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Your story plot process - how do you do it?

Ernest Bywater

I know we've touched on this in other threads, from time to time, and even talked around the edges of it in some threads, but I'm not sure if we got very far into the nitty gritty of the process used to sort out the plot. This is really only for those who complete the story before they post it, simply because those who post as they write tend to sort the plot our as they go, except for those who lose the plot along the way.

In general, I come up with an idea for a story, outline the main plot about where I want it to go, and get writing. While writing I fill in the details, the dialogue, and will sometime add new sub-plots. However, between when I layout the story outline and get writing there's a heck of a lot of time spent researching things for the story: locations, how things work, societies, etc. When that's done to the best point I can reach I start writing the story. Now, this is where I sometimes have issues, like:

1. Characters insert the own behaviours and attitudes into the story, especially about sub-plots and interactions with other characters.

2. I come up with additional sub-plots and have to work at fitting them in properly.

3. A sub-plot heads off into a different direction than initially intended for some reason - usually because it seems to offer more for the story at a later point.

4. I hit a wall about how to write a particular scene and set the story aside for a while so I can think about it in a, hopefully, relaxed manner.

Item 4 above, and this next issue are why I often have a number of stories on the go at the same time.

There are times I have a good start point for a story, and have a good end point, but then have a sort of blank about what goes on in the middle, or I have only a few scenes for in the middle. It's filling in these gaps that give me the biggest headaches in a story.

I was wondering if anyone else had similar sorts of issues with their story writing.

And, yes, I am totally ignoring the situations where real life intrudes and you have to put a story aside while dealing with life and then can't get back into the story at that time.

Dicrostonyx

((I'll not comment on my own style at this time as I don't have anything on this site. The only stories I've completed were years ago, and not fit for public exposure, while the current stuff is in various stages of being written.))

I do, however, read and listen to a lot of author interviews, and the one constant of the process is that everyone is different. I highly recommend that you check out http://www.hour25online.com/, and listen to a few of the author interviews.

There are a whole bunch from around 2000 - 2005 from some of the biggest names in science fiction and fantasy: George R.R. Martin, Terry Pratchett, Larry Niven, Ben Bova, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Neil Gaiman, just to name a few.

There are times I have a good start point for a story, and have a good end point, but then have a sort of blank about what goes on in the middle, or I have only a few scenes for in the middle.


Terry Pratchett refers to this as the "valley full of clouds" approach, and it defines his entire style. Of course, he has also stated that his writing style is to write ten pages first thing in the day, then go do other things and let the ideas percolate. Not all of these pages may end up in the current novel, but the point is to maintain the habit of writing.

He's also commented that while he usually has two or three plot-lines running through a novel, he'll occasionally decide that one is out of place and will pull it out, then put it into a future novel. In some cases, this has led to minor threads or characters turning into the main plot of a future novel. While he didn't say so specifically, I suspect that this process does help him to fill in the valley, so to speak, since a block could be countered by either removing or adding a plot-line.

A sub-plot heads off into a different direction than initially intended for some reason - usually because it seems to offer more for the story at a later point.


Personally, I'd say just go with it. If you get to the end of the digression and it doesn't fit at all, you can break the work into two separate but linked stories. Otherwise, you could encapsulate the digression within the overarching plot as a nested story, or pull it apart to tell the two stories side-by-side as appropriate.

Chris Podhola

I'm kind of glad that you brought up plot, Ernest. Lately, I've been having issues finding new books (other than blockbusters written by superstar authors), written with plotting skill. I guess I'm mostly talking about self-published authors, but I have to admit that I am often left scratching my head.

I recently bought a title that was supposedly written by an 'international best selling author' (name of author and title removed). It had many outstanding reviews, but I was utterly disappointed from early on in the book and ended up not getting much past the fifth chapter. Why? Because the author who wrote it clearly did not understand what plot was, the importance of a good antagonist, how to design or develop a character or many other basic facets storytelling 101.

So, if it's okay with you, I would like to add to your original question. Not only how do you plot, but how do you make sure your plot is good enough; strong enough to truly lure your readers in and rivet them?

As a popular example, I refer to the Star Wars prequels. For some reason, when Lucas wrote those stories, he clearly forgot how to plot a story properly and the end result was a storyline that was full of holes, but it also resulted in character dialog that sucked, characters that were monotone and boring in their design and a movie series that was nothing more than a bunch of special effects glued together in a series of events.

Replies:   Ernest Bywater
Ernest Bywater

@Chris Podhola

when Lucas wrote those stories, he clearly forgot how to plot a story properly


I was under the distinct impression that Hollywood and plots in films were mutually incompatible things. There's many a good story from a book that's been converted to a film, and had a total plot removal in the process. Hollywood films are about stars and fancy effects, and that's all.

As to Star Wars, I think a lot of the fanfic stuff would be better sequels than what Lucas made.

Also, keep in mind that sometimes the plot isn't the focus of the story or always visible. Take my story Finding Home - I get a lot of emails from people who don't realise the plot is actually the attitude change of Al, the rest is sub-plots to help develop the change and show the change. Many readers miss that, but still like all the action.

Replies:   Chris Podhola
Chris Podhola

In addition to asking that question, I thought I'd also forward an answer to Ernest's original question.

I keep my main plot premise simple.

Now, I already know that some of you are probably thinking that keeping your plot premise simple is akin to dumbing your story down, but I disagree. To exemplify what I mean, I'll use two examples. First the original star wars compared to Episode one.

In the original Star Wars, the main plot premise was simple. Vader and the Emperor wanted to do one thing. They wanted to get the Deathstar up and running so they could use it to spread fear and gain control of the galaxy. Of course, there were subplots, but the main premise of the story was easy to grasp and the original Star Wars is an absolute classic. Keeping it simple was a wise choice.

Compare that to Episode one, where the main premise of the story is complicated and muddled. What is the main premise of the Phantom Menace? It's actually quite difficult to sort out, even for me. I've watched that movie probably at least fifty times. I do like it, but only because I love Star Wars in general so much.

The best I can do to describe the premise is to say that its multiple premises glued together. 1) Senator Palpatine wants to become Supreme Chancelor, so he concocts a plan to inspire a vote of no-confidence in Chancelor Velorum. (But if you think about it, some of his actions that lead up to Velorum's vote of no-confidence contradict those motivations, but that's beside the point). 2) Sensing a great disturbance in the force, Qui-Gon seeks to free a slave boy while trying to return Queen Amidala to Coruscant. 3) The Trade Federation, by orders of Palpatine (disguised as a hooded figure) try to wipe out everyone on Naboo. 4) Qui-Gon, having rescued the boy wants to train him to be a jedi.

That analysis may not be exactly right, but I guess that's kind of my point. I can't see any precise plot premise. It's muddled and confusing the whole way through. There are so many things that don't make any sense and the reason they don't make sense is because there is no simple plot line to follow. Lucas tried to make it too complicated. The entire story of the prequels should have been limited and centered around Anakin Skywalker and how he was turned to the dark side. In the first movie, I don't even consider Anakin to be the main character. His role in it is just too small. I don't even really get who the main character of Episode one, but I'm getting a little distracted here.

The point is that when you are plotting a story, my suggestion is that you should keep your main plot premise simple. Complicating your plot premise doesn't make your story better, it only serves to make your story more confusing. Make sure you have a villain whose intentions and motivations are clear. Make him more powerful than your hero and let the story unfold.

The same thing can be said for your subplots. Keep the premises of those simple as well. Complicated doesn't mean better. It just means complicated.

richardshagrin

@Chris Podhola

You are giving me a complex.

Chris Podhola
Updated:

@Ernest Bywater


I was under the distinct impression that Hollywood and plots in films were mutually incompatible things. There's many a good story from a book that's been converted to a film, and had a total plot removal in the process. Hollywood films are about stars and fancy effects, and that's all.


When it came to the Star Wars Prequels, Lucas was in complete and utter control. Nobody questioned anything he said, they gave him absolute say in everything unequivocally and like I said, he apparently forgot how to write a good story. So, I agree. The fanfic stuff probably would have been better.

As far as plot being the focus or not. I guess that's fine. But here's my thing. If I'm going to read someone's story, they better have something for me to latch onto or I'm outta there. If you're not going to give me a plot that rivets me, you better give me a character that I just can't put down. As far as Action goes ... I don't know. To me, action is only good if it's centered around either I story I love, or a character I love. Without one of those two things, I don't care about the action so much. Especially in a book.

Edited to add:

I also disagree with the idea that Hollywood is 'all about stars and fancy effects and that's all'. Surely those things are factors. Many sycophants love that kind of stuff, so of course, Hollywood is happy to provide it, but that's not always the case. If you look at Hunger Games, for example, the movies remain true to the books and while there are some good special effects, the best parts of the movie are about the plight of the main character and her journey to becoming the 'Mockingjay'. There are many other examples almost as good. It's not always all about the stars or the effects. In many cases a really good story still comes through.

Replies:   Ernest Bywater
Ernest Bywater
Updated:

@Chris Podhola


Lucas was in complete and utter control. Nobody questioned anything he said, they gave him absolute say in everything unequivocally and like I said, he apparently forgot how to write a good story.


I agree with you about this comment on Lucas. However, the original trilogy was like a heck of a lot of other stories with the same basic plot and concept, just updated into another theatre - a common thing to do. But the next three seem to be all over the place as if he couldn't make up his mind on what he was doing or trying to copy off. Although a great fan of the first three, I never got past Phantom Menace because, unlike the others, I was left wondering what the hell happened and where it was going. It seemed to me he totally lost the plot. Never seen any of the later ones.

Never seen Hunger Games or read the books, from the reviews they're not my style. However, when you see what they do when they take stories like Starship Troopers and I Robot and then turn out films where the only thing aligned with the book is the title, well, I think enough said. That happens most of the time. There are the few exceptions where the producer tries to stay with the book, but they are extremely rare.

I think it's safe to say the action in a story should either advance the main plot, a sub-plot, or character development, it shouldn't be there just for the fun of it; and the same is true of sex scenes, in my mind.

typo edit

Replies:   Chris Podhola
Chris Podhola

@Ernest Bywater

However, the original trilogy was like a heck of a lot of other stories with the same basic plot and concept


I don't disagree with you here, but of course they are. There is no such thing as an original plot idea. You can have originality within a plot idea, a slant that's different, but there are only a limited number of plots. Some say 36, some say 55, so I guess I don't understand your point here.

Crumbly Writer

I've discussed my approach before, often fairly extensively, but ...

I basically start with a story idea, then sit back and let the ideas percolate. I'll often start with a beginning, a fairly complete ending, and a series of intermediate points. In order to give me a better perspective on the story, I'll generally toss a monkey-wrench into the story, then sit back until I can figure out how to work around my own story limitations (though I've given up on this approach, as it typically produces overly complicated plots and story lines which don't always work ideally).

Once I figure out how to work the story (including conflicts, themes and character conflicts (conflicting character motivations)), I'll name the characters and start writing. I work from the ending, always working sequentially a chapter at a time, though I'll plot the story out a few chapters at a time, often planning out the details the night before I write the first draft of each chapter.

Once I complete the entire story, I'll then revise the entire story, cleaning it up, keeping details consistent. Once I get about 10 chapters into the revision, I'll start feeding it to my editors.

This past year (2015) was a slow year for my readers, as I worked to revise my writing style, simplifying my process, my plots and making the stories more concise (though not necessarily any simpler). As a result, I only released a single story in 2015 (and published another at the end of the year). I already have 9 books planned for 2016, though I don't know how many I'll get out and in what timeframe.

I used to write by tossing interesting characters together and recording what unfolds, however I now go with the 'if it doesn't advance' the plot philosophy, and now severely curtail my subplots, so they don't get away from me. I've also cut my story lengths from 150,000 words down to 60,000 (on average). My chapter lengths have gone from 6,000 to 10,000 words down to 1,500 to 4,000 words. I'll have to see what my readers think about my style changes. They may not like it at all, but I figured it was time to rethink my approach.

Dicrostonyx
Updated:

@Chris Podhola

One very important caveat to your comment: plot and story are actually different elements of writing. Using the terms interchangeably in general conversation is fine, but when discussing the elements of writing the distinction is significant.

Plot refers to the sequence of events in the story which affect other events through cause and effect, while story refers to the actual order in which events took place. The plot is the events you see as you read the novel or watch a film, the story is how you remember the events after the novel or film is complete.

Another way to put it is that plot is the sequence of events in the novel, while story is what the novel is about. That is, the difference between the protagonist's physical journey (plot) and emotional journey (story).

E.M.Forster described the difference thus:


"The king died and then the queen died" is a story. But "The king died, and then the queen died of grief" is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it.


Continuing your use of film examples, in Fight Club and Pulp Fiction the story is completely divorced from the plot; in fact, the story cannot be made sense of until the film is over and you have time to think about it. Detective stories and film noir are often the opposite; plot and story are identical, with the audience experiencing events with the protagonist as they happen.

In Star Wars, Episodes One and Four have almost identical plots: an insignificant young boy gets caught up in grand politics, is told that he has an important destiny, saves a princess, and flies a spaceship to blow up a station. The stories are completely different, though: one sets up a hero, the other a villain; one boy is shy and self-effacing, the other a glory-seeker; one is almost laughably simple and direct, the other uses so many complications and false flags that it undermines its own plot.

Replies:   Chris Podhola
Chris Podhola

@Dicrostonyx

Point taken.

Perv Otaku

All things start with the simple idea, the elevator pitch sized idea. Since I tend to write science fiction and fantasy genre stuff, that's generally something about the specific story gimmick I want to explore.

Then the brainstorming, the idea bounces around in my head as I think of all the places this gimmick can take me. Some of that is specifically sex-scene related, some is more general plot related. Hopefully by the end I have a good balance of both.

If at this point I think the whole thing shows promise, I start jotting it all down, and then generally I put it aside because my main energies are focused on some other story that I'm currently writing. If more ideas pop up later on I'll add them into the notes. These notes tend to be a mash of various things. Sometimes the ending is clear, sometimes not. Varying amounts of middle bits are worked out in varying levels of specificity. Oftentimes bits of dialogue for key scenes are very clear to me, sometimes I'll even write it out and add it to the notes, though it may not survive to the final story exactly in that form.

When it comes time to actually write the story, I'll go over the notes and start fleshing out everything, taking the existing ideas and filling in any gaps on how the story will get from one to the next, making sure there are enough sex scenes. Characters start to get names. Once I'm satisfied that I've got my story direction worked out from beginning to end, I start writing the actual thing.

I don't think I've ever had to change things at that point due to character revolt or a better idea popping up, once I'm writing I've already been over it so many times that things of that nature have already worked themselves through.

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