Writer Jones And the Lost Plot — Start with the problem.

This last week, I described my early books to a friend as fascinating characters in fascinating settings desperately looking for the lost plot.

This is not precisely true.  Some of my early books had too much plot.  Plot that fell and dripped, oozed in where it wasn’t wanted, and festered into multiple incoherent, never foreshadowed plotlets, some of which went nowhere.

Other times I simply didn’t have enough plot for the length of book needed, and threw in one or two incidents to make up the weight, like the village butcher throwing in a little sausage on the side of your roast, because it’s easier to make sure he’s not shorting you by giving you a little too much — on the old, suspension, weigh-balance scales, with their faded number faces — which is okay if what you’re writing is, say, a craft mystery (where the plot is not as important as the atmosphere) but purely sucks in any other kind of book, particularly a more traditional mystery.

Well, if you’re indie, you don’t need to worry about a certain size of book.  If the plot ends at 50k words, well, that’s the size of book you have.

I’ve said before that most indie (most traditional too, for that matter) books lose me right in the beginning, due to muddle.  This muddle is usually wordage, as in the sentences don’t parse.  Or it’s set up, in that the character is described as a young person whose magical power is to make people love him, but he’s totally friendless and outcast (an actual fantasy classic.  Never mind.  Yes, I can imagine it in certain circumstances, but presenting these facts one after the other resulted in the book being returned to the grocery store rack.) Or something else throws me out, like unclear description.

However, if you get me past that point, most books still lose me my chapter three.  And this is because there is no evidence of plot.

If you look up lot, you’ll hear it’s “things happening.”  Which is true, in its strictest sense, as if you look up the definition of writer you’ll get “usual bipedal mammal who can create little symbols others of his/her species can read.”

The important thing is what isn’t said.

Tons of writers hear the “things happening” and have things happening.  To the character.  At random.  (I wrote an entire novel like that.  Yeah, it will need serious rewrite.) Kate refers to this as dropping walls on the character, as in, just as he/she struggles out of the rubble another wall falls.

The most bewildering example of this was when we were all very young in writing, a friend trying to write a murder mystery in which corpses just fall at the character’s feet, and the character goes on thinking of lunch and that his shoes pinch him.  (Now this could be funnier than hell done right, but you need to know how to do it right, which friend didn’t.)

Another writer (someone I mentored) had “things happening” of the more pleasant sort.  The characters went to breakfast and shopping and had a lot of sex, and when it reached a “novel length” it was deemed done.

So, I’m going to give you a working definition of plot, by no means definitive: A plot is a series of events, all proceeding from an inciting incident, which taken in their whole either solve a pre-existing intolerable condition; or resolve a psychological dilemma of one or more characters, leading through a cathartic moment to the conclusion.

As I said, this is not the definite definition and there’s all sorts of caveats.  But if you’re trying to learn to plot, it’s a start.  Or at least better than things happen.

My recommendations are as follow:

1- Start with a problematic situation.  And in this sense I don’t say start the novel (that’s later) but with the world building for the novel with an unbearably knotty problem-situation .  Start with a problem with the world or the character that simply can’t be made to go away — and here I defer to Dwight Swain — the problem must be something your character or characters can’t STAND.  It can’t be something that bothers them a little, it has to be something he can’t STAND.  So, Cinderella is living in an intolerable situation.  She went from well-to-do young lady to the drudge of the household and she can’t stand it.

2- Open the novel with a problem. The problem might not be/often isn’t the main problem of the book, because if you spend three pages talking about the problems with an aristocratic society where your place in life is determined at birth, your reader will wall the book. Remember your character grew up/is immersed in this world and might not even realize what the REAL intolerable situation is.  Usually what sets the character off on an adventure (even if the adventure is the making of a better widget) is some smaller, but equally intolerable problem:Cinderella is tired. She has scrubbed her last pot, cleaned her last fireplace, carried her last bucket of water for the sisters’ baths.  She’s had it with her life.  She’s done with it.

3- Set up a precipitating incident.  Most people are not going to just up and do something about a problem no matter how intolerable.  The exceptions are people with a certain type of character.  “On a June morning, I was done with making coffee for papa, so I cut my hair, put on my brother’s clothes and ran away to sea.”  BUT most people need more.  So in most cases (or even in that one, because the real story will start when the first mate is tending to her after she’s beaned in the head with an oar and finds out her secret) you need a precipitating incident.  This is something that happens that just puts it all over the top, and normally your novel will open with it.  In Cinderella’s case it is hearing about the prince’s ball and having to help her sisters get ready for it.  She already couldn’t stand it.  NOW she really can’t stand it.

4- Cinderella is a fairy tale, not a modern story, still, in some versions, including the one in my mom’s book from when she was little, they observed this next point: MAKE SURE THE CHARACTER DOES SOMETHING TO MAKE THE BALL ROLL.  In mom’s Cinderella, this applied twice.  First, Cindy herself had made dad marry step-mom because step-mom cooked so well.  (This is a suspected addition, since in Portugal most fairytales are about food.) Second, she begs her godmother to appear and help her.  So, the godmother doesn’t just show up out of nowhere.  This is important to avoid the “Walls fall on you” effect.

5 – From the precipitating incident have things chain logically and make sure your character is involved/making decisions.  The type of plot I often see in indie books is “Something awful just happened, I’m going to buy some shoes and have coffee” and while that is appropriate in SOME books (mostly funny ones) it’s not good in most. So, remember the precipitating incident and make sure your character reacts appropriately.

6- Remember there are other people.  Yes, your character should have a hand in bringing about his condition, but he/she can’t control EVERYTHING.  Other people still get a say.  For instance, if the prince hadn’t got it into his head to marry and that the best way to pick a spouse was to do-cee-do, Cindy’s story would be quite different.  So figure out what other people are doing and what influence they have on your story.

7- For extra points, make sure other people’s actions relate to the central problem/theme of the novel.  BUT most of all make sure your character reacts to other people’s actions in a way that propels the novel forward (I.e. Cindy begs Godmother to go to ball.)

8 – When all else fails, have something explode.  BUT remember that your character must have done something to bring it about, and must do something to try to solve it, otherwise you’re back in the same place.

Next week: Daisy Chain – Plot links, subplots and plottlets.  Why they matter and how they can help you.

32 thoughts on “Writer Jones And the Lost Plot — Start with the problem.

    1. Since several of them are practically immortal, a few walls probably won’t hurt them too much 😉 I wasn’t really looking forward to reading Empire of the One (I hate changing “sides” in midstream), but you did an excellent job with problems in that one (imho) (and the space alien idea was awesome).

  1. This is excellent information, much better than any I got in English Composition in high school. Thank you!

  2. Also note that while it’s good to start with the Intolerable Situation With Precipitating Incident, you don’t have to outline everything about that incident right away. It’s possible to drop the reader right into the fallout and have a quick flashback to ISWPI—if that starts the story off better. (Defenestration* is always a good way to start a story IMO. You can quip about the lead up to the bar fight afterward.) (Not an actual example, though it probably should be.)

    *The only word more fun than defenestration is transfenestration. It’s exactly the same as defenestration, except you don’t bother to open the window first.

        1. Two, according to pre-WWII history. Three, according to the modern Czechs & Slovaks. Somehow, when the communists took over, the duly elected president managed to commit suicide by beating himself severely with numerous blunt objects, stabbing himself several times, then leaping out the window without touching his balcony and falling to his death.

          I’ve heard quite a few Czech and Slovaks refer to that as the “third defenestration of Prague.”

  3. Good to see this. Kinda similar to what’s locking me down. Stuck in a circle trying to flesh out and not meander plot

  4. > Tons of writers hear the “things happening” and have
    > things happening. To the character. At random.

    That would fit most of the fantasy I’ve read, and most of Robert Ludlum’s stuff…

    1. I thought that Borne Identity had a tight plot that proceeded from the fact that while he couldn’t remember who he was he could only find evidence that he was a notorious terrorist. The following books were more random.

  5. Many years ago I decided that I liked books that had a beginning, a middle, and an end, preferably in that order. Because I’d come across entirely too many agented, edited, mass-distribution novels, some by Big Name Authors, that failed to have a plot, or were apparently missing either the beginning or the end, or jumped from the beginning to the end with no middle.

    A few authors have defended missing plot as “the reader should be able to figure it out.” I *can* figure it out, but if I’m going to have to write my own story, I’m going to save it to a file and see if I can sell it, not waste my time fixing theirs…

      1. No worries. 😉 Just a bit of self-deprecating humor.
        ’tain’t your job to rectimify mah shortcomings.

        It’s a process, and I’m making progress. It’s a learning experience, and I figure if I band my head against the wall long enough that I’ll knock some sense into myself.

        1. In all serious, it has unfrozen a lot since I realized that the plot was man vs. fate, rather than man vs. himself. Trying to hammer the story into the wrong template was a big part of the problem.

          And I’m sure I’ll continue learning lessons that are equally obvious in hindsight.

          1. Oh man. Spider Robinson’s third Stardance novel has its issues (“too pat” comes to mind, but that’s my personal bugaboo), but it has a great scene of a writer explaining how she figures out the “cry of the heart” (auto-corrupt keeps trying to fix the French) before she starts writing. It’s a good technique, because if you know what the heart of the story is, you can more easily tell what’s central and what’s superfluous.

    1. Page 47: Her head hit the floor with a sickening finality.

      Three hundred blank pages later:

      “You’re very lucky,” said the nurse. “Most coma victims don’t recover after such a long time out.”

      “What happened while I was out?” she said, struggling to sit up and finally making it with the nurse’s help. She sank back gracefully against the propped pillows.

      “Best now to worry about that,” the nurse said with professional briskness. “It’s time you just got on with the rest of your life, isn’t it?”

      There! problem solved.

  6. Note to self : the reason you’re stuck on that story is because your hero had no hand in his own dilemma. (laying in bed with my tablet and really will not remember that tomorrow if I don’t make a note)

  7. When I get well and truly stuck, I introduce a new character. Sometimes that opens things up and reveals new directions for the plot to go. Downside is that you could end up with too many characters.

  8. So here’s a question: What would y’all recommend to do with a story where the POV character _isn’t_ the one with the intolerable problem? But someone he cares about _is_?

    1. Well, there’s always the concept that he either makes the problem worse by trying to help, or that the person with the problem really resents the help. (See Vlad Taltos.)

    2. You know, I had that feeling all through the first MHI. Yes, the POV was the one with the intolerable problem – but it was one where he either solved it or died, and the solution (or dying) was pretty inevitably going to progress in the direction it did.

      Julie was the one with (several) intolerable problems – and he was more into trying to solve those.

    3. Like Watson and Holmes?
      Dorothy Dunnett did a good job making us care about Francis Crawford of Lymond, and we rarely see the world through his POV. But it looks really hard, and agency is a problem. If it’s not your guy’s intolerable problem, how does he initiate events?
      I tried this in my first book, where the MC was not automatically at the center of events, but he managed to insert himself. The problems were still his, however.

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