Saturday 22 September 2018

Plot, by Dan Metcalf

Cory Doctorow is a writer, journalist, speaker and editor of BoingBoing. He's a smart chap and has lots to say on the subject of media, creative commons and open source amongst other topics, but I found myself reflecting recently on a piece he did a while back on the subject of plot: favorite (sic), foolproof way to start a story is with a person in a place with a problem, preferably in the first sentence. A named person in a defined setting is a signal to the reader’s human-being-simulator to get started assembling a skeletal frame upon which to hang future details about this ‘‘person.’’
When you add a ‘‘problem’’ – even something as trivial as a hangnail – you snag the reader’s rubbernecking impulse. Any problem out there in the world is a chance for hungry, canny minds to benefit from someone else’s hard-earned experience. It’s a siren song for our base nosiness.
From Locus
Which is a great tip for how to start your story, if in doubt. Announce who the person is and what their complication is. Usually they attempt to fix it, and things get worse, kickstarting the story proper. Read the rest of the article to get a great explanation of why plots are funny things.

This all got me thinking about my relationship to plots. I like plots. I like the shape of a story and have become fascinated with techniques of how to craft yours. I may even have an over-reliance on them. I hoard them like Scrooge McDuck and his money pit. 

On my shelf I can see Robert McKee’s Story, Syd Field’s Screenplay and Screenwriter’s Workbook. I have John Yorke’s Into The Woods on my kindle account, and the boxes up in the attic contain myriad writing books, from the Teach Yourself series to Stephen King’s On Writing and the granddaddy of them all, Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces. I even printed out every article I could find on Dan Harmon’s Story Embryo (which is definitely my favourite) and bound it into a file for easy reference. And I know that I will eventually succumb and get Save the Cat by Blake Snyder and whatever else comes onto the market. I’m OBSESSED. I’ve even begun to craft my own plot masterclass, which combines three or four of the above techniques (I’m calling it the Pizza Plot Method – catchy?)

But that’s normal, right? I am a writer after all, and I studied scriptwriting at university, back in the 1900s. Scriptwriters are notoriously plot obsessed, and the structure of a film can make or break it at the box office. (Just thought of another book I have devoured – The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler)
But my worry is that I flit and fly between so many different plotting techniques that I don’t truly know what would happen if I just let the story happen. If I let it write itself. Without the plot techniques crafted by others, am I even a decent writer? (Standard writer insecurity, I know)

I never sacrifice character for the sake of plot, which is good, but does my reliance on plot make the story less organic? Could I even let myself sit down and ‘pants’ a draft of a book? (I acknowledge that the term ‘pants’ is a strange one, but it here means to ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ IE. to write without a plan. More HERE).

Do you plot? What’s your go-to plotting method? Are you a pantser through and through? Am I nuts? Let me know in the comments.

Dan Metcalf is a writer of books for children. His new book Dino Wars: The Trials of Terror is out on the 28th of September from Maverick Books. More at


Susan Price said...

Kurt Vonnegut: 'Every character should want something, even if it's only a glass of water.'
That's how he's quoted on the internet, but I remember reading it as something like, 'Have your character want something, page one, line one, even if...' It's the same idea of, give you character a problem and see how they try to solve it.

Plot is important -- but then, it's all intertwined. Character pushes plot, plot and character provide setting, plot pushes back. The setting is chosen to enhance the plot (the isolated ship in Alien) -- character is chosen to work with the plot (it would be a non-starter to have someone like me in Ripley's place. I would have been eaten about twenty minutes in.) And then the plot changes the character.

I urge you to try a bit of pantsing. It's a long-winded method of working, I won't deny that, but the freedom allows all sorts of ideas and possibilities to surface. I find that if I have to work to a deadline, with a pre-set plan, then my brain tends to stick to those rail-lines already laid down. -- Whereas pantsing has no tram-lines and ideas jump out all over the place. This can lead you down dead ends now and again but I think the end result is worth it.

Rowena House said...

Oh, I hear you, Dan. I, too, have shelves of plotting manuals (James Scott Bell an additional favourite to your gurus). Like you, I have come to the conclusion that all this advice can become a limitation rather than a help - at times. For manuscript 1 (rejected) and 2 (published), learning about plot structure was FANTASTIC in the editing stage, and I'd never want to face a full development edit without my gurus on the shelf. But for first drafts, their chattering does inhibit the subconscious urges that (hopefully) will make the new story unique and meaningful. In between times, I find plot structure helpful when developing and pitching ideas. Imposing some sort of a plot on an initial idea reveals whether I have, in fact, unearthed a story idea or merely stumbled on an intriguing situation. But to actually write the damn book, I need a much deeper motivation that the story's potential in terms of plotting, something personal and significant that will justify all the time and effort it's going to take to say. For that journey of self-discovery, I try to set aside whatever I think I know about plotting and wander into the wood alone. Great post, btw. Lots of stimulation.

Dan Metcalf said...

Thanks Rowena. It was one of those posts that I didnt know where it was going when I started! Hmm. I pantsed it, you may say...

Rowena House said...

Pantsed M/S 1 big time. Took four years and ended up with five subplots, according to one editor, who thought that might be a tad complicated for MG. :)

Penny Dolan said...

Pleased to hear that other people have an addiction to Books on and about Writing, various. Thanks, Dan.

Sally Prue said...

Yes, you plot and you plan - and then some blasted character waltzes in and refuses to do as he's told. Grrr!