Six impossible things

Plot is hard: Sorting

So back to plot, more directly.

The next step, after assembling a huge pile of things that could happen, is arranging all the pieces into a coherent narrative. Note that I said “coherent,” not “complete.” There will undoubtedly still be gaps; the point is to get a better idea of the flow of the story. If you’re missing a bit in the middle or you haven’t figured out the end, that’s OK. Lots of folks try to skim past one or another of these steps, and if your brain works that way or one step is pretty much instantaneous, great. If you are trying to skip over brainstorming or thinking about your process or putting things in order so you can tease a plot out of them…well, that may be part of the problem. Be honest with yourself about your reasons.

Also, be aware that you probably won’t use all of the bits and pieces you have collected. Quite often, when you lay things out, you realize the you have two totally different types of incidents and/or plot points. One set is everyday-life stuff, and one set is action-adventure; one set is comedy-of-manners and one set is soap opera tragedy. Or one set is epic quest and the other set is murder mystery.

Sometimes, you can work this as a main plot and a subplot:  your protagonist is mostly battling the evil ninjas, but occasionally takes a minute to hunt for a birthday present for his/her great-aunt. Other times, you have two mutually incompatible piles. In the first instance, you have to decide which is the main plotline. Is your story about a James Bond character’s struggle to do something normal, like get a birthday present, even though he is constantly being distracted by ninjas, or are the ninjas the main story and the birthday present search the comic relief? In the second example, you have to decide which story you are writing and let the other stuff wait for a different story.

You may also have to take a second look at whose story you are telling. If you have an established action-adventure James Bond character (established either in your best-selling series or firmly entrenched that way in your head), you may want to tell the birthday-present story, but still struggle with it because you are trying to swim upstream against the character’s type. This may be an excellent thing, if that’s the way you want to stretch yourself. Or, you may find that your action-adventure character is not the protagonist or viewpoint of this story – maybe telling it from the viewpoint of the clerk at the store will give you a better angle. Possibly the story is about the clerk, and the way the action-adventure intrusion on his/her life helps him/her make a crucial life decision.

If you know the kind of story you want to write (Epic quest? Coming-of-age? Comedy-of-manners? Slice-of-life? Murder mystery?), who your protagonist is, and a bunch of things that could happen in some reasonable order, you’re about halfway there. From these two things, you can usually tease out what the character’s goal – the central story problem or question – really is. If you can get a handle on this, it makes the rest of plotting much, much simpler.

Unless you are writing a Forest Gump type story in which the main character sort of wanders around having things happen to him, the central plot problem is probably going to relate to something that needs to be different from how it is at the start of the story. Usually (but not always), the protagonist is the one who wants things to be different, and works to make that happen. The protagonist may want to do something, be something, get/have something, find out something, or make something happen.

These don’t have to be giant, earthshaking somethings. The protagonist may want to have a particular pair of expensive shoes, or be the keynote speaker at the state convention, or find out why the local library is always short of money in spite of the city council allocating extra for it in the budget. He/she may want to get their car fixed, or find a birthday present for their aunt…or, OK, defeat a bunch of ninjas. The only requisite is that there is some reason – which also does not have to be earthshaking – why the protagonist can’t easily do, be, get, find out, or make happen whatever the something is that they want. In other words, there are obstacles.

One of the big problems that many writers face is that they have a need to know both what all the obstacles will be and how the character is going to overcome them before they actually decide on their central story question. The trouble is, you usually can’t figure out what the obstacles are or how to solve the fundamental problem until you know what the problem is, so this makes coming up with a plot impossible. A lot of list-making and brainstorming is an attempt to turn off that critical/demanding part of the brain so as to spot the central problem/question without all the details of when and where and how getting in the way.

Another difficulty is that some writers gravitate toward the same sort of thing every time. They normally write epic tragedies, so they decide to do a fluffy short story as a break…but all the plot stuff they come up with needs 200,000 words to cover, and isn’t fluffy or fun. Sometimes, this is force of habit and you can push through it if you are sufficiently stern with yourself. Other times, you just have to accept that you don’t write short, fluffy stuff right now. Experience is the only way I know to tell the difference.

I was hoping to get to endings in this post, but it’s already over 900 words, so I’ll save that for next week.

  1. “One of the big problems that many writers face is that they have a need to know both what all the obstacles will be and how the character is going to overcome them before they actually decide on their central story question.”

    This. Or I want to work out how the character will overcome the obstacles before I decide on what those obstacles are.

    And then there’s the small issue of making it plausible for the character to overcome the obstacles in the end, while still keeping it plausible that the character spends most of the story failing to do so.

    I have a hankering to work backwards: Start with the character doing something clever and/or bodacious, along with whatever it is that enables the character to do so. From that, work out what the clever, bodacious action is good for – that’s the story-goal. And the obstacles are built around the enabler not having kicked in, yet.

    I plotted my last novel that way, more or less. The bodacious action was to board and storm the bad guy’s sailing ship in the best swashbuckling tradition. The thing that enabled this was the rescue of one of the bad guy’s mistreated Ladies, which spilled the beans as to when, where, and why the bad guys would be on board their ship. What the boarding action was good for was stopping an at-sea human sacrifice & magic ritual that would “uninvent” a beneficial invention of the good guys. And preventing that from happening was the story-goal, with the obstacle being that the character didn’t know just what the bad guys were up to.

    I’d like to do that sort of thing on a more regular basis. It’s not exactly “know both what all the obstacles will be and how the character is going to overcome them before they actually decide on their central story question” but it is something close to that.

  2. Euraka! My MC is stuck saying goodbye to his best friend because… he needs to tell said friend his “the thing he wants”. That is not what he actually gets/does/invents later on in the story… but he doesn’t know key information yet. I need to figure out what he wants NOW – before he gets the new info.

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