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Act One: Scene Two
The Plot Thickens

Published In The Kiss of Death, March/April 2008

“I know how to plot,” my teenager tells me as I talk about writing.

“No,” I have to point out to that eager face. “Trying to steal your brother’s Hershey bar is not plotting. That’s scheming. Plotting is different.”

Plotting is the backbone of what we writers do. We can create great characters, but if we don’t have a story worth following them through, then what’s the point of sticking around? We can pick a great locale and make it so real that we can feel the wind on our face and hear the leaves rustle, but if we don’t have great plot, then there really is no point to being there.

The plot is our story. It’s a series of interrelated events, each one building off the last. It’s more than the situation we place our characters in; it’s why they’re there in the first place. How they’re going to get themselves out of it and it’s death-defying, life altering conflicts is our story. It’s the whole reason readers – and sometimes writers – sit back and watch as the characters try to out maneuver the situations and get to The End. Sometimes they arrive at the last page shot up and tired. Sometimes they careen to a stop in a stolen car with a slew of police asking too many questions. Sometimes it’s with a sweet kiss and a guaranteed happier ever after. One thing is for certain, the characters arrive at the end different than they started out.

James Frey says in his book How To Write a Damn Good Novel: “A story is a narrative of events involving worthy human characters and consequential events ... the characters must change as a result of conflict.”

We hear writers defined by two terms when it comes to creating books: plotters and pantser.

Plotters are the people who know their characters intimately before the story unfolds. They have done intensive studies into their backgrounds and their biographies. They know who their best friend was in the third grade, as well as who gave them their first kiss. They know where the story takes place, who dunnit and how it’s going to end.

Pantsers play it more by ear. They sit down – sometimes with a general idea of what their story will be, sometimes with just a mental snapshot of a person or event or a snippet of dialogue – and they start to type, getting to know their characters and their lives as the story unfolds, never quite sure what’s around the next corner any more than their heroes or heroines are.

Both ways work. Neither way is right or wrong. What counts is what makes the author get from Point A to Point Z with the most electrifying story.

Says Stephen King in his book On Writing, “ ... I want you to understand that basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow ...”

There are many different ways to plot. Once again, none of them right, none of them wrong. What works for one writer may not work for another.

Some writer’s use the old fashioned index cards: one scene per card. The scenes are easily arranged on the floor or the pool table. One card can be moved to a new position opening up new plotting directions.

A more modern version of this theme is a computer program which allows you to not only develop your characters, but also create a detailed plan of movement between scenes. A good writers’ computer program can cost a hundred dollars or more. For some, this is worth the investment as some writer’s programs allow you to use the program as a word processor, keeping track of word counts, progress toward deadlines and then, finally, printing out a finished copy ready for submission.

Still another method of keeping track of plots: the good old white board with an assortment of different colored pens. Time lines of the story are easily tracked, moving from left to right. The romance time line can be on top, the mystery below. Using this method, the author is able to see when each storyline peaks and when the story backs off just a bit. The writer is able to plan accordingly, keeping tension at its pinnacle.

Roxanne St. Claire, best-selling author of more than twenty novels including the popular Bullet Catchers series, has taught workshops on plotting, and yet, doesn’t consider herself a plotter or a pantser. “I'm somewhere in the middle,” she says. “I ... think plotting and pacing are so intrinsically tied to one another that once you know one, the other is a lot easier to do. For example, I know when I'm getting to the end, and what that means for the kinds of books I write. Shorter scenes. Escalating action. Big suspense. Huge conflict. Attraction becomes love. Danger becomes impending death. So it's fair to say I plot more by knowing my general pacing and structure, rather than by following a detailed outline or plot board.”

Beginners tend to try to plot while experienced writers seem to find their own creative comfort zone of some where between plotter and pantser.

Some even go as far as to say plotting is not the way to go.

Says Stephen King: “I won’t try to convince you that I’ve never plotted any more than I'd try to convince you that I’ve never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible. I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless...; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.”

Every year, tens of thousand of people join Chris Baty in his National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoRaMo, in November. For thirty days, writers throw plotting out the window, writing as fast as they can and as much as they can. Mr. Baty’s theory, which is outlined in his book No Plot, No Problem, suggests that by tossing out the restriction of plot and concentrating on moving forward, producing pages and using a deadline, the inner writer can be released to produce a novel. As one review said “... this results-oriented, quick-fix strategy is perfect for people who want to nurture their inner artist.”

Whichever road a writer takes, whether they choose to outline every detail or just sit down and see where their story goes, it is important to remember that plot is more than just a writing tool. It is the story. It is one scene moving into the next, each one building off the one before as the relationships and the conflicts unfold. Somewhere there is going to be an ending; and in the area of romantic fiction, that ending is going to have a Happily Ever After. We, as readers, are going to be glad this author took the time to find their plot.




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