Saturday, August 25, 2007

WORKSHOP: To Plot Or Not To Plot


First, I would like to thank you for having me on your panel. My name is Barbara Custer, and I ask that everyone call me Barbara. The Mrs. business makes me feel old. On the forums, my friends know me as Popple. The people whose submissions I've rejected may call me something else, but that's another matter (smile). Overall, I find that the writers, poets, and illustrators that I work with are very nice people. Night to Dawn Magazine features dark fantasy short stories, usually with the vampire theme. Some of the stories are actually horror, but in today's parlance, you can't say the word "horror." Most publishers prefer “dark fantasy” instead. That said, most of the elements in this workshop can be used for other genre and mainstream fiction.

If you asked your buddy to describe his favorite story, the description may boil down to one sentence like, "it's about a guy who stumbles out of the bar and finds a sickly beggar in the alley, only the beggar is an alien who feeds on people. The guy wants to run for help, but he had one drink too many, and the creature goes after him with a plasma gun..." Your friend is describing the story's plot, the character's movement from point A to point B., and finally the resolution. Your story, whether it's a short story or novel, will begin with the premise that says "what if?"

Having an idea:

Let us say that your story's idea came from an article that you read in a newspaper. Perhaps someone has stumbled upon a mangled body in an alley behind a bar. The police failed to turn up any suspects. Was it a mob hit? Did something other than human get to that person? Was it a strange animal or even something from outer space? The writer has to fill in the details. Have the victim's friends noticed any strange visitors? Have they observed odd behavior among their drinking buddies? Perhaps the creature had been hiding underground for a while until a human shot its mother on sight. Perhaps its food supply was running low. Now this alien wants to seek revenge by cannibalizing humans...

And thus, you have your story's premise.

How then, can you get a good idea? Entirely new ideas are as rare as precious gems. Literary submissions are rife with clich├ęs: the injured person who finds out he was made on another planet, mirror stories, malicious machines, abused women who mutilate men, weak, helpless heroines, the house that's for sale too cheaply, the secret attic, and so on. Reading different varieties of fiction, including those outside your genre, will lend flavor to your work and show you what has already been done to death. If you must write about stock characters (the police officer, nurse, etc.), add qualities that will make them unique. If you don't involve yourself with your characters, the readers probably won't either.

Another way of capturing original ideas is by writing down your dreams... or nightmares, depending on your genre. One time, I had a killer nightmare, and I wrote it out in longhand. The idea went on to become a published tale.

The curtain call:

Your story should open up with a great narrative hook. When I read a magazine submission, the opening paragraph will give me a strong idea as to whether or not I will accept a story. And for a short story, the conflict had better start on page 1. With a novel, you have more leeway. Perhaps you could introduce your character in the first chapter. Perhaps your protagonist had the granddaddy of all fights with his wife, lost his job, and decided to get away from his troubles at the local bar. Of course he was distracted when he went to the alley. He could've been thinking about his wife, or wondering about the night's baseball scores. Perhaps he had an interest in weapons, science fiction, or some other interest that would make his reaction to the alien believable. But when it comes to getting published, a compelling first sentence means the sun, the moon, and the stars.

Examples of some great narrative hooks:

"Moans and wails echoed through the upper floor of the old two-story house. Ear-piercing shrieks punctuated the bedlam." Valerie Hoffman.

"On the night that I was born, my paternal grandfather, Josef Tock, made ten predictions that shaped my life. Then he died in the very minute that my mother gave birth to me." Dean Koontz

"Today I watched a man die." Tess Gerritsen

"The sky was an immense, inverted bowl of gray clouds that arched from one flat horizon to the other." Robin Cook

"The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years—if it ever did end—began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper, floating down a gutter swollen with rain." Stephen King

Example of a bad first opening: "It was a dark and stormy night..." or any variation of the same sentence.

Oh, that sagging middle…

So what comes next? It's not enough to have a killer beginning only to saddle a reader with a drab middle and end. Think about what your protagonist would logically do. Even if your hero is cockeyed drunk, his actions have to make sense. Will he sober up and try to defend himself? Will he even believe that the visitor is a real alien? And let's suppose that the alien is merely frightened? What then? If your protagonist runs and starts screaming like a ninny, you don't have much of a story to tell. You need to be able to weave his reaction (and the alien's) into what needs to happen to advance the story to its climax.

Any event, no matter how extraordinary, may not be so compelling if it happens to John Q. Public, but it will certainly grab our attention if it happens to someone whose life is most likely to be affected. So set the stakes high. Let's say that our protagonist discovers that his teenaged daughter snuck out on a date at that same bar. She stands in the alley, getting air, and never knowing that she’s directly in the path of the invading alien. There you have it. You've given your protagonist the motivation to fight that alien, drunk or no. But the alien has telekinetic powers, and he’s moving fast. Will our protagonist make it to his daughter in time to pull her from harm’s way? Or will the hostile alien block his exit? No matter how the conflict turns out, the protagonist's life will be changed forever. He may later decide he wants to give up drinking. He may make peace with his wife. He may estrange himself from his family and join a monastery.

But suppose our protagonist is a borderline nutcase, driven to drink by his shrew of a wife. Perhaps she cheats on him and demeans him every chance she gets. Perhaps she turns up at that same bar and steps out into the alley for a smoke. Now that alien might become a tool rather than a threat. If the protagonist does nothing to intervene, the alien might fry his wife with his disintegrator. No one would be the wiser; the police would assume that the wife was another victim, and our protagonist would get off free.

This particular choice will decide what will happen between beginning and the end. Perhaps your protagonist could lure his wife out for a couple of drinks. Will he get her there in time for him to push her out into the alley and escape without being fried himself? Your readers may root for this woman or hope that she fries, but they will definitely want to know what happens.

Finding your characters:

Before you decide which way to plot, or how the story will end, create your character first. Stereotyped characters make a dull plot. So start with your basic idea: a guy stumbles out of the bar and finds a hostile alien disguised as a sickly beggar. Before you go any further, get to know your characters.

Let's take "the bad guy", for instance. That is the alien. What is his goal? Does he want to seek revenge for his mother's death? Who will be the most likely opponent for this alien? If the initial meeting takes place in a crowded city, your choice for a hero will be a lot different than it would be if it took place at a watering hole in a rural setting. If the story took place on another planet, then we’re talking astronauts and space shuttles. So now, you know where the hero lives, you know what he does for a living. But you’re not ready to plot yet. First, you’re going to become best friends with your hero.

It may cross your mind to construct a character from someone you know really well, like a coworker or relative. At best, you could cause hard feelings, and at worst, you’d have a libel suit. If you’re going to do this, use a different name and incorporate character traits from other people into your character. From my experience with Twilight Healer, I will say that the temptation to draw from people you know is strong. I did my best to pull traits from other people, but some of my friends did say, “Oh, you wrote about so and so.” I'm happy to say that I didn't cause any hard feelings.

Have breakfast with your character, find out his favorite color, his idiosyncrasies, his family ties, his faults, and his secret thoughts.

Capture a description, that is, the scar on your character's cheek, the mole on his chin, the greenish hue in the eyes. One way to do this is by cutting out magazine pictures and using them to give your character’s features. After you’ve got your face, move onto the basic personality type: temperamental, joker, lovesick, romantic, power-hungry, and so on. The name will tell you a lot about the character, and you will want to make your choice count. I would like to recommend Writer’s Digest Character Naming Sourcebook, which will give you the literal meaning behind names in different languages. There are also websites available that does this. You could give your character a nickname without using it.

The character’s physical traits will tell us a lot about how he will handle that alien. If he's wiry and athletic, he will probably be able to run for his life and make it. If he's only 4 feet tall, he may have a decent chance at hiding. If he’s heavy, the weight will slow him down, and you can use that to tweak up the tension. Does our character find another way to escape, or does he try to fight the alien? Does he die trying?

Speaking of getting around, what does your character use for transportation? The choice of transportation will tell you a lot about him. Does he drive, bike, or take a bus? Does he drive a brand-new Rolls Royce or a beat up ’90 Chevy? Is it clean or messy? Clothing: new, used, expensive, cheap, clean, dirty, or tattered? How about his family history? Does he get along with his relatives? If he's tight with his relatives, he may worry about their safety and be motivated to fight. Who is his best friend? Where did he grow up?

Does he live in a one-room apartment, a condominium, shack, on the street, or in a mansion? What are his political thoughts? If he favors free use of guns, he will likely be carrying one and use it to defend himself. What are his hobbies and talents? (He doesn’t necessarily have to be good at his hobby.) Does he enjoy his job? If not, and his boss frequents that bar, perhaps he might push his boss in the alien’s way. What are his favorite foods? Does he watch his calories and carbs, or is he a sweets / junk food addict? Is he health-conscious? Does he smoke and drink? How much? What does he do when he’s upset? Does he play music, shop, talk to friends, go for a walk, go to a counselor, etc?

You’ll want to give your hero a lot of flaws. Is he rude to people? Does he lose things? What tension there would be if the alien was at his heels, and he lost his keys to his getaway car! What is his worst habit? Does he curse or act uncouth? What does he do that offends others?

You should be running up to a two or three page characters sketch for your main protagonists. You must be wondering if you're going to use all this information? Of course not. What you're trying to do is to get to know your character well, so you can easily plot your story. Getting to know your character will give you an idea of how he will react to the invading alien. By now, your character should be talking to you and telling you what he's going to do to get out of Dodge. You'll want to do similar things for your villain too. Your alien may be the monster in the story, but maybe somewhere along the line he has a soft quality. Perhaps he sees a sickly child, and he's moved to pity enough to help the child. That would definitely color the flavor of your story, especially if the child became a central character. You will want to keep your character sketch handy so you can refer to it as you go on plotting your middle.

Cluttering the plot:

The middle section can get awfully dicey. I'm struggling with the middle section on a book that I'm writing now, and I said more bad words over it than I care to remember. There's a temptation to introduce a lot of subplots, little conflicts, so I can keep the story going. Yes, the alien in the alley is real, he's carrying a plasma gun, and he means to kill. But there is a werewolf attacking a bunch of people inside the bar. Well, unless the werewolf is connected with the alien somehow, and also in the resolution in the story, he has no place at the bar, the alley, or even the story. Short stories will deal with one major conflict, best started on page 1. The alien is angry; our protagonist has to get out of the alley and somehow manage not to get shot. In the novel, you have room to develop the character a little bit more. For example, what motivated his decision to run or fight? But bringing anything outside the scope of your premise, like werewolves, zombies, prostitutes, or anything else will only serve to unravel your plot, and wreck your suspension of disbelief.

When you wrap it up, you decide the ending. Does the protagonist live or die? Does he lure his wife to her death? Whatever you decide, the ending has to come out of the conflict. You're cheating the reader if you have an "it was all just a dream" ending. Every now and then, I get submissions with this kind of ending. Another way of cheating the reader: our protagonist snatches his daughter to safety. There's little time left, and it turns out that she isn’t his daughter after all; she's an impostor who is actually an alien. Another way of cheating the reader: our protagonists in the alley and the alien…you know. And then suddenly your protagonist whips out his own plasma gun. See, he's an alien disguised as human. Get it? The end.

Endings like these will only ruin your suspension of disbelief and discourage the chances of getting your story published. And when you're wrapping up the story, you need to tie up the subplots as well. In a short story, the climax happens when our protagonist survives his confrontation with the alien—or not. Perhaps our alien has no resistance to human bacteria and our hero use that against him. Perhaps the shooting sets the bar on fire. Will our hero survive? In a novel, you will see with your hero's life will be like afterwards. Your character should have gone through a change of some sort. In a short story, though, you only see your character walk away from the wreckage of the bar to whatever adventures lie ahead of him. Although, probably next time, he will want to do his drinking at home and avoid back alleys.


Anonymous said...

This is good stuff. I think in particular the saggy middle - that's where I always come to grief - I know where to start and where I want to end, but the middle? Yikes!

Anonymous said...

Hi Barbara
Thank you so much for your workshop. It helped to make alot of things much clearer to me with my writing. The sagging middle is what I'm struggling with at the moment, so what you have said helps alot.

Anonymous said...

Malvina and Sandra,

I'm glad I could help. The middle has been my weakest suit, also, but I find a couple of things help:

Before I start writing the story, I draw a sketch of the characters, that is, filling in their traits and backgrounds.

Also, a well-published writer suggested that I first plow through the first draft, and don't start editing until the 2nd round. In the past, I found myself stuck on the first few chapters, so this technique helps me move on.


Kathy J Marsh said...

Hi Barbara,

Your workhop was so informative, especially the part about character flaws. I've had a hard time with this, but your question, What does he do that offends others?" helps a bunch with that.

I guess the saggy middle haunts all of us newbies. I find that plot outlines help me with this. But, I'm an anal annie, so no surprise there.

Thanks for the great workshop!


ladystorm said...

Thanks for doing this workshop, I really enjoyed it. I never really thought about using real pictures of people to find my character. That to me was interesting, I normally just come up with him/her in my mind. Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

Kathy, you're welcome. The plot outline does help. After getting to know a character, that sort of leads me to a rough sketch of the story and then onto the outline. I like to think as the chapter outline as "spoilers" for the story.

Vicki M. Taylor said...

Hi Barbara, Great workshop. I'm in the middle of plotting a new book now, and I'm working on character development. I'm finding it exciting. As I build my characters I find specifics about them that influence the plot. So, I'm actually plotting my novel at the same time. Thanks for adding more depth to my character development.

angeleque said...

I've always been more of a pantser than a plotter so thanks for this workshop.

As I work on plotting my next book, I am really plotting it first and not just writing and then letting it fall apart and starting a new story. So I'm getting to know my characters and the storyline and discovering whether I have enough conflict to actually carry the story.

La-Tessa said...

That's for this workshop Barbara, it is definitely right on time.

I am currently working on my first novel, which I am finding to be very intimidating in and of itself. I can say that I know my characters quite well, due to some indepth profiling, and I have a rough story outline with a definite begining and ending; but I must admit, the middle is killing me!

Thanks again for sharing your wisdom with us. These first two workshops have given me much to think about.

Rudelle Thomas said...

Wow! Excellent! This is really great (and desperately needed) information Barbara. I am trying my hand at my first fiction novel and I pretty much got stuck after the first few chapters because I was trying to develop my characters as I went along and that doesn't work. lol. This has really helped me immensely. I thought about what you said about really knowing your characters. I can see how your characters can really write much of their own story just as we can pretty much guess what we would do in a situation because we know ourselves. I can't wait to get back to my book after the conference. Thanks so much!

Rudelle Thomas
Divine Eloquence Magazine

Anonymous said...

To Rudelle, Latessa, and Angeleque:
I'm glad I was able to help. One reason why I find the middle challenging is because it is hard to write from the villain's point of view. I try to keep in mind that even your bad characters have a little bit of good in them. Perhaps the evil alien that I mentioned has a soft spot for children, and he heals a little girl. I have to do a couple of chapters from the villain's point of view myself, and talking about this reminds me of what I need to do to get the job done.

Chicki said...

Fantastic workshop! This just the information I needed. Thank you so much for giving of your time.

Melissa said...

I never know if I'm getting too wrapped up in the character descriptions (as far as really knowing them, doing character sketches and all) but I believe you are correct in saying if you really know your character, you will be able to plot the story easier because you know what he/she will do in any given situation. The middles are a hard way to go for me too so this advice comes in handy. Thank you so much!

Anonymous said...

Chicki and Melissa, I'm glad I could help. I hope to see everyone at next year's conference. It would be interesting to hear how everyone makes out.

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