Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Plotting, 101

So... now that I'm a "published writer" I've been dealing with a whole new world of weird. I'm sure that it's nothing different from what every new author has to go through. I mean, I don't feel any different - as a writer - than I did six months ago. I do what I do, when I do it. There's nothing any more or less magical coming out onto the page than there was last year. Just now, someone's paid me to do it. This apparently gives me some sort of fairy dust, and it seems like half the universe is trying to shake me up and get some for themselves.

Maybe I'm being unfair. I know my friends - and friends of friends, and neighbors of friends, and almost perfect strangers that someone passed my business card to - are excited.

But I'm no more the expert than I was. Nothing has changed. I know very little more about publishing than I did.

And I'm a terrible teacher. I discovered that years ago when I firmly decided that teaching high school English was not what I wanted to do with my life.

In the last few months since I've become "a published writer", I've been given several short stories, poems, incomplete manuscripts... "Just take a look..."


I already am writing part-time, housekeeping part-time, being mom part time, trying to raid part time, and I'm beta-reading for a couple of friends already. Plus I have a huge stack of books that I want to read for pleasure.

I've done a couple of reads for people anyway. I never got thanked. They said nothing about my suggestions. This doesn't incline me to do it again.

And again, I'm not a good teacher. I'm not a writing coach.

Yesterday I spent some time with a newbie writer wanna be. (I say that because he hasn't actually written ANYTHING. He might be one step up on the circle of words than people who say causally at parties, "Oh, I've always wanted to write a book." Maybe. But in my view of the world, until you actually have written something. Anything. TO completion. You're not a writer.)

"I have a main character," he says. "And a BBEG -"

"A what?"

"Big Bad Evil Guy??" he says, like I should know this. Really? I usually call that person the antagonist. Or the villain.


"Now what?"

What do you mean, now what? I mean, maybe it's a legitimate question... it's not one that's ever occurred to me. But I've been writing stories for as long as I can remember, so maybe... back when I was eleven... it did, and I've forgotten...

"Well," I said, tapping my fingers against the desk, "What does your bad guy want?"

"I don't know."

"Then why is he bad?"


"Plot is about conflict... " Hasn't this been covered in some basic high school English class? "You're telling me your story has a protagonist and an antagonist; that's a classic formula; man vs. man."

"Well, they're cats."

"Same thing..."

"No, it's not, they..."

"THE SAME THING for the purposes of PLOT DEVELOPMENT. Man vs. man. Cat vs. Cat. Character A vs. Character B. So the first thing I suppose you need to start with is defining the conflict. Why are they fighting? What does A have than B wants? Or what is B planning that A wants to foil?"

Long silence.

"I guess I need a new bad guy."

Like I said, I'm a bad teacher, but I fell over laughing at this point. How can you have an antagonist that doesn't want anything? Even if they're the evil dictator and they have everything in the world under their paw, they want something - to stay in power, to crush the rebellion, to marry the sweetheart of the hero... they have goals, desires, plot devices.

* at this point I'd like to say I'm exaggerating part of this conversation for effect, grabbing bits of other conversations I've had recently to emphasize, and that we got cut off from our chat at this point, so I wasn't actually able to give him any helpful advice.

The best advice I ever got on plot development didn't come from a Creative Writing class (I've taken three...) or another writer. It came from a gaming book; Storyteller's Guide to Vampire, the Masquerade, 2nd edition. It is, by far, my favorite gaming book. In addition to having more rules, nifty items for your characters and the typical stuff found in all role-playing books, this one included a couple chapters on HOW TO DEVELOP YOUR STORY.

That's all Roleplaying is; group story-telling. You have one person leading the events, and a bunch of other players reacting/acting/developing character... I highly recommend role-playing as a way to sharpen your writer's eye. Because while we all joke that our novel characters don't listen to us, that's nothing - NOTHING - like what a bunch of truly independent characters will do to your plot. Anything you haven't thought of, they'll try it. Any area you haven't developed, they'll go that way... any NPC (non-player character) that MUST NOT DIE will get shot in the first act for being rude. Players will run rough-shod over you, force you to think faster and more creatively than four to seven other people, and your reward is that years later they'll tell stories about the "good old days of your campaign" and you can sit by and smile.

Anyway, I don't think the Storyteller's Guide is available anymore... in fact, I think Vampire's current edition (4? 5?) isn't even called "the masquerade" anymore. Which is too bad, because this is a great book.

It's divided into 6 chapters: The Story, The Chronicle, The Setting, The Motive, and The Enemy. Yes, that's only 5. But the sixth chapter is mostly game mechanics, and is therefore not relavant to today's lesson.

Story discusses the parts of a story; concept, plot archetypes, themes and mood, incentives, story structure, beginnings, middles, ends, loose ends, aftermath.

Chronicle includes what are technically game details, but can also be really useful for ideas like a story map (outline! I am NOT a pantser writer. I need a road map or I'll never freaking get there. Other people don't, and that's great, I envy them.), troubleshooting, consistency, handling time, the web (not the www, but what the character does affects people that he may not ever notice, but that can come back to bite him in the ass later.) tension and humor.

Setting: where does your story take place? Who lives there? What is life like there regularly? Questions like these come up in games, they also come up in novels; particularly if you're writing a novel in a world not our own. In our world, people assume things like toilets and toasters and telephones. What is it like somewhere else?

Motive; here we come back to what I was saying earlier; What does your character want? Who's preventing him from getting it? What does the villain want? Why does your hero care? Everyone has motives; even wild animals have motivation (they're hungry, you're scaring them, you're too close to their den). People don't act in a vacuum. Even if the motive is; like a six year old who broke the windows by throwing rocks at them, and the parent is going, "Junior, WHY did you do that?" and the only answer is, "Seemed like a good idea at the time."

Enemy: How to create a memorable bad guy. Yes, in both games and novels, you can send hundreds of redshirts (sorry, star trek term) in to die or get in the way... but that gets boring. So you frequently need a bad guy; and you need to love your bad guy. If, as a writer, you hate him, he's just not going to be very much fun. Love your bad guy. Feed him, talk to him, canoodle with him. Find out what he wants, what he loves, what he hates. Discover that, despite being an evil overlord, he's got a soft spot for his Aunt Mabel. Real people are seldom all bad or all good.

And those are the things that make them interesting.

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