Six impossible things

Yet more plans…

OK, since there seems to be yet more interest in plot planning and prewriting and how to do it, you get still more posts on the subject. This one is on alternate ways of doing plot-related planning; next one will be on the kind of outline you do to submit to an editor and how it is different.

The important thing to remember is that the form of any pre-writing plot plan depends entirely on the needs of the particular writer who is doing the planning. It can be anything from a conglomeration of bits of dialog, scene snippets, and occasional notes that, taken together, indicate where and how the story will proceed from one turn to the next, to a highly organized and systematic scene-by-scene summary, to a series of diagrams that look like a programmer’s flow chart. The only criteria is that it helps that particular writer work out whatever aspects of writing he or she needs to have thoroughly clear and worked out prior to beginning to write. If it doesn’t help, it’s totally optional (I almost said “a waste of time,” but some people have a lot of fun doing elaborate pre-writing stuff, and fun is never a waste of time. So, optional.)

Plot-planning can be done in lots of ways, and the process can be very different from the eventual end product. Some writers get partway through a particular process, and by that point they know everything they need to know to go on with, so they quit planning and start writing with their plan looking half-finished. It isn’t half-finished; it’s as done as they need it to be. See above paragraph.

The actual process of planning the plot depends on where you are starting from and what bits are the bits the writer finds particularly interesting, exciting, and fun. If what got you interested in writing this story is the three main characters and their relationship, then the plot is probably going to need to showcase that in some way, or you are going to lose interest. If you have a very clear idea of a scene – first, last, or in the middle, doesn’t matter – then that is what you start with. If you have a plot skeleton or idea, well, that’s what you start with (and yes, people who start here sometimes also need to do planning).

You then need to think for a minute about how you think. If you are visual, your plot planning may work best if you start or finish with some of the more visual methods; if you are kinesthetic, moving Post-It-Notes around the coffee table may work better, or making little models out of modeling clay or Legos. (Yes, I know people who do these things. No, I won’t tell you who.)

The first phase of plot-planning is usually brainstorming. There are lots of ways to do this, from writing down ideas on notecards (one to a card, so you can rearrange them later) or making lists of events that could happen and reasons they might, to “mind maps” where you construct a sort of spiderweb of possibilities on the page, to actual decision trees where you try to follow the different decision paths as far as they will take you, rather like a Choose Your Own Adventure book only without all the text. One of my friends refers to this as “the spaghetti stage,” meaning the point where you are collecting as much spaghetti as possible and cooking it a bit, so that later you can throw it at the wall and see if it sticks.

Most writers start with at least a few things they know for certain. Usually it’s a combination of character stuff and events – for instance, I know that one of the secondary characters is an unwanted third child, but I haven’t yet decided on the character’s age within a very broad range (somewhere between ten and thirty, depending on what skills I need to make available to my heroine). So you look at the things you know for sure, and at where you think the story is going or has been, and at what you absolutely have to have to get from what you absolutely know to the other parts you absolutely know. Then you start coming up with all sorts of ways you might get from A to C, and all the various possible reasons your characters could have for going this or that way, and all the other possible subplots you can think of.

Eventually, most writers want to take the mass of possibilities and alternatives and consequences they have come up with (“F is M’s grandfather/uncle/biological father/best friend of one of the above?”) and start sorting them out into something more coherent. This has three parts: making decisions, looking at consequences, and making up more missing bits to connect the things you have decided and/or the effects of the consequences.

To put it another way: a plot is a series of decisions that the characters (both the heroes and the villains) make that leads them toward the eventual outcome. Planning the plot in advance involves figuring out at least some of those decisions – both what they are and which way the characters decide – and then looking at the consequences of each decision and the direction it leads (which might be the direction the writer wants the story to go, or a totally wrong direction, or a new and more interesting direction than what the writer initially thought of), and finally filling in whatever missing bits are needed to make a continuous chain from start to finish.

For some writers, all this is really intuitive; others have to grind their way through various mechanical systems in order to jog their backbrains into settling on one main plotline. There are tons of different metaphors for how this process works, like the cooking spaghetti one above. Some writers think of it like putting quilt pieces together in a pattern; others, like stringing beads to make a necklace; others, like putting Legos or Tinker Toys or jigsaw puzzles together. Some work best if they have a really strictly organized framework to fill in, while some prefer to be a lot more free-form. Even for the most highly structured, though, things are still extremely fluid at this stage of the game. Plot points and objectives and problems and characters can fly in and out of the story as more interesting ideas or links occur to the writer. This is why you probably don’t want to write this up in indelible ink…

The chain of cause-and-effect decisions and actions can be as sketchy or as detailed as the particular writer wants and needs it to be. Some writers are happy with a half-page list of five or ten key plot points; others need a hundred pages or more of detailed scene-by-scene developments. Again, the point is to do as much of whatever kind of thing you, the writer, need to give you whatever it takes to get you going and keep you going through to the end of the best novel you are currently capable of turning out.

If all this still seems a little vague, it’s because there is no One True Way to do this. Every writer I know has a different, highly customized system of working (and I count “sit down and surprise myself” as a highly customized system). All I am trying to do here is give a broad-brush overview, because that is about all anybody can do. From here out, the answer is: you’re a writer; you’re supposed to be creative; make up your own system.

  1. This one is on alternate ways of doing plot-related planning

    Why, thankee, ma’am!

    Hmm, flowcharts. I like flowcharts….

    Come to think of it, the last time I tried to write a mystery, I used a flowchart. In that case, it was mostly useful for identifying stuff to take out (while in the real world there might be 27 different factions of a political movement, each with varying doctrinal differences, for purposes of the story three factions was plenty, really), but useful it was. I’d sort of dropped the methodology from my mind because to this day I have no idea if the story was successful or not, but maybe I should revisit the technique.

    • When you’re talking about pre-planning, the test isn’t “Was the story successful?” The test is “Did I write the story faster, better, and/or more easily because I did it?” If the technique helped you get the story written, then it goes in the toolbox for later. The actual WRITING part is where the success/failure of the story happens, not the pre-planning.

      • Well, *if* the story failed, it was in the laying out of the clues and tying them in to the eventual solution — which is what I’m hoping pre-planning/outlining/pre-work interpretive dance/whatever will help me get right this time. But I take your meaning.

      • Actually, the more I think about this, the more I’m not sure I do take your meaning. What’s the difference between writing the story better and the story being successful? (Successful in the narrative sense, that is, not in the financial/awards/etc. sense.)

        • Well, at least hypothetically, you could arrive at the same book with a highly organized pre-planning method that took, say, three drafts, or with a thrash-it-all-out-in-rewrites method that took eight or nine. And if it was the same book, the reader wouldn’t know the difference, but pre-planning plus three drafts would probably require less work than nine drafts.

          Of course, you’re questioning whether the logical organization/whatever of the book would in fact be the same using the different methods, which is a valid point (but I bet that there are mystery writers who do both, and I doubt that I could differentiate between someone who works out a mystery story plot by throwing logic at it and someone who does the same thing intuitively).

          I think the point is that if the pre-planning works better for your writing process, the process it not necessarily tied to the actual value of the book.

          • Of course, you’re questioning whether the logical organization/whatever of the book would in fact be the same

            Exactly. I’m sure there are authors who can write a hot mess of plot-gibberish to start with and go back and revise it into something seamless and clever… but I don’t seem to be one of them. (Not without it being hideously painful, anyway.) What I’m looking for is a way to get at least most of the general structure right the first time. I’m not sure how to evaluate whether a method worked for that other than to look at the structure it produced and say, “Well, is it (mostly, at least) right?”

            (I should probably also specify that the definition of “successful” I’m using is, did the story achieve what it set out to do? If you set out to write a funny story, for example, and the target readership laughed, that story is successful, all what-I’ll-laughingly-call-objective standards aside.)

          • And that is one of the problems with the whole preplanning thing: you can’t actually do a proper before-and-after test. You can plan for one book and not for another, but they are never really the same writing experience, and you can’t ever actually say what each of them would have been like if you’d done it the other way. Which is why it’s really about process, and not so much about results.

        • The author may have bitten off more than she can chew, or the basic idea may not hold up under a novel-length treatment; the writer can have great plans but poor execution. There are lots of ways for a story to fail in the narrative sense, even though the preplanning made it easier to write or more coherent than it otherwise would have been. A story can be more effective with preplanning than without, while still not being effective enough, for whatever value of “enough” the writer is using.

          • Ah, I see.

            I think I’m using a rather narrower subset of “succeed” for purposes of evaluating the method: Did the clues all end up where they needed to be, without introducing too many accidental tangents because the author didn’t notice the possibility? If yes, then the method worked for purposes of laying out the clues. The story could still be screwed up in a host of other ways, but those are different problems requiring other solutions.

  2. My way of plotting changes with each book 🙂

    (Also, I just wanted to clarify from my comment on your last post – I do know that synopses for agents differ from regular plot planning for your own needs. But I’m still looking forward to your post on the subject!)

  3. “you’re a writer; you’re supposed to be creative; make up your own system.”

    That one just went into my quote file. 🙂

  4. I’m still trying to figure out how much (and what kind) of planning I need to do, and it’s a moving target.

    The one thing I’ve found that I absolutely postively need to have is the climatic scene near the end. An idea of how the conflict/question/tension that drives the story gets resolved is nearly as important. (“The hero slays the evil dragon with a sniper rifle, rather than fighting it with the traditional sword or lance – and he is able to pull off the shot because he is suddenly able to see through the eyes of the dragon’s captive princess. He then does go ahead and marry that princess whose hand he started out trying to win, rather than the adventuress who’s been helping him through the story.”)

    I also find myself stopping a lot and doing planning in the middle of writing. I wish I could do that more quickly and efficiently, either beforehand or otherwise. It really slows me down. Nor does it help when my back-brain goes on a sit-down strike: “The way forward you thought you had is wrong, and I’m going to block you from doing any more writing along that false path. No, I won’t tell you now why it’s wrong, or how to fix it. I’ll get around to that when I get around to it. Or you can figure it out for yourself.”

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