Thursday, July 19, 2012

A new look at plotting

I've been having a bit of trouble with plotting recently. It's not that I can't think up plots, I can plot all day, it's just that the plots I'm coming up with aren't working. Or, rather, they work as a plot, as in one thing leads to another leads to a conclusion, but they don't do what I want. And that lack has caused me to take another look at how I plot novels.

I've talked before about how I plot a novel. I still use this approach, but I'm thinking I might need to add a new step. Because while this method is great for coming up with the plot, it's not so great at mapping out the story.

Story and plot are not the same thing. Plot refers to the order of events, the way information is revealed to the reader, and the management of tension through out the book. The plot is the doing part of a book, and it is amazingly important. Nothing kills a story faster than a lame, limp plot. Story, on the other hand, is a book's soul. It's what the novel is really about, and as such it's very easy to get wrong.

If you've read my blog for a while, it should come as no surprise that I'm a nuts and bolts sort of writer. One of my friends recently called me a story architect, and I'm still glowing with pride from the complement. I plan my books meticulously, building them up like a tower, but until recently, I gave very little thought to story. After all, if I did the plot right, the story would follow. I plotted with my head, but left the story to my gut instincts. So long as the book felt right, I didn't give it much more thought.

Now that I write it out, I can see how stupid that way of thinking is. I'm actually pretty embarrassed to admit I left such a hugely important thing to instincts, but honestly story makes me very nervous. Unlike plot, which only gets tighter and smarter the more attention to pay it, story is easy to over do.

For example, let's look at the Eli novels. At its most basic level, the plot is "wizard thief gets in over his head." But the story of the Eli is about an abused boy with a good heart who finally stops running from his problems and takes a stand. It's about becoming a hero despite your character, about doing the right thing even if it costs you dearly, and there you can see my problem, because that sort of thing can get REALLY cheesy if you're not careful with it.

This is why I tend to shy away from digging too deep into story. I'm afraid if I give it the same analytic treatment I give everything else, it will start coming on too strong. The last thing I want to do is write cheesy, preachy books. But ignoring it is even worse, because when you ignore an aspect of your book, you relinquish control over it, and that will never do. An author is god in the story they create, and what kind of god leaves such an important thing to chance?

And this brings me back to plotting. I think one of the reasons I had such a huge problem on book #10 was because I wasn't taking story into account. I'd plotted a pretty thrilling novel, but when I sat down to write it, I knew it wasn't right. All my exciting battles and huge set pieces felt flat because they weren't personal, they weren't part of my main character's story. All I had was plot, a body with no soul, and it took me almost three months of hair pulling before I figured out how to wed plot and story back together.

The point of all this rambling is that I need to change my process. I can't leave story to my gut anymore, not if I want to write the sort of books I know I'm capable of. To this end, I'm completely tossing the plot I wrote out for my next book and starting over, but this time, I'm not just going to start with what I know, I'm going to start with what I want. I'm going to write the story out first - how I want the characters to develop, what kind of story I want to tell. And then, once I have that, I'll plot from there. I'll make the plot serve the story, not just hope they meet up.

The longer I write, the more I realize that writing is a constant evolution. There is no magic process, no perfect solution. It's an artisan profession, you're always advancing, improving your skills. Every time I think, ah, I've got it now, I discover some huge gap in my knowledge. Sometimes I think I'll still feel like a newbie writer when I'm eighty. But then, where's the fun in something easily mastered?

Sometimes writing feels like pushing a boulder up an endless hill. No matter how far you go, you're never even a tenth of the way to the top. I'll probably be dead before I master all the aspects of writing. But hey, at least I'll never be bored.

And with that, back to work!

Bonus: Sarah Monette Writing Links! 
I've been a Sarah Monette fan for years. I think she's absolutely brilliant and if I ever met her I would probably melt into a puddle. While I struggling with this story issue, I went back and reread some of her old posts, and I've marked a few of my favorites for ya'll to enjoy.


heidi2524 said...

I've been following your "How To Plot a Novel in 5 Steps" for my current YA, with the inclusion of using Blake Snyder's Save the Cat Beat Sheet with your Step #3, which was my original go-to story skeleton. For me, going through the Beat Sheet helps me work out the story aspects, which as you posted, are different from plot elements. And thank you, again for the Eli books. :)

Moses Siregar III said...

As someone who just finished outlining a couple books, I love this. Thanks very much for writing it. I could think some more about how to make my plots serve the major characters' stories.

Paul Weimer said...

Thanks, Rachel!

Story and plot are important but are not synonyms. Definitely not...

Katie said...

The fact that the writing process is constantly evolving is rather good in a way! It can definitely be frustrating at times but, on the other hand, if some part of the process isn't working, it's good to know I can step back, work out what's wrong and then make steps to fix it.

I like the sound of paying even more attention to story before plot. I hope it goes well for you. :)

Anne Lyle said...

Good luck with plotting your novel! I confess that one of the reasons I've been trying to follow your "5 steps" method is because I find outlining hard and I want to try and reduce the amount of trial-and-error that usually goes into the first draft. Sounds like you're trying to head in the opposite direction, so maybe we'll meet in the middle :)

Anonymous said...

I'm almost the opposite, and I start with story and then paint myself in corners with the plot. Generally I have to stop every 20,000 words to get it all sorted out.

Anonymous said...

Also, thanks for the post. Dur...I always forget to say that. I actually really love reading about people's different processes, and what's been working, what hasn't.

Rachel Aaron said...

Thanks for all the awesome comments! I'm glad my blunders have been good for something! Frankly, I've been feeling like a duck with two left feet whenever I sat down to write these last few weeks.

Thanks everyone :D

Anonymous said...

This blog is very informative, as always.

I just wondered at the last link here "Still seeking Chloe and Olivia." Am I reading it wrong, or is she basically accusing people of slash-pairing Chloe and Olivia? I think the strictly platonic reading is the more unlikely, given Woolf's own non-platonic relationships with women. Not that she wouldn't be capable of writing about women who were just friends, but I'm not convinced that's what she was doing with Chloe and Olivia and I find it a little strange that this writer seems to take offense at the idea that Chloe was interested in Olivia as more than a friend. Nothing wrong with wanting to see more only-friends fiction, but pushing that idea onto Woolf seems a little stubborn considering Woolf's other work/lifestyle.

M. Dunham said...

I know I'm a little late to the party, but I'm just catching up on blog for the past month or so. This resonates so strongly with me. A book with a good plot is flat without story. I recently read a book that did just this. It was so disappointing.

I've had this same issue myself as I worked out some plotting for a new book, only to realize how useless it was because there wasn't the right space for the story.

It's actually for that reason that I've started doing a partial synopsis, where I write the plot for the first few chapters, then go back and completely write out the synopsis, with some story and plot combined in it. I need to really feel the bottom of the character's dilemma in order to make it work. I don't care if I have to replot or whatever, but I need a realistic starting point in order to go on.