Posts Tagged how to write a plot

Self-editing masterclass snapshots – do you have a plot or a premise?

guardThis is part of an ongoing series of the smartest questions from my Guardian self-editing masterclass for novelists. Previous posts have discussed how much extra material we might write that never ends up in the book, or handling the disappearance of a key character. The full list is here.

Today I’m looking at another interesting problem, one that might be especially useful if you’re gearing up for NaNoWriMo this year.

Is it a premise or a plot?

plot or premiseA writer in my class told us she’d had a literary agent, who had said: ‘Your problem is that you have a premise but not a plot.’

So what might that mean?

A premise is a situation that seems full of promise. (Like these little clay fellas in the picture here.) But many writers think a premise is enough. It’s not. A premise is static. It’s a still life. (Like these little clay fellas in the picture here.)

Here’s an example, using Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. A bunch of gentle people are taken hostage in an embassy in a south American country, and the siege lasts many months. That’s the premise. The story or plot (I’m using the terms interchangeably, though they have slightly different meanings) is the sequence of events that spring from that idea.

So you need to convert your premise into events. And what’s more, those events need a sense of change, of development. These events must matter to the characters, be irrevocable, present them with dilemmas and push them out of their comfort zone.

Now what might those changes be? Perhaps they might be events on a grand scale – a character dies, another character falls in love, the food supply is cut off, which makes everyone argue. Or the changes might be more subtle – the characters form allegiances and rivalries according to their personalities or political persuasion. They re-evaluate their life choices. You’ll want a mix of both, adjusted for the flavour of book you’re writing. If it’s a thriller or a crime novel, the events might be more extraordinary than the events in the character study novel.

Whichever it is, you need change to hold the reader’s curiosity. You need to treat the premise as an environment, a terrain that creates interesting challenges. The terrain isn’t usually enough in itself. You need an exciting route too.

Still life
I’ve seen many writers get stuck in this still-life phase. They create the characters and the world, and describe it all in imaginative and vivid detail. But they are lacking this sense of increasing pressure. Their scenes have a stuck quality. They write a lot of stuff that seems to examine a whacky idea, or maybe a theme, but there’s no sense of urgency and complication. Instead of advancing the situation, they simply study it.

And even if your purpose is to create a zoo to study humanity, the reader still looks for a sense of change – usually in their understanding. Your plot will come from this sense of increment, the sequence in which you present these observations of the human soul.

So you can deliver change in endless subtle ways – but it must be designed in.

The static character
A variation of this problem is writers who create vivid and thoughtful character dossiers and then present the characters in an unchanging state throughout the book. If a story is worth telling, it should contain events that challenge the characters in uncomfortable ways – and make them reveal their natures. Instead of presenting the character as an already complete image on a fixed canvas, we should think of allowing the plot to unpeel their layers.

So we could say a plot is a premise…. which you have quarried and shaped to show a sequence of change. Or how would you describe it? Have you had to confront this question? Are you still grappling with it? Some examples would be great – the floor is yours.

More to chew on…
Here’s a post about storytelling in literary fiction, and finding drama in events.
ebookcovernyn3In my plot book I describe four Cs necessary for a good plot – curiosity, crescendo, coherence and change. Elsewhere in the book I talk a lot about conflict, another important C.
And if you’re doing Nanowrimo, here are other posts to help you prep.

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Are you underusing your best plot ideas? Guest post at KM Weiland

kmwDoes your plot have enough going on? I see a lot of manuscripts where the story seems to lack momentum, or the characters are spinning their wheels doing not very much of anything. But the funny thing is, the writer isn’t short of ideas. They’ve simply not realised where they are hiding.

Today I’m at KM Weiland’s blog, with 4 places to find the ideas that are right under your nose.

And while we’re at it, let’s discuss: have you discovered your plot ideas were hiding in plain sight?

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Ink or keyboard? When a computer-loving writer prefers a pen

I adore, adore, adore my computer. I have acres of folders for each book I write, stuffed with research links, musings about characters, thoughts about the story’s overall direction. I have thematic notes, background, significant geography, historical events that might make a difference. I write my text on the computer, I have scribble files for experimenting, outtakes files and the text proper.

But there are some parts of my work that I have to do in ink.

I hadn’t thought about this until an email arrived from Robert Scanlon, who’s using Nail Your Novel with Scrivener and was wondering whether to put the beat sheet analysis into the note cards for each scene. The short answer is, yes if it works for you. Personally I wouldn’t write a beat sheet on the computer, but we all work in different ways.

So this will be a very idiosyncratic post, but I thought it might make a creative discussion. I’ll tell you mine, then you tell me yours, okay?

The beat sheet step by step – starring Harry PotterBeat sheet

Going back to Robert’s question, I find the beat sheet’s distinctive methodology ( a sheet of A4, coloured pens and smiley faces) helps me to see it as a fresh phase and therefore to analyse the material for new ideas and narrative directions. So it’s paper beat sheets for me.

In a nutshell, the beat sheet is a way to analyse your entire novel for pacing, character arcs, structure, subplots and theme. It shrinks your novel to a few easily readable pages of A4. It’s singlehandedly saved me from literary chaos over and again.

I tried writing beat sheets on computer and they were a disaster. Something happens to my brain when I get keys under my fingers. It’s like letting a fresh horse step onto springy turf. I just go. Words gallop away and I end up with a long, musing essay about the book. Although this might do me good in some ways, it is useless for analysis.

So I have to write beat sheets on paper. The pen makes me aware of every mark. Some writers like spreadsheets because the format forces similar practical distance.

Index cards for synopses

When I’m outlining, I write the main events on index cards and shuffle them to get the best order. Although I’ve tried this on the computer, my brain thrives on complication and it always gets out of control. Index cards and a fat marker pen keep me focussed. (The cards game is also a tool from Nail Your Novel.)

mar13 003Non-fiction

I plan my Nail Your Novel books differently from my fiction. I write scribbled outlines on scraps of paper. The characters book is nearly finished and I’ve thrown its notes away, so this is the outline for NYN 3, which is in rough manuscript. Yes, those are bits of paper torn from the bin. I love the organic look of them, which reflects the feeling of a book evolving and becoming better. Don’t be fooled by the ramshackle appearance. They are highly organisational and will be much-consulted documents until the manuscript is ready for polishing.

To-do notebook

Each book generates vast amounts of admin. Research needs to be done, books must be added to reading lists. I find it easier to keep track of this in a notebook. Then I also have the pleasure of crossing items off and they stay there, a testimony to another job done. Way more satisfying than erasing them with ‘delete’.

001Schedules

My notebook also contains charts for each book’s production. This is a legacy of my years in books and magazines, where I had to invent systems to keep track of 30 books at different editorial stages. It covers everything from checking cross-references, finalising spine wording, buying artwork, the websites I’ll need to update when new books come out etc. Again, I prefer this on paper because I can see the books developing at a glance.

Ideas notebooks

Journals of scribbled ideas were the very first kind of notebook I kept. I still use them, but the ideas in them aren’t very findable. This irks me and I wish I could x-ray them to categorise all the useful stuff, but alas that would be a mammoth job. So I now dip into them as an inspiration slushpile. Most things I find are rubbish or irrelevant to my immediate needs, but I also uncover useful gems.

Why not Scrivener?

I clearly have the organisational mindset, and people often ask me why I don’t use Scrivener. Especially as Nail Your Novel fits it like a glove, I’m told. I’ve thought Scrivener might be fun, but I like to have some aspects of my books in touchable form, on scattered (but precisely organised) papers and notebooks. Also, I love inventing, period, and that includes systems for my books. Or put another way, I’m a nerd.mar13 004

If there is a general pattern, I use handwritten notes to get clarity, distance, control and simplicity. The big picture stuff. I use the keyboard to indulge my creative riffing, musing, speculating and – of course – for the writing.

Now it’s your turn. When do you use the computer and when do you use ink and paper? Do you have set habits and how did you develop them?

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The ABBA of plotting: video at Beyondaries

beyondmammaI’m at Chila Woychik’s Beyondaries ezine today, musing about what it might have been like to take ABBA’s back catalogue and try to write the plot of Mamma Mia. Those of you who’ve followed this blog since its first days might recognise the post. It was one of my very earliest, but evapourated when I moved from self-hosting. So here it is again with hand-waving. (If you remember it from – gulp – 2009, wave back in the comments.)

As before, I’m in stimulating company at Beyondaries. Dan Holloway writes about fusing perfume and poetry. Shannon Elizabeth Hardwick talks about tackling the blank page. Grace Bridges talks about stories as ‘the thin places where realities merge’. Small press editor Gray Rinehart describes life as gatekeeper of a slush pile. And proprietrix Chila talks about creativity in the very atoms of the air.

nyn2covsmlIn the meantime, I’m taking a blogging break this weekend while I plough on with the next book. Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters To Life is due for release in May, so if you’re interested to know more, sign up for my newsletter.

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