Two months ago, I started work on a short story. Being, as I thought, hopeless at making up plots, I decided to call in a specialist. I hauled down my old copy of Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folk Tale, wound my way through his detailed analysis of 600 Russian fairy tales, and plucked out the elements of a plot. Then I set to work to fill in the outline with a story of my own, about a carnival beset with supernatural difficulties.
The process may be working.
My original two pages of single-spaced blather was what you would get if shooting a writer in the head caused her ideas rather than her brain to splatter over the computer screen. (You can tell I come to this from the mystery genre.) As I said in a blog post at the time, the minute I set pen to paper, marvelous images and ideas proliferated out of all proportion to their usefulness. Booths selling deep-fried Twinkies jostled elderly elephants and juggling dwarfs for the spotlight. My characters wrangled over money, power, the uses of magic and dietary insufficiency.
By the grace of some Muse, I had the idea of searching the jumble for objects and events that would make striking scenes, regardless of logic. The jumble began to separate. In brief summaries, every scene made sense within itself. Some of them actually had an arc to them.
Once I had seven or eight scenes, stretching from start to resolution, I was sorely tempted to start writing. I held off, though. I tinkered. The carnival got realer and realer, but the plot got more tangled. As the scenes grew elaborate, contradictions between them multiplied.
Somehow, having each contradictory element trapped in its own scene made the process manageable. One by one, scrolling up and down, I made the changes needed to untangle them. By the time I had a complete set of scenes, I also had a workable plot.
Better still, as I worked, characters changed their motivations, their functions, their importance. The villain and a minor character swapped places. They all started talking to each other, and I eavesdropped on some quite good dialogue.
At last I started writing, and learned that writing as a plotter feels different from writing as a pantser. Same feeling of flow – complete absorption in the task – but it feels like working with a smaller brush. With a clear picture of what needs to be written right here and now, I find I’m working simultaneously on narrative, images and wording. I can reword a sentence three times in the course of writing one paragraph, without losing focus on the story. It feels tighter, but just as satisfying.
There are still glitches. Seeing each scene in great detail lets details creep in for their own sake. I need to give more thought to the order in which the reader learns things vs. the chronological order of events. Revisions will be needed, but as a plotter, I’m less afraid that they will simply blow the whole thing up.
Heidi here, reporting progress for once.
It’s almost embarrassing to admit that, in just a couple of hours, one highly structured writing exercise adorned my bare plot with complex characters, details of setting and multiple red herrings. Truly, it happened.
After pantsing my first novel, I swore I’d never go through that again. I was already using Scrivener, though not handily, so I bought Stephanie Draven’s Plot Your Book in a Month with Scrivener. Then came the miracle.
Draven starts you off on characters, and you have to do it her way. The exercise requires you to set up eight, count them, eight, separate folders under each character’s template. These are Vocation, Vulnerabilities, Strengths & talents, Flaws, Ideals, Beliefs that must change, Goals and Problems. For each, she demands of you five examples in your character’s make-up.
I started with my villain. He was due to commit a crime (art forgery) for money. Ho, hum! But pondering his vulnerabilities (by which Draven means innocent weak points, not the character’s fault), I discovered the motive behind the motive. His desire for money has its roots not in greed, but in resentment. The origins of this are familial, but over a lifetime it has added malice to his purely personal flaw of greed.
As this dynamic developed in my head, suddenly, from nowhere at all, a countervailing vulnerability popped up. My forger works in a precise and detailed genre – but he suffers from a longing to paint in the Impressionist style. He is not at all good at it. For reasons I won’t go into, this innocent commitment will betray him.
From his resentment and malice flowed a conviction that “Hell is other people.” To him, they are either obstacles or nuisances, though he is usually careful to conceal this. It hampers him in dealing with new people in new situations. At the same time, it causes him to be a loner and to be perceived by those he encounters as lonely, a sympathetic trait.
Spending time in the character’s mind brought me into his physical world as well. I felt rather than deduced that his natural pace is slow and his focus on details. As he is well up in years, this lifelong trait can come across to new acquaintances, incorrectly, as the slowing of physical and mental faculties with age, another sympathetic trait.
This perception of his physical traits, in turn, spilled over into the creation of another character, with whom he will be in conflict. She was always going to be more than a generation younger than he, but now she is also taller, robust where he is lanky, obtrusively energetic. He, in contrast, seems hardly fit for the pace of the 21st century.
And while I was thinking physically, another connection occurred: I want the setting of my books, northern New Hampshire, to be vivid to my readers, almost a character in the story. So my villain, thin and not robust, is always cold no matter where the thermostat is set.
Draven knew what she was doing when she put the vulnerabilities before the strengths. Once I had watched my villain develop layers of motivation, it became clear that his strengths would not all appear, or in fact be, villainous. His desire for distance from other people, along with the demands his professional associations, require him to have excellent manners. His extensive knowledge of his academic specialty is necessary for his crime – but it also garners deserved respect from his colleagues and gratitude from the few outstanding students whose careers he promotes. (They, in turn, can be put to good use in his nefarious schemes.) It will also, I hope, form an additional thread of interest to readers.)
The whole exercise was so inspiring that it was hard to keep the categories separate even on the first run-through. Vulnerabilities suffered through no fault of one’s own blossomed into flaws via unfortunate methods of coping. Strengths quickly became ideals – because our own good points are always the really important virtues, aren’t they? Initial problems bred solutions that became complications of a straightforward criminal enterprise.
So thank you, Ms. Draven. If this thing ever sees print, a fulsomely autographed copy will be yours.
P.S. I have to say, the “one month” thing isn’t working out. Each new exercise takes me days to think through and tinker with. However, if you’re a wo/man of steel, and don’t eat or sleep much, maybe you could manage it.
So here I am, on what I hope is the final substantive rewrite of my first mystery. I pantsed it, and I had a great time. I loved my characters, just set them down on the page and let them romp. Have you ever watched very young children – five or six years old, say – make up a game out of their own heads, coming up with a story and acting out the roles? I had that much fun, I really did.
And now it’s all come home to roost. The bill has come due for all those joyous episodes of ‘Ooh! Wouldn’t it be great if …’ For instance, I have a character who started out a genealogy snob involved in a lawsuit and ended up burying his ancestors (literally) and switching sides on the suit.
Well, no disaster. I can see how that could happen. But as I romped through my game, I just sketched in the change, didn’t take time to act out in my head the character’s inner or outer experiences. Result: a vague and confusing switcheroo at best; at worst, a great, clunky meta-clue to the reader: this character is being manipulated to work a plot. Why, he’s not a real person!
My faithful TNW critics (make that critiquers) pointed out a similar problem with another character. I noticed for myself that the police showed up, getting things wrong, when I needed to spur my amateur detective on to greater effort, but not when the police probably would show up in a real investigation. To crown my shame, one colleague gently pointed out that the pair of cute ferrets I had introduced (to make this work a proper cozy) really ought at least to appear in the closing scenes.
This isn’t one of my usual streams of whining complaint. I really can see how to solve the problems, and I’ve set about it. I’m pulling together separate files of all the passages on each faulty character, each badly constructed plot line. And that job has me wondering: if I had done that work before I started writing, I’d be a plotter, wouldn’t I? It sure sounds more efficient. But would I then lose out on all that five-year-old, cowboys-and-Indians fun?
On a practical note, here is a question for readers: do you use a writing program like Scrivener? If so, is there an easy way to pull characters’ appearances and tease out individual plot threads to be looked at separately? It took hours to use keywords and the ‘Find’ function to do this job for a single character.
At present, I have each scene in a separate file, color-coded by the plot line that the scene mostly serves. But my writing is not so clunky as to confine each scene to actions serving only one plot. In Scrivener (I think – I’m no adept) I would have to put each paragraph in a coded file if I want to pull out individual subplots, and it still wouldn’t be precise. Ideas, anyone?
Aspiring writers, rejoice! There really is a point when the plot tangle breaks.
I was sitting on a logjam the other day when it suddenly broke up beneath me. No, I wasn’t swept downriver to my doom. The logjam was the one that had been afflicting my plot almost since it became complex enough to constitute the skeleton of a book.
Every new idea for a plot development took the story forward, but almost every idea also implied a situation rendered impossible by what had come before. One character, for instance, was intended to instigate a lawsuit against a certain building project. His personality was unpleasant: in fact, he was intended to be the first murder victim. Idea! What if he was, in fact, the murderer? I found him a victim. Two victims.
But wait! To commit the first murder, he had to be in town. Unfortunately, at the intended time of death, he was elsewhere. (In prison, as it happens.) Well, that could be changed.
But wait! If he murdered for the reason I had come up with, he wouldn’t have taken the stand he did on the building project…. You see the problem.
For what seemed like aeons, I shifted and chopped and changed. The longer the manuscript grew, the more changes every new development required. I persevered.
And then, one day, the logjam broke
As it happened, I had been amusing myself with a book of acrostics the night before. When the logjam broke, I recognized what was happening, because it had just begun to happen in my acrostics.
(If you don’t do acrostics, they work this way: as in a crossword, you are given a definition and must come up with the word intended. Each letter in that word is assigned a number, which you then enter in a numbered space in a linear form. When all the correct letters are entered, they make up a quotation.)
I had reached the middle of the puzzle book, where the “medium difficulty” acrostics take on a new character. The definitions become vaguer, more allusive, slangy or punning. The quotations include longer and rarer words, names and complicated clauses.
At this point, the game shifts. Your ability to see the shape of the quotation’s prose, the rhythm of its clauses, its repetitions, lets you fill in words before you have guessed many definitions. The meaning of the quotation leads you to the detail of the words, not the other way around. And the puzzle goes much faster while also being much more fun.
Here is the beginning of the quotation I was working on when the game shifted. Have a go.
_ _L _Y L_V_ _Y P__N M_ P _SS_ _N
Just like that, as I drew near the end of the umpteenth draft of my mystery, the feeling of the changes changed. My solution worked, if only… and I clicked in my Scrivener binder to an earlier scene, altered three words, and all was well. Onward. The solution continued to work, if only…. Back up in the binder, cut a paragraph, and all was well.
I now have only two or three scenes to rewrite (plus a couple of new ones to tie up a subplot), and I will have, not a draft, but a book. Still deeply in need of editing, but a book.
Here’s the whole acrostic:
I’ve spent this week altering plot points in an important scene in my mystery novel. Since first I wrote it, the characters have evolved, their motivations have changed, and clues have moved, both geographically and logically. But when I surfaced from the job, I found that I had written almost nothing but plot. The reader was getting far too little help visualizing the scene precisely, getting the details that make places and events real and memorable.
Back to my trusty pocket notebook. It contains much plotless writing about things that have seized my eyes and my mind for reasons I wouldn’t even try to explain. None of them are directly relevant to my book. Still, reading these passages fills my mind with the experience of just noticing, of Being There. Maybe they’ll inspire me to find the details that will make my not-too-bad scene really good.
Here are a few of my pocket-notebook inspirations. I’d love to read some of yours.
At a meeting of our local weekly discussion group:
V_____ (a husband) talking, making sense, but pretty platitudinous. J____ (his wife) listening with unchanged expression and posture, but the hand holding her off-V_____ elbow was massaging it, tightening and loosening regularly.
G___ (a husband) discussing photos of galaxies in a book he owned, which he had already discussed with R______ (his wife.) He was addressing the rest of the group with the same arguments he and she had already gone over, but his eyes were usually on her, reliving their own discussion. A committed couple.
At a writing conference:
Up on stage, an author on a panel yaws his orange, desk-style chair rapidly left and right in a short arc. The other authors, in identical chairs, are perfectly still.
A writer teaches a class. As he speaks, in time with an upward lilt at the end of each sentence, his face first rises straight up, then straight out, always maintaining its vertical plane. With the adolescent (he’s not one) intonation, the gesture seems to mean, “You do see, don’t you? Am I being clear? Do you agree?” Sweet, if a bit phony. Yet somehow the gesture also seems mildly aggressive, snakelike.
In the room where I write:
A bird flew into the glass of the door to the balcony behind me. There was a softer thump than usual. I hoped that this would be one of the occasions when the bird just flew off with a headache. But when I went to look, he was lying on the balcony floor. I knelt to look, and saw that his eyes were open and unblinking. (At least I thought they were, but what color are a sparrow’s eyelids?) He wasn’t still. He lay on one wing and his little body was rocking quickly on its longest axis, backforth, backforth, backforth. I saw that he was not convulsing. There was no other movement, no movement of any part. Just his whole body, backforth, backforth, backforth. How could he do that without pushing any part of him against the floor? Then I realized that his heartbeat was moving him. In back and forth, I saw systole and diastole. Bismarck (my cat) came to the door and chittered. When I wouldn’t let him through, he sat and watched. I left, and when I returned, the bird was gone.
Months later: I am working at a card table. My elbows are braced on the table, coffee mug between my hands. My knapsack-purse stands across the table. I am motionless, but one strap of the purse, the looser and closer one, trembles. Why? I am seeing systole and diastole, my own.
A fruit fly remains on a piece of white paper where I put some grapes. A single fruit fly casts a shadow, even on an overcast day.
In the summer Music Tent in Aspen:
A description of Finns. I call them Finns because I think they might be, but more because the first of them I saw made me think at once of a Scandinavian gnome. He was an old man of middle height. We were sitting two rows up from him in the Benedict Music Tent, so I couldn’t see whether white hair sprouted from his ears. But his face was such that I was sure of the ear hair. His skin was a dark brown, but it looked weathered rather than tanned. Or perhaps “tanned” in the sense of leather. Large wrinkles divided his face into subsections. His eyebrows were wild, almost long enough to obscure his vision. His nose was large and long and bulbous, three lumps separated by two none-too-narrow narrower places. His mouth was wide, his lips not especially so. He was smiling, nodding, and talking energetically with the people who accompanied him. They were Aspen Standard, as far as I could see. I can’t remember whether I saw that his teeth were scraggly or assumed it. He was wearing standard old-guy-in-Aspen clothes, a vaguely Western sports shirt and slacks.
The woman was sitting in the row behind them. She came in later with other people, but they all seemed to know one another. My first thought was that she was the ugliest woman I had ever seen. But at the same time, her face was welcoming. I had to work not to stare, and then not to be caught staring. She was the man’s age and about the same height. Her skin was almost as brown as his, very smooth but speckled with large age spots. Aside from the old-lady, nose-to-chin wrinkles, she had almost none. In profile, her face made a perfect convex curve. Her chin was well back, but not receding in a slant; it looked firm, and she didn’t have the feeble, chinless look of a Bertie Wooster. Like the man, she had high cheekbones and a very notable nose. Her nose curved like a raptor’s beak, but not like a witch’s: it didn’t curve back in, but ended at its outermost point, with the septum horizontal to the ground. Not small, but neat. Both man and woman had large ears, his relatively larger than hers, but her hair framed her ears and made them stand out. Her hair was long but not full, clipped back with barrettes behind the ears and straggling down her back. From the roots to her shoulders, it was a slightly grayish white. There, in a visible line, it became a faded, reddish light brown, as if some instantaneous shock had flipped a switch in her scalp. She too was smiling and talking, and her expression made me want to know her.
Now, back to my scene. I’m going for three, very short details with the feel of these passages. I suppose “short” will be the hard part.
I had forty-five minutes of free time Friday morning and thought that would make a nice block of time to focus on writing my blog post. There wasn’t anything else I could do. Except breathe. I even had ear plugs and headphones on. My eyes were shut and I had strict instructions to not move. What was left to do but think?
So think I did. But not about my writing. I thought about the three inches between my face and the “ceiling”. About holding my breath for what seemed like forever. About the noise coming out of the “casket” I was lying in. About the ball in my hand that I could squeeze and immediately would be rescued. From my MRI.
The diagnosis? I am suffering from Too Cranky To Write (TCTW) syndrome. The cure for this? I thought it was hot fudge sundaes and espresso coffee bean ice cream but alas that hasn’t worked.
On Saturday, just when I’d given up hope of ever writing again due to the TCTW delivering a fatal blow to my creative juices, we drove by the abandoned house where I’ve staged a murder in one of my abandoned novels. My mind rewound to this novel and almost instantly I conjured a new murderer and a new plot twist. (Now I want to abandon my current project and return to the old novel. I hate when that happens.)
I’ve driven by this house hundreds of times, taken photos of it for inspiration for the setting. Then how, after all these years of staring at the house, did I miss the red fire hydrant on the front lawn? Or even worse, the damn fire station right next door? I can’t have that. It would be hard to explain the house burning down with the fire department as a neighbor.
As best as I can figure, I’ve been so fixated on the house that I’ve not even noticed its surroundings. That happens in my writing as well. I become hyperfocused on one aspect of the plot and fail to see what else should be happening. Or what my characters who are waiting in the wings for their cues are doing.
What I find of interest is how this relates to Heidi’s most recent blog. The house is an actual character in the novel with a crucial role to play. Unfortunately, as occasionally happens to human characters, it has to be sacrificed for the benefit of another character.
And just like that, I’ve banished my TCTW syndrome. All it took was a moment with a mystery that’s been on the back burner (or in the wood stove pile) and I’m writing again. But I’m still a wee bit cranky….
When last heard from, I was moaning and complaining about my inability to focus in on the important things, in particular, my mystery novel’s plot problems. Since then, I have followed my own advice: “Apply rear end to chair. Write.” Danged if it isn’t working.
What is going down on paper – into electrons, I should say – is not fluent prose but brief sentences in an Excel worksheet. It’s my fourth attempt to organize this monster in Excel. Fourth time’s the charm.
My earlier worksheets were chimaeras. Along the horizontal axis were the four murders I had concocted. Each column was meant to state, in chronological order, “what happened.” The difficulty was that everybody’s “what happened” was different from everybody else’s.
I don’t mean just the characters, though each of them had his or her own body of knowledge about who was where, when and why, and above all, who hated whom. I also had to keep track of what happened as far as the reader knew. And of things that had happened all right, but that were supposed to make no sense until the big reveal at the end. And of the little event-clouds that shroud those baffling happenings in ordinariness for the time being.
Since my mystery is a cozy, my detective is an amateur. Her personal life impinges deeply on her need to solve the mystery. Her biggest personal problem (illness) needs to be consistent with the action. Even more, it needs to cast light on her actions, and outside events have to feed back into her situation. I added another column.
Her biggest challenge in outward life (a lawsuit) demanded a similar treatment. Add another column.
Then there were the police. They had to be hunting in all the wrong places. Their errors needed to ratchet up the dangers for the detective. Another column.
On top of that, mere order of events wasn’t enough. I needed specific dates for every event. Can’t have people building snowmen in May (actually, you can do that sometimes here in New Hampshire) or going on a shopping binge on Christmas Day.
You can imagine what a ragbag my worksheet became. Columns could be plot threads, themes, or characters. I found myself copying and pasting the contents of one box into three more, where they were just as relevant. Excel can be an excellent disordering technique.
Now I think I’ve got it. In the new worksheet, each column represents a single character and its contents are single-minded: what does this person want right now, and how does s/he go about getting it? No date column yet, but I think I’ll be able to stagger each character’s moves with the others – and possibly get them into a tighter, tenser order. That’s to say nothing of the way the author’s errors light up. I wasn’t half-way through entering my data before I found the murderer acting directly against his own interests. Duh.
I’ve been whining about all this in my writing group for so long that our moderator came up with an exercise for all of us to work on. He went to http://writingexercises.co.uk and used their “random plot generator.” Out popped the following:
Main Character: An optimistic 23-year-old woman
Secondary Character: A rebellious 60-year-old woman
Setting: The story begins on a cliff
Situation: A robbery goes badly wrong
Theme: It’s a story about risk-taking
Character action: Your character sets out on a rescue mission
Our assignment is not to write the story, but to come up with the outline of a coherent plot using these elements. I hope to make this a dry run in miniature of my big Excel project.
(By the way, writingexercises.co.uk also provides other sorts of prompts and helps you work on other tasks, e.g., “generate a fictitious ‘English-sounding’ town name.” Check it out.)
So what about it, campers? How do you keep your plot threads untangled? All tips welcome. Or try your hand at the exercise, and let us know how you did.
On the first day of Christmas, my karma brought to me:
A manuscript in a mad tangle
I’m grateful to have a complete first draft. Really. But the tangle starts on page 2.
Two hackneyed plots
It’s not that I’m a plagiarist. It’s just that my memory gland is too strong for my imaginary gland.
Three foreign phrases
I don’t use them myself. So where are my characters getting them?
Four dimpled darlings
Such adorable turns of phrase! Why do my readers get that gag-me-with-a-Smurf expression?
Five false starts
Once, you got a litter of crumpled paper on the floor, signifying writerly despair. Now it’s just delete…delete…delete….
Six friends kibitzing
I rely on their advice. And there’s so much of it! But I like to share my toys.
Seven cocktails calling
My protagonist knocks back Scotch. F. Scott Fitzgerald was drunk more than he was sober. Why do I have to stick to coffee?
Eight deadlines looming
I should be so lucky.
Nine unanswered queries
Ten howlers howling
Last week I left the same corpse in two places at once.
Eleven critics carping
See Eight and Nine above.
Twelve distractions dithering
E.g., Christmas. Happy holidays, all!
I think I passed a milestone this week.
It wasn’t literally my first rewrite of a scene. My writing group would never let me get away with that. All kinds of changes have rippled through my manuscript, usually to remedy total howlers in the plot, but also to remove unlikely remarks by a character or make my subplots more like a braid and less like railroad tracks.
This week is the first time I forced myself to abandon a scene totally and write another to do the same work in the book, better. Be warned: it hurts.
Two criticisms forced me to it. Our group’s homicide detective told me that interviews of witnesses would never be conducted with other witnesses present. You isolate them and get each one to tell her own story. Even weightier, there was a sad consensus that ‘it all went on too long.’
Even I could feel the latter problem. While I never used the dread locution, ‘and then,’ I might as well have. On plodded the scene, until slept the mind. I resolved on surgery.
I work in the Scrivener writing program. It’s hugely useful, letting you switch from any scene to any other with a single click, showing links to notes, outlines and subplots on the main page. Unhappily, that makes it so easy to tick back into your original draft, to tinker with it instead of starting fresh, to cheat by leaving your new text to lift just one or two sentences – such clever prose! – from the old.
Somehow, this time, I realized that I had to resist. I stayed with the blank white screen of the new version. When I needed to analyze the old scene for necessary information, I did it in longhand on a yellow pad. I changed the location of the scene, narrowed the point of view, pushed beloved characters into the background.
Lo and behold, it worked. When I checked back with my yellow pad, I found that the new scene did all that the old did, more briskly, with more conflict in the present and more tension about what is to come. The new scene is 25% shorter.
The exercise wasn’t without losses. On my yellow pad, I had drawn two columns: Needed and Good. The latter listed five brief passages in the original scene, a few words or a sentence or two at most, which I liked very much. Four of them showed characters acting characteristically. When I had forced my way through the new scene, these vignettes were gone. The course of action just didn’t allow them to happen.
Were they darlings? I still don’t think so. I’ve stored them in a file called ‘fragments’ for possible reinsertion in a final smoothing. Deep in my heart, though, I don’t expect to see them again.