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Plot First, Please!

Originally published at Through the Tollbooth. You can comment here or there.

Imagine this snowy peak (My son just climbed this mountain!) Imagine you want to write a story about it.

You could delve into the climber’s head and imagine his emotions.


You could go straight to the climb. You could imagine the challenges the characters would face. The obstacles. The test that time would create.

In other words….you could start writing


In some circles, this is blasphemy. Plot without character? Are you kidding me?

But obviously, some writers swear by it.

One writer friend, a published author, confessed: characters aren’t interesting to me, until I know what I want to happen. I am interested in events. When I have envisioned the first big scene, I think: who would be challenged by this? Only then do characters come into play.

Another writer says: if you don’t know what you want to happen, how on Earth do you know who would be best to defy the odds?

(Neither one of them wanted to be identified….what does that say? Do we think of PLOT as the ugly stepsister to CHARACTER? Are we snobs about “character driven” versus “plot driven” novels?)

For today, let’s come to a quick consensus:

whether you ultimately read for action or emotion, It’s NOT A STORY UNTIL SOMETHING HAPPENS!!!!

You need plot.

But is it truly possible to start a project answering the question:
“what happens next????”

Or maybe…what do I want to happen in this book? (And my new favorite question: what do I want to say????))

Obviously, many authors say yes.

IMAGINE an event. FROM BEGINNING TO END. Then manipulate it. Play with it. Jump through time or place. See it from all points of view. AS READERS, from the moment we start the book, we begin to anticipate. We guess. AS WRITERS, we must mine events and action for clues. You want to see a character tested? Give that person something to do. The bigger and more emotional the obstacles, the better. We want to know what happens next. If a book is really great, we dream about what might happen.

In Fiction Writer’s Workshop, Josip Novakovich says, “Almost anything is worth trying out in constructing a plot”. Jack Bickham in Scene and Structure says, Structure is a process, not a rigid format”.

Janet Burroway reminds us: CONFLICT is what is interesting. You might enjoy hanging out with friends, but scenes like that don’t propel plot.

When it comes to plot—just like character—we have to figure it out. We have to look for the conflict. We have to figure out the best way to tell the story. It doesn’t happen by magic.

I will confess (without the benefit of witness protection) that my upcoming novel, Beyond Lucky, was in the very very beginning…..about a town for about five drafts. It started as a series of scenes. And then a few soccer games. From these scenes, I discovered some themes and “main events,” and in about the sixth round, Ari appeared.

(He’s the protagonist.)

He whispered in my ear: this is my book.

He imposed himself on my events.

I sort of suspected that. In writing the the first five drafts in third person omniscient, he was, by far, the most interesting character with the most interesting problems.

I have to say: that omniscient POV, although wrong for the “real” book, taught me a lot about the people I was writing about. I got to see them from a distance. When I felt like it, I entered their heads.

Wait….I am not going to talk character. This is plot day!

Let’s argue further: Aren’t we taught to start our novels “in medias res?” If we are truly in “the middle of things,” doesn’t it make sense to know what those things are?????

As long as I’m confessing here, it’s exciting events that make me want to write. I could spend a lot of time thinking up back story and scenes that my characters have experienced. Once these events take shape in my mind, the characters do, too.

You don’t have to agree. But it is possible….

We can set up events to get to know your characters.

By seeing how they respond to stressful situations, we learn more.

When you write CONFLICT, actions appear. Or maybe when there is action, you see the conflict.

More tomorrow!



( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Oct. 20th, 2010 09:53 pm (UTC)
My worst recurring problem with writing is that I always write these books where I fall in love with my characters, but the plots always fall apart. Or don't exist to begin with. Or I realize I have written a book with a hopeless plot, so scrap it and decide to write a whole new book using the same characters, and then I have no idea what should happen in the new book. (Part of my problem is that I have a character with superpowers. It's an integral part of his character! But that requires me to actually think of a plot where superpowers are necessary!) So, although I am apparently a character-first person, I consider having a plot VERY IMPORTANT, because not having one gets me nowhere. I don't know if it works better for people who write realistic fiction though.
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )