the story now. Then I have to figure out WHY they are in the story. And connect it to the other bits that insist they are in the story already. While the big picture always ends up being really cool… I sometimes wish my subconscious would supply some hints with those story bits.

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