Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Plot Thickens

I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren't compatible. ~ Stephen King

I like Stephen King’s quote here, largely because it justifies my own sad inability to plot. Well, I don’t totally lack the ability, I’m just not very good at it. I envy those who, like JK Rowling, saw the entire span of her storyline unfold with perfect clarity, from the very get-go. What must that be like? I rarely know what’s going to happen paragraph by paragraph. I am like a climber rose that someone forgot to provide with a trellis, so I just meander all over the place.

In an effort to discipline myself, I bought some how-to books. I even read them. You may be familiar with some titles: Twenty Master Plots, The Writer’s Journey, First Draft in 30 Days, Scene & Structure, and Beginnings, Middles & Ends. The one I found the least helpful is First Draft in 30 Days, by Karen S. Wiesner. This book may be exactly what many writers need, but it was too cerebral for me. Formats, outlines, daily goals, worksheets, timelines. I do some of this on my own as I write, when I organically need it, but I find I can spend all day filling out detailed character worksheets (What kind of clothes does she wear? What kind of job does she have? If she was a dog breed, what dog breed would she be? This is fun!) and forget to do any actual writing.

Twenty Master Plots, by Ronald B. Tobias, is a dead useful book. Any aspiring novelist or screenwriter should read it, simply for the ideas it presents. Obviously, you should not approach a novel as if it were a recipe, and Tobias does not. He indicates that your story is probably already following one of these master plots anyway, and the first job is recognizing which one it is. Not too many stories fall neatly into the twenty, but he gives great examples, and the breakdown gives the rambling writer a trellis on which to climb. I couldn’t sort out, for example, whether my 19th-century novel was a quest plot or a maturation plot. It has elements of both, but in reading through the examples and how each unfolds, I felt I had a much better handle on how my story should progress.

From the Elements of Fiction Writing, the Writer’s Digest how-to series, comes Scene & Structure, Beginnings, Middles & Ends, and Plot. All three books were interesting, but Scene & Structure is essential. It might even be the first book any aspiring novelist should read, because the most common mistake I see in new writers is an inability to write in scenes. As that author, Jack Bickham, points out, a novel is basically a series of scenes. Once you figure out what scenes you must include to get your story told, you’re going to have something very much like a plot outline. On the downside, I found that Bickham’s actual rules of what a scene is supposed to look like are too rigid for me; most novels I read, too, simply do not follow his pattern, which is “1. Statement of a goal, 2. Introduction and development of a conflict, and 3. Failure of the character to reach his goal, a tactical  disaster.” While that seems awfully formulaic, and we can all think of a million counterexamples, it’s a decent loose idea for a writer to have in the back of her mind. It’s also not a bad way to approach a scene you’re struggling with.

The Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogel, is such a classic that I’m willing to bet most of our followers have it on their bookshelf. I love this book; I love thinking about it as I read a novel or watch a movie: Ooh! Our hero has just crossed the First Threshold! Ooh, we have just met the Mentor! Ooh, I bet that guy is the Shapeshifter! Uh-oh, I think we’ve just approached the Supreme Ordeal. It’s the kind of book you should think about as a consumer of stories, but I don’t pay a great deal of attention to it when I’m structuring my own … the Hero’s Journey on which the The Writer’s Journey is based is deeply subconscious. It doesn’t work well, in my experience, if you consciously design a story based on the timeless structure. (Unless you are George Lucas.)

A last point I’d like to make about plotting is that the subject tends to come up as an either-or: Either you are someone who writes the way King does, making it all up as you go along; or you are someone who comes up with a complete outline before you type a word of story. I don’t think too many people really fit these extremes. Although I’m more a seat-of-the-pants writer, I find that after about 100 pages of happily pounding at the keyboard in an undisciplined manner, I start to see an actual story emerge, with a possible endpoint. At this point I really need to do a little outlining: not because it’s The Rule, but because I feel compelled to. I set up a couple ways the story might go, in summary, and see how I feel about each. Then I have that trellis on which to twine the next 100 pages. This also helps me identify what major scenes I’ll need to get the story told, to get my main characters from the beginning of the story to the end.

How do you work? Do you agree with King about plot, or are you a meticulous plotter-aheader? Where did you get your ideas about story plotting?


  1. I use the historical framework as my bare-bones plot, then add in the characterization to make my plot twists. So I'm somewhere between a pantster and a plotter.

    I have to have my historical facts straight!

    1. Stephanie (great name!), you are so right: writers of historical fiction have a particular limit: their story has to align with history! My historical fiction has no big historical events in it, so my plot is not at limited ... only the milieu.

  2. Dear Sister Stephanie, I have to let Master King have the last word as usual. Plot is important, plotting is not. I always felt that the last chapter matters more than Chapter One (despite hat the industry says) and as long as you know how your story will end everything is all right. Not! I am always changing my final chapter!
    What I think is important is to know what is the central conflict/ question/ mystery in your story and it´s outcome/solution. Everything else is secondary.
    I did not get my plot structure fro manuals (and I have read my share) but from a folklore class I took in my sophomore year in college. It always follows the “heroic quest” pattern. Protagonist is given a task to fulfill and embarks himself/herself in a quest, runs into trouble, meets mentor, falls in love ect. All that matters is that by “The end” word the task has been completed and protagonist has done a bit of growing-up thanks to the journey.

    1. That sounds very much like the Writer's Journey, Sister Violante! Which is based on Joseph Campbell's seminal work in folklore. Have you read Campbell's "The Hero With A Thousand Faces?" You probably referred to it in your class. It is a good structure to have in mind, of course, but some feminists have pointed out that the Hero's Journey is not really the same as the Heroine's Journey. Some have come up with alternate plots for the archetypal Heroine. (If you google it, you'll see many hits.) I thought the alternatives were pretty interesting.

    2. Poor Joseph Campbell was a bit of a misogynist. He didn’t believe that women went into quests. Universal folklore has plenty of heroine’s quest accounts. You find them in the Arabian Nights and in Andersen tales. And I don´t see feminine quests as very different from the Hero’s, aside from the fact that women tend to use their brains and magic as an alternative to brute force.

      In my novels I even have the heroine run into a “man-as-a-temptress” figure. Something that Campbell didn’t think about!

      What are the differences between both journeys according to feminists?

    3. You'll find different versions of it, but here's one (from

      1. Call to Adventure.
      2. Refusal of the Call
      3. Mentor & Talisman
      4. Crossing the Threshold
      5. Sidekicks, Trials, Adversaries
      6. Wedding the Animus
      7. Confronting the Powerless Father
      8. Defeating the Shadow/The Nadir of the World
      9. Atonement with the Mother
      10. Reward: Winning the Family
      11. The Magic Flight
      12. Return
      13. Power over Life & Death
      14. Ascension of the New Mother

      I have a much longer and greatly detailed outline I got from somewhere: I can zip it to you (and anyone else who's interested) in an email if you like. It's a bit long for a comment. It's kind of interesting, though.

    4. This is fascinating! Tank you very much. I had never heard of this scheme and yet my novel follows almost all the steps.

  3. I'm a bit like Stephanie T. since I, too, write historical. For me, it all starts with a time period or an event that catches my attention. For instance, my next novel will center around one of the deadliest forest fires that took place in Montana in the late 1940s. My main characters will be fictional and they will be at the center of what happens in the story. Historical is difficult to write because I need to have my facts straight, but when it comes to setting up the framework, history is right there to use and I plug the story in as it goes along. After all, the stock market crash of 1929 only happened once and the first a-bomb dropped only once, so a writer would be hard-pressed to foul those facts up in order to create a completely different story that rambles on and on.

    Thanks for sharing all those books, though. There's one or two that I haven't read.

  4. Sister Steph, there's so much to say about this subject I don't even know where to begin.

    I haven't read "Twenty Master Plots" but I've read "The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories" by Christopher Booker, which I assume must condense some of the plots that Tobias mentions (which seems funny if you look at the size of Booker's book--over 700 pages!). Let's see, Booker boils it down to: Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Overcoming the Monster, Comedy, Tragedy and Rebirth. Now I'm curious to see what other thirteen plots Tobias came up with.

    Another good book on this subject is "Plot and Structure" by James Scott Bell. But I agree with you in that some of these books can be too cerebral. I can't approach writing like that, either, or analyze and plan a scene to that degree. However, I think it's very useful to learn the basics and how storytelling works so, like you say, we're not just going on tangents and rambling without a purpose. I can't agree completely with King (although his method has clearly worked VERY well for him, though I find it hard to believe that he didn't plot "The Shawshank Redemption") I suppose a spontaneous method works for many writers, but in my own experience, when I've started writing without much of a plan or projection of where the story is heading, I haven't been able to finish. If I spend a good amount of time planning the entire novel before I begin writing it, I'm more likely to finish it. My outlines are not rigid at all, and I always "listen" or give priority to how a scene/chapter develops in the actual novel rather than the outline. I don't follow the "hero's journey" strictly, but I think of its most fundamental elements as I'm writing.

    I agree with both Stephanie and Sister Mary that historical fiction can make our jobs much easier since we can use actual events to determine where the plot needs to go. (This was the case of my second novel.) But there are so many other elements to consider that make historical harder than contemporary fiction!

    1. I thought about including Tobias's plots, but I try to keep my blogs under 1000 words and I was already way over! (I cut it down.) But I can whitter on forever in my responses. :D So here they are:

      • Quest
      • Adventure
      • Pursuit
      • Rescue
      • Escape
      • Revenge
      • The Riddle
      • Rivalry
      • Underdog
      • Temptation
      • Metamorphosis
      • Transformation
      • Maturation
      • Love
      • Forbidden Love
      • Sacrifice
      • Discovery
      • Wretched Excess

      Of course there's so much to say about each one, including what makes them unique (how is "metamorphosis" different from "tranformation," for example?). I could have written a whole post just on that book. Maybe another time! I wil check out the Booker book. Tobias's is only 232 pages. :)

  5. I think the experience of every writer has enough uniqueness that it is difficult to lump us into categories. That said, here has been mine.

    Write a draft with moderate plotting.
    Revise/rewrite it -- plot remains a bit static.

    Write a second book with almost no plot -- indulge for 475 pages.
    Rewrite it after page 65 -- the outline of an ability to plot coming into focus.

    Write a third book -- plotting skills beginning to take on more than just contours. Scared of plotting skills as they begin to emerge! Shy away.

    Start several books. 'Plot,' 'conflict' and 'drama,' like creatures, want more voice. Struggle with them because I have always despised the feeling that something will read 'contrived.'

    Read advice that all plotting is contrivance and manipulation and that I, as an author, need to develop this. Chafe endlessly. Sulk. Become snarled in philosophies, failed attempts at further revision and general malaise.

    Try to revise first book according to agent feedback to, yep, ratchet up the tension. Hate what is coming out. Everything feels forced, unnatural. Impossible to explain in simple sentences. Hate feeling like I will a) never find my way out of the maze and b) as a result will never feel years of effort will culminate in something legitimate.

    Don't work for nearly two months.

    Take up third book to revise with the feedback of two agents. Third book exhibits the most structural promise but the plot is still the weakest element. Know these characters inside out. Know that, even as I began, there was the seed of a story, not just the beautiful ramblings of a 'climber rose without a trellis' (gorgeous metaphor, btw) and am surprised to find that, with a bit of pruning, the seed has burst and something is issuing forth.

    Plot and the creative impulse can work in concert. It is a long, frustrating, heartrending, doubt-filled, climb with piss and vinegar in your eyes every fistful of rock and shard and dirt on the way up.

    It's also a very private struggle to force the two to mate. But when they start to rock together in angry, blissed-out unison, there comes the realization that every step was necessary. The marriage happens after a near debilitating courtship. But the pair were always meant to be.

    Take heart. And don't imagine that blind alleys are tantamount to giving up.

    1. Thank you, as always, for your words of encouragement, Suze! I love your recap of your journey: funny + beautiful.

  6. Regis confesses: I'd like to think I am like king, and to a certain extent it is so, but the only thing I had in mind was the maturation of the young MC, then I tried to fill his years with interesting people and events. Beta readers pointed out the lack of conflict, which was remedied,to a certain extent, as well as throwing out (without tears), certain characters and happenings. I did achieve the ending that I had planned,
    I read Trollope's autobiography (on The last few ch. have a lot of discussions of characters, plots etc. He says: When I sit down to write a novel I do not at all know, and I do not very much care, how it is to end. Wilkie Collins seems to construct his so that he not only, before writing, plans everything on, down to the minutest detail, from the beginning to the end; but then plots it all back again, Another thought provoking post, Thanks, Stephanie.

  7. An afterthought: Trollope's works are relegated to the ash heap, while Collins' are still in print and studied in schools. Does that say something about planning ahead? King might say no. Regis

  8. From what I've read and heard, writers fall into two broad camps- plotter and non-plotters. Neither understands the other. Both think the other is completely crazy. It's one of those great rifts with little common ground. I say stick with whatever works for you.


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