Tuesday, May 5, 2009

More plotting techniques

In my efforts to lay out the story for my next novel, I've been researching various plotting techniques used by other writers. I figure there has to be a better way than what I'm doing. As stated in a previous entry, I am not a pantser, at least not until the final stages of drafting. In fact, the thought of starting a novel without knowing where I'm going next is enough to make my eye twitch. To me, that's like hopping in a car and driving off into the sunset without any desination in mind. Just take off and go until you run out of gas. Not the way I like to travel! I like the MapQuest way, where you have a clear beginning and end destination in mind, then you find the most direct route there and prebook your hotel before you even think about packing. For me, writing a book is a lot like that.

Since this is the fifth and final book in this series, I already know all my characters inside and out. Bonus for me, right? Yeah, but they've also been through so much already that I have to be careful to put them into new and even more perilous situations to keep my storyline fresh and interesting. After looking around at various methods online I've decided I already use a combination of the most popular, and that's worked fine up until now, with one major exception.

Drum roll...

The sagging middle. All writers out there know exactly what I'm talking about. Oh, the horror! You've got your incredible beginning, the blackest moment known to the literary world and the most astounding conclusion for the book all figured out, and then--

You have no idea how to fill in the middle. I mean, like, none. Man, that sucks.

Classically, this is where all writers struggle. They start out strong out of the gate, then fall halfway to the finish line. Some struggle to their feet and carry on even though each step is painful and grueling, but some give up and lay there until someone brings a stretcher to drag them off the track because the finish line is too damn far away. Unreachable. And while they're being hauled away they wonder, "Why did I ever think I could write a novel?".

Sometimes a writer will question their ability to make the story work long enough to reach the finish they'd been so excited about initially. If this describes your situation, take heart! You can fix it. The answer that works for me? More plotting. Now, to find a system that works and appeals to you.

There's the famous Snowflake method, by Randy Ingermanson. He starts with a high concept pitch, where the story is boiled down into one tight sentence. That's your starting point. He then expands on this to add the high plot points, and then branches into character development where the author explores the goals, motivations and conflicts facing each major character. It's all very neat and scientific, but a whole lot of work!

Personally, I want something short and concrete before I start the first draft. I like to write out everything important in a pretty notebook I buy for each book I'm working on. At night I keep it next to my bed in case I wake up with something brilliant in mind (at least, it seems brilliant to me at that time of the morning), and I carry it in my purse in case inspiration strikes while I'm out doing errands. I do a character sketch outlining background, goals, motivation and conflicts for each major POV character. I don't go into so much detail for the minor characters, but feel free if it helps you get to know them better. Try an interview if this is too sterile for you. Find out what makes them tick, their darkest secrets, what habits they have, etc.

Once that's done, I already know what each major character wants, why they want it, and why they can't have it (goal, motivation and conflict--cool, huh?). By the way, conflict drives the plot. No conflict, no novel. Readers don't want to be bored, and neither do agents and editors. So whatever twists and turns your storyline takes from page one to The End, you'd better have unresolved conflict along the way. And lots of it.

Begin with an opening that introduces the major conflict for at least one of your major characters. If you can make it matter to more than one, so much the better. Then you need to figure out the major crisis points in the book, and how you want things to wind up. Once all that's done, you have the most critical parts of the book laid out already. Now, all you have to do is flesh out the scenes in between to fill in the blanks. Easy, right?

Not so much. There's still that darned saggy baggy middle to contend with. Trust me, it can stop a writer dead in their tracks and keep them mired down for weeks. Months, even. Not good! So, back to the drawing board. Tackle it on your own if you want, but don't feel bad if you need help. Talk to someone in your writing group. Find a critique partner. Bug your spouse, or your mom, or your best friend, and get some ideas going.

Try to identify why you've stalled and why the middle is so lacklustre. I bet you'll find there's not enough conflict going on at that point. So? Make something exciting happen. Introduce another subplot. Throw in a twist, or even two or three. Do something! Once you do, the story will begin to flow again. Really, I swear! And always remember you can change it later if something even better comes to mind. Just make sure that whatever conflicts you have, don't resolve them too soon or it could be a really short book. Us authors still have that pesky thing called a word count hanging over our heads.

With all this in mind, I wanted to see if there was a boiled down, nitty-gritty kind of plotting system out there. Like magic, I stumbled across a concise story line layout designed by Lynn Viehl.

Wow! How come I didn't think of this? She lays everything out in an organized way that really appeals to my Capricorn, control freak nature, and streamlines my process. I daresay it will even help me stave off that dreaded sagging middle. Hallelujah! I'm revved and ready to rock.

So now you have a few other ideas to kick around when you're in the early stages of tackling a novel. I hope at least one will be of help to you. To all you pantsers out there, my hat is off to you. I will never understand how you guys can create a novel out of thin air, but that's just me. To each their own, I guess.

Happy plotting!


Kiss Carson said...

Plotting techniques...this advice will be rich, coming from a notorious panster! When all else fails I go for kidnap, danger, and in extreme cases, death (only in the context of your story, of course!) A sex scene never goes astray, either. Sometimes, I might put the heroine in danger, and then come back when the story finishes to "pick up the pieces". Write anything, everything that comes to mind, just to keep the story moving.
Kiss Carson

Skhye said...

From a Cancer control freak to a Capricorn control freak, I used to be a pantser. Now, I'm partial-plotter. I usually write the basic nuts & bolts of my story in a proposal-length synopsis. That way I sketch out the basic internal/external conflict with the romantic plot points. This keeps me creating and moving forward enough not to get bored and fall back on pantsing it. When I'm writing the first draft, I basically choose the worse possible option at any point to get from A-B. Worse possible option is defined as the last thing people would expect that beefs up the conflict. :) And then my stories are anything but cookie cutter.

Great post.

Kaylea Cross said...

Kiss, that's good advice--keep the momentum going. Something I struggle with is turning off my internal editor, and that can really bog me down.

Skhye: I love your definition of worst possible option. That's the best way to keep readers hooked and on the edge of their seats!

Susan Macatee said...

Kaylea, I've frequently had this problem in the past, since I started out writing short stories. When I decided I needed to move on to novel-length, it was more than a bit scary. I started out writing novels as a panster, with just a short outline, which was mostly beginning and end, no middle to speak of.

After much trial and error, what works for me now is to plot out my story scene by scene before I even start writing that first draft. I discovered a fantastic book called First Draft in 30 Days by Karen S. Wiesner that takes you step-by-step through the process of outlining a novel and it's really worked for me. I zip through my first draft with no more sagging middles, because I know exactly what's going to happen every step of the way.

Kathye Quick said...

Sagging middles, like the one on my body are pretty icky.

I try to think conflict, conflict, conflict but it doesn't alwys work, so I watch opne of my favorite videos and see how they did it.

Good luck.

Kaylea Cross said...

LOL Kathye! You're right--screenplays are not all that different from novels. That's why Blake Snyder's book Save the Cat! works so well for authors. I hear he's working on a version specifically geared to romance writing. Can't wait!

Susan, that sounds like a great book, and I'll have to check it out. Thanks for the tip!

T.A. Stone said...

Hi, it's Todd, the Novelist's Boot Camp guy.
You know, for either pantsers or plotters, plotting can be simpler than most people make it out to be, especially if you're conscious of your hero/heroine's opponent and other opposition.
--Since plot is "what happens," it's really about the actions your hero & heroine take to achieve their goals and the actions the opponent (antagonist) and other opposition take to stop them. Evens something as simple as driving from point A to point B --an action editors often say to delete --can be full of conflict if one or more opponents make their best efforts to ruin that drive. Plot is characters' escalating actions/reactions as they pursue their conflicting goals. Your characters will tell you what they need to do--and it will surprise you!

Rebecca J. Clark said...

Your post came at the perfect time for me--right when I'm stuck, stuck, stuck with my WIP. I'm a panster who's desperately wanting to be a plotter. I'm a very slow writer, and maybe if I can learn how to plot better, maybe--just maybe--I can crank out my books faster.

Thanks for the awesome post.

Hywela Lyn said...

Great post Kaylea, I think I'm a mixture of plotter and pantster. I absolutely have to know the end of my story. but then I usually just jot down a line to summarise each chapter and then let my characters leap from one to the next, with the ending as their 'finish line'. They usually surprise me, and the chapters are usually twice as many as I started with. (Which doesn't mean I don't get afflicted with 'sagging middle' the characters can be stubbornly unco-opeative sometimes) I'll check out that link, thanks.

Thanks too for your comment on my post at TRS yesterday, it was much appreciated and it does seem we all agree that research is a good thing, even if we only actually use a bit of it!