Tuesday, November 06, 2007

NaNoWriMo Day 6 - On Plotting

Okay, I'm a wee bit behind.

Because I was at the Delaware Book Festival from the 1st to the 4th, I didn't get started on the new Jack book until yesterday morning.

So far, I've got about 3200 words done---about 13 pages. Not bad, but I'll need to step it up if I want to reach my 50k quota. Especially since I promised two author friends I'd read their current manuscripts, and next week I'll be in Wisconsin and Tennessee for four days, and I still have a 10k novella due, along with a short story collaboration that I'm working on with F. Paul Wilson, which has always been a dream of mine since I've been reading him since 1982 and I think he's a God so I don't want to screw it up.

It's going to be a busy month.

That said, in my free time I've been thinking a lot about the new novel, and even though I don't have an outline for it I've already got a pretty good idea of what I want it to be about. Which begs the question: What is plotting and how is it done?

I've talked with many authors, both newbie and pro, who have difficulties with plotting. Personally, I think it's the easiest part of writing. I believe the main goal of plotting is to make the reader want to know what happens next. To do that, there are some pretty simple tricks that anyone can master.

1. Give your character a goal. All narratives require a quest of some sort. It could be a quest to catch a killer, or get a boyfriend, or find self awareness, but in every case the story begins with the hero deciding upon the goal and beginning the quest.

2. Don't let your character reach her goal. The plot then comes down to making it difficult for the character, throwing obstacles in her way. Other characters with opposing goals, the environment, and turns of events can all conspire to make reaching the goal more difficult.

3. Use what you've got. If you're stuck, reread what you've already written. Chances are, your subconscious has already planted something in the manuscript that you can build upon. The car trouble alluded to in chapter 3 can become a huge problem in chapter 8. The sneeze in chapter 1 can become the flu in chapter 11. The argument in chapter 4 can become divorce papers in chapter 9.

4. Think about the worst thing that can happen. After you've written a character for a few dozen or hundred pages, and have gotten to know her like a family member, you're going to better understand her goals, fears, and motivations. Think about the most horrible thing that can happen to her, then make it happen.

5. Overcome the obstacles and reach the goal. That's it. You've written a narrative. Congrats.

If you're struggling to write what happens next, or you're stuck in the boring middle section of the book, go back and seed it with more goals and obstacles and foreshadowing. And try to avoid being obvious or overt. While all stories follow the narrative structure, good writers make the structure invisible.

Happy writing!


Darcy McKenna said...

Hey Joe - Where in Tennessee will you be? If it's Memphis, I'd love to see you!


Robert Burton Robinson said...

Great advice, Joe. It's so much fun throwing in obstacles, as you put it. If my main character, Jack, has a simple goal - to go to Jill's house, it doesn't seem like much of a plot. But suppose I made him slip on an icy sidewalk. He could fall down and break his arm. Then, while at the hospital, he overhears two guys talking and he thinks they are plotting a murder - but he's not sure. He decides to follow them, and figures out that they are indeed planning to kill someone - his girlfriend, Jill! So, he is about to report them to the police, but then he finds out that one of the men is a cop!

It just keeps going for as long as you need.

I just wish I could write as fast as you do, Joe. I just finished the final edit on a 6,000 word story that took me two weeks to write.

Good luck on getting all your writing done for the month!

Cyn Bagley said...

Well, I am working my heart/head on nanowrimo. Today I finished 16,000 words (or so.). And, I haven't run out of things to write yet. Umm...

Thanks for the plotting advice.

Frederick Smith said...

This is very motivating. I especially like not having the character reach his/her goal. Keeps the story going. And then the "worst that can happen" scenario. Whenever I reach that fork in the story, when a character can go the right/sensible way or the wrong/stupid way, I opt for the wrong/stupid. Usually takes me places I wouldn't go in real life.

Mark Terry said...

The majority of unpublished manuscripts seem to have the problem of the writer not making life difficult enough for their main character. A lot of plot problems are solved by making your characters' lives miserable.

For a lesson on this, read the book of Job.

Jude Hardin said...

Everything's going to be all right, Joe.

Bald is beautiful. ;)

Allison Brennan said...

LOL, Mark :) But very true

I don't plot, for what it's worth. Can't stomach it. It stresses me out. In fact, I have a workshop called NO PLOTTERS ALLOWED. But you can come, Joe, we don't exclude anyone even if they (shiver) plot.

BTW, Robert, my short stories take a long time, too. I wrote a 35K novella that took me longer to write than my last 100K novel. Short is hard.

Tasha Alexander said...

Dude, Tennessee???? Why am I always the last to know?

Where? When?

Robert Burton Robinson said...

Thanks, Allison. Glad I'm not the only one who takes a long time to write something short.

It took me several weeks to finish a short story I recently posted on my site. I wasn't working on it 40 hours per week, of course, but still. However, I do think it is some of my tightest, best writing. It's only 2,400 words.

Robert Burton Robinson

Anonymous said...

A mystery has two plots: The antagonist's crime and the protagonist's investigation. I try to plot out the crime first, giving the antagonist obstacles as well. Overcoming the obstacles may leave behind clues for the protagonist to find later. Of course, there's some back and forth between the stories, but I find it useful to think of them as separate plots set in the same world.

Another trick I use is to give every single character a secret. Not all of them may end up in the story, but it's amazing how much more interesting every interview and conversation gets when both characters are dancing around something they don't want revealed. Even innocent witnesses end up with motivation to lie, and lies are great obstacles for your investigator.

Dana Kaye said...

Great tips; very well put.

Don't worry if you're behind on word count, I'm right there with ya. I wrote 8,000 words, realized I really didn't like what I was writing, chucked the whole thing and started over yesterday. Challenge by choice I guess.

Will I be seeing you at the Jordans' tomorrow?

Anonymous said...

Great plotting advice, especially the cold-blooded wisdom of number four...

I think the beauty of NaNoWriMo is that it helps a writer stop thinking so hard. Instead of agonizing over every sentence, you just pound out a draft. It takes a longer time to edit, but the manuscript exists.

Too many writers get lost imagining writing a novel and they never give themselves a chance to actually bang out a draft.

In the end, as long as you pound out something new--whether 100,000 words or 20,000 words, NaNoWriMo is a success as long as you blast past that overthinking stage.

Anonymous said...

Nice post. Very succinct.

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