Saturday, 8 July 2017

Finding the plot by Keren David

One of my jobs involves running a plotting seminar with students, all of whom are writing books. It’s meant to go like this. Everyone writes down the bare bones of their plot, in less than 20 points. We share them beforehand. Then at the seminar we go through them one by one, looking for questions and plot hopes and sharing concerns and questions.
I have to admit to my doubts about this exercise. After all, not everyone plans or knows their plot before writing their book. Some of us prefer more freedom, the chance to develop voice and character in the writing, to make up or discover stories as we go along. The idea of a set plot feels all wrong -  something that will smother us, and take out all the excitement of discovery as we write.
Whenever I’ve run this seminar before I’ve always had six or so students. It’s been difficult to give each one the attention they deserve. But this time only two students could attend. So we had a lot more time to talk about  each of their books. And what a useful exercise it turned out to be -  for me, at least, and I hope for them.

One of them had found it impossible to boil her plot down into fewer than 20 points. Instead she had an unfinished chapter plan for 26 chapters…and a sketchy idea of the chapters to come. She reminded me of my own first effort to write a synopsis. It was seven pages long.

The problem is, for those of us who write character led stories which just happen to have plots which twist and turn, is that plot feels secondary to character, and although important, almost incidental. We care about the moments when something shifts in a character’s psyche, and they realise something about themselves. Our focus is on the internal development of that character, and the story they have to tell. The plot is almost incidental. It is the backdrop against which our characters learn and grow.

But the problem with that is that story can get swamped in reflection and back story. In my student’s case, I went through her chapter plan looking for moments of action that pushed the story forward. I looked for areas of backstory that could be converted into happening then and there. And then together we looked at ways to refine that forward-moving, active story-telling plot, to fill any holes and to make sketchy villains more coherent and well-rounded.

It was fun, I hope it was helpful and it made me think about what plot is and isn’t. In some ways it’s the most artificial bit of the process, because life rarely shapes itself into stories with a beginning, middle and end. It’s the thread that runs through all the other bits -  the description, the dialogue, the characterisation.
My approach to starting writing books has been to approach them as I did news stories when I was a reporter. Here’s the lead -  something that might make a story (girls wins millions on the lottery, say, or boy witnesses murder) . Then meet/create the characters. Then ask them to tell you their story.

But next time, I might just try it the other way around. Work out the story. Think about it a lot. And then build the characters and add in everything else. Sure, I am not a natural planner. But it might, just, be a helpful way of doing it. 


Mystica said...

Sounds a tough assignment.

Susan Price said...

I sympathise with the reluctance to plan minutely. I've always written half the book before I even think of trying to trap it in a plan.

But at some point you have to think about it if you're to build a satisfying story. I've always found it helpful to think of plot and character as sides of the same coin. Think of either one alone and you can produce an endless, sprawling stew of words because almost anything might happen and people often act 'out of character.'

So what story do you want to tell? (And what kinds of characters will fit that story?) What point is your story making? What do you want to have happen in it? (How do you shape your character so it's believable that would happen?) Character pushes plot and plot forms character.

Gina Blaxill said...

The exercise you carried out with the students sounds very like my usual method of plotting - I'm a big fan of post-it notes. I panic if I don't have my story plotted out.

Unless you are very familiar with your characters before you begin, the problem that can arise when you plot in this way (in my experience) is it can stifle the characters, because you end up focus on plot drivers and momentum and what needs to happen when.You can then you can end up moulding your characters around plot rather than letting them determine plot... It doesn't matter so much in some genres, such as crime, which is what I've classically written - I've found it tougher to apply this with my most recent novel which is a love story. Heavy plotting was actually detrimental to being able to write the story well.

I guess this comment is a long winded way of saying some approaches suit genres and writers better than others... and it's up to the writer to figure out what will work best for them! But I'm coming round to believing that less is more when it comes to plot.