Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Mechanics of Plotting

One of the best features of my house is the fact that there is an oversized Jacuzzi tub in the master bath. It is my little piece of heaven.

Yesterday, I was enjoying my little piece of heaven when I thought I’d use the bath salts that had been sitting there on the sill for far too long. I took one corner of the bag they were in and poured it into my heavenly bath. And I sucked in a breath.

Two dead flies had come out of the bag with the bath salts and their little dead bodies had broken up upon impact with the water.

Needless to say, my bath was ruined.

What does this have to do with writing you ask?

As an author, I think when we are plotting a story, it can be just like my dead fly experience. Our characters are going along, living life and thinking happy thoughts—like wouldn’t bath salts just add to my happiness? (Which of course is the basic exposition of a story. You could probably include rising action here) And then, bam, something unexpected and horrible happens. Like a murder for example. (Poor flies) Or a disappearance. (Was their fly family looking for them all this time?) (For those of us who write suspense.) And not only does this horrible thing happen, (the conflict) it disintegrates further and the repercussions ripple through the entire cast of characters in the story—just like the little dead fly body. (Falling action and then resolution if you're following basic plot structure.)

It’s brilliant really how well this horrifying fly incident went with my thoughts on plotting.

But to take it a step further, after figuring out a basic plan of where your story/plot is going, there are three more basics of planning a plot that every story should have.

1. Have an unexpected twist.

How do you wrap things up when you’re trying to make your plot fresh and original? Perhaps I did the predictable thing by quickly getting out of the tub and washing the little fly parts down the drain. If I were plotting a book, I should do something surprising or unexpected, like capture each little body part or something. (Ew.) Every author wants to provide the audience with that unexpected twist or a character who does something they never dreamed they’d do. It’s all about finding your own original voice and figuring out how to get it across as the author, and make it all plausible at the same time. That's not hard right? Yeah, right. (Oddly, I do get most of my best ideas for plotting when I’m near water. Hence, the bath thing. Go figure.)

2. Your characters should grow

Really, though, that’s the glory of plotting—there are so many directions that an author could take with any given situation. One thing is always certain, however, and it’s that in a good plot, the hero/heroine are never the same. They are forever changed and have hopefully grown from whatever experience they’ve had in the book. It makes them more real and three dimensional when the plot actually does this and, as a reader, I know I feel like my time was well-spent when I see that kind of character growth in a story. Of course, after my fly experience I know I’ve certainly changed. I will never look at bath salts the same again. And I will always, always, look carefully before I pour anything into the bathtub.

3. Know the end from the beginning

But that’s also where I went wrong in my little plotting/dead fly scenario. A good author will know her plot from the beginning, or at least have beats of it written somewhere as she’s writing. There aren’t a whole lot of surprises for an author of a well-written plot. And if we’re comparing what happened to me, I didn’t know the end from the beginning in that I was stunned by the dead flies and didn’t think to look before I poured. However, I’ve learned my lesson, and I am definitely applying this little analogy to my work in progress, by working on the subtle beats of tension in each chapter and doing a quick outline to get me to the place where I know the end. I know if I work this out in my head, my writing will be crisper as I try to ratchet up the tension with each page as we work toward the final showdown.

So, a the basic mechanics of planning a good plot will include:

---Some idea of where you are going, whether you outline it all, or write a few ideas down.

---Your character will grow through the story you have plotted for them.

---There should be a twist of some kind to make your plot fresh and original.

---The author should generally know the end from the beginning.

And now can we have a moment of silence for the two flies who lost their lives so this post could be possible . . .


Debra Erfert said...

I pre-write scenes. When ideas so blazingly stand out in my thoughts, I need to get them down on paper (you know what I mean) even thought the scenes are out of order. I can see my characters grow from their hobbled conditions, but I still need to create the links to bind them together. Does that make sense? Thanks for the reminder about the needed twists to keep things fresh, besides the cool ending I have planned.

Great post, Julie. You never disappoint.

Jon Spell said...

Since it's so commonplace for a mystery to have a twist, wouldn't it be more fresh and original to NOT have a twist?

Detective Bob found the murderer standing there with the gun in his hand, looking down at the body. Several witnesses saw him shoot the man after a loud, messy argument.

After some investigation, it was determined that he had shot the other man after losing a contested bet. (He could only name 45 states.)

Case closed.

I bet you'd be shocked, though, if you read a mystery where there were no twists. Then you'd throw the book at the wall and put a lousy review on Goodreads. ;)

Julie Coulter Bellon said...

Jon, I know you won't believe me, but I actually did think that maybe a twist would be not to have a twist, but you're right, the readers would be mad and give a lousy review. LOL

Debra, I totally see what you are saying and it's so true. All the best stuff seems to come in the linking together, though, don't you think?

Heather B. Moore said...

Great analogies :-)

Anonymous said...

In your KNOW THE END FROM THE BEGINNING, you mentioned that you need to know your plot from the beginning. I would suggest otherwise.

You need to know how your novel is going to end. You need to know your destination so that you can place lots of subtle whisperings of "don't be suprised of such and such happens".

Your plot. And, especially the details of plot (all those details that actually motivate characters to behave as they do) will likely be made known as your writing progresses. You may know the middle part of your story. And you may know the general plot ideas for the middle of your story. But the real nitty gritty motivations that propel your characters are usually not known until you arrive at that particular scene and work them out with some serious, mind-numbing effort.

So yeah, you should know the end from the beginning. But the detailed plots of the middle of your novel, even for the most organized, note-writing, outlining author, remains a mystery.

And once the myster is solved, you nearly always end up going back and adding in all sorts of wonderful foreshadowing to the opening chapters. And including all those whispers of "don't be suprised if this happens" may be some of the most rewarding writing you do on your novel.

Julie Coulter Bellon said...

I would have to partially disagree, anon. I think you have to have specific beats of suspense that are leading to the end you have already worked out in your writing. That outline makes for a good plot.

I do agree however, that details get worked out in the scene and constantly change. But the basic outlined plot generally remains the same in my opinion. :)

Thanks for your insight!