Friday, May 6, 2011

Do Plots Just "Happen"?

To outline or not to outline, that is the question. If you as Roger Rosenblatt he'll say, "Never!" If you ask John Truby he'll say, "Always!" If you ask me, I'll say "Somewhere between never and always." What I mean is there are elements of a novel that I work out in advance of writing, and there are things I trust to the writing and don't try to plan out in advance. Today, I'm going to share some of my ways of plotting a novel (and at the end, there's a new contest!) with two disclaimers: Disclaimer 1) I write non-genre novels. If you are writing a genre novel, you will need to plot very differently as you will be expected to hit all the expected plot points of that genre. 2) There is no sure-fired right way to plot a novel. And every novel you write will make its unique demands. It's far more important to trust what the story is telling you then to worry about if you're "doing it right". Writing is fluid and any attempts to restrict the flow of story will result in a dried up narrative.
When I approach a new novel (this is after I've done all the preliminary work ensuring the idea is novel worthy), I focus on "plotting" key elements of the story before I begin writing. These key elements are:
1) Strong characters. I need a protagonist and an opponent. These two characters are after the same thing in the story (the desire line of the protagonist runs the story. Everyone else in the story exists to either help the protag to get what he wants, or to try to stop him from getting what he desires. Everything hinges on this element), so they both have to be outstanding. They have to be compelling even if they were standing against a blank wall.
1a) In conjunction with strong characters, I don't start writing until I can hear them speak. Dialogue is plot. Knowing how my characters speak is the first step to discovering what they will say.
1b) A moral argument/theme. In great stories all the characters in the novel live out various expressions of the stories moral argument. I need to plot my characters so that as many facets of the moral argument or theme is being played out.
2) A strong sense of movement in the story. I tend to start with theme when I begin thinking about a new story. So I need to ensure my themes have taken on flesh and started walking around before I start writing. Until there is movement in the story, all I have is a collection of interesting ideas, and pretty images.
3) Setting. My favorite editor will laugh at this (I'm notorious for vague settings), but setting or non-setting is a huge influence on plot. There are things that can only happen because of where the story takes place. And there are things that cannot happen because of the setting. Also, setting is another character in the story and must also reflect the moral argument.

Here are some Bonnie Grove FAQ:
Q: Do you write a "pitch line" for a story before you write the story?
A: Yes. It's a premise line and I think it's necessary to write one before I start writing the novel. It guides the writing. This is both more simple and more difficult then it appears.

Q: Do you write a synopsis before you write the story?
A: No. I write a great many details and do a great deal of planning before hand, but nothing that resembles a synopsis. When or if I require one, I can write it quickly enough.

Q: Do you outline?
A: As stated above, the answer is sort of. After I do the plot work above, I write a scene weave sequence--which is a sentence or two about the main action of all the scenes I want to write. (e.g. At the store: Dan and Bob argue about money. Bob leaves angry.) Doing this allows me to track the tension/action throughout the story and still be able to make tons of changes without having to do a bunch of rewriting.

Q: Do you know the ending before you begin?
A: Yes. But I've rewritten endings, too. I like to know where I'm headed when I start out, but I am prepared to be wrong about my choice. I try to stay flexible. And I know when I start, I'll likely end up in the expected emotional/moral place I wanted to, but it might look very different when I arrive.

CONTEST!! Find your True Story:
Comment on this post today and through the weekend to be eligible to win. A winner will be chosen randomly on MONDAY, MAY 9th.
Prize: The winner will submit their short synopsis. I will work with the winner, digging through the story to find the key elements, and the heart of the story. Then, we will craft a killer pitch line (premise) that will be the guiding force behind plotting and writing your story.
Got a story you that won't come into focus? Want a steady hand to help you work through a problem area? This is your contest! Enter today! Not everyone who comments is necessarily entering the contest. We welcome all comments! If you would like to be entered include the abbreviation FYTS at the end of your comment.
Good luck!


Megan Sayer said...

gulping again...
yes please, stick my name in the hat!

Wendy Paine Miller said...

Love that--somewhere between always and never!

Also, to your second point, I can't express how important that movement is for me. It's actually one of the most frustrating parts of the process for me...when things are stubborn and stagnant, not budging. Mule.

Happy Mother's Day, ladies!
~ Wendy

Unknown said...

I'm always looking for the magic formula . . . and there is none. But I love love love hearing (reading) of the methods that work for various writers. Thank you! and yes, Happy Mother's Day to all the moms!

Susie Finkbeiner said...

I tried to stick to an outline once. I decided that I WOULD NOT waver from it. Then my characters looked at me and shook their heads. "Oh, isn't that cute," they said. "She thinks she has control."

Now I'm a little looser on my planning. (but I do still have a butt load of notes written first)

I'm totally in for this! FYTS!

Jason and Emily said...

Excellent article! I'm definitely a pantster, but on my second book, I had to plot a bit ahead of time.

Count me in for the FYTS!


Marian said...

Thanks for this post. It's rich with things to understand and apply and it answers some of my questions. fyts

Henrietta Frankensee said...

I believe there are only a few plots to choose from. I don't remember how many but the number is around 6. My favourite is boy meets girl and has to fight for her (She does plenty of fighting on her own).
To begin I wrote 56 pages and it was a complete story. You can still find these scenes in the work but the questions, How did they get there to do that? Why would she think in that manner? etc. drove me to write lots more. I was surprised by every turn.
In my work the antagonist seems weak but later a 'sleeper' shows up with more power to destroy than even I wanted. I wonder if the balance is sufficiently interesting to hold a reader until she discovers the real evil. Or is that one so obvious that the book is boring. Either way I'll be looking up 'how to write a synopsis." fyts

l said...

I think I plot a lot like you, Bonnie. All my characters have to speak to me, and I have to take time to get to know them, before I can start writing. Still, my characters sometimes surprise me!

And I have to know my ending--I like to have an actual goal that I'm working toward.


Sonja Hutchinson said...

I'm definitely an extreme outliner. I get completely lost if I try to follow a spontaneous rabbit trail. -Sonja

Marcia Lee Laycock said...

Good article, Bonnie. And yes, fyts
I need all the help I can get!

Unknown said...

I loved your honest and instructive article, especially about the characters coming alive for you before you write. Thank you.

Tonya Couch


Bonnie Grove said...

Megan, I love how you're scared of me. :) I'm NICE! Really. Just very, very mean about it. heh heh. Good luck!

Wendy: Movement is critical, and I never begin a novel until I can see AND feel the steady rise of movement and tension. It doesn't have to be car chases and bombs going off. But it has to be strong, steady, relentless. Always great to hear from you!

Emma: you are so right when you say there is no magic formula. If there was one, it wouldn't be art. Every story we must work through, half dancing, half wrestling. Good luck to you!

Susie: Good luck! I hope you're able to transform your butt load of notes into a synopsis. :)

Bonnie Grove said...

Emily: good luck! I hope pantsing will still allow you to work out a nice short synopsis. Makes the work easier for both of us should you win!

Marian: Thanks for those kind comments. And Good Luck!

Henrietta: And excellent idea looking up how to write a synopsis. Less painful if you win. :) I still have my sharp teeth from the Teeth and Bones contest. Good luck to you!

H.A. Good luck! I agree, it's nice to have a destination in mind. I know some writers who plung in trusting the darkness. Not me. At least not yet!

Bonnie Grove said...

Sonja: And how closely do you hold yourself to that outline? Do you find it always is the way to go, or do you make adjustments as you write? Good luck to you!

Marcia: So glad you enjoyed it! Good luck! it would be fun to work with you on your great ideas!

Tonya: Happy you enjoyed the article. I was shocked when I recently discovered that in all the years I've been blogging, I have never written a post about plot. I was glad to be able to correct that today! Good luck!

Yvonne said...

Your comment on writing a "pitch line" reminds me of writing a mission statement for ministry, because it steadies the direction and keeps it from straying.

The rest of the novel is like writing out the vision statement, because once the vision is reached (at a particular point), then the mission will continue to steer the next vision.

Anonymous said...

Very good post, Bonnie. Very helpful. I definitely lean toward the NEVER outline camp. I have a beginning and an end in mind when I begin a novel, with a premise as you call it. I get to know my main character and her close supporting cast, and then I jump in. Having just finished the novel I was working on the last 2 years, I'm keenly aware of the elements that present themselves as I write holding a very loose rein. And they always astound me. I think I'm going to try Truby's book again before I begin my next novel, but I'm not sure that I'll be able to stay with it. It's a tough book to follow.

Happy Mother's Day to all you wonderful women out there.

Yvonne said...

BTW, my comment should have included FYTS.

Laura J. Davis said...

I'm wishing right now that I hadn't won something here already. But what the heck - ya never know - FYTS!

Bonnie Grove said...

Yvonne: A mission statement for your novel. Great illustration. Thanks for that. And you name is in the hat! Good luck!

Sharon: After all the wonderful novels you've written you've learned exactly what works for you-- and you write with an light hand, the envy of all writers. Mwah! I hope you enjoy Truby's book this time around. Perhaps it won't seem so difficult now that you aren't trying to finish a novel at the same time.

Laura: Good luck! Your name is in the hat.

Steve G said...

A great post, and a wonderful discussion on the starting point for a novel. I like your example, too - that helps me put it into concrete terms.

Jeanie Flierl said...

I want my name in the hat but I'm a new,new,new,newbie and I'm scared (haha)for any criticism of even my ideas! But I have to start somewhere! Happy Mother's Day to all.

Embrace said...

Your blog is a new discovery for me. Thank you for what you do!
What a treat that you are talking about plot. I am making my way through Writing Fiction for Dummies by Ingermanson. I am discovering that I do not fit into a writing category very well.
In fear it makes me want to toss everything I've done and try to emulate the published/chosen ones. However I am seeing that even the published/chosen ones do it all differently.
For me, I am a sotp/outliner. here's why. The story comes into my head much like a movie. I spend a week or two letting the characters "act" it out in my head - hence the outline. I make sure the ending fits, the story has merit with no holes and the characters are likeable.
Then the sotp-er steps up to the plate as I open a word document and don't stop typing until I got it all out of my head.
I think I need HELP!!
So definitely put my name in the hat. I truly, truly loved Bonnie's book and to have her even peek at mine would be a tremendous honor.
May all of you be honored as a mother and a woman this weekend for all that you do for your families, friends and for the Kingdom!


Deb said...

Ooh, pick me, teach!

But seriously, outline? My creative muse withers up and goes slinking away at the mere mention of that word. I know some writers swear by outlines, but I'm simply not one of them.