Success! (ish…)

All the notebooks! All the wiggly lines! All the markers!  This, kids, is what plotting looks like.

All the notebooks! All the wiggly lines! All the markers!
This, kids, is what plotting looks like.

Today, November 11th, always fills me full of feelings. My mind is on battlefields and gently waving rows of blood-red poppies and ranks of simple white gravestones, and on the harrowing losses of war. I’ve already shed a few tears this morning, and I’m sure I’ll shed a few more before the day is out – but that’s not what I want to write about, today.

(It’s not because I don’t care. It’s because if I started writing about the War, things would get messy very quickly, and nobody wants that).

So instead, I’m going to write about plotting (still), and how well (or badly) my ‘method‘ has been working out for me.

The first thing I did yesterday was print a copy of my own post, Conducting a Story, and lay it out flat on my desk to get an overall reminder of the ups and downs which every plot should have. Then, I  made a list of the core things about this book – significant themes, important events (by which I mean they’re interesting while they happen, but they also cause other things to happen, thereby advancing the story), the primary characters and their relationships to one another, some of the imagery which I’d consider to be essential and – something which took me by surprise, a bit – a box in which I mapped out all the places in the book where the characters have a choice about what way they’re going to act, and where they don’t, and whether there’s a balance or any sort of symmetry between them.

I was almost finished doing this last bit, mapping out the choices, before I understood what I was doing it for, actually. Strange, sometimes, how your brain just takes over and gets the job done if you give it the space it needs. It’s important when you’re putting a story together that you show your characters being active, making choices (even or especially if they’re ‘wrong’, or don’t lead them to the desired outcome straight away); that’s something I have a particular problem with, so this is why I focused on it. When you’re plotting and structuring your story it can happen, without you even realising, that you’re constructing your story around your characters’ needs and thereby giving them no space for their own agency and decision-making. Things happen to them, not because of them, and that makes for a boring story where your character is simply awash on a flood of events out of their control, going with the flow and doing whatever they’re told – and who wants to read about that?

Nope. You want to put them into complicated situations and twisty dilemmas, where the choices aren’t always clear-cut. They need to be shown wondering if they make this choice over that choice, what difference it will make; who will be affected (besides themselves) by their choices; what the long-term ramifications of their choices will be, and what the endgame is, as far as they can predict it.

So, basically, just like making a decision in real life.

The important thing is that they have to make decisions and act on them, and – importantly – that this is made perfectly clear to the reader. These decisions can’t all be internal to the character, and left to the reader to decipher. While writing ‘Emmeline’, for example, there were several instances where things appear to simply ‘happen’ to Emmeline, and contrived coincidences, none of which were intended, abounded. One of the reasons for this was that I hadn’t made the motivations of other characters around Emmeline clear – they had their own reasons for doing things, which had nothing to do with her – and because she seemed to be carried along with their actions, making no decisions for herself at critical junctures, it turned into a major mistake. To fix it, I had to bring her thought processes to the fore, showing how she was using things to her own advantage, and also change one scene subtly to show her directing the action, instead of simply acting once the decision had been made. Because the writer is clued into the characters’ thought processes it can be hard to spot where you’ve simply not explained why a character is making a particular choice – or seeming not to – and so I found it useful to make a list of the pinch-points in ‘Eldritch’ where choices need to be made, and who makes them, and why.

Then, I moved on to mapping out the ‘corners’ – the turning points, I guess, which are vital to the story’s structure – and I divided the book up into four rough quarters. I hoped that each of them would be equal, or nearly equal, in terms of length and that each corner would have a moment of crisis which led to a change, and that they’d fit together, one leading to another. Then, I took my ‘story beats’ – Change, Crisis, Choice (1), Change, Challenge, Chase, Crucible, Chance, Choice (2) and Calm – and mapped them onto my corners, in the hope that the major plot events as they stand now would fit roughly into this schema – and they did. Not as evenly or in as finely balanced a way as I would have liked, but it was a pleasant surprise to see the book’s structure come together. The story isn’t exactly where I want it, yet; there are things I know need to happen, and I’m not sure how best to arrange those scenes, but it’s a major positive to feel that the overall shape of the book will hold. I had been feeling rather despairing about salvaging ‘Eldritch’, but now I feel there may be hope.

And isn’t hope the best feeling in the world? I think so. Have a hopeful and positive Armistice Day, everyone.




6 thoughts on “Success! (ish…)

  1. highinbrixham

    You must be reading my mind. I’ve been shuffling ‘Post It’ notes all morning in an attempt to sort out my plot. I’m doing ‘NaNoWriMo’ for the first time. I’ve never written anything longer than a short story and it’s throwing open whole new areas of questions and challenges. How many hints do I drop? Have I given away too much too soon… It’s all very interesting!
    You’re ‘story beats’ are perfect! So well put. I need to put them up as a mantra somewhere where I can see them every day.
    I’m still in a panic that I simply haven’t got enough material to fill another 40,000 words… and I’m horribly behind… Oh well.

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      No matter whether you ‘win’ or ‘lose’ NaNoWriMo, you’re a success. Whatever your word count is at the end of the month, whether it’s 4,000 or 44,000 or 54,000, it’s so many more words than you had at the start of the month! NaNo is great for focus and discipline and the sheer excitement of writing, but I worry that people beat themselves up too much if they don’t ‘make it’. First drafts are all about getting the story out; you can worry about things like foreshadowing in second and third (and fourth!) drafts. So, just write and enjoy it, would be my advice! I’m glad to know you find the story beats useful; they really help me, at least.

      Best of luck – and a huge ‘hurrah!’ – to you for giving NaNoWriMo a whirl, particularly if you’ve never tried to write a novel before. Take it easy on yourself, enjoy the process, and celebrate whatever your final word count is, whether it’s above or below 50,000. You’re a star, either way. I hope the story works out well for you, and that you’re happy with your work at the end of it, and that it’s the beginning of something you can turn into a long-term project. Can’t wait to hear how you get on!

  2. Kate Wally

    Great couple of posts. I really struggle with plotting – I want everything planned *before* I write, which I don’t think is the most effective way to go. You get stuck then in the process of plotting rather than writing.

    I particularly liked your comment about things happening *because* of your characters rather than *to* your characters. I’ve phrased that badly, but you understand. 🙂 I hadn’t given much thought to it before and I can see it’d be an easy thing for me to fall into. Thanks, Lovely, you’re ever so wise and I’ve so much to learn! 😀

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      I think you should write whatever way feels best for you – some people can’t bear to put a word on the page before they have a plan in place for every tiny detail of their fictional world, up to and including what colour underwear a character’s great-great-grandmama was wearing the morning she carked it, and some prefer to chase the Muse. If either of these methods work for you, by all means do it.

      But it might be a good idea to try free writing for a while, which amounts to setting a timer for 15 minutes and then just writing whatever comes into your head (I find writing longhand better for this, but if the computer’s your thing, have at it), and – crucially – stopping when the alarm goes. You can then pick through what your subconscious has thrown up to see what’s there, but it’s just a great way to get yourself used to writing without scaffolding. I’m not a poster-child for any particular method; I like to know where I’m going before I begin, and I like to have some notion of plot, but overthinking things can be stifling. But whatever works for each individual is good, in my opinion.

      I’m glad you found the character thing useful; it’s amazingly easy to slip into it, for loads of reasons. And shucks with the wiseness… *blushes* It’s all just bitter, bitter experience! 😀

      1. Kate Wally

        I should give free writing a go, but it does (quite stupidly) freak me out after a lifetime of writing rigidity! I need to get better at making writerly mistakes 😉

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