Friday, March 24, 2006

Thickening the Plot

Word Count: 41,967

I was planning to motor ahead with the word count today, but instead I've decided to review the plotting of Book 4. I've said before that I lurk somewhere between a Plotter (someone whose synopsis containts every single significant event in the story, more or less a template for an entire book) and a Pantser (a writer who gets to the end of their novel flying by the seat of their pants).

I thought it might be interesting to share the evolution of a book:

Stage 1: Vague Concept
This usually begins when I am in the final, agonising chapters of the work-in-progress, wishing I'd never started it. Other ideas appear like sparkling gems: the idea that will make me a billionaire, simultaneously winning me the Booker and a movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Brad Pitt. I have learned that the sparkle soon wears off, but I try to follow up the most promising ideas, using lots of 'what if' questions to build a scenario that's intriguing...what happened if the nastiest girl in the school organised a reunion? Could you make a better job of your life by re-learning your Brownie badges as an adult? What if the worst happened to a girl who has always lived her life afraid of what's round the corner?
At this point I might have two or three ideas for the next novel...

Stage 2: Synopsis with Holes
This is where I try to flesh out that idea with characters and plot twists. Often I'll write the first chapter or two, to help me imagine the most important people and 'where' the story begins.
It's often suggested that stories should begin 'in media res' (scroll down on this link of Latin phrases) or in the midst of things, i.e. when when there's action underway. Yet often we start with our character in stasis, i.e. stuck in a rut before the 'call the action.'
It's an interesting decision: with my first three books, it's definitely an 'in media res' situation, whereas the current book - in the first draft at least - shows the main character in her rather frustrating life before the action kicks off.
I might still have two ideas at this stage.
Often, even after writing the synopsis, I don't know what will happen to my heroine or the other characters - I know the psychological state she'll end up in, but not quite how she'll get there. Which helps to give me a reason to write the book, of course.

Stage 3: Opening Chapters, More Tweaking and Playing
At this point, I'll begin writing. I tend to have done more work on the first few scenes anyway and they are also an exercise in getting to know my characters, making decisions about everything from their eye colour to their fatal flaw. I will tweak the plot a bit, maybe scribble down a few plot ideas, but I tend not to go back and revise the synopsis in detail.

Stage 4: Revision of Plot/Brainstorming
If this was a map, it would be marked YOU ARE HERE because this is the stage I'm at now. I've spent the day playing with scenarios. Now that I know my characters in more detail, I can mess about with their lives, test their weaknesses, and give them the endings they deserve. Lots of fun.
I also like to have more than one timescale going on within a book, so structure is also important: how can I make it clear to a reader that I've moved backwards or forwards in time? I might do this by changing Point-of-View, or tense, or simply by putting a date at the beginning of a new chapter.
Today I worked through the storylines for the past and the present narratives, and also worked out how to test my main character, Jo, to the limit. Quite hard work, mentally, but satisfying as I can compare it to my original synopsis and see how far I've come.

Stage 5: Race to Finishing Line
So now, in theory, I have all the information I need to write the book in - I don't know - a month? I cut and paste the few sentences I've written for each chapter into my manuscript, and use those as a template as I write. New ideas will occur to me, but I know I have a fallback positition. And a plot!

Stage 6: Edits (Including the Implausibility Conundrum)
The edits can be as much work again as the rest of the process, depending on what my editor thinks, and how I feel it's working. The Implausibility Conundrum is one issue: everything must be believable in the context of the world you've created as a writer. That last bit is crucial - otherwise how would J.K. Rowling get away with broomsticks and Quidditch and Dementors? The question of how far you can go is a fine judgement: for example, a lot of new (and not so new) writers rely on coincidence too heavily. A little coincidence is forgivable: a lot is simply another version of that literary cop-out, 'and I woke up and it was all a dream...'

I'd love to know how other people do it? Anyone?

Lovely Link of the Day:
Lee Masterson has an interesting 'how to' article on plotting. Stella Cameron has a very informative article called Six Steps to a Perfect Plot. My other google searches brought up a lot of 'this software will write your blockbuster for you' ads. So tempting...


Blogger MarkFarley said...

Yours is actually the first plausible and helpful basic tips I've actually come across.

It sounds like what I am doing and I'm glad to actually see it's kinda the same thing as what someone else is doing.

It's hard doing this the first time as you do kinda work blindly. So Cheers Kate. xx

1:27 am  

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