Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Getting on the plot train

Remember learning to ride a bike? The hardest part was getting started. Once you picked up speed, balance was easier, and as long as you pedaled you'd stay upright. Plot works the same way, at least for me.

Once I'm on the plot train, I stay on. At the end of every scene, I play the "what happens next?" game, and usually I can keep my characters driving the action and tension forward.

But it's getting on, or rather finding a plot, that I struggle with.

I've read books on plot, I've read countless blog posts, I've diagrammed plots, my own and others'. I get that a main character needs to have a problem, or want something. But it's getting from that character's desire to a plot that confuses me. What if their desire is unobtainable? Why can't the character just give up and go back to bed? What needs to happen to constitute a plot?

It reminds me of the underpants gnomes in South Park:
Phase 1: Collect underpants.
Phase 2: ?
Phase 3: Profit

Voice I can do, characters I love, setting is fun, but when it comes to plot, it seems there's a hole in my brain. Even explaining this has been a challenge!

What about you? What writing problems trip you up every time?

Oh, and any plot tips?


  1. Boggy middles. I spend so much time getting everything into place for the climax to work, I slow everything down, which is a bit counterproductive!

    I let readers know to stay eagle-eyed about anything that can be cut, condensed or blended together when they get to the middle parts. I usually spend a few days making a list of what happens in my middle chapters and seeing what can go to keep things ticking along.

  2. Instead of just thinking a character needs to have a problem, think of a character that wants something and can't get it. That will produce conflict. Conflict and problem aren't always the same thing. Conflict can be struggled with, obstacles can pop up to overcome, and conflicts can be resolved. Not always with problems—I mean if a tornado is heading your way, you're not going to resolve it, you're not going to stop the tornado.

  3. Helen: Thanks for sharing. It's funny, when other people talk about their writing problems, I usually end up feeling grateful for mine! =) It's hard trying to figure out what to cut and how to streamline a plot. You have my sympathy! At least it seems like you have a plan to tackle those middle doldrums.

    Thanks, Andrea. I'm going to have to think about this more. Of course you're right. And I think my problem is that I tend to create characters with unsolvable problems. So then I have to create something else to cause the conflict. I'll try to think about it terms of what the character wants and what stands in her way.

  4. Hi Anne: Plots (or the lack therof) can drive a writer batty. The motivation of a character is what drives a plot for me. It's not just the what does he want it's the "why does he want it?" that helps me chug the plot along.

    For example, say a girl wants to win a beauty contest - that is her goal. You can certainly craft a plot about a beauty contest and all the pageant contestants and the backstage fighting and backstabbing and maybe even throw in an unscrupulous judge. But if the reason why she wants to win the beauty contest is because there's a 5,000 dollar prize at the end of it and that will pay the loan shark her mother is being threatened by that makes her desperation to win greater. And if a character is desperate for something then you can start throwing more obstacles in that character's way which creates more plot/action.
    So for me, it's not about the 'what' it's all about the 'why'. Does that help?

  5. Anne - Are you sure they're called underpants? Aren't they something like knickers or bloomers or something....

  6. Hi Nelsa: Exactly! I don't get the NaNo "No plot, no problem" mantra. I NEED a plot! I really like your "why" spin on things, and the example helps tremendously. It seems so obvious, but for some reason it's not for me! Thanks!

    Janet: The American gnomes steal underpants, the British ones make off with knickers. Neither group can figure out how to make any profit. =)

  7. I'm sort of like Helen. Right now, I'm working on my middle. I know where the characters end up but now I'm trying to get them there in a non-boring compelling way. I tend to underwrite so this always happens to me. But usually it always works out if I just keep brainstorming...

  8. Good luck with the brainstorming, Karen! That bit scares me the most, where I really don't know how to figure out the story. But I know you'll come up with something that seems like it was meant to be!

  9. My biggest problem is keeping my plots from getting too dense. I don't know why it is, but I like complicated plots with all sort of twists and turns, and trying to wrap up all the loose bits almost always drives me to distraction. I generally know my characters pretty well -- what they want and why they want it, and what they'll do if they get it or don't get it -- I just put too much in. It's my biggest sin as a writer: not knowing how to keep things simple. Also, although I don't use outlines, I always know WHAT is going to happen. But working all of it into a workable, readable story that makes sense and doesn't bog down can be a nasty, tiresome, dispiriting business.

    Off to go back and rewrite that last chapter -- for the eighth time this week.

  10. Oh, that happens to me, too, Mary! I LOVE complicated plots as well and have to keep reminding myself to Keep It Simple Stupid! =)

    It's so hard to figure out how to trim those plots down, especially when everything's so connected. At least you've made it as far as that last chapter! Best wishes with it.