Plotting Plot

On November 25, 2018, Superb♥Girl wrote, I have a problem–a big one.

This isn’t for any WIP in particular, but my writing in general. I have total confidence in the my world-building, and I quite love my characters–but for the life of me, plot is something I just can’t tackle.

Many of you chimed in.

Melissa Mead: I approach plot with great trepidation and trembling. Which is probably why I write sooo slowly.

I’ve been checking out the Snowflake Method recently. (Note: I haven’t actually BOUGHT anything. I just read the article: https://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/snowflake-method/

Sara: I have plot troubles too. Sometimes it’s so hard to find the solution to things, or to even create a substantial problem in the first place. My advice is lots of trial and error, exploring everything you think of, and research, both on plotting in general and on whatever your subject is.

Kyryiann: I mainly start with the character and the world as well. As a pantser, I tend to come up with plot as I go, starting with just one main idea – like “hey, it would be cool to write a story about a spy!” – and building it up and branching out from there.

Writeforfun: It’s funny, I’m the other way around! I always start with plot! Although, you can’t really have a plot without a vague idea of the sort of characters that are in it, I suppose, so perhaps you could say that I start with characters as well as the plot. For me, I have to know what the story is about before I can really develop any of the characters or bother with the world it’s in. The exception to that would be the sequels I’ve written to one of my original books, which naturally came with a pre-made cast of characters; but even those I only wrote because I had a story in mind that they happened to fit into nicely.

Now that I think about it, I think my current book may be the first one I’ve intentionally started without a plot already formed in my head – after my computer crashed and I lost my previous stories, I needed a fresh start. There are certain personalities and themes that I’m drawn to in stories, so I tried to think of a character and plot that would include one – in this case, a misfit with self-confidence issues who must learn to accept himself – and figure out what sort of plot would explore that. I started thinking of things that would challenge and grow my character as an individual, as well as the grand-scheme conflict (in this case a looming war) to introduce some bigger dangers. I thought of how a few more characters could help further the story, even bring a bit of their own into it…and from these fragments I pieced together the idea for my tale. As the story came along, the characters kind of evolved into it. Once I had the story and characters, I came up with a world to put them in. I don’t know if that’s backwards – but it worked for me, at least!

Perhaps I begin with plot because I am a planner; I simply must have at least a general idea of where my plot is going. If I don’t, I’ll simply meander into nothing but pointless dialogue before giving up. Having a concept of where I’m going keeps me on track; the surprise for me, then, is seeing exactly how things unfold, how conversations go, unexpected subplots that pop up, and the occasional character that surprises me and breaks out of the plan I had set.

But, at least for me, it all starts with an original plot!

Christie V Powell: KM Weiland’s website has a lot of ads for her printed books, but all of the information is available for free on her blog. Her series on Story Structure starts here: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/secrets-story-structure-complete-series/
And her series on incorporating character arcs into plot starts here: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/write-character-arcs/

Last year, I started a story just pantsing, and it turned into a huge mess that’s taken me over a year, so far, to edit into something publishable. I did two for NaNo this year that are a lot smoother and will take a ton less editing, because I have the story structure in place. So having an organized system works a lot better for me.

I also liked the book “Story Genius” by Lisa Cron, which has a similar system for using character to create plot.

Song4myKing: Unfortunately, I don’t have nearly as much time to write as I would like, so I usually have mulled the story around and around in my head and gotten a good sense of what will and what won’t work before I even start to write. Some of my stories have sprung from an intriguing world-building idea. One story comes from one of the biggest threats my characters in that world face, just because of the nature of the people and their environment. Another one came out of my wondering how this environment came to be, thousands of years earlier. Both of these have a fairly obvious place to begin, and I know where I want it to end up.

But the two stories I’ve gotten most excited about developed a little less logically. The seed ideas for both of them were dreams. Basically, when I woke up, I had a scene in my head complete with action, characters, and emotion. And I wanted to figure out what in the world was going on, and it had to make sense in the wide-awake daylight. I think the emotion helped. For one thing, it made me care. For another, it gave me a direction to start searching. I thought of a number of different scenarios and discarded them, because they didn’t really pack the right emotional wallop. Either that, or they had the right emotion, but lacked in the common sense department. Then once I had a context that seemed to fit, that context was the plot. It was a conflict, and it had to have a beginning, and it had to go somewhere. And I had to follow it and figure out where I wanted it to end up.

I haven’t yet tried to stir up this process artificially, but I want to try it the next time I’m stuck, or wanting to start something new. Here’s how I might try it: take a snippet of overheard or imagined conversation or a little action with its reaction, add two or three faces from a WIP or from random strangers on Pinterest character boards, pick an emotion (a negative one), add a second emotion that could be connected but is not a synonym to the first one, mix well, mentally narrate the scene, then stare out a window on a rainy day and ask “Why?”

Remember, no idea is too crazy to play with! The freedom of mental narration is that no one else can possibly read it but yourself. No one else will know how many weird possibilities you entertained before you found what worked.

These are great!

I want to summarize them for everyone to use, but first, a quick word about plot. What’s at its dark heart? Conflict! Trouble! Misery for our MCs! That’s what we most need to keep in mind when we think about plot.

Kyryiann comes up with a main idea, like a story about a spy. Spy suggests danger. We ask where and upon whom our spy is spying. Why? What’s the mission? As we answer these questions, provisionally at the beginning, our world, our characters, and our plot emerge. We remember that we have to make trouble, often, if not constantly.

Writeforfun: Knowing what the story is about and what themes she’s drawn to, like self-acceptance. Here we start with a theme: self-acceptance. Which, naturally, suggests that at the outset our MC doesn’t accept herself. And what does that imply? Yes! Conflict! We think about which aspects of herself she doesn’t accept and whether or not she’s right. What can we bring in to force a climax? Are we writing an action-oriented story, or an interior one? Because the kind of conflict will be different. What other characters can we bring in to intensify her dissatisfaction? Who will hurt her? who will help her? Who will do both?

Like Writeforfun, I’m charmed by seeing where a bare-bones story takes me as I flesh it out. Surprises abound.

Christie V Powell has to have a story structure in place before she starts writing, which means that discovering the conflict and the way it works out start earlier, and the steps to resolution will be planned, probably in an outline. We can do that, too, so that we see our way clear to the end. Our characters struggle, but we’re secure!

Song4myKing mulls her ideas over and gets them somewhat set before she starts. I do that, too, but usually once my story is underway.

Some of her plots come from world-building, and Superb♥Girl enjoys world-building. In this case, we think about the opportunities for conflict in the world. For example, Winston Churchill said (two months after I was born–I just looked it up) that democracy is the worst system of government, except for all the others. Suppose we have our world ruled by a committee of the wise. What could go wrong? We probe and uncover what does–the conflict. We think about the characters we have in mind for the committee. How will they be part of the mess? What will their personalities lead them to do in response? What can we have them do to intensify the trouble? Who will suffer to make matters better?

Song4myKing was lucky enough to be graced twice by dreams that matured into stories. A useful aspect of the dreams was the emotion. We can use that. We start with a feeling, probably not happiness: foreboding, fear, out-of-control giddiness, or something else. Working backward, we wonder what caused it. Who was involved?

Many writers begin with a character who wants something he can’t have easily. Again, we’re looking for conflict. Superb♥Girl loves her characters. After we decide which ones are our MCs, we need to think about what would make them miserable. And next what will keep them miserable? And what might they do to become less miserable? How might they fail? How might they succeed, a little? Who in our cast will make them unhappier? What are the actions that will go with all of that?

I’m with Melissa Mead, in that plot is the hardest part for me, which is one reason that I often go to fairy tales for inspiration, because they already have a plot, and I can borrow it. I’m helped by the gaps in the original versions of these stories. My plot emerges as I figure out why Cinderella obeys her stepfamily, why the evil queen in “Snow White” is so influenced by her mirror, why the prince kisses Sleeping Beauty.

We all can go to these stories for plot, because they lend themselves to so many interpretations. Same with folk tales, tall tales, myths, Bible stories. And we can dip into history. Many of the big moments have been explored fictionally, but history is enormous and full of drama and lends itself to all kinds of interpretations, like the American Revolution or, really, any war, with vampires–all that delicious blood! We can bring in fantasy elements. The last czar of Russia can be a dragon. Henry VIII can be a wizard, who doesn’t understand what it’s like to be human.

Here are four prompts:

• Henry VIII is a wizard, and a tad self-centered. Kill off his last wife, Catherine Parr, in any way you like and give him a seventh, who can be your MC. Write what happens.

• Read or reread Jane Eyre–or read a plot summary. Branch off from the original with the tale of St. John Rivers, the suitor turned down by Jane.

• Go with the spy idea. Your MC is spying on the secret society, the NVLM. She has to infiltrate the group even though they can all read minds and she can’t. Write how she does it. Keep going and write the story.

• Callie can’t stand her own puppy-dog nature. She’s nice to people even if they’re unpleasant to her. If someone blames her for anything, she can barely stay inside her skin, she’s so upset. Someone comes into her life who is distinctly unkind, someone who, for whatever reason you decide, is going to be around for awhile–a new family member, a schoolmate, a teacher, a boss. Write her story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Reminds me of a writing article by Gary Provost about “just saying no”. This is my favorite paragraph:

    Your novel shouldn’t be about a character getting everything served to him on a silver platter. It should be about a character who scraps and struggles and argues and overcomes, a character who near kills himself trying to beat down all the No’s between him and his goal. Every time he slays a few No’s, another battalion of them comes over the next hill. The whole reason for telling a story is that somebody or something said No. So if things are going swell for your character, keep it to yourself. Nobody cares.

    There’s been a few times when writing that I have to stop a character from agreeing and say ‘no’ instead– just today, my main character was at a social event, and the woman she was talking to notices that she’s paying attention to her betrothed instead of to her. Originally I wrote that she chuckled and said something like, “You might as well go talk to him.” I decided to make her say no instead, and give an impatient huff and walk off, offended.

  2. Writing Ballerina says:

    My problem is similar, but it’s more along the lines of I have a great plot; great conflict; great evil scheme — but why on earth is the bad guy doing what he’s doing??? I have trouble coming up with motives. I find an evil plan, then try to shift around the pieces of my story to find a motive that makes sense, but I just end up expounding on the plan — making it more “elegant” (to refer to A Tale of Two Castles) — or making a new one, but I still don’t have a motive. For example, in my WIP, there’s this king that turns out to be evil and basically wants to kill off the whole kingdom — but why??? The best I can come up with is that he’s bored with royalty, but who’s that cold that they would kill thousands of people because they don’t like their job?? Help!

    • That’s a hard question Writing Ballerina! Maybe this evil king’s motive could be that no one wanted him to be king (or thought he had what it takes or something), and now he wants revenge. Or maybe he’s an imposter from an enemy kingdom which wants to annihilate the other kingdom. If I think of anything else I’ll let you know! 🙂

      • Writing Ballerina says:

        Oooh Oooh Oooh! I like that last suggestion!! That can TOTALLY work! Thanks so much, viola03!
        – so the evil king (EK) is from that enemy kingdom (called X for now) and wants to kill off most of EK’s kingdom so it weakens them, then call X in to wage war and conquer the kingdom because X wants more territory. Hahaha! Thanks so much!!!!!!!!!!!!!

        (By the way, I’d still like an answer to the “finding motives” question in general, because I get stuck at that frequently.)

        • For motives, I find you have to start with the character. It helps me to find something painful in a character’s past that they either work to improve for the benefit of others (hero) or improve for the worse for others (villain). Here are a few common motives for villains: revenge (my favorite) is a fun one because the cause can be revealed as a twist. Thirst for power can be done very well and make terrifying villains. Stigma or vendetta against a group or population (for example, an evil wizard who despises muggles) can make for a fascinating radical/political kind of villain. In real life, motives are complex, so it’s a good idea for a character to have multiple motives. For example, my WIP’s villain wants revenge on another character as well as power.

    • A lot of time motive stems from a character’s background. For example, if the bad guy is a former slave who was treated poorly by the royals, he probably wants to get rid of them out of a desire for revenge. If he was once one of the royals who was banished for refusing to conform to society’s expectations of him, perhaps he desires to change society to fit his lifestyle and wants to expose all the corruption that he knew went on behind the scenes. Perhaps he was bullied and treated poorly as a child and ends up taking out all of his pent-up aggression on his subjects. The possibilities are endless! If you figure out his background, his own personal story in which he thinks of himself as the protagonist, you may find out his hidden motive.

    • I’ve recently discovered the ennegram personality system, which is kind of like Meyer’s Briggs if you know that one. They give a primary want and motivation for each personality type, as well as what a ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ person looks like. I find it really useful for motivations, especially for villains. Here’s the long version: https://www.enneagraminstitute.com/type-descriptions/
      Here’s a quick break down:
      Type 1: Idealistic reformer. Basic Desire: To be good. Basic Fear: To be evil.
      This is actually my main villain’s type. They believe that the world is black and white and they are motivated to shape the world into the way it should be–in a villain’s case, through inappropriate means.
      Type 2: Caring Helper. Basic Desire: to be loved Basic Fear: to be unwanted.
      Type 3: Driven Achiever. Basic Desire: Success. Basic Fear: to be worthless.
      My love interest and one of my villains both have this type. They struggle to be authentic and can be manipulative. in order to appear successful.
      Type 4: Artistic Individualist. Basic Desire: To be themselves. Basic Fear: To be insignificant.
      Type 5: Intelligent intellectual. Basic Desire: To be competent. Basic Fear: To be helpless.
      Type 6: Dedicated Loyalist. Basic Desire: Security. Basic Fear: Being unsupported.
      Type 7: Fun Enthusiast. Basic Desire: To have basic needs fulfilled. Basic Fear: Deprivation and Pain.
      Type 8: Dominating Challenger. Basic Desire: Freedom. Basic Fear: Being controlled by others.
      Type 9: Easy-going Peacemaker. Basic Desire: Peace of mind. Basic Fear: Conflict and Loss.
      It’s really hard to write a type 9 villain because when ‘unhealthy’, they tend to disassociate from the world.

        • Ah, good point.
          I had half a thought of a type 9 villain using a computer program or something that would dehumanize their victims, so they were thinking of them just as statistics… come to think of it, that sounds more like a 5…

    • When I was struggling with this problem in my WIP, I decided to learn more about my villain. With me, a lot of brainstorming happens when I’m just thinking about the story. I had already decided that the villain was brothers with one of the main protagonists, a king, so I was trying to figure out why he was trying to destroy everything his brother loved.
      The king’s wife is an important character, and as I was thinking about the three of them, I figured that she would have come in contact with the villain. The woman had spent some time with the king and his brother because her father wanted to arrange an alliance with their two kingdoms. She would have spent time with each brother individually.
      That’s when it hit me: what if the villain had fallen in love with the woman, but she chose his brother instead?
      This put a whole new spin on the plot. I eventually decided that the villain thought that his brother had forced the woman to choose him instead of the villain.
      That’s basically a step by step process that I go through for most of my novels. I hope it helped!

  3. Mrs. Levine, I just finished reading Ella Enchanted! I loved it so much! (ATTENTION: SPOILER ALERT BEYOND THIS POINT) I really liked how it was Ella’s love for Char that broke the curse in the end. I never would have seen it coming, and it was a really satisfying ending!

    • Writing Ballerina says:

      Ella Enchanted is one of my favourites! I also recently got Ogre Enchanted and liked that, too. On Wednesday I watched the movie version of Ella (the book is better).

  4. I have a problem. A big one.

    I have been writing stories for years now, but I’m stuck in a rut of what I nicknamed “Same Character Syndrome.” I’ve made countless characters, and at first they seem different— some are blonde, brunette, or red-headed, they all have different ethnicities, etc. The thing is, though, they are all teen girls who are slightly awkward nerds. They all have the same speech mannerisms, and they like to look pretty. They get anxious, and love rule following. I’ve tried to make other MCs, but they end up degenerating into the same ol’ mold that all my MCs are. I’ve been thinking, and I think it’s because they are all embodiments of me, the author. It’s terrifying for me to realize that I am the soul inside these people whom I have thought so different. It’s like I wrote up a cloning machine, and they all come out of it with different faces and backstories, but the same stuff inside.

    How do I fix this?

    Thanks for taking my the time to read this.

    • What if, just for a training exercise, you tried writing a character based on someone else you know well? I did that a lot in high school. I thought it was funny, looking back, that I had two characters in different stories that were based on the same person, but they were totally different characters. One was a peacemaker who tried to smooth things over for characters who didn’t get along, and the other was a major source of conflict for my main character. I’m not sure if that was the mystical character evolution that writers talk about, or just my changing relationship with the person!

      You could also try using different characteristics of yourself for different characters. Real people are contractions, much more so than characters. In one of my WIPs, I gave all three POV characters one of my flaws (though exaggerated, I hope). One of them lives in fantasy/dreams and doesn’t handle reality well. Another has goals that are more realistic, but she tries to make them come true without always considering the work and responsibility involved. The third struggles with guilt over something careless he did that had terrible consequences). He’s also slightly based on a historical main character, for his physical/outer descriptions.

  5. FWIW, I’ve seen a lot of discussions about this sort of thing.

    Have you ever, just for fun, tried making up a character who’s the total opposite of you? Or a different gender?

    I suspect that it’ll help that you can identity ways that your characters are like you. Ex, if you catch a character automatically obeying a rule, you can come up with a compelling reason for them to break it.

    • A friend once told me that she felt the characters were stronger when men wrote about women and women wrote about men. She said it worked that way for herself, because she had to think harder when writing a man’s perspective. She couldn’t just rely on her own ordinary patterns of thinking, and assume her readers understood.

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