Author: not Ross PM
Yet another FictionPress writing guide, yes, we writers are annoying, aren't we? I will not, however, point out problems that 94.7% of all FP stories have and how to fix them. Instead, I will walk through the process from start to finish - hopefully eliminating those problems along the way. Update: a very good place to startRated: Fiction K+ - English - Chapters: 8 - Words: 10,024 - Reviews: 3 - Favs: 1 - Follows: 2 - Updated: 10-20-12 - Published: 09-24-12 - id: 3060741
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(Author's note #1: I have a request! This essay is getting a ton of views/hits/etc - more than most of my stories get - but I have only received one review. What am I doing right? What am I doing wrong? What am I forgetting? I, like most authors out there, love to know how to make my stuff better. Please unload any thoughts you have while reading, as it informs my writing of later chapters! Thanks so much and, as always, enjoy! ~not Ross)
Yes, the title of this chapter really is, "Why Plot is Overrated." Before you go rallying around my door with picket signs and rotten tomatoes, just hang on a second.
Every story, every, every, every, every, EVERY story must have a plot. Did I get my point across yet? Every story must must must must MUST have a plot. Every story. Plot. Are we good?
If every story must have a plot, then why is plot overrated? Well, it's not that plot is overrated so much as I think outlines are overrated. I do not outline. I can't stand outlining. I tried outlining for about a year, and let's just say that I completely wasted a year of my life. I will say a few quick words about outlining, though, for those of you who are outliners – because it's totally a preference thing.
There are several ways to outline a story. Elizabeth George, a mystery writer, outlines her books scene by scene. She writes out key information for every single scene that's going to take place in the entire story before she starts writing. For her, the actual writing process is just filling in a very detailed framework that she's already created. A paint-by-number, if you will. Mary Robinette Kowal, writer of alternate historical fiction, outlines the main points of moving-plot-forward in each chapter. Other authors use the timeline approach, where they write out a timeline – level of detail depends on the person – of things that are going to happen in the story, and then they decide the pacing and things like that during the actual writing process. Needless to say, there are tons of different ways to outline, and it just depends on the kind of person and the kind of writer you are.
Phew, now we got that out of the way.
If you're not an outliner, the universal term for you is "discovery writer." A discovery writer sits down at a piece of paper and says, "Ooh! That would be cool! I think I'll insert that into my story and hope it works out!" That's a gross simplification, but it still proves and important distinction between discovery writers and outliners. Stephen King, in his book On Writing: a Memoir of the Craft, spends a lot of time talking about the way he goes about this whole "plotting process" – he's a discovery writer, too. I don't have the book with me at the moment, so I can't give you an exact quote, but he basically says this: the way to create plot at the spur of the moment is to take your character, or characters (whom you already have a pretty good idea of in your head), and put them into a situation that is out of the norm for them. Then watch what happens. If you have a good, realistic, interesting character, plot will creep up on you pretty much no matter how hard you try to keep it away (though why you would try to keep it away is beyond me). End of paraphrase. I've read that book enough times to feel confident that that's an accurate paraphrase – just for the record. Anyway, it's true. Character is the central backbone of story.
Remember my informational bunny trail about character-driven versus plot-driven stories? This is the way – one way, at least – to creating a character-driven story. Letting a character's discomfort drive a scene forward is a character-driven story. (And by discomfort, I don't necessarily mean that Big Joe has a wedgie and needs to fix it without his potential employer noticing. Although that could be a very, uh… interesting scene.)
Why do I have to make the character uncomfortable? One word: tension. For a very basic example, let's look at a what-not-to-write situation that way too many beginning writers fall into.
I awoke to the sound of my alarm clock playing "Hey Soul Sister" on repeat. Today was, what, Wednesday? Ugh. I got up and went to the closet to find something to wear. I picked out dark blue skinny jeans, a red Coca-Cola t-shirt, and a matching scarf with tassels on the end. After I pulled on my clothes, I trudged to the bathroom to do my hair. I wasn't really in the mood to deal with my hair this morning, so I just brushed it out and pulled it up into a pony-tail so it would stay out of my face. After brushing my teeth, I was ready to head downstairs for breakfast.
This has got to be one of the most boring phenomena I have ever seen in my history of reading amateur fiction. Here's a word of advice: never, ever start out your story with your main character getting ready for the day. Of course, there are certain exceptions to this rule, but it's a good law to follow, especially if you're just starting out. Why does this scene not work? Why am I so against reading this? Why, if I see this at the beginning of a story, do I immediately stop reading and move on to something else?
This scene has no tension. Why does it have no tension? Because the character is not uncomfortable. This is the same routine that she goes through every Wednesday morning. She's not worried about anything or nervous about anything etc. The only way you could make a scene like this work is if she's super concerned about something that's going to happen at school today – but don't use that as an excuse.
The easiest way to make a character uncomfortable is to put them in a situation that they've not been in before, or a situation that they know – or think they know – that they can't get out of, or a situation that they're deeply afraid of. Thus, a scene where a spy is being held hostage is not necessarily a big high-tension scene, because a spy can probably get out of the chair they're tied to and then beat up the guards without even messing up his hair, right? It can be high-tension, though. Say the spy is wounded, or the spy is emotionally spent or depressed, or the bad-guy is really tough to beat and the spy doesn't think he can escape from him, etc. The not-been-in-this-situation-before thing is pretty self-explanatory. Put an elementary schooler into a high school for a day (make sure you have a good reason for that). Or put a high schooler volunteering at an elementary school for a day. Either way, the character is out of their usual where-abouts.
Maybe you've picked up by now that tension is mostly, if not all psychological. As long as you have a deep, realistic, relatable character, if the character is afraid of the situation, so the reader will be also. Because the reader is living through your character for the half hour that they have to read your story. Going to the dentist may not be an inherently scary ordeal, but if your character is afraid to so much as step into the waiting room, and you show the fear accurately and a plausible reason behind the fear, your reader is going to be just as terrified of that dentist as they ever were of anything. What the character cares about, the reader cares about. What the character fears, the reader fears – at least for that half hour. That's the beauty of writing. Good writing, good characters, transport you somewhere else.
But. There's always a "but," isn't there? But. I suppose you can sit down with your characters and put them in an overturned bus together and expect a great story to pop out, BUT it's probably not the smartest move. At the very least, it's a good idea to figure out where you want your story to end up – and, consequently, your characters. A few years back, I wrote a story with absolutely no plot in mind. I knew my main character (a 15 year old girl who was the leader of a gang), I knew my basic setting (the streets of a mythical town), and I knew what I wanted to happen at the end (she kills the king – by herself, not hires a hit man or anything – and gets together with the love interest). That to me, both now and then, seems like a reasonable jumping-off point. Now, I can put this girl in situations that make her uncomfortable and accomplish something that pushes her further towards where I want the story to end up. This something that is accomplished could be demonstrating a reason why she'll want to kill the king, demonstrating that she can kill the king (she was good at throwing knives), increasing the romantic tension between her and the love interest, etc. All three of these examples would, in some way, make her uncomfortable. Of course, I didn't realize all this technical stuff at the time, but when I look back on it, I realize that I was sort of on to something. And what do I mean when I say, "Know where you want your character to be"? All our English teachers tell us that a character must undergo some change throughout the story. This is very, very true. So, I start out with a 15 year old girl who leads a gang and likes to pretend she's tough because she thinks she'll get completely slaughtered (maybe literally) if she isn't tough – how do I want her to be different by the end of the story? Maybe I want her to realize that being tough is not the only way to survive in the world. Something in the plot should accomplish this shift in her worldview. In this case, it could be the romance between her and the love interest. You can't be tough in a romance – it just doesn't work. It's better to be vulnerable in a romance, and she can realize that and realize that being tough isn't her only option. Note how the two – that is, plot and character change – are very related to each other. This is how it should be.
(Author's note: no, that was not a plug for my writing, just in case you were suspicious. I don't have that story on FictionPress, nor do I even have it on a computer anywhere. It's sitting, hand-written, in a folder somewhere. So, like I said, not a plug – shameless or otherwise.)
Thus concludes "Why Plot is Overrated." I may make a Part II to this, because I had a good idea for it while I was originally writing the chapter, but when I came back to it, the idea was gone. That's the risk we discovery writers have to take. But you just have to keep telling yourself, "Well, if I forgot it that quickly, maybe it wasn't such a great idea to begin with."
(Author's note #2: this was written in a couple of sittings, so I'm hoping that I didn't forget to cover anything. Explaining what's in my brain is hard! How this stuff is all connected together... Hopefully I'm at least making sense. Thoughts? ~not Ross)