Where is my story going? Some thoughts about plot
A few nights ago I had a restless time in the early hours of the morning. I had been working hard on my children’s novel. I had written 400 words in the hour or so before retiring. This had drained me emotionally and mentally. I took a while to go to sleep; the mind was too active. Several hours later I more or less woke up knowing why I had been struggling with the story.
The story was going nowhere.
Sure-I had a vague idea of some of the plot. I knew the major events that I wanted to incorporate. I roughly knew where it was going and how it would finish. I just basically didn’t know how to get there.
In a flash of inspiration-despite the fog of being only half awake-I knew what the problem was. I hadn’t asked the protagonist some fundamental questions. (Hint from one of my lecturers: if you don’t know where to go next, ‘interview’ your protagonist. Thanks, Claire)
I needed to know the following:
- What does my character need or want above all else?
- What worries my main character? What is he afraid of?
- What or who is stopping my character getting what he wants?
- How will he overcome these obstacles and who can help him?
Once I had a clear understanding of the answers to these questions, plot ideas started to suggest themselves and the story became alive. The main character started to take over and I just had to take a back seat and let him drive the story. It’s exciting when that happens.
Plotters and Pantsers
Writers tend to fall into one of two camps, plotters and pantsers.
Plotters are meticulous planners. Plotters have an idea for a story and then plan, plan, plan. The read and research their theme and topic and revel in their discoveries. They draw up story boards and plan extensive character studies. They fill note books and sticky labels with all kinds of detail. For some of them, the research and planning is far more exciting and satisfying than the actual writing. I would imagine that crime writers in particular need this approach, or there will be too many loose ends at the end of the story. A very real danger in this approach, however, is drowning in a whirlpool of information.
Pantsers are almost the complete opposite. They have a great idea and rush to their keyboard and start typing, often with little regard for planning and really just writing by the seat of their pants-hence the name ‘pantsers’. Plot? What plot? Oh-that will take care of itself as I go along. The big problem with this approach is the brick wall that the writer rushes headlong into after three or four chapters. After the initial flurry of enthusiasm and inspiration, the writer suddenly comes to a screeching halt in front of that wall-what happens next? Often they have no idea where to go with the story. They don’t have a plan. There is no plot.
There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. I tend to be a ‘pantser’, especially with short story writing. With the shortened forms of fiction writing one can afford this luxury. With novels it is crucial to spend more time planning, researching, plotting and doing character outlines and so on. With my current novel I am trying to do more planning and plotting as I can see the benefits of doing so. It doesn’t come easily but I’m trying.
For a good discussion on the pros and cons of these two approaches see:
For more articles in this series go to Writing a Novel – a writer’s journal.
I am writing a novel.
I need to clarify that statement: I have been thinking about writing a novel. The time for thinking is over. I urgently need to start some serious planning and writing. The pressure is really on, because I have to present the first chapter – or a part of a chapter – at a seminar next week.
Let me back-track a little. Regular readers of this blog will know that I am half way through my Master of Arts in Creative Writing course. So far I’ve been very successful, completing all the assignments and gaining distinctions (or higher) for every one of them. It was hard work, but the writing has been very satisfying. My skills have developed way beyond what I had hoped for, and I’ve produced many pleasing pieces of writing.
I have one unit of study to complete. It’s called Editing and Publishing for Writers, a very practical course aimed at both editing one’s writing and preparing work for publication. The balance of my studies this year will focus on my thesis paper. This will be a 40,000 word novel.
What should I write about?
This is a question that has plagued writers ever since the first stylus was picked up to scratch on a clay tablet in ancient Sumaria. I wasn’t there at the time, so I’m not sure what they wrote about. In varying degrees of perplexity, many writers have always struggled to come up story ideas.
It makes it so much easier if you know the plot line before you start writing. You know – beginning, middle and ending – that sort of thing. Not to forget twists and turns, problems to overcome, births, deaths, marriages, murders and the inevitable taxes.
It also helps to know your characters. Boy or girl, adults, animals, creatures, monsters or aliens: they’ve all been used before and will presumably be used many times more for many years to come.
Finally, it is essential that you are quite clear in your head where and when the story is set. Will it be in a city or a rural setting? Will it be a place near you or far away, perhaps in another country or even another world? Will the story be set in the present time, the distant past or even the future?
Decisions, decisions, decisions
The writer has to make so many decisions when starting to write a short story or novel. These choices are essential in the planning stages and they need to be reviewed constantly while the work is in progress. That is what I will be doing during the coming months.
I will get by with little help from my readers:
This blog will become a journey through the writing of my novel. I plan to write frequently about the process and the decisions I make. I invite reader’s comments as we go; in fact, you can all help me in the process. I will need all the help I can get.