Thinking It Out

On September 26, 2012, Courtney Arzu wrote, I’m an extremely young author…But I would like to know how to set up a story/novel. I can begin a story but I can’t seem to finish because I haven’t thought it out. I don’t know what I’m going to do, what the main climax is going to be or how I’m going to end it. I just wanted to ask: What “outline” would be best for creating the plot? I’ve tried multiple things, but I always end up writing halfway through and get stuck at my mid point. I don’t like writing blindly but that’s the only way I seem to know how to do. I have extreme difficulty with plot, supreme extreme difficulty and was simply wondering what to do.

I’ve read your only Planning one, and I don’t seem to click with it. I’m an odd one. As I’m so young, and just trying to kick start myself into writing. I have been telling stories since I was able to talk and I love it. I read everything I could get my hands on. By nine years old, I was in adult fiction. It wasn’t enough. I started to write my own stories, yet I could never finish one because writer’s block would poise itself in the middle of a sentence somewhere.

When I’m writing, I write tons but when I’m not, I have no ideas. A story of mine has fallen into the humor category simply because I’m filling space. I’m going to go back and edit it out but I haven’t a clue how to plan ahead. It’s a bad trait of mine and I do hope I’ll figure it out but to me the light is way at the other end of the tunnel, a couple hundred miles and I can’t quite tell if I’m going to get there before a train comes barreling in my direction.

Courtney’s question spurred this response from Maia: I started loads of stories and then never finished them b/c the plots got too complicated and I couldn’t see where they were going…so before I even start writing now, I write out the entire plot using bullet points. It’s very useful – it keeps you on track but isn’t so strict that I can’t add things here and there and often stories have taken off by themselves outside the confines of their structure.

The light in the tunnel is nearer than you think, and fortunately trains don’t happen along very often.

And this from writeforfun: I always force myself to write a roughly one page summary of the story before I start writing, because once I’m writing, I have to know where I’m going. If I can’t write the whole summary, including the climax and end, then I think about it and write an idea for an ending, even if it’s a bad one, so that I have a road map for what I’m writing. Some things will change, but that helps me a lot. Just a suggestion.

These are great suggestions – planning tips for people who don’t completely outline. But if you’d like to learn one approach to really outlining, you might enjoy Walter Dean Myers’ book Just Write: Here’s How.

I don’t outline, but I usually have an idea of the ending, and I write toward it. Often the golden coin of the ending is clutched in the fist of the beginning. The beginning introduces a problem, which the ending will solve, one way or another, happily or not. In Ella Enchanted the problem of Ella’s curse is introduced in the first chapter, and the end is right there, too, the lifting of the curse, or if the book turned out to be a tragedy, the certainty that Ella would never be free. What I wrote in between were instances, as Ella’s life progresses, of the burden of the curse, her attempts to save herself, and the life she manages to live while her suffering goes on (the budding relationship with Char, her friendship with Areida, the continuing support of Mandy).

So we can look at our beginning and ask what problem it’s posing, and then what the possible solutions are. Say we start with an alien invasion. We need to ask lots of questions about the aliens until we discover what the central question is that the beginning is posing. Are these good or evil aliens? How much more advanced are they than we are? What are their intentions toward us? Let’s say they’re neither evil nor good; they’re traders, and we have something valuable that they can trade. Say it’s lumber. They want our trees, and they have marvels to give us in exchange, but we need our trees, too, and yet the marvels are tempting. Some powerful people will make enormous fortunes from the alien goods if we do trade. Now we have the problem, and the ending is sewn up inside it: whether or not Earth will be stripped of trees.

Suppose we decide that the planet will keep its trees. That’s the way we want it to come out. How are we going to get there? Who’s going to be our MC or our MCs? Who will represent the aliens? What other characters do we need? From this we can build our summary. And then we can start working out scenes.

A fascinating but disturbing tale of an alien invasion is Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, which takes the alien theme in a surprising direction. It’s a book for adults but if I remember right it should be fine for kids twelve and up. Check with a librarian to be sure.

If you’ve been reading the blog for a while you know I’m a seat-of-the-pants writer. I set off without much more than a beginning and a dim idea for the end. I’m familiar with the kind of distress that Courtney describes. The difference between us is experience, which may be annoying if you’re just starting out. Sorry! I’ve gotten through getting lost before and I’m pretty sure I can do it again. I cobble a story together from the threads I follow, and then in revision I tighten and tighten. So part of the solution is tolerance for your own writing style, which may be organized or may be messy. And another part may be tolerance for imperfection. First drafts are not supposed to be good. Good comes later, in revision.

As I’ve mentioned here, I’ve been working on a book based on the blog, which I just sent off to my editor on Monday. Much of it comes from the blog, but some I wrote for the book. Below is part of a plotting chapter. Although bits may be elsewhere here on the blog, I think at least some is new, and if not new, it all bears repeating:

Try writing a short summary of each scene that you have on an index card, then spread them out and move them around, out of their original sequence. You can even bring in scenes from other unfinished stories. Edgar in your old story can turn into Garth in the new one with a few personality adjustments. When you think about the characters, do you see new threads that connect them? Does one scene suggest itself as a fresh beginning? Another as the end? If, after rearranging, your story flows except for a few scenes that stubbornly don’t fit in anywhere, you can cut them but save them in case you find a use for them when you revise or in some future project.

If you discover that the cards move you farther along but then you bog down, you can lay them out again starting with the point where you got stuck – you don’t have to go all the way back to the beginning.

And here’s a plot exercise you can do in your notes that comes from What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter (most of this book is fine for kids, but a few chapters aren’t, so before you use it, show it to a parent). You can use this technique on a new story or an old one. If this is a new story, whenever you’re not sure where to take the story next, ask yourself, What if? and write down five options for directions the story might take. Be wild. Be carefree. Anything goes in notes. Don’t even look at what you have till you’re done.

It might go like this: My MC is at a party and feeling all alone. What if she sees a framed photo of her long-lost brother on the mantelpiece? What if she starts writing on a wall of the living room where the party is happening? What if she decides the party needs livening up and starts singing? And so on.

Now look over your list. Suppose two options appeal to you. Write a paragraph about each: what it would mean for your story, how it would take place. Pick the one you like best and return to your story. When you reach the next story decision point, ask What if? again and repeat.

If you write five possibilities and none pleases you, write three more or five more.

In an old story that you’ve given up on, ask What If? after your last sentence. If that spot doesn’t yield anything interesting, go back to a point where the story was still burning in you and ask the question. When you find a new path, start writing.

If you find them helpful, use the plotting strategies above for these two prompts:

∙ Write the story about the aliens who want our trees.

∙ Write five more What if?’s about the MC who feels alone at the party. Then write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Tense again

After my last post, Pam wrote this comment: “These all seem like things that you need to plan ahead. How do you organize your stories and plots to make sure these stay consistent?”

Most of my consistency comes from revision. For example, in the mystery I’m working on, I gave the ogre a cat as a pet. Later, the plot demanded that the cat – poof! – become a dog. If you make a change like this, you can stop where you are and go back to the beginning to transform the cat everywhere it appears, not only changing the word, but also the animal’s behavior. Or you can wait until the end and then fix. The advantage of waiting until the end, I’ve recently discovered, is that the dog could later turn into an aardvark or three aardvarks or no pet at all.

As for planning and organizing, I don’t do a lot of either one before I begin writing. I have an idea. I write a few pages of notes and develop an impression, no more than that, of the way I want the story to go. If I’m working from a fairy tale, the fairy tale itself gives me a rough outline. But most fairy tales are only a few pages long and I’m writing a novel, so I have a great deal of improvising ahead.

Let’s revisit the suspense builders of the previous post. If you are coming to my blog for the first time, this new post will make more sense if you read the one before, from October 1st. You don’t need to go further back than that.

1. Time pressure. This could be something I know before I start writing. For example, in Ever I knew from the start that Kezi would believe she had a short life span ahead of her. I took care to remind the reader now and then of her days remaining, but I didn’t have to drop the reminders in very often, because a literal drop-dead-line is potent.

If I were going to title chapters in time intervals, I might start this at the beginning, but I could also do it in revision to give the book a more visible structure.

2. Distance. Ditto.

3. Thoughts. Revealing a character’s thoughts serves many purposes, not simply raising suspense. This does not require planning. You should get in the habit of including your main character’s thoughts – and feelings – as you go along. Not at every turn, but at many turns. Otherwise your character will be a puzzlement to your readers and may even seem flat and robotic.

4. Nonstop action. If I were writing this kind of book I would know it from the start, but I wouldn’t plan each twist and turn. I would look for opportunities as they were presented by setting, dialogue, the nature of the characters – by every story element.

5. Separation from the problem. As you’ve probably discovered, many – maybe most – of the best parts of a story are the result of happy accident. In The Two Princesses of Bamarre I didn’t plan Addie’s separation from her sister as a suspense creator. My story had a sick sister and a healthy sister, who needed to save the sick one. She couldn’t do it by staying at home, and Meryl, the sick sister, was too ill to travel. Voila! Separation, which I made do double duty to raise the suspense.

6. A flaw in your main character. This might have to be planned from the get-go if it’s the engine that drives the story. But, in general, you want your main character to be at least a little flawed, so she can grow in the course of the story and so that the reader can love her. A paragon is hard to warm up to. A small flaw may still give you opportunities for suspenseful moments.

7. A flaw in a secondary character. Again, if this is the thrust of your story, it will help if you know it from the start. However, even if it is the most important thing, it may not begin that way. You may have something entirely different in mind when you stumble across this character, who passes himself off as the brother of the main character’s long-dead father, and – screech, skid around a corner – you discover what you really want to write about. The story continues from there. Don’t let planning get in the way of something wondrous. Serendipity is a writer’s good friend.

Let’s skip the others. I have nothing new to say about them. The degree of planning and organization varies from writer to writer. Some writers work everything out ahead. The wonderful young-adult author Walter Dean Myers once told me that by the time he starts writing he knows how many chapters he will have, the length of each one, and exactly how many sheets of paper to put in his printer.

My jaw hung open.

I’m not capable of this. If you’re not either, you have tools to help you: Jog your memory in your notes or in a separate document of the suspense elements that you want to return to again and again. Be open to the opportunities for suspense that pop up along the way. Take advantage of the accidents that your subconscious tosses you. Even allow your whole plot to be blown apart by some surprise that happens along. Remember to include your character’s or characters’ thoughts. For consistency, revise, revise, revise.

Here’s a fresh prompt on suspense. After I wrote my list of suspense producers last week, I started thinking that just about every situation can cause tension. Here I am, typing at my computer. Suppose the words that are appearing on my screen aren’t the words I’m typing. I would freak out, and a reader probably would too. So the prompt is: As you do whatever you’re doing today, think about how each action (putting on your socks, answering your teacher’s or boss’s questions, passing a store window), or each place (your bedroom, classroom or conference room, a city street) could be suspenseful. At the end of the day or whenever you can, write down the ideas that came to you. Have fun, and save what you write!

Before I go, thanks to everyone who’s posted comments and questions. I love knowing you’re out there, and the questions help me with new posts.