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.