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Sunday, October 5, 2014

Writing Bits: Plotting

National Novel Writer’s Month is looming closer and closer. I was thinking about it the other day, and decided it would be fun to do a series of writing topics. October is the perfect month for it; hot drinks abound, good pumpkiny sweets are available (great aids to the creative brain cells), and curling up with a book seems especially appealing with the colder weather. Not that it ever really gets cold down here. But that’s beside the point, the point is I am starting a writing topic this month. If you think of something you would like me to talk about (side notes vs. footnotes, settings, ending a book, etc.) Facebook me on my author page. But remember, everything I say is my take on it, and I know other people have completely different methods. All you fellow authors out there, write your technique up and let us know! I would love to find out how you go about writing your book, send me a long comment so I can try your method sometime. Now, for all you fellow novelists out there, and for those of you who notice the bizarre people staring blankly at a wall for thirty minutes and wonder what they are doing, here is the first installment; on Plotting Your Novel.

Have you ever settled in to read a book, loved the opening line, been drawn into the setting so much you felt like you could see it, and loved the characters… and halfway through you tossed it away with a sigh because the book wasn’t going anywhere? I know I have, on several occasions. If you have everything else right, but you don’t tell a good story, you’ve lost your audience. The essence of a novel is the story. Tell a good one, and people will keep reading. Ramble some and you're fine, so long as you bring the reader back to the story. But take the reader nowhere, and you find yourself reading your book alone. Which all goes to say, the plot is important.

My own plotting for my stories has been an evolution through trial and error. In some of my early tries at writing, I just sort of had a vague idea and stared writing, hoping the idea would become clearer as I went along. My books always came out feeling like I had done just that, with conflicting little statements and diverging themes that never quite gelled by the end of the story. And then I decided to write a mystery. And for that I needed a plot. Thus began the first of my steps to where I am now; the Brainstorming Stage. Instead of pulling up a Word document and starting a story, I pulled up a Word document and started to furiously type any and all ideas I had for the story I wanted to write. From that I pulled the ideas that sounded the best, and typed up the final ideas and thoughts of where this story needed to go, converting it into a kind of map. It gave me a muddy sense of direction. But half a map is better than none, and that story turned out better then my other attempts. And yet a few years later, I came back to it and realized I was confused by some of the elements of the plot in that book. Thus I moved on to my next step; flushing out the ideas into a realized plot and putting the revelations that needed to fall along the way into their proper places before I even started writing. It was a better step, and worked much better. Here is my method now.  

The Brainstorming Stage comes first. It is still the first important step, where all the ideas that suddenly pop into your mind when you’re driving down an empty highway, or doing the dishes, or some other mindless chore where your brain runs off and chases rabbits on the rabbit trails you usually avoid and ends up thinking of some great revelation to do with a book, get put down in long rambling sentences with bad punctuation because you are so excited over this idea of yours, and you know you will forget it if you don’t get it written down quickly. Here your ideas can ramble and be as muddy as you like. So long as you understand your sort of shorthanded comments and bad spelling, you are doing great. Write it all down, and have a wonderful time with letting your mind play with ridiculous, impossible situations, and character names that will almost certainly change later.

Polish it. Go back and reread your brainstorms. Pull out the ideas you love and that make sense, and clean them up a little. Refine them into a real idea that congeals into a good plot. If it isn’t a good, original plot that will keep the readers interested for the whole novel, go back and do some more brainstorming. Once the general idea is settled, I like to make sure I have the whole thing fully explained to myself. Generally I do that by writing it out from the bad guy’s point of view. After all, in most stories it is the hero of the novel that the reader follows, and he spends the book finding out what the bad guy has been doing so he can stop it. So when writing a story with a bad guy somewhere in its pages, I have to know what it is my protagonist is going to have to find out before they find it. Typing up all that the antagonist has been up too, from the beginning through all that we have to lead the protagonists to discover, gives a great clarity to where to take the readers. Enjoy it. Make it sneaky and dark, or sneaky and silly, depending on your book. If you enjoy it, the reader is much more likely to enjoy it too. And now we have a good plot! Pat yourself on the back (proverbially), refresh your cup of tea, and start in again.

Outline it. Once I have the plot settled to my liking I put it all down step by step. Start with “Chapter 1” and explain what you want to happen in that chapter. Leave it bare bones, or flesh it out impressively, whichever you like best. But tell yourself everything you need to remember to get into Chapter 1 when you start writing. And then go on to Chapter 2, and so on all the way till you get to the end of your plotline. And now, stop and glance over it. You have a good strong plot all laid out, waiting to be turned into a brilliant story! Go brag about it a little, or just get another cup of tea, depending on which option makes you happiest. Getting excited about changing that bare chapter outline into a story yet? That’s usually when I get hyped about my newest creations-to-be.

This method sounds like it would make writing a book so lucid and definite, doesn’t it? Maybe even a little boring. If you know exactly what’s going to happen when and where, why even take the trouble to write the book? Well, I have at least one answer to that. The reason I have to go to all this trouble of typing up plots instead of just writing is simple yet surprising; a story tends to take me places I didn’t expect. It sweeps you off your feet and takes you along as if you were only half telling the story, and your characters are telling the other half of it to you as you type. There is always something unexpected that pops up when I'm writing. Usually it is mild enough, but there have been times where I’ve been halfway through writing a book and suddenly a great plot revelation jumps out at me from nowhere and revamps the entire thing. And the characters! A character takes on a life of its own when they begin to flow from typing fingers into a book. It’s a beautiful, and slightly unnerving, thing when you start to think about it. You know what your characters were supposed to be, or at least the ideas you had of who they should be when you started writing; but then when you’re all done with the book and read how they react in situations, you realize there is a lot you had never planned, and this character is someone you never really envisioned.

C.S. Lewis once used the anomaly of these living characters as an illustration of how freewill and God’s sovereignty exist in the same world. God is the story teller, the plotter, He knows exactly what is going to happen and has created all these characters that interact with one another. But somehow, someway, the characters still take on a life of their own. They create their own characters to a large degree, even though the author is still in charge. It is very strange, and very hard to explain. If you want to know how it works, I suggest you start plotting and write a novel. Maybe this November. But my last bit of advice? Let it happen. Let the characters take you places you didn’t expect, and be excited about new plot revelations, even after all the work you put into a chapter by chapter outline. If you try to keep them chained to what you first envisioned, you’re libel to get frustrated and stop enjoying writing that particular story. And after you’re done, look back at your brainstorming and who you thought these characters were going to be. Then read over your book again, and see who they turned out to really be. And then take a moment to thank God that He holds the ending of our own story in His great hands. 

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