Monday, April 20, 2009

Paving the Road for Story

There's a discussion going on in the Vermont College student forum. Topic: Plot.

Question: How do you plot your story?
Is it character driven? Do you think of a character and then figure out what happens to them?
Is it event driven? Do you think of an event and build the characters around that?
Do you plan your story plot before you start writing?
Do you just dive in, not knowing where your story will take you, but trusting that you will find a satisfying ending?

I didn't participate in the discussion--for lack of time more than anything--but I read the many interesting responses. (And many thanks to the excellent VCFA MFAWFCYA students for providing great points that I'm summarizing very generally here.) Some are meticulous about outlining and planning their plots, others know where they're beginning and where they plan on ending, but allow the characters to lead their own journey to their destination. Some will write the whole first draft before doing any revision at all while others will stop halfway through to question if their character's actions make sense.

Right now, I'm struggling with the plot of my fantasy story--more specifically, the why of the story. My MC isn't necessarily working toward her goal, she's just doing things. She has her problem, but she's not actively solving her problems, or acting to solve her problems. So I'm going back to the plot. I've realized my problem, so now I need to work on solving it.

For me, plotting and planning a story is rather like building a road. Here's how I do it:

1. Clear the way: I have to know where it starts and where it ends. Unlike others who just go toward that end, allowing their characters to experience the journey between the two points, I need to have a sense of direction. I need to be able to say roughly how they are going to get to that end point. So I have to make a clear path (though not necessarily a straight path) to the ending. I have to get a rough first draft (and I mean rough!) done before I can smooth anything out. I have to know that my character can walk this journey from start to finish.

2.Pull out any major obstructions: So maybe I didn't quite clear that big boulder out of my character's way the first pass through. Maybe there's some major personality disorder that should prevent her from acting heroic and rescuing the baby from the burning building. Maybe she's agoraphobic and I had her push through the gawking crowd to rescue that baby anyway. It really doesn't fit together. My first round of revisions is usually pretty major. I usually cut out lots of little detours that I've taken into backstory and unnecessary explanations. I try to make the path to the end more direct and more smooth. In road-building, you're taking out big obstacles and filling in the foundation with stones to make the path a road. In story-building, you're doing the same--making sure your character can get from the starting point to the ending point without major potholes in your plot.

3. Fill in the gaps: At my school and writing conferences, this is referred to as "fleshing it out." To flesh out a story, you have to add depth to it, and fill in gaps. Think of this as the asphalt over the rocks. It starts in fluid form, then gels together and eventually hardens. When you're fleshing your story out, you're giving your character the details they need to explain those potholes. In my current story about an adolescent girl with cancer, the girl started as boring. She was very flat, one dimensional. Her life in the story that I made was all about the cancer. While that ultimately is what my story is about, it's not everything the story is about. That girl has a life, friends that she left behind, activities she had to quit when she got sick. Her little brother has a nickname--why? Those were the details that needed filling in to make the story come alive. When you flesh out a story, you add another dimension to the plot and to the characters that make readers want to see them get to the end.

4. Polish, polish, and polish again: You know those big rollers that go over and over those newly paved roads, again and again to get them smooth and flat? That's what needs to happen in your final rounds of revisions. Notice I said revions, plural, and not final revision, singular. It takes many passes over a story to catch mistakes and weed out the details that don't work. In my recent story, there was one point that my character named Jen says to her mother (when asked who is on the phone), "It's Jen." Jen shouldn't tell her mother it was JEN on the phone, she should say that it's Angie on the phone! No less than eight people read that without catching it. Details like these are hard to find on your own. Often, you think your story more than you read it. You think a word is right because it's the word your brain has filled in, even if it's not on the paper. This is why it's a good idea to put your story away for a little while before you get to this point. Let your brain forget those words that you've filled in, and read it fresh after two weeks. Let someone else read it, and they may be able to help you smooth out those little bumps and wrinkles. It's VERY important to do this before you send it out to an editor or agent. You want your story to be as polished and professional as it can be.

I am going back to scour my plot road for the pothole that I can't seem to get around. I know it's there, I just don't know how to fill it so that it makes sense. It might ultimately be too deep to fill, so I may have to re-route the whole story and come to a different end point (it will be in the same neighborhood as the end of the story now, but just west of it, I think). I am nowhere near smoothing. I can fill in some of my gaps, but without knowing where this story is going, it doesn't make sense to worry about those details right now.

In any case, I'm plodding away, plotting away... (sorry, that was an eye-roller). Drop me a line with your plotting tips. I could use all the help I can get right now.

Here are some resources I've come across along the way, along with some that fellow VCFA Writers have recommended:

Anastasia Suen: Picture Writing (great for PB's especially)
Don Massey: Writing the Breakout Novel
Robert McKee: Story (Actually a screenwriting books, but good sections on structure)
Gary Provost: Make Your Words Work (Very helpful with the revision process)

More VCFA Writers--At Through the Toolbooth, a writing blog by VCFA Alum, Helen Hemphill gives not only good advice, but a chart and checklist too. Check it out here:

Another method is called the "snowflake method" and can be found here:

More resources? I'd love to hear about them.
Happy plotting!


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