Six impossible things

The Wrong Approach, A Personal Example

Plot is one of the things that has nearly always come easy for me. I had to spend a long time learning how to develop characters, how to write dialog that didn’t sound like one person monologuing, how to put together a setting that worked, and how to get all that stuff onto the page where readers could see it. Plot, on the other hand, was what I started with in most of my books (all but two, actually). Oh, it always morphed and changed along the way, and it didn’t always end up going quite where I initially thought it would, but it was always there.

Well, if there is one thing I’ve learned about writing in thirty-plus years, it is that nothing is ever the same for long. The current work-in-development has dozens of characters, a mountain of history and backstory…and an enormous number of plot-like bits that, for a solid year, have refused to jell into anything that sticks.

A large part of the problem is… Well, when you are doing something you have done before, you obviously begin by trying whatever worked the last time. When you have been doing similar things for thirty-plus years, the list of things that have worked at least once gets fairly long. If none of them is quite right for this story, it can take a long time to work your way through the list. And if there are a couple of specific angles that have worked reliably several times, it can be tough to admit that this time they aren’t doing the job.

In this particular case, the last several novels I’ve done have been character-focused. My main character had a desire, a goal, or a plain old job that gave them a direction, and it was relatively easy to come up with obstacles and problems and so on – in other words, plot. My current main character has a lovely snarky voice and a decided personality … and she is quite happy with her life, thanks all the same. Nobody is trying to keep her from doing what she wants, and while she’s not perfectly certain what that will be, she is in no great hurry to make decisions about it. She has no particular reason to be interested in the political conflicts between the various magicians’ guilds, nor in the problems of the merchants’ guild. There are responsible adults taking care of various family problems and doing a reasonably good job of it. And so on.

What this means is that looking at what my main character wants but can’t have is not going to be much help in generating plot for this one. The plot is going to have to come from outside, and it will have to impinge on my character in a way that will get her moving and keep her moving.

This is a lot harder to do than it sounds if you are used to looking to the main character for plot generation. Oh, there are classic macro events, like having a dragon show up and burn the city to the ground, leaving my character with the problem of surviving (and possibly with preventing a repeat occurrence), or having her rather odd uncle bequeath her a magic ring of great importance that needs to be dropped into a volcano, but those would not be anywhere close to the book I set out to write. Also, it doesn’t feel right for this character’s story, which is exceedingly important since I don’t have a deadline or a contract or any reason why I absolutely positively must make something happen Right Now.

There is plenty of plot floating around in the background. There’s the infighting among the three mages’ guilds, various overlapping plots involving city government, and several possible ways to connect all this stuff to international intrigues. There are interesting (to me, anyway) characters up the wazoo, several of whom have backstories that would make nice plots, except that they don’t involve my narrator. There’s a MacGuffin that fits my story-needs down to the ground, except that there’s no good way for my narrator to stumble across it and no reason for her not to hand it off to the first responsible adult who comes along even if she does stumble across it.

There are two to four possible primary villains, none of whom have any reason to be interested in my narrator or to involve her in their plots. There are any number of secondary villains and thugs who might possibly stumble into my narrator’s circle of influence, if I could think of a reason for such a connection. And so on.

Several solutions present themselves almost immediately. The first is to find a different narrator/main character, one who is involved with the MacGuffin or the politics or the guild infighting. The second would be to insert something in the narrator’s backstory that would connect to one of those plot centers, something that would drag her in whether she wanted to be there or not. The third would be to make her less content with her life, or to give her a burning desire for…something, anything, that could translate into classic plot.

After a year of poking, I can say with some certainty that none of those will work. I can junk this whole proto-story and write something completely different, about another character in another place and time, but this story is about this character, who walked into my head complete with voice, personality, and a fair amount of background and situation, none of which are amenable to change.

What I am currently thinking is that I need to approach from a different angle. I have plenty of plot pieces; what I don’t have are the connections among them…and most especially, the ways they might connect directly to my central character and give her a stake in the outcome. I’m used to getting a few of the main plot-pieces and then being able to see how they fit, like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, but that isn’t working this time. This time, it’s more like Tinker Toys – I have a stack of spools, and now I need a bunch of connecting rods in different sizes. And once I have them, I’ll have to play with them for a while to see what interesting shape I can make out of them.

And I will continue on the topic of plot next time, with a little less self-indulgent whinging.

  1. How much of this have you written? Started at the beginning, and just seen what happened? I usually start a little way before the inciting incident – the situation that first caught my eye, so that I know *why* these people are in that particular situation (why does the character make a cryptic remark to another, how did that one get to be a member of the expedition into Faerie, are these two people friends or rivals or something else) and I take it from there.
    And this is usually where other bit characters turn up, who, when I observe them closely, suddenly become more important, though I don’t always know why yet. The overfriendly rival who just walked into my current thing while I am trying to get to [event] could be a foil, or someone my character has to learn to cooperate with later, or a minor villain… who knows? Not me. Not her, either, but I suddenly know a lot more about my character’s lines in the sand: what she will do (trade with smugglers, trick a rival) and what she won’t (openly make an enemy, cheat someone who didn’t try to cheat her first).
    Oh, and the other character riles her enough that she’s breaking her ‘everything in this shop is for sale at the right price’ rule for the first time.

    So until that point all I had was ‘shopkeeper acquires mysterious object in mysterious manner, hijinks presumably ensue’ I now have an antagonist (and it’s personal – might be minor, might be not, might be representative of a group of antagonists) and a stake (character needs to reexamine her integrity and make changes in her outer life that reflect the changes in her thinking).

    Still not a plot, but I can write a whole bunch more from that.

    I think the main thing here for me is that I know the plot will turn up. It always has, and it almost always comes out of the seemingly unimportant characters and events, because it’s easier to see a pattern when there are events on the page to draw a pattern from. This may not be what you wanted to hear, but it might be worth giving it a try if you haven’t done so yet.

  2. Thanks so much for sharing your process while you are still in it! That takes guts, since so many of us like to pretend that we know what we’re doing, or at least look like we do. Plus well-meaning folk inevitably start trying to solve your difficulty, even when you feel quite comfortable tilting at your own windmill solo and neither want nor need their help.

    But the really lovely thing about sharing challenges while they are ongoing, is the support it provides to the rest of us also wrestling with challenges. “Oh, phew!” I say. “Another human who doesn’t have everything neatly wrapped up and under control. Yes, life is like this, isn’t it? Messy and gorgeous, with adventures along all those loose ends.”

    So, thank you! I’ll be interested to hear if your hunch that your answers lie within the connections proves true.

  3. I need to know where it all ends before I can begin plotting. With a beginning (bunch of characters sitting around waiting for me to do something with them), and a solid end to anchor the plot, all kinds of fun and crazy and scary things can happen in the middle – like a jump rope – but the end gives me something to aim for.

    Maybe sitting around brainstorming about where you want your characters to end up would help?

  4. This is exactly where I am at with my WIP. I have characters, world history, and tidbits of things that I think might be useful or involved at some point along the way, and absolutely no plot. It is maddening!

  5. All due sympathetic noises. I know how disconcerting it is for me to have a book demanding some major alteration in my process (what do you mean you want an outline, next-book-but-one?), and I’ve got a lot fewer words under my belt than you do.

    I know how you feel about suggestions, so I shan’t make any. 😉 But the insight into your process in-process is fascinating, and it’s rather comforting to watch someone else struggling with that darned plot-thingy.

  6. I’m having the exact same problem with the idea I’m currently entertaining. Le sigh. I think my MC needs more motivation and more reason for being and acting the way she does. The brainstorming process can sometimes take me forever!

  7. You’ve probably already thought about it, but what about writing it as a romance where her romantic interest is involved with or cares about some of your plot issues?

    (BTW, love your posts and am always so glad when Wednesday or Sunday roll around and I can read a new one.)

  8. This is my normal state of affairs. Plot is hard work for me.

    But as it is easier to come up with useless suggestions for others than to produce useful solutions for oneself, I’ll throw out, (1) maybe put your central character into a situtation where turning the problem over to a responsible adult is the problem; the character’s goal for the story. (2) maybe have the character be drafted as the story’s Watson precisely because she is a completely uninvolved person. Maybe she sees the actual plot unfolding at night, in her dreams, because the Good Magician Protagonist is doing a dream-sending, with instructions for her to witness and record events, in case…

  9. I hope this doesn’t sound like a suggestion, but the image that immediately came to mind was the comedy bar fight, where one character walks blithely through the chaos without even getting her drink spilled.

    It’s wonderful and gratifying to hear a successful author talking about finding a way to make something work and the time and patience and faith in yourself that requires. Thank you.

  10. My, that is a vivid character you are working with. Sounds like I’ve read her/his namesake in about half of my very favorite books! (ok, maybe a third – calm and laidback snark is not that common) Your list of plot attempts even sounded like the plots those books, so I started categorizing my memories and noticed…. you missed one.

    Ok, not really. More like a subcategory of “give character a burning desire”. IE – have character FIND a burning desire. Quite amusing to have this calm, collected and intelligent person madly in love with someone/something. The really interesting part is the character hardly ever stops being calm, collected and intelligent. Part of their own brain is always staring at this new desire in bemusement.

    Don’t blame you if you try “drop dragon on her head” instead. The extreme rarity of that plot in fiction is probably an indicator of how hard it is to write. 😛

  11. Ouch. I’m sorry you’re having a tough time with this one!
    If it helps at all, I remember being very excited about this book from the first time you posted about it. I can’t give any writing tricks that helped me, but I can tell you that once you get through this you’ll have made something awesome.
    Back to lurking. Good luck.

  12. “…an enormous number of plot-like bits that, for a solid year, have refused to jell into anything that sticks.” That’s perfect. That’s exactly the sort of problem I’m wrestling with in my WIP. The Tinker Toy analogy is v helpful; thank you!

    I look forward eagerly to your next post on how you’re dealing with this. You don’t sound the least bit whiny to me in this one.

  13. Okay, now I’m curious to know which two books didn’t start with plot.

  14. You were always so helpful with plot noodling at rafsc.

    The only thing that I can think of, though, is that someone else thinks that *she* is the McGuffin and she becomes highly invested in whatever it takes to disabuse the notion.

    My personal opinion… I don’t know how often it works to have motivation imposed from the outside. Initially, maybe the dragon drops on the city, but I’ve read books where I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong and finally figured out that the main character never acted, but only reacted, for the entire book. In effect, the hunted never decided to be the hunter. It didn’t work so well.

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