Day 14: Plotting
Today we are going to begin an exploration of plotting. This is a big topic, so I’ll break into parts over the next few days.
The plot specifies what happens in the story and when. It provides the structure: a skeleton, if you will.
When it comes to advice on how to write a novel, conflicting opinions abound. There is the debate about whether to plot or not. Those who embrace flying by the seats of their pants are awkwardly dubbed ‘pantsers.’ But pretty much everything I’ve read and heard on the topic concludes that even pantsers must plot eventually, it is just a question of how much writing you do before you settle down into the inevitable structure that underlies your story.
There is a tremendous amount of material on precisely how you might approach structuring your story. Some outline as many as twenty-two unique plot points through which your character must traverse on her journey of change. I personally get a little bit nervous about following too regimented a structure.
It reminds me of the days when I watched Law and Order. When an arrest was made, I would simply look at the clock to determine whether the suspect was guilty or not. If it was only twenty after then, nope, they had the wrong guy. You certainly don’t want to produce something formulaic, although I suppose you can’t argue with Law and Order’s longevity.
Actually, let me back up: there is a lot to be said for the familiar comfort of the formulaic. It appeals to a deep-seated instinct that we all have for story. Ursula K. Le Guin points out, “The story—from Rumplestiltskin to War and Peace—is one of the basic tools invented by the human mind for the purpose of understanding. There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.”
As I’ve said, there are many treatments on how to plot. Here are some that I’ve found useful:
Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey
John Truby, The Anatomy of Story
K.M. Weiland, Structuring Your Novel; Outlining Your Novel Workbook; Structuring Your Novel Workbook
Martha Alderson, The Plot Whisperer
Libbie Hawker, Take Off Your Pants!
What all these approaches seem to have in common is an effort to bottle the quicksilver of conflict. Novels are, after all, about conflict and change. Conflict is the fire that provokes the character change that drives the novel. Each of these approaches can be thought of as ways to harness that conflict.
Let’s take a look at the K.M. Weiland’s plot points. I like this approach because I find it particularly accessible.
You can think of a plot structure such as this as a recipe for cooking up your own plot. What I like about Weiland’s structure is that is rooted in a strong three-act arc which I find intuitive and archetypal.
If you haven’t started to plot out your story, this provides an excellent roadmap and helps you consider the classic ways in which conflict flows through the story.
If you have already done some plotting, I recommend mapping your plot to Weiland’s structure. Does it fit? If not, how might you change things to reflect this exemplar? How does that change the story? Sit with it for a few days and then come back and see what you think. The gift of a plot structure is that it can challenge you to see your story in new ways and open you up to unexpected vistas if you let it.
This exploration of plot is all in service of getting you to the point where you can create your own detailed outline. There you will begin the process of describing to yourself how your scenes will unfold.
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