Updated: Jan 16, 2019
So you had a great idea. You brainstormed some stuff on paper, found those profound thoughts you wrote down in a weed fueled haze, see a bunch of funny people you met in your minds eye and think would make superb characters. Excellent. Now what?
You're gonna need a plot my friend.
And like any good plot, seeds can be planted to grow or structures can be built to last the ages.
A plot is, in a nutshell, a bunch of things happening in sequence. Like life. Whether you believe in G-d, Fate, or nothing at all - Stuff Happens – one after the other. Your brain remembers it by telling itself a story, letting your imagination fill in the details. Good writing, then, is just a matter of being able to tell a story so that it's interesting.
We do this (amongst many other things) by having a good structure to the plot, like the Freytags pyramid (Exposition, Rising, Climax, Falling, Catharsis) :
the Three act structure (Setup, Confrontation, Resolution) :
or the Heroes journey (....literally anything written, ever, really).
Any story has a plot. "I went to work, there was a traffic jam, I arrived and went home in the afternoon."
That's a story, it has a plot. It's also easy to tell its bad. Ok, but why? And more importantly, how do we improve it?
First, I'd like you to step back and consider what kind of a writer are you?
Are you an Architect who spends a great deal of time just thinking about your characters, theme and plot? Do you want to design your tale with precisely measured doses of action coupled with introspective thought, foreshadowing and dropping hints towards a plot twist at the end to be picked up by the observant reader? Carefully planning out your plot, point by point, scene by scene to give the Message across?
Or maybe you are a Page Traveller. A Gardener. Just planting characters and ideas into an interesting premise and letting them grow on their own, not knowing where it will take you in the end? Stephen King, Dan Abnett (<3) or Hemingway both claim(ed) they have very little idea what the story will end up being after they start writing.
Most people fall somewhere in between on the spectrum, leaning here or there, with no one being either so autistic or fuzzy sweater, soia latte avant-garde to never use the other. Knowing who you are as an author and where you are on the spectrum, can help you A LOT when kicking yourself into the difficult part of starting to type at the keyboard (grabbing the pen/opening the inkwell – whatever). It also aids immensely when looking into ways how to improve your plot.
For example, Architect plots are more structured while Gardener plots flow better.
Architects write mind blowing climaxes, Gardeners write characters that make you scream "Nooo!" on a subway when they die. (rip col. Corbec).
Finally plot Builders have it easy making it to the end, on account of knowing it in advance, while plot Growers have it easy keeping things believable, since their characters consistently behave like we expect actual humans (Troggs/Vampires/Mandalorians) to behave. They "let" them act as they think they should in a situation they "threw" them in.
What they BOTH NEED TO DO HOWEVER (all caps means I am talking loud), Is GO BACK once it's done (chapter, page, arc) and EDIT it. Even scrap it and start again if necessary.
Labeling yourself as either kind of author is no excuse for you to never rewrite your stuff. Its poor work – don't be lazy!
Lets try and have a look at some pitfalls of each now, shall we?
Architects should watch out not to adhere too strictly to their initial idea. Why must he cheat on his wife now? “Because it says so, right here in my outline” is retarded. Is it consistent with his behavior till now? Is there a good reason? Go back and put it in there, preferably over several different chapters by showing (through action) not telling (through monologue) so we feel as if we are “uncovering” their motivation organically – see: Character Development. Is it a shocking twist now and will you reveal the reason later? Wow. Jammy. Now make sure it makes sense when you do, please – it rips people out from “suspension of disbelief” and I cannot count the times I watch a movie or am reading a great book when suddenly I snap out from the flow going: “hang on, that makes no sense! Why would s/he say/do that?”. Fridge Idiocy is a thing.
Never deviating from your outline will inevitably cause your work to be stale and clunky.
If your plot is just a series of events that are only loosely connected (if at all) that has no or little transitions between scenes you get Powerpoint presentations. Not works of fiction.
It becomes painfully obvious what structure you are following because your story is getting bent to accommodate it (not the other way around). Your scenes are just slides in a slideshow. Your story will look like a checklist you are going down through, your characters are stiff and unbelievable and have no time to process events inside.
“Oh a colleague died during an accident at work? How sad. Lets go for a beer!”
People often read stories so they can use their empathy to feel emotions unavailable to them in their own lives. Give them what they came for – let them feel pain and loss and love and anxiety. Give your made up dudes a soul to suffer – it will make the highs so much brighter.
What if there is too much soul though? The problem with being “real” is that “real” can be boring and ends Never. Hence why marriage looks good on paper but…yeah, let’s not go there.
Instead let’s talk about how Gardeners don’t know how to end something. They just keep going on.
….and on. And another thing happens. Can you just? No? Keep going on then, I guess. Aaaaand on.
This is getting pretty bogged down and you can’t seem to find the climax.
Ok. Stop. Go back. Read about what made these people (dwarves, cyborgs) start off in the first place. What made them go in this direction? Did they get what they wanted? Did they lose something important while getting it?
You’ve let your character drive the plot without asking for directions. If the journey was the destination, what did they see and learn? Did it change them? Maybe end with an action that shows the reader this newfound knowledge/change to make them know that their lives are now different. Let the readers build the rest of the story for you in their heads.
Another Grower problem, is that their dudes tend to be reactive. They never drive the plot, only endlessly react to what the antagonist is doing, whether this is his/her ex, Society, herself and her endless self-sabotage or even reality. Take the initiative. Outsmart the enemy. We’re all rooting for the “hero”, reward us a bit for our faith.
Some authors believe surprise and suspense that comes from things happening unexpectedly all the time is great; “Some authors” think that endlessly hitting the reader with unexpected elements out of nowhere Is great fun.
It is. For the first 2 or 3 times. Then it gets about as much fun stitting down in a bathtub of Tabasco with an a$$ full of shrapnel.
So much for part 1 of my rant.
If you're into this and want to read more, check out part 2 in here, where we're going to talk about what to watch out for, once you know what kind of a writer are you. Laters!