November 3, 2008

KNITTING A PLOT TOGETHER

Hi, Lily Stone here, offering you a chance to win a copy of my e-book, Spark of Magic. I'll be selecting a winner from those who stop by today, Monday, November 3, 2008. Check back at 11 pm to see who the lucky person is. Meanwhile, I thought I'd share a few thoughts on plotting a novel. Hope it helps if you're writing one or gives you some insight into the writing process if you're a reader.


I recently returned from a weeklong novel-revising workshop. Spending time with other dedicated writers was energizing, but, even better, we each had our own small cabin in the woods and plenty of time to daydream and write. I found I wrote less in that environment than when I have to squeeze my writing into tiny slots between pressing deadlines. Not sure why that is, but I learned having unlimited time to write my own books isn’t a necessity. Perhaps those of you who are desperately seeking that illusive (and elusive) free time don’t need it either.


One great thing I picked up at the workshop had to do with revising novels (more about that later). To get to the revision process, you must first write the novel. And writing a novel means plotting. Or not.


Years ago when I first began writing novels, I plotted all my stories before I put pen to paper. I used different methods—writing all the main scenes on index cards and laying them out, using the Snowflake Method (http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/art/snowflake.php), following Robert McKee’s instructions in Story to have three acts with escalating tension, and reversing the emotional trajectory between the beginning and end of each chapter as recommended in The Marshall Plan Workbook.


Later I came up with my own method of plotting using multi-colored sticky notes. The three end-of-act climaxes were in pink. Yellow was for all the minor scene end climaxes. Green was for reversals, or “change bombs,” as John Vorhaus, the author of Creativity Rules calls them. Orange was for character growth. I highly recommend all of these techniques, especially for writers who are just starting out or for those who are struggling with plotting. Syd Field's Screenwriting is another gem. So is Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder. A great online resource is http://pbackwriter.blogspot.com/2005/01/ten-things-to-help-with-novel-plotting.html.


Now, however, I use a combination of methods that works better for me. First I begin with a suggestion from Robert Olen Butler’s From Where We Dream. He doesn’t believe you should put pen to paper until you’ve daydreamed the whole story into existence. He suggests taking weeks on this process. I’m sure he’s right, but I’m usually too impatient to get started. My adaptation is to visualize my beginning scene (so I have a starting point) and my ending scene (so I have a goal to head toward), then fly by the seat of my pants, which makes me mainly a pantser. I think, though, all that previous plotting information sank into my brain, so now I plot instinctively.


But a strong plot is not enough, I want my characters (or “people”—because they become so real they live with me off the page) to drive the novel, so while I'm daydreaming I ask myself two questions: What does my heroine want/What's the object of her desire (in addition to the hero, of course)? And what does she fear? Those are the two keys to developing plots. The goal is to keep her from getting what she really wants until the end of the novel and to force her to confront her deepest fear at some point in the book.


Those same questions should be asked about the hero (in a romance) &/or about the antagonist. It's best if the hero's desires are the direct opposite of the heroine's. That makes for constant tension. (It's much better than the artificial tension caused by misunderstandings.) Once all these questions have been thrown into the imagination soup, scenes rise magically to the surface of the cauldron that's brewing and bubbling with ideas.


At that point I write the beginning and the end as well as any other scenes that are vivid. I know many people say you should write straight through, but I can't punish myself that way. I let myself enjoy the process. And for me that means writing out of order. I'm not sure how it happens, but when I'm done, the whole thing works together and seems as if it had been intricately plotted. That's the power of the subconscious.


When I finish the first draft and am ready to revise, I learned a trick at the workshop I mentioned earlier: storyboarding. Take a large sheet of paper and block off squares for each chapter. In each square write the main event of the chapter (you can draw a little picture in the square if you'd like) & the purpose of the chapter. Under it write the dominant emotion. In my books, the chapter usually starts on one emotional note and ends on another, so I have two emotions with a little arrow between. Seeing the big picture reveals chapters where nothing much happens or that don't further the book's purpose. Look closely at the emotional trajectory too. Are there too many similarities (which can make the book feel flat and boring or irritating or exhausting)? Are emotions too high in the beginning, then do they trail off at the end? Are some emotions too great for the chapter event or too strong in the beginning of the story? Emotion should be plotted to build to a climax too.


Writing a book is similar to knitting a multi-colored sweater. All the emotions, plot points, symbols, desires, characterization, dialogue, setting details, etc. bring a different color to the surface. It's a challenge to be sure all the colors are equally distributed into a beautiful, compelling whole. But the end product is worth it. Happy knitting!




28 comments:

Merry said...

Great article! Thanks for posting.

Brown said...

Great advice, Lily. I've read a few of those books you mentioned, and have the others on request from my library.

Is your John Vorhaus the same one who wrote The Comic Toolbox? That's a great book, as well.

Thanks for letting us into your world!

Nicki said...

Thanks so much for the in-depth article! You gave us lots of possible approaches to plotting. Can't wait to try them! (BTW, I have a hard time when given endless time to write too!)

Susan said...

Great ideas, Lily. I love the storyboarding idea--helps eliminate those 'spinning your wheels' chapters that always manage to creep in!

Amy S. said...

Great post!

Maggie said...

I love how you make everything sound so easy, Lilly! I can't wait to hear more from you. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

When you mentioned 'writing out of order,' it brought back fond memories of my first critique group. Initially I was embarrassed that my scene/chapter submissions were always a bit helter-skelter until at a pantser workshop, I learned about the storyboard. Ah ha! Great tool.

Terrific post, Lily!

Lisa said...

What a great post for NaNoWriMo! I've been beating myself up for not charging into the process, forgetting how important "think time" is to getting not just words on the page, but the right words. Thanks for the ideas and and the resources!

Cari Quinn said...

Great article, Lily. You gave me lots of food for thought. Thanks! :)

Bonnie said...

Thanks, Lily.

It was wonderful to read how a successful working author synthesizes many methods. It was also a comfort to be reminded that there is no one way to write.

Most people realize that artists must study and apply basic techniques as they begin a career. Writers are artists! You've made it clear that eventually for us that "spark of magic"(couldn't help myself) happens. We wake up to discover that after much practice with the basics we've developed our own style though we're never quite sure how. The mysterious adventure is what makes all the sweat bearable, if not always fun.

Thanks also for reminding us we can create in tiny moments amidst chaos.

Bonnie

Miss Mae said...

Oh dear, I don't do any of these stragedies! I just sit down and write the danged thing!...LOL..

Helen Hardt said...

Wonderful advice! I'm a pantser, myself, but I often use a skeletal version of the W plot technique taught by my friend, Karen Docter. Of course, sometimes my characters go astray...

Helen

Cate Masters said...

Great post, Lily! I love Robert Olen Butler's book - most of my story ideas take root in daydreams. I'm not big on planning out my plot, more like a rough outline, so the characters can surprise me by highjacking the story along the way.
Spark of Magic's a fun read. Looking forward to more of your stories!

Gwynlyn MacKenzie said...

Good ideas for those of us who take the ideas and run. Sometimes there are so many possibilities for a character the only thing to do is let them lead. Everytime I try to direct them, I end up rewriting because the character won't cooperate or my idea doesn't really fit.

Paty Jager said...

I'm a pantster- I start out with a skeleton of an idea, start writing and as I write the rest falls into place. Not a good idea if you need a synopsis before you write the story, but that's the way I do it.

Lots of useful info. Thanks, Lily!

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

Great ideas. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us about blending everything together. So true!

Kathy Otten said...

Thanks for the tips. I usually write out of order too. I liked the idea of making the boxes for each chapter. There have been times when I put a lot of effort into a wonderful scene only to throw it out later. Also appreciated the reminder to build the emotional tension, sometimes I lose sight of that one.

Miss Slick One said...

Hi there! I skimmed thru - I will def. come back and read it better. I've been VERY slowly writing several books over the years and have finished none, LOL.
Have a great week!
Phyllis Sherer in SC

Renee said...

I'll have to chew on this a bit. I've tried the Snowflake and Marshall. I hope to one day figure all the mechanics out. I tend to make things harder than they really are. It's one reason I've never taken up knitting. ;)

Renee

Sarah said...

This is a fantastic reference for those attempting to flesh out ideas bouncing in their head. You have given multiple options for references and pointed out some advantages of each, and incorporating someone else's experience is always helpful. This is a blog I would feel confident sending aspiring authors to for inspiration and information. Thanks so much!

Maryann Miller said...

Very good article, Lily. Loved the knitting analogy, but learned why I am a disaster at knitting more than one color at a time and a disaster at trying to plot out a book before I write it. ;-)

My hat is off to those who can do both. I'm sure my writing would go faster if I could plan the story out in more detail, but that has simply never worked for me.

Mandy J. said...

Thanks, Lily, I learned a lot! Can't knit, but maybe I can put a plot together and make it to the end of the story with more success hereafter...sooo many pieces floating around on my computer....

Lori, Editor with Crimson Rose said...

Well Said!!!

Tiff said...

You give some great tips and advice, Lily. I've been struggling with how to get started on some story ideas I've had--now I'm inspired!
Loved the knitting similes!

Lily Stone said...

Thank you to everyone who stopped by today. And to all the wonderful people who wrote lovely comments. Wishing you all success with your writing endeavors.

Today's winner of a copy of my e-book, Spark of Magic is:

Gwynlyn Mackenzie

Congratulations, Gwynlyn!! If you contact me at lily.stone1@gmail.com and let me know where you want me to send it, I'll get it off to you right away.

Thanks, too, to Anna Kathryn for hosting me. I had fun!

Paula Blais Gorgas said...

Great article, Lily. Thanks for sharing. Paula

Anonymous said...

Better late than never. Since i've been privileged enough to acutally see some of your sticky note plotting--i know how cool it looks, and how easily you can revise, i.e. rip off sticky note, toss in waste can, apply new sticky note. Stellar guidance Lily!

ML, a ghost from your past

Kitty Keswick said...

Great post Lily!
I'm such a pantser. But I do plot in my head...sort of like the day dream idea you wrote about. I've never tried storyboarding. I think I might give it a shot.
PS. I read your story. It was wonderful.