What? A Plot!

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The Shocking Truth!

Novels have plots.

I have a confession-

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For me, like a lot of other novelists, plotting used to feel IMPOSSIBLE. As unfathomable as an algebra problem. And just as bound up by some weird set of rules I thought I’d never understand.

Plot = bizarrely confusing + tediously proscriptive   

A few great writers, including Tollboother emeritus Carrie Jones, dive into their drafts with plot in mind. Carrie wrote a wonderful series of Tollbooth posts on plot here (step 1 and step 2) If you struggle with plot (or even if you don’t) I STRONGLY urge you to take a look at Carrie’s posts. I refer back to her sophisticated yet no nonsense understanding of how a story fits together often.

But many of us don’t “get” plot. What do you do if plotting feels like a foreign language?

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Is there any hope? YES! YES! YES!

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Of course there’s hope!   If I can understand and conquer plot you can, too.

It’s a simple matter of ORGANIZE AND REVISE. (And it even works for the hopelessly disorganized! I’m living proof.) I call this plotting for the plot impaired. Plotting is actually easy if you break it into really obvious, can’t believe I didn’t notice this before, parts.

Here’s what works for me:

Step 1 Write a messy (or not messy) first draft.

It doesn’t matter how you get your draft done. Fast, slow, outlined, by the seat of your pants. Just do it. Then put the draft away.

Step 2 List all your scenes

I get a pack of notecards. Then I list the scenes in my novel from memory, in the order I think they should appear in the final (a long time from now) draft. Norma Fox Mazer called this a “story ladder” but it doesn’t matter what you call it. Make a list, one scene on each card.

(While I’m doing this I’m thinking a lot about motivation- what does my character want? why? what does he do to get it? what will happen if he doesn’t get it (stakes)? what stands in his way?  I write all this down in my brainstorming notebook, pondering. When something doesn’t seem to make sense I rethink and re-imagine the story I’m trying to tell.)

After I’ve listed all my scenes I lay them out, take a step back, and see what I’ve got.

Step 3 Identify key scenes. I search my plot ladder cards for several super important scenes. If I find them among the scenes I’ve already written, great! I highlight or rewrite those scenes in red. Or re-do these cards using brightly colored index cards. The point is I want them to stand out.

If I don’t find all my key scenes among the cards I’ve created I brainstorm to come up with new scenes for the next draft. Then I make cards for those scenes, highlighted in pink or some other eye catching color that designates them as important unwritten scenes.

These are the specific scenes I’m looking for-

A. Where does the story really begin? This can be hard! Often your novel’s true beginning is NOT the first scene in your first draft. In fact I’d argue that you can’t really know where your novel should begin until you’ve written the ending. Consider whether you’ve started in the right spot. Be sure there’s a card for that first scene, already written or not.

B. What’s the inciting incident? What scene sets the events in motion? Often the inciting incident takes place in the opening scene but it may come a short time later. Make  a card for it.

C. The end of the beginning. The Plot Whisperer, Martha Alderson, talks about the first quarter of a novel finishing with a scene where the protagonist leaves his old world and enters the new world he will explore during the course of the novel. You can think of it as the start of the protagonist’s journey, or the moment when nothing can be the same again, or the end of the first act. Just be sure to include a card.

D. A good strong midpoint. When middles sag stories wander. And your readers’ attention will wander, too. Think literally for a moment. Imagine a tent pole that holds your plot aloft. If you hoist your story’s middle with a strong plot point scenes before that point will build toward it and scenes after it will result from it. It’s just that simple. I promise. Look at a hundred novels that work and you’ll believe me.

What makes a good soaring midpoint? Carrie says “halfway through the book and suddenly there is a STUNNING PLOT TWIST. This is the point of no return.”  This shift, twist, obstacle, whatever you want to call it will force your protagonist to recommit to his goal (reluctantly, enthusiastically, fearfully, angrily… whatever) And guess what. It inflates a saggy middle every time. So if you don’t have a strong scene midway through the novel come up with an idea for one now. And make a card for it.

E. Crisis  Usually something happens just as the middle is finishing up that makes it appear the protagonist’s goal is absolutely unachievable. Hero’s Journey people sometimes think of this as the hero’s ritual death. Whatever you want to call it, it’s the low point, often both emotionally and actively. Do you have one of these scenes? Find it! List it! Plan it!

F. Climax  Way back in the begining, my protagonist really really really wanted to achieve his goal and now he’s fought his way back from the depths of that crisis scene to accomplish it. Maybe he won’t get what he thought he wanted… but he will achieve something (even if its just wisdom.) Otherwise what’s the point of the novel? List the scene where your protagonist gets his just deserts, whatever sauce they’re dished up in.

4 Smile. Because guess what…It’s a plot! Those key scenes are the bare bones of a plot. The other scenes on the cards are the meat on the bones. I did it!!!

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I have a real story! Or at least I will have one when I get to

Step 5 Revise! 

I arrange my scene cards on a big table or open patch of floor, adding new scenes where I see gaps, shuffling scenes to build tension, and cutting scenes to avoid repetition or trim narrative fat.

I make a story board to help me re-imagine what isn’t working or to make weak spots strong.

I stare.

I tweak.

Then I sit down and start writing. Again. And Again. And Again.

Do you think a novel has to have a plot? How do you do it?

~tami lewis brown

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