What goes where

Umpteen gazillion years ago – or at least it feels that way – I read a truly horrendous excuse for a work of fiction. Mercifully I no longer remember even the title of the thing, but I do remember the result: I thought, “the stories I tell myself are better than that” (they weren’t. Probably) and started to seriously write them down.

Of course, I discovered soon after that what’s inside my head isn’t necessarily going to be the same when I’m done writing it down or typing it out or some combination of both. The act of taking the mental story and transforming it into a physical (or electronic) item that someone else can look at (maybe – my handwriting isn’t exactly good) changes what happens and the ground shifts underneath you.

Weirdly enough, even my earliest efforts weren’t that horrible. I had zero idea about point of view so I hopped heads all over the place, and I didn’t know how to use settings so there was this tendency to gravitate to talking heads in space. What I did have was a damn good instinctive grasp of the big three: plot, character, and pace. Anything else can be fixed, often with relatively minor surgery to a book (well, not the head-hopping). If the pacing stinks, or the characters just don’t gel, or the plot sucks… it’s rewrite time. And I did rewrite. A lot. Usually in longhand, with a “final” version getting typed up on a rattly old manual typewriter, after which I tried to figure out what the hell to do with it (I wasn’t exactly rolling in money and even way back then I knew that I’d have to go via the US market -which since I was living in Australia was just a little difficult).

Most of those pieces are long gone to their merciful rest, but a few survived to get retyped into my first computer and I’m surprised by how much potential there was. What I needed then was someone to point me in the right direction, and to teach me the things that I knew instinctively.

Why the things I knew?

Because I didn’t know how I knew them. I can’t analyze the pacing of a book – but while I’m writing one I can feel when something needs to happen to boost the tension level, or when I need to slow down and let readers take a breather. I can write interesting characters, but be stuffed if I know how I do it. The books that tell you how to take this character trait and that one don’t work for me. I get the whole contradictory mix and it seems to work.

Plot is even more scary. It just flipping happens. I start a piece with no idea where it’s going and end up a lot of words later with something that falls nicely into a classic plot structure complete with echoes of all sorts of things – and I didn’t put any of it in there deliberately. In fact if I try to slide something in it winds up sticking out like the proverbial sore thumb and has to be excised. Even the bloody subplots just happen. A character makes a throwaway comment and I’ve got a new subplot running.

All this is fine, when everything is working. I get a running start and favorable winds and I’m flying (or at least waddling very fast). The problem I have with it – and it’s one I haven’t been able to fix yet after mumpty-umph years writing (mostly unpaid. My first paid piece was less than 10 years ago) and trying to figure it the hell out – is that when it stops, I don’t know what to do. I block. Usually I need someone else to look at it and tell me “you need this” – although sometimes I’ve needed to spend a year or more futzing around with something else instead.

So, plotters, where the heck is the secret decoder ring to doing this at a conscious level? This pantser would really like to know.

23 thoughts on “What goes where

  1. I general grab either the classic “Hero’s Journey” list or what I call the “Big W” and start finding the plot points in what I’ve written.

    In case anyone needs it, I stole this list from Sarah Hoyt:

    1- All novels start in the ordinary world. This establishes what your hero’s life is like, before the adventure.
    2- The call to adventure comes. This can be a disaster or a literal call, where a friend comes and says “Hey, want to come?” Or something good happening, like an engagement or a trip. Something that takes the character out of the “ordinary world”
    3- Refusal of call. The character refuses the call or hesitates to go. This is sometimes short or even implied.
    4- Meeting with the guide. This is not necessarily a guide. Some processes call him a mentor. Think Merlin to Arthur.
    5 – Crossing the Threshold. This is the “We’re in the soup or we’re not in Kansas anymore.” Think of Chicken run. “Put your heads between your knees…” You get the point.
    6 – Tests, Allies, Enemies . This varies with what the novel is, but think of the fairy tale. The character meets with three people. Each of them gives him or her something that can be used on the journey. You get the point.
    7 – Approach to the inner most cave – your character can literally go to the castle of the ogre, or whatever. In the case of a novel I’m now writing, this ogre is internal and facing it is the entrance to the inner most cave. My novels tend to be like this, so I tend to call this the “mirror moment.”
    8 – The TEST. This is the greatest battle. The biggest love trial. Whatever. This is where your character is put through the white hot furnace and melts or not. What the trial is has been set since the beginning – the meeting with the villain, the crossing of the perilous chasm.
    9 – Reward – your character gets the big reward he was hankering for.
    Steps from this point on are usually fairly short, and my husband calls it “the cigarette.” Many authors, particularly in mystery, ignore this, but books that don’t have them feel “incomplete.”
    10 – Refusal of the return. The character isn’t ready to go back to the ordinary world.
    11- Rescue from within – character calls on inner resources to adapt to changed situation.
    12 – Return
    13 – Resurrection, real or imagined. I.e. – Your character might literally come back to life, or wake up or something. I’ve done that at least once. Or… well, think of the Bond coda. He’s attacked, and defeats this final enemy. Tada
    14 – Freedom to live in the “real world.”

    When I’m analyzing a stuck plot, I literally go in and write /// Here’s the guide /// Here’s the low point and so forth. I may not follow it point by point, but it does tend to show what I’ve missed, what I’ve got too much of, what I’ve rushed through and so forth.

    1. It’s a good structure – but I find I have to leave things sit for too long to use that when things aren’t flowing.

      1. If I don’t know what happens next, I go for a run. The extra oxygen seems to help. Bringing a dog is a mistake, however. She’s too distracting and won’t go zen out like I ask her to.

        1. Unfortunately if I went for a run, there’d be reports of earthquakes in SE Pennsylvania

    2. Cool. I needed this. I’m stuck in a short story I’m working on, and I’ll use it while I’m editing the novel draft. So, thank you kindly.
      I’m probably a pantser, although I tell myself that scribbling down in little disjointed phrases what comes next counts as outlining. I am incorrect, but I like thinking it.
      NaNo facilitates my pantsing. I love the deadlines, the word count, the little bar graphs steadily rising. I like the fact that I come up with weird stuff out of the blue just to maintain word count. I love the fear that I only get this one month where I get this “assist” and that if I don’t use it, I’ll lose it. The day job has given me a gut-deep sense that deadlines are the Word of G*d, so not only do I respect them, the back brain does, too. Sometimes it takes me into things I’ll drop. Other times, I find afterwards I like a weird scene. I plod along most of the year, but in November I fly!!

      1. Deadlines can help. Especially the whooshing sound they make when they fly by (software testing is not a good career to learn to treat deadlines as hard things. They’re squishy and do strange things to reality).

    3. This is a great list. I was apparently on 5, and realizing I needed them to to be in the soup, soup came to mind. Thanks again for posting this!

      1. That I knew right where it was to Copy & Paste shows how often I refer to Sarah’s words of wisdom. I’m a rabid pantser, but that doesn’t mean the raw first draft is the right kind of interesting.

    1. Thanks for the pingback and post. I’ll have to download it and fiddle with it. So far every tool I’ve played with has been a dismal failure, but who knows? Maybe this is the one that won’t be.

      1. I would caution you not to discard the IDEA of using it, if you find it a bit much to play with.

        I’m slow, but it did take me a number of years to feel I had some control over how I used it. Once you get used to the terminology (and they’ve made it easier in the newest version), you let your mind free-roam over the implications of the questions.

          1. I usually have similar issues. I fiddle with things and nothing happens. I’ll give it a decent go, and see what happens.

  2. I lapse into historian mode. What’s my thesis (or in this case, my great big overall theme/plot/development)? OK, now here’s the start point, there’s the endpoint. In what order do events have to occur to get from here to there? Then I try and build the frame to support the major points, and once that’s done, let fly. Caveat Emptor: I don’t plot that often, and even then things changed when a character refused to let me kill him off.

    1. Was that ’cause you were too tender-hearted, or did he fight you? I am a complete wimp about death.

      1. I had one inform me that he was not only not going to die nobly, he was going to get the girl. Wretched subconscious. The girl had been sneering at every guy I pushed at her, too. No, really, put down the phone, I’m not dangerous, it’s just these voices in my head refuse to believe I’m the boss.

        1. We write what the voices tell us to. And hope we can edit some sense into it afterwards.

      2. He fought me. I should have known he’d take his sub-plot and stalk off, after flashing his middle talon at me, since he was/is a veteran and is his culture’s version of a hard-boiled reporter and private eye. Told me that he’s got too strong a survival instinct just to hang around [SPOILER ALERT] watching a tsunami come in. And so he didn’t. But he did make himself useful afterwards, even if he took up with the barmaid.

        1. What’s bad is when the barmaid turns out to be your next romantic lead as a result.

      3. Mine fight me all the time. They usually win, although sometimes they win sideways.

    2. I get villains making redemption plays and usually having damn good reasons for it – even when they’re outright evil bastards. Of course my heroes are often also evil bastards who just happen to be on the right side, so…

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