>> 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.