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.
It takes character
To write a short story or novel it takes character. The character of the writer, that is. If the writer has the characteristics of discipline, persistence, patience and a good idea, the story will happen.
But the story also has to have characters. Novels have plenty of them; short stories can get away with one or two, maybe three and not many more.
There are stories where the novel is heavily plot driven. Adventure and stories high in action are like this. In other stories we observe that they are firmly character driven. What motivates the characters? What is their problem?
Australian writer Garry Disher writes: ‘I believe that character is the central element of fiction writing. Characters help fiction writers enter, tell and shape their novels and stories, express ideas and drive and develop plots.’
Over the last few days I’ve been doing some intensive work on the characters in the novel I am writing for my Master of Arts thesis paper. This is even before I have written a single word of my novel. I am getting to know my characters before they appear in the story, even before I start some major plotting work.
Who are the characters in this novel?
Here is a summary of what I have done so far:
- I have decided on who is going to be the main character. This changed early in the planning stages because my secondary character took over my thinking. At first I was focussed on an Australian boy living in rural Nepal. But Adarsh, the Nepali boy, started taking over my thinking. He was demanding to be the focus.
- Who are the secondary characters? These need to be sketched in detail, but not as detailed as my main character. These include the Australian boy Joshua, and the older brother of Adarsh. Two secondary characters is probably enough at this stage, but others may emerge in the writing.
- Then we come to the minor characters, people like the parents of the boys, other siblings and people living in the village.
The next stage in my planning was to ask some key questions. These questions will focus my thinking on various aspects of the people in the story.
- What are the goals and desires of the main character Adarsh?
- What motivates and excites him?
- What does he like and dislike?
- What frightens him?
- What worries does he have?
- What are his dreams?
Then I came across some further ideas in Garry Disher’s book which will head me in the direction of plotting.
- Which characters help Adarsh?
- Which characters hinder Adarsh?
- Which characters influence Adarsh?
It’s all starting to develop nicely in my mind. Even thinking about the characters has thrown up a few plot ideas which might make it into the novel.
I’ll keep you posted in a day or so.
Reference: Disher, G. 2001: Writing Fiction: an introduction to the craft. Allen and Unwin, Sydney.
Go to the contents page to read more articles in this series.
“Fiction writing is great. You can make up almost anything.”
Ivana Trump, upon finishing her first novel.
Say that again, please?
Yes, well … I think that’s what fiction is, something made up in the writer’s imagination.
That is what I love about writing fiction; you can make up interesting characters, imagine beautiful (or dangerous or horrible) settings, create compelling plots and generally let your creative juices loose, flowing in interesting directions.
I love it when characters take over the story and you have no idea where they will take the reader – and you as the writer.
I love it when the plot I have in mind or on my outline page suddenly twists away, taking unexpected lane ways, leading me on a merry – or dangerous – chase through a land unknown.
I am delighted when unplanned, unexpected and delicious endings pop out on to the page.
The foundation of fiction
Despite the imagination being the driving force behind all fiction, I believe it is important to realise that all fiction also has one foot in reality. Every story, even wild, out-of-this-world fantasy and SF, has to have an internal logic based on reality. If something is too illogical, the reader will switch off or stop reading.
Sure, some stories need a certain suspension of belief (eg a talking animal, and ogre who falls in love or an alien who speaks English), but once that is achieved successfully, the writer can blaze ahead.
The characters must also ring true to themselves, the setting must be based on places the readers can imagine and the plot must be feasible. I find more and more that I draw on real places, real people and real events for writing fiction. Many of my stories are based on true events; my imagination draws on those events and asks, “What if..” Using this technique my imagination can run off in all kinds of directions.
An example: some time ago my brother told me of a skeleton he found on a sandhill on his farm. All we know from the investigating detective is that the man was shot in the head twice and that he was not an Aborigine. I used the discovery of this unfortunate man and came up with a 4000 word crime and murder mystery story. My lecturer gave me a high distinction and she is a hard but fair assessor.
Let your imagination soar, and good writing.