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Sunday, September 15, 2013

How I Plot

            Plotting is a hot topic amongst today’s authors. Some swear by it – J.K. Rowling, for example, released several pictures of the relentless plotting that she did while writing her Harry Potter series. Others feel it’s a waste of time, even counterproductive. Why not let the novel flow naturally, they argue? Stephen King is a well-known advocate for such a style – start with an idea, he writes in On Writing, and see where it takes you.

            If you’re trying to figure out whether “to plot or not,” it seems to me that it should depend on your writing style. To wit, Rowling needed to write a long series, nigh impossible to do without a little mapping. King, on the other hand, often writes stand-alone books, based on “what-if” scenarios.

            So it depends. Are you writing a series? A complex multi-layered stand-alone? If you are, at least minimal plotting is probably a no-brainer. If you’re starting with an idea, a concept, and you want to see where your whim takes you, then it might be a terrible idea to plot.

            Personally, I’ve found that plotting helps me enormously. Mainly because I enjoy writing very complicated books, I feel that it’s important to have a basic (or heavy) plotline written out, to ensure the novel proceeds from Point A to Point Z in an orderly fashion, without taking too many distracting detours along the way.

            Usually I’ll start off with a premise, and a destination in mind. If I don’t have a destination, I’ll try and figure that out first – because while we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, we usually do judge a book by its ending. What/Who do I want my main character to accomplish/overcome/defeat? Why am I writing this book? What is the message I want to convey? Way too often I’ll read a book that has a decent premise, but falls flat towards the end (or middle, because it’s not plotted properly).

            So I’ll usually start with an ending, believe it or not, and work backwards.

            At that same time, I’ll try and figure out a beginning. Once I have an ending, I can avoid starting too early. I can clearly define this character’s problem – i.e. whatever he/she has to accomplish/overcome/defeat. At the beginning, I’ll clearly show that the character has not yet accomplished/overcome/defeated their adversary, and move from there.

            That gives me my “A” & “Z,” my beginning and end. Once I have A & Z, I really start plotting.

            Donald Maass writes in Writing the Breakout Novel that a writer should try his/her best to make things as exceedingly difficult for the MC to attain his/her goal. He advocates that a character should face no less than six roadblocks/obstacles, and maybe even more. So I’ll pick, say, six obstacles in my mind, and put them at points E, I, M, Q, U, & Y (yes, I know, it’s not evenly spaced between A & Z – obviously Y is right at the end – but I like making the last insurmountable obstacle right before my MC attains his/her goal. It makes it more satisfying that way).

            Once I have those – and I’m not married to them, they’re just ideas – I need to get my MC from point A to point E, his first obstacle. I may not need points B, C, & D to get him there, but I need to realize that it’s not always a direct journey. Rick Riordan, for example, often drags his MCs all across the United States, for no other reason than to drag out suspense and keep the reader guessing.

            Leaving points B, C, & D open also leaves room for that flash of inspiration, that “see where my whim takes me” that often comes up even after extensive plotting. I might be writing a scene, and realize that the most logical reaction is for my character to retrace his steps, but the next obstacle is nowhere near his last one. So I have open space to work with, a flexibility that allows for the creative juices that often kick in smack dab in the middle of writing the manuscript, so I can avoid getting too far off track.

            After I have my plot mapped out, I’ll usually sit down and start writing. I’m never married to my outline, but now I have a great idea of where I want to go, and how I want to get there. And if I feel an urge to deviate off the path I originally intended, I have a GPS to get me back on track without losing too much momentum or changing the story altogether.

This post was generously written by Seth Z. Herman. You can find him on the internet blogging and tweeting and just generally being very helpful always. If you want to contribute to MMW Resources, please email ginadenny129 at gmail dot com.             

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