How do you build plots?

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How do you build plots?

1LShelby
Apr. 17, 2020, 1:20pm

I've written 15 books, but I still honestly don't have a good grasp on how to plot because normally, for me, plot just happens.

But it doesn't just happen to be short very often. So I am interested in wresting control from my subconscious and learning how to do this on purpose--giving me a bit more control when I really need it.

So I thought I'd start by asking other people how they do the whole "coming up with a plot" thing.

2jeffschanz
Apr. 18, 2020, 1:59pm

>1 LShelby:
Like you, stuff just pops into my head. It sounds like you're a "pantser" (as in seat of the pants) as people like to designate folks who keep their story liquid from beginning to end, letting the circumstances and characters drive the story and plot. The other commonly labeled kind of writers are "plotters" who outline and list everything out, carefully orchestrating the contents of their story from detailed notes. I can't do this.
That said, I'm a funny bird because I borrow a bit from both. We funny birds are called "plantsers" because we do a bit of both plotting and pantsing.

I make an general outline to start. Very loose, with a few expectations, and a defined ending. As I write, my characters, choices, and circumstances alter my original plans, and I let them. I then remake my outline a few times, tightening it up a little more as I get closer to the end. I do this to try and figure out my chapters so I'm not going into them blind. But I still defer always to my characters when it comes to making them do anything. So many times, my plans are flipped around by character choices and personalities.
I don't like manhandling my characters and actions by adhering to strict outlines. I don't like being blind as I write hoping it'll all end up nicely. Somewhere in between.
That help at all?

3LShelby
Apr. 21, 2020, 3:08pm

Actually, I'm ambidextrous on planning and pantsing. My backbrain is in charge of plot, and it doesn't care whether it does its job before I write or while I write. When I ask for the next plot point, it produces it.

Except when I said "Short stories in a series with standalone 'cases' with these fun characters as the secret agents solving the cases, and this setting," it didn't produce.

So now I need to figure out how to do it on my own, or jump start the process or something.

The problem may be that I don't have characters with a problem this time. I may usually have the characters making decisions behind the scenes, and you may have them doing it on the page, but for both of us I think our characters really run our plots. But in this case the set up I wanted was that the plots aren't personal for the agents. So I think that must be why my plot fabulator is stuck.

Which hadn't occurred to me until you described your process, so yes it was helpful.

If I hand it a specific problem to work on, I bet that'll kick it back into action.

I'm not used to having to go out looking for problems, but how hard can it be?

4LShelby
Apr. 23, 2020, 2:38pm

I recommended to my youngest that she plot by writing the things she knows need to happen on file cards, and then arrange them on a white board, starting with the heroine, and then the main antagonist, and then everyone else as seemed to best make sense.

I got this idea from other writers. For me it would be a different way of doing the same thing I usually do--but for her it seems to be helping her a lot.

Now, for the first time in her life she is nattering at me for hours about actual plot development instead of just character background. :)

5Cecrow
Apr. 23, 2020, 2:54pm

I have a fairly detailed outline: a series of chapters laid out, described with a paragraph for each about what needs to happen.

Sometimes there's trouble. I was recently criticized that I put far too much action into one particular chapter, and it threw off the pacing. I was trying to be too true to the outline, in that case. It can't account for everything, the only fix is to make a adjustment when you get there, which requires realizing there's a problem. Or someone honest who'll tell you.

6LShelby
Apr. 25, 2020, 9:31am

>5 Cecrow:
How do you decide what goes in your outline, while you are making it? Do you work through the book in order? Do you have key scenes that you put in first, and then fill in the rest around it?

7Cecrow
Bearbeitet: Apr. 25, 2020, 12:55pm

It begins as a way of sequentially ordering the introduction of scenes and characters as I've started to envision them, finding a logical order and seeing what kind of story might be there. That shows where the blanks are, so it gives my daydreaming more direction. Later, the hardest chapters to write are the bridging scenes to get me from one key element to another, the boring stuff. I might resort to a surprise death, gratuitous action, etc. to fill those.

I think an outline helps a lot to ensure you've got something going on all the way through, without any lulls, and that you have found the best spot for each element you wanted to include.

Lately though I've been thinking about just winging it, to see what that's like. I did try it once before and found myself launching way too many balls in the air to catch all of them later, had to cut some out of the second draft. I don't see how you can plan ahead sufficiently for all the threads to come together with satisfying resolutions if you're just figuring it out as you go.

Charles Dickens is interesting to read, he was a pantser up until Martin Chuzzlewit and then a plotter from Dombey and Son onward. His later books are a lot less wandering and develop well throughout, the difference is obvious. Not necessarily saying pantsers always fair worse, but you can see how plotting worked better for him.

8LShelby
Bearbeitet: Apr. 26, 2020, 4:56pm

>7 Cecrow: "I don't see how you can plan ahead sufficiently for all the threads to come together with satisfying resolutions if you're just figuring it out as you go."

Not planning means not planning. So "planning ahead" isn't how it's done. More of a "the story has a shape it must be, and everything I invent must fill that shape"?

Each story thread will have its conclusion implicit in what it is. If there is a bad guy wreaking havoc, then dealing with him is something that needs to be done. If the boy has met the girl and lost the girl the next step is getting her back. If you have a murder you need to find the culprit. Etc.

The characters can't ever base their decisions on what is going to happen anyway, (with the possible exception of stories with prophets). This is one reason why so many authors discover that planning ahead doesn't work for them. They make the plan, and the character who doesn't know about the plan decides to do something different. But unless your protagonist is a total putz (in which case I recommend firing him and finding someone new) whatever he decides is going to be an attempt to bring one or more plot problems to its conclusion. With an awareness of the story shape (and what any antagonists might be doing), the writer decides how well that attempt is going to work. Nothing is going to be entirely successful until the end, but it can be partially successful, or it can be a disaster that makes things worse. By subtlety pulling strings as seems needed an author can bring all the threads together for a resounding climax and conclusion, just by being aware of the shape of the story as it unfolds.

If you know you have a lot of balls, then you know you are going to need a shape with more steps or jags. You don't have to make an elaborate plan for them all, you can just split the balls up into more easily handled chunks. Again, much relies on the writer's sound instincts, but some balls will be urgent and some can be put off, some can be dealt with simply, and some are better suited to a more complex multiple-step handling. The resulting story will look more complex, but it can still all be broken down into the characters deciding what to do, and the author deciding what happens based on where in the story they are.

Does this make sense at all?