Thursday, May 5, 2011

Plotting to take over the world

One aspect of my work that I enjoy is being able to look at the bigger picture in a novel. In many cases an author may be too close to a story. It’s that whole not seeing the forest for the trees thing. It helps to take a step back. And while some authors are pantsers, who gamely stride into storytelling with only a notion of where they’re going, I’ve read umpteen blogs where said authors complain they’ve lost the plot—they don’t know where the story’s going.

I’m a big fan of writing an overview. When I write, I try to use the best of both worlds: an overview tempered with artistic licence when I see a promising story arc bloom. The fact remains that I know where the novel’s headed. I know where the climaxes are. I know how the story ends yet I’ve the freedom to tweak.

And you need those climaxes. Trust me.

I had a coffee with a literary agent a few months back and I’ll never forget what she said about plotting a novel.

I’m going to paraphrase here, badly: “You have to take your main characters, chase them out of their house, hunt them through dark forest, make them almost fall down a cliff, get them trapped up a tree, set the tree on fire then throw their pet cat up for good measure.”

An engaging novel will have you turning the pages while wondering how in heaven’s name your main character is ever going to get out of his or her predicament, as they go from what I call one “oh no” situation into the next. “Oh no” situations are good. They keep readers off balance. Off balance readers want resolution. Good authors offer a satisfying resolution, just deserts that make readers sit back and wipe their collective brow in relief.

One of the methods I use for plotting a novel is The Snowflake Method. While I don’t follow it slavishly, I adapt the aspects of it that work for me so that I can get a bare-bones framework before I look at layering. In essence, a novel is pretty much like a play. You have your introduction, three acts and a conclusion. I like to think of the three acts as three disasters, each worse than the one before.

This is obviously a *very* simplistic way of looking at building a novel and a savvy author can get really creative, but it’s a model that works. I like to add the Hero’s Journey in there some place à la Joseph Campbell, for good measure. Go look up the concept of a monomyth. There’s a reason why this tried-and-tested development is intrinsic to a good story.

Realise this: real life isn’t always exciting. Many everyday lives go out with a whimper, not a bang. When we read, we don’t want to immerse ourselves in the doings of a mediocre person. We want to hear that call to adventure. We want to recognise that hero within, the everyman/woman who rises above the mundane and take their fate into their own hands. The reason why we read stories is because for a short while they take us out of the real world. Heed the call to adventure. Write it down. Make the words sing.

It stands to reason that certain functions of a good story need to be fulfilled otherwise you may end up with a technically good novel that could have been stronger with its overarching impact, the *satisfaction* readers are looking for when they choose a novel. Writing is a form of magic, of changing the way people perceive their world by taking them on a journey, be it to slay monsters or traipse through the Ninth Pit of Hell to retrieve the Holy Grail…or to save that one true love.



Leatherdykeuk said...

Excellent advice, as ever :)

PamelaTurner said...

There's a quote I have taped to my monitor: "Characters can be good or bad, but they can't be boring...The very thing that would put you on medication in the real world is exactly what we're looking for in the reel world." (I wish I knew who said this.)

Chris Vogler took Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey and created a Writer's Journey. I often use it, although I tend to tweak it as well. Again, it's a process that I read a lot about in the Hollywood screenplay writing scene.

I plot. There are times I may start a story without knowing where it's going but ultimately I need to have a plan, a road map of sorts. I've never used the snowflake method but I've heard of it. I often start out with Dramatic Pro & work from there. And I make sure my main characters have GMCs.

All this plotting probably explains why it takes me so damn long to finally get to the story...