Six impossible things

Plot is Hard, Part 2

Once you have an idea of the kinds of plots you like, how much you need to know to get started (and how much you need to not-know in order to keep going), and the kinds of things that seem to trigger good ideas for you, you can actually start working on the plot.

“Working on the plot” means different things depending on what you have to start with. If what you start with is plot, or at least the outline of a plot, most of what you have to do will likely be just fleshing out the details. If you start with anything else (and most people who have big trouble with plot start with characters or setting or worldbuilding or theme or a general idea that they want to explore, rather than with plot), you have to come up with a plot that fits whatever it is that you have.

“Coming up with a plot” is like building something out of Legos. You can go at it in a number of ways. You can start by deciding whether you are building a castle or a submarine, and then decide on the layout and colors and what blocks you are going to need. Or you can start by putting some blocks together until they make a shape that’s interesting, and then decide whether it’s the top of a castle tower or the conning tower of a submarine. Or you can sort the blocks you have by size and color and see how many you have and whether you need to go buy a bunch more before you have enough to build anything.

A plot is, among other things, a whole series of interlocked events that have to hang together to make a coherent, satisfying whole on several levels – logical and emotional pattern-making. If you are the sort of literary genius who can do all that in one go, you probably already know it. The rest of us tend to work on one level at a time, and in no set order; that is, sometimes I have the general shape of the plot arc (“the street urchin gets caught burgling a magician and helps him clear his name”) but no real details about how it’s going to happen, and sometimes I have one or more disconnected scenes that I know are key plot elements, but I have no idea how they fit together, and sometimes I have a boffo ending in mind in great detail without a clue how they get from the quiet village at the start to the king’s coronation.

In other words, almost nobody sits down and “comes up with a plot.” What they come up with are elements of a plot, which may be macro-level or micro-level, which may occur at any point in the story arc, and which frequently move around as the storyline becomes clearer (which may not happen until the writer is in the middle of the novel – the scene that looks like being the climax of my current WIP is one I originally conceived of as a mid-book turning point).

Assuming that you are starting with nothing that remotely resembles a plot-element, the first thing to do is to look at what you have – all the things you know are true about the story. You can get a surprising amount of information from whatever you have, whether it’s a general idea like “I want to write a book about slavery,” or something specific like a character, a fragment of a scene, or just a title or a log line. When I started Talking to Dragons, all I had was the title. From the title, I could deduce that there would be dragons in the story and that someone would be talking to them; this probably meant that the dragons were intelligent and would talk back. And the fact that this was important enough to make into a title gave me the feeling that talking to dragons was probably not the safest thing in the world to be doing. That’s quite a bit to get from three words.

Once you know what it is you know, you also have some idea what’s missing (besides plot). What’s missing usually depends a lot on what you start with. If you begin with an idea, you’re probably missing just about everything; if you begin with a scene or a fragment, you may have characters and setting and a lot of hints about background/backstory. This is useful to poke at, because plot interacts with and is affected by everything else in the story…and sometimes, a great plot idea and a great other idea (for a character, setting, scene, whatever) turn out to be mutually exclusive.

What you’re doing with all this prep work and thinking about stuff is priming the pump, or, as one of my friends says, “putting yourself in a situation in which writing ideas could possibly happen.” There’s no way to guarantee that suitable things will show up, but if you know how you work (see last week’s post), you can at least look in the most likely places. If you know that you’ve historically gotten good ideas walking on the beach, but you have no track record of getting them listening to music, you can plan a couple of beach-walks every week instead of staying inside combing your playlists for something that will get your ideas moving.

At this point, you start brainstorming. This is the equivalent of deciding to build something out of Legos, realizing that you don’t have any Legos, and heading out to the store to buy some, except that there aren’t actually any stores that sell plot elements. This is one of the “creativity” parts that nobody actually knows how to make happen, and I’m going to talk about it in more detail next week.

7 Comments
  1. Like Talking to Dragons, my first novel began with three words, “This is folly”, and they too suggested a great deal about the person who said them and the culture/society she was in. It obviously wasn’t a place like New Jersey. And answering the immediate questions of who said them and why and to whom led to me to realize, 20,000 words later, that I was writing a novel.

    I didn’t deliberately try to come up with a plot; it was intertwined with who the characters were and what they thought they wanted. It just came along with them in an inextricable manner.

    Figuring out the ending, however, was another thing entirely.

    • Did you figure out the ending?

      You’ve intrigued me enough with what you said about it that I now want to read your novel!

  2. one or more disconnected scenes that I know are key plot elements, but I have no idea how they fit together

    Yep, that sounds familiar. Painfully so.

    I think that part that nobody knows how to make happen is the part I need. I’ve got what seem to be Legos, but it’s as if somebody filled in all the holes on the bottom so nothing will click into them.

  3. Current WIP is going along swimmingly, but this morning I found myself thinking about an old story start I re-read while prepping for WIP. I was totally drawn in when I re-read that story start, and I think I want to tackle it when I finish WIP. But I’m having trouble getting the story to jell. I suspect I’m missing a plot element, and an important one at that. I did a fair bit of poking at it this morning. And it feels like I’m getting closer to what I need, but I’m not there yet.

    There’s something important about this one character – a 5-year-old child – and I can’t quite figure it out. It is key to the story. I can feel it. But I don’t yet have the specifics that I need.

    I thought she might be from a family of mages who shapeshift into dragons, and that she’s a throwback to an older line. And that’s close. But it’s not right. It’s like I have the right word on the tip of my tongue, but can’t quite retrieve it. Only, in this case, I have the right idea knocking around in my subconscious, but I can’t quite pull it out into my conscious mind. Very frustrating!

  4. The idea I want to tackle after I finish my current WIP has a setting and characters, but no real plot yet. I know I want the two main characters to be solving some kind of puzzle or mystery to do with the huge, semi-sentient magical library that’s the setting, but what’s the puzzle, and what do they have to do to solve it?

  5. Is this why all those literary fiction books don’t have plots? Because it’s hard? And then the authors say “I didn’t want one anyway.” Sour grapes.

    (Of course, there is lots of literary fiction with plots.)

  6. I have to figure out the general layout, first. I can figure out the base of the structure relatively easily. Then it is much much harder to figure out what the top should look like. But it is even harder than that to either try to create a top without a base, or to put things together at random until something comes up.

    In the very rare cases where I do manage to come up with a top (aka the climax and ending of the story) first, or at least early on, things are relatively easy. If I try to put things together at random, I either wander off into the weeds or (more commonly) my back-brain goes on general strike.

    “Sometimes I have the general shape of the plot arc (“the street urchin gets caught burgling a magician and helps him clear his name”) but no real details about how it’s going to happen” is a very familiar place for me – and I must figure out how it’s going to happen, at least at a general, one-phrase level of detail (e.g. “…by foiling an attempt by an invisible assassin to kill the King.”) before trying to start any actual writing.

    Getting the fiddly bits to all interlock properly once I do have a plan is also hard – but it’s a different kind of hard.

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