Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Importance of Plot

by Julie Wright

I am a character driven writer. For me, everything starts with that one character who says something, or thinks something, or feels something huge. I am also what some have termed a discovery writer. Outlining is something I've tried, and failed, at doing.What's the point of writing it all down if you already know the ending?

My messy methods work for me. I have pages of scribbled notes tucked into filing cabinets and several pages more frantically typed into documents on my hard drive. Character sketches, dialogue lines, careers for my characters, ways to poison people, how to knock a guy out in one clean punch.

It's like the makings of a perfect dinner. All the ingredients are there waiting to be blended, molded, wrapped into something tasty.

Only there is no recipe.

As an aside, it's funny I'm making a food metaphor since I don't cook. EVER. I once told my husband I don't read recipes because they don't have a plot.

Which makes this even funnier because that is exactly what I wanted to talk about today. Plot. your recipe *is* your plot. It is how you blend your characters, dialogue, clever means of escape, cool careers, and settings.

An egg by itself is a little boring, but with the right ingredients and a good recipe, it can be pulled into an amazing creme brulee. That is what your plot does. It pulls all your ingredients together so they work.

I've done a lot of reading and editing lately, and I've found that the books that hook me immediately are the ones with a clear plot structure. They are the ones that immediately pose a major dramatic question. I keep turning pages because I MUST discover the answer. The books I've put down are the ones that meander all over the place. Sure they have several pairs of pretty words strung together, but that doesn't make them good stories. The ugly truth of writing is that at any point, the reader can say, "Meh, not interested."

The major dramatic question is what drives the story: Will the detective discover who the killer is before he strikes again? Will Earth survive the alien attack? Will the family who bought that new house be able to overcome the ghost who already resides there? Will Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy ever realize they love each other? (of course they will!)

Many genres have a "formula" to the big dramatic question. Romance is one of those genres that is very formulaic. There isn't anything wrong with that. It would kinda ruin the genre if it didn't. Imagine if you spent all that time with the couple and all their sexual tension and banter, and they didn't ever get together. You'd feel totally ripped off. What if the detective never finds the killer and he strikes again and again and again, but no one ever stops him? That's a crummy story.

So, it isn't about knowing the protagonist will eventually get what they want, it's about the how. it's the twists and turns, the missteps and failures.

Your protagonists must have things getting in the way of them getting what they want. They need to try and fail. They need to try and fail several times. A few years ago, I seriously read a 500+ page book about everything going right for the protagonist. The protagonist didn't have to overcome or grow in any way. I was judging a contest so there was no mercy. I couldn't put it down. In order to be a fair judge I had to read every. single. painful. word.

After the protagonist tries and fails, tries and fails, they get to the climax, that defining moment where it all comes together. Where the heroine finally kisses her hero and knows he belongs to her. Where the detective has finally stopped the killer and saved the next victim just in time.

Dan Wells taught an amazing class about plot structure. Go view it. (ignore the irritating music at the beginning and end.) He taught that  knowing where you want to end up helps you as a writer to discover how to get there. If you want your character to end one way, you need to start them at the polar opposite of where they end. If you want her to end with love, you need her to start with absolutely no prospects of love, destined to be a creepy, old cat lady who trips young lovers with her cane as they walk past her on the pier. Then you add plot twists. Places in the story that change who this character is.

Even if you're like me, a discovery writer, you need to know how you plan on the story ending, so that you can know how to start it accurately. You need to know the defining moments that help drive the story to that eventual ending.

So now I'm curious, What camp do you fit in: discovery writers or the outliners?

5 comments:

tonyl said...

Some thought is needed after reading this post. Thanks, Julie; I believe it will be helpful to me, struggling (according to readers, and who better to tell me?) with making my MC someone to worry about.

I consider myself a 'discoverer,' which in other circles is called 'pantser.' Recently, I've improved by laying out the flow of scenes, though not their content, in Timeline; my readers were ecstatic at the results. So, somewhere between, tending more to discoverer, I think.

Thanks for sharing

Donna K. Weaver said...

Lot of good stuff here. Love the cooking analogy. I used to think I as a panster, but I've discovered that I'm really a plotter after all. My outline just happens to be a 50,000+ word first draft. The real writing happens in the edits.

Pam Williams said...

At a writing conference I heard a very important insight from Barbara Taylor Bradford: Character IS plot. In other words, what happens to your character arises from who and what he is. That's the heart of a satisfying read. I think you do that very successfully, Julie, and I love character-driven books. Carla Kelly has a genius for this, too, giving her characters intriguing backstories that pull you into the novel.

Chris Miller said...

In a mostly forgettable Tom Cruise movie called Days of Thunder, he says something along the lines of, "Nobody taught me how to race cars, I just got behind the wheel one day and turns out I'm good at it." In our context, this is a discovery writer talking to an outliner. That's how I feel. My natural inclination is discovery writer, but I'm trying to bring in outlining skills due to the seemingly endless drafts I have to go through to get it right.

Julie Wright said...

thanks, Pam, for being so nice to me. And I totally agree about Carla Kelly. She rocks writing. It's interesting how many of us lean toward the side of discovery, but find that the outlining is necessary at some point to help us. Chris, loved the quote. Thanks.