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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18 Comments

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18 responses to “BWF: The Unpredictable Plotter

  1. I’ve never been in a workshop on plotting (or, indeed, anything else), but these are very interesting points. Everybody certainly does plot, though I think the two examples listed are but two out of many, many possibilities of how it happens.

    I’m not sure about internal conflict being necessary. Sherlock Holmes (easily the most popular fictional character in the English-speaking world since his creation) had moods (in fact, he was pretty clearly bipolar), but there’s never any explanation of what his internal conflicts might have been. So, I guess this has to be more specific. The more modern style is to delineate the internal conflicts in detail, but I think the important component may be that they need to be present. Anyway, definitely worth thinking about.

    The inciting incident works in a very specific way in mystery stories, since the reader knows in advance that there will be a mystery. The inciting incident is guaranteed (as it is not in other genres), so you do have the option of delaying it a bit, since ther reader already knows it’s coming. Agatha Christie used to do this — carefully introducing all the characters before the murder occurs.

    I’d be careful about the “mirror” one. I see this in a lot of movies, and if you don’t do it reeeeeally well, it can be reeeeeally clunky and obvious.

    • Hi Anthony. 🙂

      I compeltely agree with you in regards to internal conflicts not necessarily having to be openly addressed as long as they’re present. As with many aspects of character and back-story, I think the important thing is that that author is aware of the internal conflict. Whether or not the reader is aware of the specific nature of the internal conflict is less important than whether the reader sees the effects of that conflict.

      I really like the “mirror” one. You’re right, of course, about it being clunky and obvious when done badly. But then the same could be said about almost every literary technique. 🙂

  2. Wonderful post! Thanks for condensing those 3000 words so nicely for those of us who didn’t attend the workshop!

  3. Heh. My feed reader had both versions of this post… There’s some interesting stuff that you left on the chopping block. (I liked the comparisons of Sheriff Brody, Frodo, and Pride & Prejudice, for example.) In the updated version, point 1 was something I already understood. Point 4, however, was a pretty brilliant insight.

  4. Fabulous post – I love your detailed notes and appreciate you sharing them with us.

  5. Can I forward this to E.L. James?

  6. I wish I was a real writer, like you.

  7. By any other description or nametag, when something really compelling happens in the first scene of your story, or the first ten pages if it isn’t in the first scene, that’s a hook. Big or little. Yeah, it may indeed be an inciting incident (something happens that connects to the forthcoming storyline)… or not.

    • I think that’s where it comes in that sometimes you need to have things happen before the Inciting Incident so the reader has a stake in the story, or so the reader understand why it’s important. But I’ve read a number of books where the hook on the first page turns out to be irrelevant, and I always find that frustrating. Especially if that first hook is never mentioned again or resolved.

  8. Pingback: Five Reasons to Attend Writing Conferences, Conventions and Festivals | The Happy Logophile

  9. Pingback: Must Novelists Write Short Stories? | JT Clay

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