Our Journey Begins Now, But How? (or: To Plot or Not to Plot)

“A story tells us what happened, but a plot tells us why.” – E.M. Forster

“But, how do you know if an ending is truly good for the characters unless you’ve traveled with them through every page?” – Shannon Hale

“Plot as such is not a major ingredient in my novels… it’s often better to sail on the unconscious sea.” – Richard Adams

It has taken me years to write this blog post. YEARS. Actually almost halfway through a decade, since I began to write this series on the Big Three (Setting, Character and Plot), and the Spark that connects them in a haphazard and somewhat painful but always invigorating process we call Writing A Novel.

I did not follow this timeline for the first three installments (which emerged from the depths and into the blogosphere at a tidy pace, between January 2018 and January 2019). I knew Plot was going to take some time, ultimately because – and I will gladly die on this hill – there really is no single correct way to plot a story.

You heard me.

Okay, let me specify what I mean. The “what” of plot is easy to research: we’ve all learned the narrative structures in high school English classes. MasterClass has a pretty comprehensive article to that effect.

What I’m talking about is the “how.”

First, I should acknowledge the intrepid writers who throw caution to the wind and venture into the wilderness that is their novel-in-progress without a second glance at that damn Fichtean Curve. They are on the same journey their characters are. They don’t know what’s coming. They don’t know where they’ll end up. They just know the adventure is worth the end result, whatever that ends up looking like. And that’s… certainly one way to go about it. I envy those writers, to be honest. The National Novel Writing Month community (who affectionately refer to ourselves as NaNoers), have a term for those folks: “Pantsers.” Apt description, to be sure.

The opposite end of the NaNoWriMo plotting spectrum houses the Planners, a distinctively meticulous and cautious bunch, who live by the outline. Org charts and narrative structure drafts are their bread and butter. Planners have a sub-spectrum, of course (why wouldn’t they, these slightly-fastidious lovers of order, who live to categorize and subcategorize)… within this group you have those who need to have each step of the journey measured out ahead of writing a word, down to the smallest detail. Others within the Planner cohort are a bit more flexible, preferring a solid outline but understanding that, even though they created the universe the story resides within, they might not have all the answers at the outset.

I tend to fall into this latter subgroup of Planners. My ideas become tangible through outlining. My characters come alive faster when I have some degree of direction for them in the beginning. Outlining is freeing to me, because it allows me to dream big. I can support those dreams by identifying and filling any plot holes ahead of writing. I don’t accidentally end up in a dead end corner of the story. Several of my failed projects, earlier in my writing career, were lacking an outline. Some of them were complete stories (beginning, middle, and end) but still failures. They did not succeed, in my mind, because I hadn’t devoted enough time to building a foundation that would support the story and my characters’ journey through it.

The outline grounds me in the story, and can even help me see arcs down the road that may result in sequels, or series. My novel-in-progress, Stormriders, began as an outline, after the idea phase and world-building. I flushed out my characters in tandem with construction of the main story arc; well into the plot development, I realized I had enough story – and my world was rich enough – to create arcs for a sequel, and then a trilogy. And a spinoff novella. There is a lot more to explore within the world of Stormriders now, because I connected the plot threads ahead of weaving the tapestry.

So how do I plot?

I start by writing a chapter-by-chapter summary. I tend to see plot steps/chapters almost as scenes in a movie. I write a paragraph per scene. I insert additional character notes with each scene. Who is there? Who isn’t? Where are they? What is happening in that moment? How does everyone interact? What happens to get them to the next scene? And so on, and so forth.

My chapter-by-chapter summary for Stormriders is 21 pages long.

Even though my outlining process tends to be fairly linear, my writing process is not. I jump around to different scenes, flushing them out. A bit of striking description or witty dialogue may pop into my head unannounced and unplanned, and I jot it down knowing there may be a place for it later. Once I have the summary, I can assign those random pieces of writing to a chapter, or scene. I can add and remove scenes, or rearrange them, at will. I can attach my author notes to the outline: thoughts on what’s working, and what isn’t. The summary is the plot foundation. I can double-check to make sure I have the narrative structure needed to be a successful and satisfying end product (eventually).

Another critical reason why I outline is the inevitability (and sometimes obstacle) called life. Even if I have to step away from a project for a while, I can return confident in the knowledge that the dream isn’t gone. The ideas are there, bookmarked for me in summary form.

Plot development, no matter how you experience it, is a journey. And there is no ultimately perfect way to embark on this journey, but knowing your own tendencies and style, coupled with the literary basics of plot structure, will help any writer tell the story they need to tell.


This is the final (hooray!) post in a 4-part series about The Big Magical Process of Making Words Happen (According to This Author).


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Writing Them to Life (or: The Complexity of Character)

You take people, you put them on a journey, you give them peril, you find out who they really are.

~Joss Whedon

Artist: johnhain (Pixabay)

It all begins with the faint early tingles of a story idea creeping through my brain.

When that “spark” turns out to be a fantasy/speculative fiction idea that requires extensive world-building, the work begins. Through that planning and building process, as mentioned in my previous post, I learn the context for how my characters are going to live, interact with each other, and move their way through the world.

But without the characters, you have an empty landscape.

It’s as if they are reading over my shoulder, as I fill pages and pages of Google Docs with the geography and culture and systems of government within their world. They frown and shake their heads when I sketch costumes that are impractical for their trade or daily lives. I feel them rolling their eyes behind me when I write conversations on their behalf: words and statements that ring false, dialogue you’d never ever hear uttered from their mouths.

And suddenly, here we all are. Me, and the fictional people in my head.

I’m sure other writers relate to this, to some extent, although I can’t be sure to what extremes they take it. On the surface, at best it seems a little eccentric. Prior to writing the fundamental bones of the story, I spend quite a bit of time thinking about the people in it, as if they are living, breathing people who live actual lives when I’m not writing about them.

There are many different schools of thought, regarding Character Development; the art of creating characters people empathize with and whose journeys they want to follow. I, for one, start with one general rule, once I have the idea for the story roughly sketched out in the world I’ve painted. I get to know my protagonist first. There are many tools one can use to accomplish this; my favorite is the official National Novel Writing Month Character Questionnaire. Completing this exercise gets you thinking about how your protagonist grew up within the world you’ve created, prior to the events of the story you’re writing. It gets you thinking about what formative events shaped the personality traits you envision for them, and clues you in on what they might say or do in future situations (i.e. plot twists and obstacles). It helps you understand what they want, what their future aspirations are, which also shape their behavior.

My next step is to get to know my primary antagonist. The villain. The bad guy. The person (if it is a person) that adversely and actively acts as a foil to your protagonist, yet needs to be a fully realized and complex person/nonperson in his/her/its own right (this last point is extreeeemely important. Important enough to warrant a separate blog post). If there is no conflict in the story, it is difficult for that story to go anywhere or for your protagonist to experience personal growth, and for me it is more interesting to have that conflict stem from another vibrantly real and complex individual (although it is possible to create conflict without a villain… yet another blog topic for another day).

Next, I think about secondary characters. These are the supportive characters who know, are related to, are subservient to, have power over, are in love with, and/or despise the protagonist and/or the antagonist. They, too, need to have well-rounded backstories and motivations, even if not everything is alluded to in detail as the story is being written. Using character development tools for even minor characters will prevent them from reading one-dimensional on the page. Readers can absolutely pick up on characters who are plot devices, who exist merely to propel the plot forward. They receive a couple of pages (or even paragraphs) of exposition or action, their literary “15 minutes in the spotlight” and then they disappear into the depths of the plot and are not heard from again. Give these folks more credit, if you can. Especially if they create what I call “relevant complexity” within the narrative by bringing their own influence, advice, experience, hubris, perspectives, prejudices, and motives to light.

As with world-building, your readers might never see the full Character Development profiles you’ve so painstakingly crafted for your characters. They might never know the full background and exploits of Character A’s history as a notorious pirate, but they will know enough to understand why Character A has acquired so much wealth, and why the authorities are after him, why he hates storms, and why he avoids a certain port on a certain island. The more time we spend with our characters, the more details we flesh out… and the more details we know, the more we treat them as real people. Real people, with real motivations, with whom readers can empathize. Real people to admire or detest, but always to learn from, and – on some level – understand.

And when I do reach the point of understanding them, the people in my story, they become anchors. If delving into their world is my entry-point into the story, the characters I meet along the way keep me grounded there.

And along the way, I start to understand that the story is no longer, and probably was never, mine.

It is theirs.

 


Become a Patron, and unlock additional content! View the Character Profile for one of the main Stormriders protagonists… meet Ben Corley.


This is the third post in a 4-part series about The Big Magical Process of Making Words Happen (According to This Author).

Part 4: Our Journey Begins Now, But How? (or: To Plot or Not to Plot)


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I Made a Book Trailer!

Today I discovered a magical little app called Adobe Spark.

I stayed there awhile, in the depths of Adobe Creative Cloud. At first I stayed on a whim, to learn, and then to play, and minutes turned to hours. At the end of it all, I came away with this:

Not bad for an amateur, hmmm?

I think book trailers are awesome, and let me explain why. Most of my followers who are also writers probably already know what a book trailer is… but for the folks who’d like that information, a book trailer is a simple way to bring your story (or even a mere snapshot of your story) to life, to have it jump off the page and delight the eyes of your audience through the use of a different medium.

Why make a book trailer, you ask? As a whole, in this Digital Age, we are more attracted to video and visual cues than ever before, as we are constantly bombarded by visual information whenever we hop on Google. As a marketer in this Digital Age, you cater to the needs of an increasingly visual audience; you gravitate toward bright and interesting photography and snappy video as effective means to market your product, because those media have higher consumption rates among audiences (compared to a page-long summary or written advertisement).

This concept very much applies to book marketing. Authors increasingly are relying on visual messaging to boost their work, and news of their work, to their readers. Many folks in all niches of the book community… authors, reviewers, publishers, etc. … have turned to vlogs (the video blog). It makes sense. If I, a reader, can click on links and see videos of my favorite authors talking about their upcoming projects, I get a sense of immediacy from seeing their faces and a greater connection to their words by hearing them spoken.

My Stormriders book trailer is really a teaser trailer, very much a snapshot. It’s a little rough (hey, I’m new at this!) but I’m excited to bring my heroine’s voice to you. My primary motivation for creating the trailer is because I haven’t yet given her voice a chance to be heard… she does not speak at all in the the first four chapters that are currently available to the public. Since Stormriders is quintessentially her story, I wanted to create something that hinted at the events to come, through her eyes.

Enjoy!

 

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