Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Writing Wednesdays: How To Plot A Series Without Driving Yourself Insane (Part 3)

First up, thank you all for your patience with my impromptu vacation last week (it's not my fault! My husband kidnapped me and dragged me to the mountains!).

Also, thank you everyone for making the launch of One Good Dragon Deserves Another such a huge success!! It's already got 67 reviews on Amazon with a 4.7 star rating and 329 ratings on Goodreads with a 4.46 in twelve days. That is insane, and I owe it all to you wonderful people!! Thank you all so so soooooo much for reading and reviewing!! (And if you haven't read my dragon books, why not? Go try them now!)

On to business. Today we're finishing up our craft series on How to Plot a Series Without Driving Yourself Insane (see Part 1 about actual plotting steps here and Part 2 on how to craft a great and effective meta plot here) with probably the most important part of any sequential writing: internal consistency!

Writing Wednesdays: How To Plot A Series Without Driving Yourself Insane (Part 3) - Harnessing Internal Consistency to Create Flexible, Tightly-Woven Stories

When authors talk about "internal consistency," they're usually talking about details--keeping the characters' eye color and height consistent across multiple books, or not saying a plant is poisonous in book one only to have the characters eat a salad made out of it in book five. This kind of internal consistency is very important, but it's not actually what I'm talking about here. When I talk about using internal consistency in plotting, I'm talking about creating an internally consistent and persistent world.

Whether your novel is set in a Fantasy kingdom or modern New York, every writer has to do world building. I've always maintained that how much world building you need to do depends entirely upon you, your book, and your stomach for the process. But whether you're filling folders with rules for your magical system or just using Google Street View to figure out where your protagonist's bakery would be located, all good world building has one critical factor in common: it makes sense and stays consistent within its own context.

Real world building is not window dressing or set pieces. When you sit down to create the world your characters will inhabit, you're not just describing the space they're going to occupy for the length of the book. You're inventing the world that made them the people they are and the world that will persist once the story is finished. To do all that without feeling fake or flat, any world you create must make sense and be consistent within its own rules.

For some reason, stories with magic are the absolute worst about this. I can't tell you how many Fantasy/Urban Fantasy/Paranormal books I've read where the "rules of magic" are laid out in the beginning and then promptly forgotten the moment they become inconvenient to the plot. Sometimes the author gives some halfhearted "oh, X character is special so they can break the rules" cop-out, sometimes it's glossed over with hand-waving and distractions, and sometimes there's no explanation at all. Any way it falls out, though, the result is always terrible, sloppy, and really disappointing.

The opposite of this are books whose worlds and magical systems make sense internally on their own terms, with or without the plot. They're simply part of the world, and the plot is the story of the characters working within these systems. These rules do not have to be complicated, just consistent and sensible within the context of the story. They have to work on their own terms, in other words. Once you've got that, though, you've got a world readers will praise as deep and well-thought-out.

So what does all of this have to do with series plotting? Ahhhhhh, grasshopper, here's the trick. If you create a world that is internally consistent and keeps making sense with or without your plot, then you have the freedom to change your mind on that plot at any time.

No one has all their best ideas at once. You can plot a series down to the scene, but the moment you start writing, that plan will start to change. This is a totally natural and healthy part of writing. You simply do not know a novel until you're down in the trenches.

This isn't to imply that plotting isn't important. It absolutely is. To quote President Eisenhower, "Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable." Even if you don't end up following your plot, the act of having plotted, of thinking about your story in a critical, methodical way, has already made you an expert in your world, characters, and circumstances. You are, in essence, starting with what many writers would consider a second draft, which is a huge step up.

But as part of that natural plot evolution, you're probably going to change your mind about the direction your story needs to go. If you're like me, you might change entire plot arcs and/or the whole series ending before the books are done. That is a tectonic shift in the story landscape which, by the way, might very well happen mid-series after one or more books are written and published. This means there's no going back and ret-conning things that no longer fit. You have to work inside the story and make your new, way better ideas fit inside what you've already put down, and the only way to do that gracefully is if you've crafted a world that can stand on its own.

If you cheap out on worldbuilding and just make up whatever you need as you go to fit the plot, not only will your world appear poorly thought-out and shallow (because, yanno, it is), you're also tying yourself inexorably to whatever plot you've chosen. If you suddenly have a better idea for how the books should end, you can still implement it, but it's most likely going to look like it came out of left field because you had no consistent framework to set it up on.

BUT, if your world is well thought out with events that happen for logical reasons which, though the might have happened during the plot, do not exist solely because of the plot, it's a whole different ball game. So long as you keep any changes you make consistent within the rules of the world you've set up (or, if you must break them, you break them for a very very good and dramatic reason that also makes sense in context), the new plot direction is going to feel like a natural extension of what you've already written. And because it feels so natural (because you're following the rules you've been following since the beginning), readers will assume you planned it like this from the beginning, even if you had the idea that morning.

This--the power to change your plot midstream and make it look like that was your plan all along--is the power of an internally consistent world. To cite a personal example, I changed my mind on the ending of my Eli Monpress series multiple times, including while I was writing the fifth and final book. Keep in mind, four other books were already published at this point. I had to work within the story that was already published. If I'd been less careful about my worldbuilding, these back and forth changes would have created a horrible mess. BUT, since I made sure all my plot changes made sense within the rules, characters, and setting I'd already put down over four books, they actually fit right in, and no one ever knew. (Until now, I guess. I'm sorry if I just burst anyone's bubble about my infallibility and seer-like vision of the future!!)

Writer confession: The road between these books was neither straight nor clear when I set out. Despite my well-planned path, most bridges were actually invented while traveling because the ones on the map simply wouldn't do the job well enough. When I glanced back at where I'd been, though, it looked like this path had been my plan the whole time. Elite pro-skills? Nah, just good world building that let me jump on the best idea possible and make it work.

I really can not stress enough how important setting up internally consistent world is for the working writer. If you are actively writing and publishing a series, or if you plan to do so in the future, do yourself a favor and take the time to make sure your world is working for you, not against. Because I guarantee there will be a moment when you're writing along and suddenly you'll just know how it all works out. The pieces will click together, and a new, fantastic plot will fall into your lap. This is just how the human brain works, and you want to be ready to capitalize on those moments of brilliance with a strong, sturdy, well-built world that can roll with the punches.

I've had so many readers praise my incredibly long vision in setting up the ending of a series all the way from book one, when really all I did was write an internally consistent story. Whenever I had a plot epiphany (or just realized that a plot decision I'd made previously was dumb), all I had to do to completely change the story was figure out how to fit the new stuff into the strong, living, consistent world I'd already built. Once I figured that out, my new plot would snap right into place, and the story would flow on like this twist was my plan right from the beginning. I looked like a boss, my readers were delighted, and my stories were immeasurably better because I was free to move the plot to the best idea whenever I had it, not just whatever was down on my outline.

If you take nothing else from this series on plotting, I hope you'll take this. Even if you're writing a standalone, taking the time to create an internally consistent world where everything happens for a reason and makes sense within its own context is never a bad move. Your readers will thank you, I will thank you, and you'll thank yourself later when you've written yourself into a corner and all that good consistent world building shows up to save your bacon (it'll happen sooner or later, trust me).

I hope you've enjoyed this series! I do craft posts every week for Writing Wednesday, so if you want to see me tackle more big writing ideas in this kind of detail, please leave your suggestions or questions in the comments. I want to write what you want to read about, so just let me know what writing areas you're struggling with or curious about, and I will be happy to try and answer them!

As always, thank you so much for reading! I really hope this blog helps you with your writing, wherever you are in your career. If you don't already, please follow me on the social media outlet of your choice via the icons at top of the blog for updates on my books, writing tips, and occasional hilarity. You can also sign up for my mailing list to be the first to know about any new fiction or non-fiction writing books I put out. I swear I will not spam you!

And with that, I'm out! See you next week for another Writing Wednesday (if not sooner), and as always, happy writing!

Yours always,


Kelly Byrne said...

Another great post. Thanks for the helpful info, Rachel. Very much appreciate your input. And congrats on the success of 'One Good Dragon Deserves Another.' You deserve it. :)

Nicrophorus said...

Thank you! I was having a "head repeatedly hitting the desk" kind of morning. I realized I need to go back to do some more back story/world building-y sort of things. Part of me was worrying that it was my brain trying to come up with some sort of cop-out to keep me from finishing the damn story already-
Thank you for the validation I needed!

Rachel Aaron said...

Yay! So glad I helped! Good luck on your series :)

Rosey said...

This is great and so useful! Totally using this to figure out what I'm writing. I love Writing Wednesday posts, always get excited for them :D

If you're looking for a suggestion for something to write about for a writing wednesday, I wonder if I could suggest something about endings -- books, series what have you. I've never been dissatisfied with an ending of yours, so I figure you know what you're talking about!

Jimney said...

Oooh this is a lovely post! Thank you very much. It gets me thinking about things and it might just offer up a bit of a solution to my current stuck-ness too! I can't wait for next Wednesday! :)

The Blog said...

I'm so glad I stumbled across your blog. I want to read your books so very bad and once I stop being poor, I'll be sure to get a hold of them! ;)
I have plans for a feature trilogy that will have some major world-building and "special rules" for the characters. Although I'm still in the planning stage, this article was super helpful. It will help me keep my plot in its place. Thanks Rachel! :)

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