December 21, 2011

Writing Tips #6: Plot

Plotting time!

No, I’m not planning to take over the world – though it might be a nice idea. I’m just going to discuss some ideas about how to create, organize, or hunt down your plot.

There’re about a million different ways to do this, of course, and the only solid rule is “if it works for you, go ahead!” but still, I think most techniques can be rounded up in two huge groups: plotters and pantsers. The former map out and plan their story, and the latter just go with it wherever it might take them.

I’m going to tell you a little secret: for the longest time, I believed “winging it” was simply not possible. Then I tried it out. And... something happened. But that’s another story – yes, another post. Because plotting is so complex – and because it must be one of my favorite parts to rant about – I’m giving it several days worth of Writing Tips.

And first, we’re going to discuss The Planners. Why? Well, because that’s what I began my days as, and I want to indulge myself telling you the story of my writerly life. 

Actually, though, that’s a lie.

In my writing ventures, at first, there weren’t Planners but Gamers.

You’d heard that one before, hadn’t you? Okay: could I ask you to make as if you hadn’t, and to keep reading anyway? Yes? Cool!

The truth is, I’ve never stopped being a Gamer since I started at the tender age of 12. Yes, of course, these days I hardly ever gather my friends around a table to relive daring adventures in imaginary worlds because we grew up and got responsibilities and it was just too complicated... But once you’re a Gamer, you’ll always be one.

You’ll always get the inside jokes, you’ll always think of yourself part of the group, and you’ll forever retain a strange fascination with multi-faceted dice.

If you’re lucky and find yourself with the dubious honor of being the Game Director, you’ll carry something else with you from the gaming table: the ability to throw a story together, sometimes at a moment’s notice.

As a Director, you are supposed to be almighty. But in truth, you have very limited resources: you have your players, friends who expect you to make a fun adventure for them. You’ve the heroes (or villains) they’ve created, who should be the main focus. And you have a set of rules saying what can and cannot happen logically in your world.

Why, isn’t that reminiscent of Readers, Characters and Worldbuilding in a book?

The storyline is built, you’ll note, around the characters. Which is the position I defended in my previous post, about character building. You’ve to entertain your readers, yes, but you’ve to be loyal to the world you’ve designed for the book, and to the characters.

And there’s yet another similarity: as a writer, you’ve noted that sometimes the characters tend do act as they want, which might potentially screw your carefully thought out plan. Correct? Players and their heroes are the same way: leave them with a single option so they won’t destroy your game and they’ll make up something you hadn’t thought of that will send your carefully planned adventure down the gutter.

Those points in common are the reason I put so much weight in my Director experience when I plan for a new book, and I also think that, even if you’ve never played, the analogy could help you to work things out. That’s why I’m going to take you through my planning for a particularly short and simple story that might illustrate my point.

So, how did I come up with a good gaming adventure?

I stared at the characters for a while and thought about one single thing they might want to accomplish. If you can’t find a common goal, you might want to consider why you’ve thrown all those characters together. Scratching one or two never hurts!

My main character was greedy. Things that would motivate her would be money and power. Extra motivations: easy money, power without too many complications attached.

My next point was to write that goal in one sentence. That was the core of the adventure, and it held true no matter what the devious players and their heroes tried to do to upset my storyline.

Recover a religious relic – For good measure, the artefact happens to be a (magic) diamond. And it holds a surprise: encases an elemental of incredible power.

Once I knew that, I’d make a check-list of must-do. It involved places that needed to be visited, actions that needed to be performed, battles that should be won... Those were the milestones. Again, I wrote single-sentence definitions for the each stage.

  1. Present the characters and their goals.
  2. Enter the crypt where the diamond is.
  3. Fall and deal with a mental trap – a labyrinth.
  4. Fight the guardian of the trap – a minotaur.
  5. Regroup.
  6. Find the diamond. It breaks by accident – final fight against the elemental.
  7. Tie any loose ends.

There. You’ve the skeleton of a story. As you can see, the players can still cause some trouble, but for the most part it’ll hold. The next step, which takes us into the nitty-gritty details of how and who and when, won’t.

If it won’t hold, why bother doing it?

Good question.

Because improvisation will leave holes, and players will pounce on them like hyenas and then you can kiss your story goodbye.

So what I did by this point was go through each of the previous milestones and try to figure out the specifics. I’d do this for all of the events, because it gave me a reference with which to improvise later, and I could keep that in mind when my players started doing stupid things. The first milestones usually held, and the last ones had to be re-thought and re-written, but no player would ever find me unprepared.

Enter the crypt: it’s beyond a newer crypt. They find the newer crypt because the minotaur that protects the old compound has killed a man that tried to enter, which tips them off. There’s a teleporting stone at the back that takes them to the ancient area where the trap and treasure are.

Once I had that level of detail, I was ready to play. Or to write. Things would change, of course, but the main storyline would hold.

In the example, they never got the rumor about the villagers because they avoided them like the plague – on account that they did something nasty during their trip there and were wanted criminals. They found an alternate entrance because they figured that crypts were good for hiding stuff and it was as good a place to start as any. When they found the corpse of the man, they stopped looking for the way down below: they just squabbled over the loot. In the discussion, someone shoved the teleporting stone, which finally got them where I wanted them.

See? Details were added and some stuff was changed, but for the most part everything went according to plan – and yet, it was original, wasn’t it? I bet you didn’t see the squabbling coming, or the infighting! 

When this milestone was done and over with, I’d always jot down a few notes with the small details, and a few other notes with how each character had reacted to the action. After two or three milestones, usually, I had to re-write the specifics of the following ones, and for that I’d use the details and character development that I had noted before.

A lot of work? Perhaps. But by the time we were done, the story had made sense, the characters had been able to grow unfettered –and, miraculously and thanks to the different levels of planning, this had not destroyed the storyline!- and my players were happy.

You can do exactly the same thing for your book. This plotting technique (if it can even be called technique) will give you an overview, a backbone, a solid logic, and still it will give you enough room to let the story surprise you and your readers without its loosing quality in the face of spontaneity. 

The story itself and the characters will force you to chage things, to improvise: that's good. But if you want a good finished product, you want to know the boundaries and the general direction in which you're improvising. 

Then again, those are just my thoughts. It worked for me. Might be rubbish for everyone else. What do you think?

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