Tag Archives: plot

To Plot or Not to Plot: That is the Question

 

To plot or not to plot: that is the question:
Whether tis better for the story to first
Plan the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to cast your hero into a sea of troubles
Unplanned and unprepared? To plot; to pants;
To choose. And by choosing to cast yourself
Into heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That writers are heir to, ’tis a common dilemma
Faced by all who write. To plot; to pants;
To try; perchance to fail: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that plot or lack, what thoughts may come
To throw you off your story’s course
And give you pause; there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long planning;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of prose,
The long hours spent, the hardships borne,
The pangs of ignored loves, the dinner’s delay,
The disregard of hygiene and the coffee,
The quiet toll the life of writing takes,
When you yourself could better your story tell
With a plan in place? But if with a plot,
You grunt and sweat under a weary fear,
And the dread of something planned to death,
And prefer the undiscover’d country from whose bourn
All magic springs, and find the mystery will,
Make you love your story better than any other
Then write of things your plan speaks not of.
Thus overthinking does make cowards of us all;
And the best answer to the question
Is hidden in the first of your thoughts.
Plot or Pants as you think is best.

I put this together as an answer to the question “Should I plot or not?” when it was recently asked by a new writer in the Writer Unboxed Facebook group. After spending so much time getting it right, it seemed a shame to let it vanish into the interwebz as a comment on someone else’s post. So here it is, recorded for posterity. I hope you enjoyed it.

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BWF: The Unpredictable Plotter

Last weekend I was thrilled to attend the Brisbane Writer’s Festival. I attended four workshops over three days, talked to established authors, beginning writers and everyone in between,  and thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to immerse myself fully in the art and craft of writing.

The first workshop I attended was The Unpredictable Plotter with Toni Jordan. This workshop was definitely a highlight of the Festival for me. I’d been a little concerned that a six hour workshop would drag, but I needn’t have worried. Toni was engaging, enthusiastic, and interesting throughout the session. By the time it finished, I was ready to sign on for another six hours.

I’d love to share everything I learned from Toni during those six hours. I really, really would. But sadly that’s impossible. Because even if I did type out all 3000 words (roughly) of my notes, it still wouldn’t be” everything”. If it worked that way, we’d all just buy the book of the workshop rather than attend workshops at all. It’s as much the interaction between the participants and the teacher that makes a workshop great as it is the information presented.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to share anything. Here are my Top 5 learnings from Toni Jordan’s The Unpredictable Plotter.

1. Everybody Plots

I’ve talked before and Plotters and Pantsers. If you’re not sure what the difference is, it’s fairly simple. A Plotter is someone who plots the entirety of their novel before they start writing their manuscript. A Pantser is someone who prefers to write by the seat of their pants and see where the story and the characters take them.

The question I’ve always had is: So, how does a Pantser (like me) make sure to hit all the important parts of a plot? And Toni had an answer. One that is simple and elegant.

Everybody plots. The difference is not in the process, but in the timing.

  • Plotters do their plotting first, and have limited rewrites after their first draft is done.
  • Pantsers write their first draft, and then do their plotting and rearrange/change the draft as necessary. (This means they may need more rewrites, and will need to develop the ability to be honest and objective about their own work.)

2. Conflict Makes Interesting Characters

When we started talking about characters, Toni said something that really resonated with me:

The biggest problem people face with designing a plot is that they’ve got a protagonist that’s so boring you can’t make anything interesting happen to them.

We’ve all heard a million times that conflict makes interesting stories, but this is the first time that I’ve ever really considered that conflict is also what makes interesting characters. And not just a superficial conflict, either. The greatest protagonists have three levels of conflict:

  • Internal Conflict
  • Interpersonal Conflict
  • Physical Conflict

While the options for each of these are endless, you’ll often find that they conform to a number of styles of conflict. These include, but aren’t limted to:

  • Internal Conflict: Self-doubt, Feelings of inferiority, Fear, Guilt, etc.
  • Interpersonal Conflict: Sidekick, Friends, Family members, Romantic interest, etc.
  • Physical Conflict: Villains and enemies, Nature, Disease, Social Custom, Weather, etc.

3. The Pebble That Starts the Avalanche

Anyone who has read a book on the craft of writing will understand what is meant by the term ‘Inciting Incident’. The Inciting Incident is usually described as the dynamic event that starts the story rolling. For example: In crime fiction, the Inciting Incident is often the moment where the body is discovered — without that event, the story wouldn’t take place. We’re always told to put the Inciting Incident as close to the beginning of the story as possible and Toni actually expressed this in a way that finally (finally!) made sense to me:

The Inciting Incident should be as close to the beginning of the story as possible, where the reader has enough information to understand it.

The other point that really struck me is that the Inciting Incident doesn’t need to be a dramatic event. It doesn’t even need to be something that stands out. The Inciting Incident is simply the pebble that starts the avalanche. It is the first thing that happens to start the story, after which point there is no backing out. And that first pebble may be much more subtle than you’d expect.

4. Mirror, Mirror

Have you ever considered the relationship between the Inciting Incident and the story Climax? Yeah, me neither. At least, not until it was mentioned in this workshop. But if you take note in books and movies that resonate with you — those stories that feel complete and encapsulated — you’ll notice that there is a relationship.

One way to create that effect is to mirror an aspect of the Inciting Incident in the Climax. The aspect you choose will be unique to your story, but find something. Perhaps the same characters are present, or the scenes take place in the same location or the same time of day, or there’s a recurring symbol or item.

5. Being Unpredictable

The way to create an unputdownable novel is to make sure that one scene leads inexorably to the next, while simultaneously creating unexpected twists and turns. As an author, the first thing that occurs to you when you’re writing is probably going to be the first thing that occurs to the reader at the same point. So it’s a good idea to mix it up with something different.

Toni asked us to think of a particular scene in our WIP and then write a list of 20 different things that could happen in the very next scene. Admittedly, many of those 20 things were silly, but scattered amongst them were some really interesting ideas. I can definitely envision myself using this technique next time I’m stuck with what to do next.

About Toni Jordan:

Toni Jordan’s debut novel, Addition, was shortlisted for the Barbara Jefferies Award and longlisted for the Miles Franklin in 2009, and has been published in sixteen countries. It is currently being adapted for film. Her new novel, Nine Days, is an ambitious and triumphantly realised piece of historical fiction about family, sacrifice, and love. Set in the working class suburb of Richmond, Melbourne, one the eve of war in 1939, Toni has harnessed all the spiky wit, compassion and lust for life that drew readers in droves to Addition and Fall Girl.

In real life, Toni is warm, friendly, and a great teacher. I highly encourage you to sign up for one of her classes or workshops if you have the chance.

Have you ever done a workshop on plotting? Do these points resonate with you?

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Writing, Blogging, and Wearing Pants

Some weeks seem to go on forever, stretching like a piece of hot mozzarella. Others… Well, I’m not quite sure where the last seven days went. It doesn’t seem like I should be writing another writing wrap-up yet. But my calendar says its Wednesday, and who am I to argue? (If for no other reason than because the calendar is much better at stony silence than I am.)

I’m pleased to say that I’m now on day 16 of my 100 Words for 100 Days challenge. This week I wrote 1000 wordson my WIP, whic brought me to the end of chapter 2, and a good way through chapter 3. I’m also back to writing “new stuff”, which is super-double-exciting (as my 4-year-old would say). I’m really enjoying my writing, and am looking forward to continuing to nail those words to the page.

If you were reading last week, you may remember that I was a bit disappointed in myself when I only wrote 900 words for the week. A couple of people pointed out that I shouldn’t be disappointed when I’d succeeded in reaching my goal, and that set me to thinking.

What is my goal?

100 Words for 100 Days is great. It’s fantastic. It encourages me to write every day, rather than “saving up” for a couple of big writing days a week. And that’s why I started the challenge in the first place. (Which is why I can’t just “skip a day” and then continue with the challenge.) But writing 100 words every day doesn’t feel like much of an achievement. I want that 100 words to be the minimum acceptable level of writing, not the target.

That got me thinking about what I’m actually aiming for, and I was able to put it into words when I was talking with a great writing-buddy last Sunday. I’m going to put it out there now for everyone to see, and damn the torpedoes.

I want to finish the first draft of this novel by the end of October.

There are a multitude of reasons for this. (1) I also want to take part in NaNoWriMo this year, and it would be easier if I have finished this project and can move on to without guilt. (2) After NaNo, I will hopefully have achieved some emotional separation from this novel, and will be able to look at editing it in December. (3) At the beginning of the year, I said that I was going to take this year off work to concentrate on writing, so that I could prove to myself that I could make a career of it. (Alright, I was also having a baby, but let’s ignore that for the moment.) Finishing by the end of October gives me a better chance of doing so. (4) Because I damn well want to, and I’m just stubborn like that.

I still believe I can achieve this goal, but it means that I need to be writing almost 5000 words a week, not 1000. Something needs to change. A lot of somethings need to change. But the primary one is the amount of writing time I have on a daily basis.

My first thought was that I could save myself an hour or two every day if I sent my kids out to scavenge their own food on the streets, rather than spending all that time preparing, cooking, serving, and cleaning up dinner each night. But that seemed a little unfair. Especially since Baby can’t even crawl yet.

Instead, I’ve decided to cut back on blogging.

Up until now, I’ve been blogging every day. And loving it. But I can grant myself a bit extra time each week by cutting out a couple of posts, and I’ll still be posting 5 times a week. My new blogging schedule looks like this:

  • Monday: Monday’s Top 5 – A list of my 5 favourite posts from the blogosphere last week.
  • Tuesday: Flash Fiction – This may not happen every week, but will be a chance for me to stretch my storytelling muscles in a different direction, and share the results with you, my readers.
  • Wednesday: All things Writing – Incorporating my usual Wednesday Writing Wrap-Up and Friday’s Writing Thoughts.
  • Friday: Life As We Know It – Kids, Parenting, Opinions, and other Random Things.
  • Saturday: Books, Authors, and Other Geekery.

This is going to start as of ….. now. So wish me luck with writing rather than posting tomorrow!

In a mostly unrelated topic…

I don’t just spend my time writing long, rambling blog posts. I also spend it reading blogs. At last count, I was subscribed to just over 70 blogs through Google Reader. Of those 70, I’d hazard a guess that 50 are related to writing, writers, or publishing in some shape or form. So I read a lot of posts about how to write, how to edit, how to get an agent, how to get published, how to self-publish, etc. etc. etc. I also try to read as many of the comments other people post as possible.

Over the last week, I’ve become increasingly aware of how many people preface their comments with phrases like: “I’m a pantser, so I don’t…” or “I can’t do that, because I’m a planner…” or “Because I’m a pantser, I only….” or even “I’m part of the ‘planner’ club, and…”

Really? Because I don’t remember getting my secret decoder ring when I joined the panster club.

Now, I’m not saying that Pansters and Plotters don’t exist. But I didn’t think the two styles were so mutually exclusive that the skills of one don’t apply to the other. Nor did I think we were supposed to add our preferred style to the end of our name, like some kind of class designation. “Hello. I’m Jo Eberhardt - Panster Extraordinaire.”

(If there’s any non-writers still brave enough to be reading this, let me explain. Pansters sit and write by the “seat of their pants”, watching the story unfold as they do so. Plotters work out the plot first, often via a detailed outline, before they start to write.)

It’s easy to fall back on something like being a pantser or a plotter as a way of avoiding stepping outside our comfort zones. It’s not impossible to move from one camp to the other. It’s not impossible to use different styles for different projects. And while it may be helpful to understand your own preferred writing style, I don’t think it’s helpful to pigeon-hole yourself so tightly that you don’t expand your skill base.

What do you think?

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Wanted: Plot Device

Ever wonder where authors and screenwriters get their ideas? This short film reveals their secrets so that you, too, can write amazing stories. All you need is a Plot Device.

Actually, none of that is true. But it is a serously awesome short film about a screenwriter who orders a Plot Device online.

Warning: Video contains epic cool.

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