March 4, 2011

guest post: plotting for the structurally inclined

When it comes to developing a story, there are about as many ways to go about it as there are writers to write them. It runs the spectrum from pages and pages of detail to almost nothing. There are many reasons for this. Some writers need everything laid out before them, working out the bugs (as much as they can) and creating a roadmap that guides them from start to finish. They need this framework to work within, otherwise they feel at loose ends about the story as a whole. Other writers have a starting spot and the destination and treat it more as the great, unknown road trip. They love the creative adventure of just seeing what happens.

Now, I'm very much generalizing here. This is the rather cliche dichotomy of the plotter versus the pantser. These terms get bandied about regularly among writers, each envious of and wondering how the heck the other side does it. How can you plot the whole thing out ahead of time? You know the whole thing, so why bother writing it? On the other side, the plotter drools at the prospect of just being able to sit down and start writing when a great idea pops into their head. But then what if you run yourself into a dead end and have to start over? Think of all the potential editing! Ugh! Anyway, you get the idea.

Me? I'm a plotter. For my novel, Deadworld (Kensington, Apr. '11), I spent about a month prepping and four months writing. Twenty percent of my time allotted to figuring out just what I wanted to write. For my brain, a good chunk of my creative energy is invested in this upfront time. I take down notes on character, scenes, settings, pivotal turning points, the resolution, and any other important bits that bring the story's roadmap to life. I need to know all of the cool places to stop along the way. Seeing what kind of trip I'm going to have is what motivates me to make the journey.

I am very straight forward about the whole thing. I come at most stories from the notion of overall concept. Others may come at it from character. Honestly there is no right way to go about this. For Deadworld, I started with this: an old west sheriff turns into a vampire in order to chase down the vampire that destroyed his family. One-hundred-eighty years later, how would this play out? The main character would be the lucky person drawn into this mess as it winds down to its conclusion. I knew the story would begin at the point the heroine gets involved and end with the final confrontation with the villain.

Once this simple aspect of start and finish is set, I do what I call, "playing around with things." This is days, and more like a few weeks of just bandying about thoughts, notions, and ideas about the story. This is a lot of "what if's?" and "how would that work?" sort of questioning. I play out aspects of characters and backgrounds, which spawns ideas for scenes. Inevitably, I figure out what the big turning point of the story is. This is the midpoint of the story, where things get turned on their head and go in another direction.

Suddenly, I have two smaller stories to figure out. How do I get from the start to the middle, and then from middle to end? This is focused more on action-driven content. Character development threads get layered in after this element. Time for more pondering. A lot of this is random thought process for me. I may come up with scenes at the end or a third of the way through, but I have my piece of paper I continually look at, which has the start written down at the top, the midpoint in the middle and the climax at the bottom of the page. Something comes to mind that fits in the first half, I write down there, all the while, pursuing the next logical step in the progression. What's the midpoint that turns things for each half of the story? These five parts
of the story: beginning, first-half midpoint, midpoint, second-half midpoint, and climax are the focus of my plotting process. I know if I can get these solidly in my mind, that I can fill in the other aspects, even if I don't have a perfectly clear vision of them before I start.

Some of you may recognize this structure if you've read any books on scriptwriting. Because I'm so linear in my thinking, this works well for me. There's a lot of good stuff to be found in the books on scriptwriting that can be applied directly to novel writing. The nice thing is, when looking at the sheet of paper, with these five main elements on it, the sections to fill in do not look nearly so imposing. Think of it as taking a large, complex object and then breaking it down bit by bit, until you can see all of the component pieces. For you writers who like structure, I think you might find aspects of this useful.

The great thing about plotting this way, is when I'm done, I have a sheet of paper, sometimes two, that details pretty much every chapter in my story. In other words, an outline. Every important part of the story is in front of my eyes in one small space and I can get a good sense of how things flow, where things might be lagging, where character development needs to happen, and so on. I'll take a little more time letting it percolate, tweaking things, switching some things around, but when I'm done, I have an accurate roadmap of my journey from start to finish, at which point I'm very excited to see how it all plays out. Unlike some, who find knowing hinders the creative process, this way energizes me. I can't wait to get the words on paper and breathe life
into my idea.
J.N. Duncan lives and works in Ohio. He writes dark, urban-fantasy-suspense, and his first novel Deadworld, published by Kensington, will be out in April, 2011. He blogs at Writing in the Dark, and you can find him on Twitter @jimnduncan. He was also interviewed here.

No comments:

Post a Comment