Wasted Potential: Walk the Walk

>> Thursday, June 23, 2011

You may have noticed, as we've added elements to our gourmet story, that it gets more complicated to get all the aspects to work together. Idea, setting, characters, interaction between characters and dialogue... Getting any one aspect to kick ass by itself isn't enough. They each need to be optimized and work together. But all of that won't mean a thing if nothing happens.

You're going to need a plot. Now, for those of you familiar with my fiction, my blog or both, you'll note that plot ain't my best subject. And I've never pretended it was. So, you might be asking yourself what I could possibly advise when it comes to plot. Good question.

So, here's my disclaimer. If you want insight into how to derive complex and meaningful plots and eat into a reader's brain to leave an impression to last the rest of their lives - you're in the wrong place. That ain't my bag. But, just because I'm not a plot-driven author doesn't mean I don't know anything about what makes a story work and, more importantly, what doesn't. What you'll see here is my own take on basic plot do's and don'ts.

Before I get started on my own guidelines, I'd like to point out something I think is important. Plot is more than just action and forward movement; it's also cause and effect. Plot points lead to actions and movement, but they have to match and make sense just like characters do. The weaker the plot point (particularly those that are pivotal to the rest of the story), the weaker the story. Like say, a spaceport that only takes local currency and has no method of converting outworld money, including currency used by the rest of the galaxy. Think about it if it doesn't immediately strike you as asinine. If you have a rabid fanbase of fanatical supporters that will swallow anything, you might be able to get away with something so idiotic, even if it spawns off other nonsensical repercussions. However, those of us who aren't using spectacular special effects might want to give it more thought.

Cause and effect should make sense within the framework of the story. That doesn't mean it has to make sense in "this" culture or here and now or whatever, but, in the framework of the story, it must (note the example I just gave). But what repercussions fall out as a result of those causes, those plot points, have to make sense, too. Which doesn't mean events have to follow readily predictable lines or taking the "obvious" course, but, if there is an obvious alternative to your plot's path (particularly one that has notable advantages), you (the author) need to understand why you didn't take it and why you're going the way you are. The reasons don't even have to be good - just plausible. And you don't have to include them in the book, but you, the author, need to understand why you're going the way you are. Reasons that should be rethought include "I think it would be cool," "the story won't work if I don't do it this way," and "I just wanted to be different." Reasons like, "so-and-so has an aversion to flying," or "all technology on this world is biologically based," even if you just made them up, are fine as long as you follow through and are consistent with your own reasoning.

Don't make it more complicated than you can handle. The Count of Monte Cristo is my favorite example of a fantastic plot. Every word, every character, every event, even those that seemed minor and trivial, end up being woven into the final tapestry and pulled together in the end for a compelling denouement. How Dumas pulled that off before word processors I will never know. I know myself well enough to know I could never pull that off. I'd end up at the end with extra strands and all kinds of things I should have set up to make it work. So, I'll never write anything that complicated. If you can do it and know you can do it competently, more power to you. But if you can't, don't. Simplify. Prune. A clean flowing simple plot is much more palatable than a hopeless muddle of disjointed chains. Know your limitations, work your way up to where you want to be if you have to. But, if it's not working because it's too complicated to make sense, simplify. Remember, some of the most powerful plots are simple.

Keep the pace up. This is particularly important for us character writers. Things have to keep moving, the story advancing no matter how much you want to expose characters or indulge in entertaining dialogue or expand on descriptive periods. If you just realized you've wandered through three chapters and the story itself hasn't advanced, you need to rethink your pacing. Ideally, something is moving forward every chapter. If you find that the story really has very little advancing, very little "happening," you might want to flesh out your plot. If your story has a lot happening, but they happen with frenetic chapters of furious actions separated by chapter after chapter of exposition or amusing conversations, you might want to do some rearranging.

Eliminate dead ends, i.e. don't make it more complicated than it needs to be. (Which is not the same as not making it more complicated than you can handle). Many a time, I'm writing along and add a scene with tons of potential about a side path I can take. That I never follow through on. I love this scene. It's fun. It's entertaining. It's a visual you really love. It...blah blah blah. If this happens to you, cut it. A scene with unfulfilled potential is a broken promise and muddies up the plot. If the reader reaches the end of the book, as charmed as you were by your little extra scenes, and nothing's been done to bring those to closure, they're apt to feel disappointed.

People investing in series can get a little leeway on this, but you want as much of the story closed effectively as you can. The book should feel complete, a story that can stand on its own. Too many loose ends and it becomes a tease. As a reader, that irks me no end. Such dead ends also distract the reader from the plot you want and can even disappoint as the reader might have preferred the writer pursue that line instead of the main trunk. Note that mystery writers frequently install dead ends on purpose because it's supposed to be a maze, so take this suggestion with a grain of salt. Even so, for the rest of us, try to keep the focus on the plot points and actions that are key to the story and minimize anything that doesn't contribute.

Mix it up. Too much of anything, even stuff you like, can get old. Five chapters in a row with detailed battle action, even if action is your forte, can wear someone out. Ditto multiple heart-wrenching chapters or page after page of romantic interludes...too much of any one thing, especially in a row, can burn out a reader (and a writer). A plot like this:

Vicious battle action. Recovery and reflection. Battle strategy and maneuvering. Vicious battle action. More strategic maneuvering. Tragic aftermath as key character is killed. Recovery and reflection.
Is going to be easier to deal with than:
Vicious battle action. Vicious battle action. Vicious battle action. Strategic manuevering. Vicious battle action. Recovery and reflection. Tragic aftermath as key character was killed some chapters back. Recover and reflection, etc.
You can pile things on at the climax, but keep it moving, don't drag it on indefinitely. And mixing things up - because life rarely pauses as big events occur - is more like life and adds verisimilitude aside from also making it more palatable.

Make what happens interesting. It seems obvious, but you'd be amazed how often this doesn't happen. It's not enough for events to make sense and characters to be well-fleshed and compelling. Events need to be interesting enough to hold the readers interest. I like to think I'm an interesting person, but people would be bored to tears following me around on a regular day. If I want to be a character that excites interest, cool stuff ought to be happening to me or I need to be doing cool stuff. (Personally, I prefer characters that make their own destiny to the reactive kind but life, even in a book, is usually a combination of the two).

Truly, if you can't take your interesting characters and thought provoking setting that frames your clever premise and do something interesting with it, you're not getting the full potential from your idea.

And that, of course, was the whole idea of this series which, since I beat endings about to death, is now finished.

I hope you enjoyed it.


  • Project Savior

    I certainly enjoyed it.
    As a plot writer I think you left out one important thing in plots, and that's the tease. Your characters are moving towards some goal. They are either striving for something or working to defeat something.
    If it is known in advance and you've identified the good guy who everyone knows is going to live there's not much plot there.
    Luke didn't know he was going to destroy the Death Star because they couldn't be bothered to put a sheet of plywood over the one weak spot. It was slowly teased out, he said he was a good pilot, he gets some robots with a hidden message, he agrees to help old ben...
    At each decision point for Luke their is a tease of bigger things to come. Without the tease, all you have is a farmer who takes advantage of a major design flaw in a complicated machine.

  • Stephanie Barr

    By all means, I welcome comments from plot-oriented people on all the things I don't think about. My plots, as many will attest, often come across as just incidental adventures for interesting people.

    I probably left out several important things, so thanks for noting one of them. There's definitely something to be said for little details that take on significance later in the story. I even frequently have them. In my case, I don't plan them - they just happen - but there's certainly nothing wrong with planning them. :)

  • Jeff King

    I did enjoy it... I don't plot, but hopefully it is there naturally. I think any good story has natural plot weaved into it.

    Now sharpening and focusing those plot points are key on later revisions.

    As far as input: I have none.


  • Shakespeare

    I'm not sure I'd agree in calling what Project Savior described a "tease." More like "rising action," where each step, whether by chance or choice, leads him closer and closer to his final act. It's a great point, though--the action should build on the past and move everything further. Even with combat, each battle should lead us forward, either in meaning or in goal. Otherwise we are just following along on a horizontal line, with no emotional build-up.

    As to dead ends, they only exist if there is no future for them in a sequel... but I DETEST characters and plot elements that have nothing to do with the overall sweep of the novel, or develop the characters (also a very valid reason for a sidebar), or shape the nature of the world in which they live. Best, though, when each element accomplishes all three.

  • Stephanie Barr

    Thanks, Jeff.

    Shakespeare, you know how I love character development and I can't say I don't have bits and pieces here and there that do nothing but develop characters or shape worlds; however, as you said, it's best if you do all three and many favorite scenes have been axed because I could better do the development as part of the story (or it was more than I needed to develop the character).

    What I do hate is a side character or side story, set up all nice and juicy, only to be abandoned. As a writer, I try to avoid those. Even those bits that are setups for sequels I like to make as much use of as possible within the context of the current story arc and leave them, if not resolved, also not hanging off a cliff.

  • Relax Max

    You are so far ahead of me. Tell me again the difference between a story and a plot, would you? I think I'm lost. I thought the plot was the story.

    I do understand how much you enjoy character development, but don't you have to know what your story is before you start to write it?

  • Stephanie Barr

    To my way of thinking the story is the whole: premise, setting, characters, plot. The plot, by itself, is just what happens.

    Others may see it differently.

    As for plotting out the story ahead of time, some people definitely do that. I do not. Sometimes I know how it ends beforehand and/or key scenes along the way, but not what happens in between. Sometimes, I don't even know that.

    Oftentimes, the less I consciously know before I get started, the better I like the finished product. Both of my favorite short stories I had no idea what I was going to do when I sat down.

    But that's a personal weirdness. Writers come in all flavors and some meticulously outline and plot out the story, taking notes and making careful adjustments to their background stuff as they go. Others are seat-of-the-pants writers like me. Takes all kinds.

  • Anonymous

    Plot: Man and woman see two other women giving birth.  Man says something, woman says something, man says something.

    Story: Confirmed bachelor and his sister visit her two BFFs in the hospital, both giving birth at the same time.  Man says, "I sense a lot of pain coming."  Sister says, "How you would know how painful childbirth is?"  Man says, "Not the childbirth... the girls don't yet know that both kids are mine!"

    Mike Hawthorne

  • Relax Max

    Well, I couldn't outline it either. But I would want to decide ahead of time if I want to write about Abraham Lincoln's love life or the plight of polar bears. So... you just take a character and think up attributes and things for him to do, and if he winds up being Abraham Lincoln's barber, that's just a cool surprise? That makes me dizzy with the potential futility. Must get more therapy before I continue.

  • Stephanie Barr

    OK, Relax Max, you do that.

    And I'll keep doing what I do 'cause I like the results.

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