Tuesday, 16 February 2010

From Nothing to Something – 5 ways to build plots

It feels like a long time since I created the plot for The Chicken Factory - that initial genesis of an idea, a character, a voice, a theme, that becomes the starting point for a novel. You do have to allow these things space to develop organically, but when you actually sit down and begin writing the thing, there comes a time when you have to figure out what's going to happen, and perhaps more importantly, why it happens.

In truth, at the time I started The Chicken Factory I really didn't know what I was doing, and took the long scenic route to understanding how to generate a story and build that into a plot that could carry a narrative for the duration of a novel.

I discovered yesterday that I had the presence of mind to write it all down in an unobtrusive little text file. Here are the fruits of my labours – but first, a definition.

Story versus Plot – a distinction

In 'Aspects of the Novel' E.M. Forster marks the distinction between story (what happens) with plot (why it happens) – this is a distinction that is useful to a novelist. Forster is in good company here – Aristotle in 'Poetics' describes plot as 'the structure of the elements' i.e. what ties the story elements together. When I started I had a whole heap of scenes that I'd invented, dreamt, or cribbed from my own, and other people's, experiences - so I had a story, but no actual plot.

I hate to admit it, but I wrote the whole first draft without a plot, without a 'structure of the elements', and boy did it show. After some hard lessons learnt, I compiled a list of methods to help me build the plot I so sorely needed.

1. The Robert McKee Method

Present the protagonist with a problem, get the protagonist to perform the most obvious solution that involves the path of least resistance, prevent this solution with a different larger problem and repeat. Drama exists in the difference between what the protagonist expects of the world, and what actually happens i.e. the difference between an expected reaction from the story world when the protagonist acts, and what actually happens.

2. The 'Theme' Method

Is it possible to write a story about a certain subject, without compromising that story? Is the story to have a message (i.e. propaganda), or simply be about a certain subject? If there is a message, then the story and character must be developed simultaneously with that message in mind - a message driven story is restrictive, and care must be taken to ensure that the story is a natural consequence of believable character action, and that the characters are believable and complex and not just polarised representations of the different sides to the argument - the characters will just become mouth-pieces in this case. Plot and character must be developed within the context of the theme. If the message is not set, but the subject matter is, the story and characters can be developed more freely, but must still be relevant to the theme being explored.

3. The Character Driven Plot

If the writer were to develop fully-formed characters and place them in conflictual situations then drama would necessarily follow, particular if the characters themselves are conflictual. This involves the writer having a full and complete understanding of his characters before he starts. This is a method addressed by Orson Scott Card in his book 'Characters and Viewpoint'.

4. The Situation, or 'What If' Driven Plot

Stephen King, in 'On Writing', states that he never plots a novel - he just thinks of a situation (e.g. what would happen if I put a best-seller writer in the hands of his psychotic number one fan?), and writes on from that point. Stephen is an exceptionally prolific writer, and has an undeniable story-telling talent. Unfortunately I don't have that ability, and have had to develop my own strategy for creating an interesting plot.

5. My Method

Or rather, the method I actually used when faced with my appalling first draft and cobbled together from the wisdom and experience of more successful writers. My method uses the distinction Forster makes between plot and story. Story is the scenes and their sequence; plot is the narrative connection between these scenes, and justifies their inclusion in the narrative. This means that one scene is a natural and inevitable consequence of previous scenes. The plot may demand that some scenes be cut, or new ones written.

The process distilled is: 1 - establish characters; 2 - invent scenes; 3 - write story to justify the inclusion and ordering of those scenes - stages 1 and 2 generally occur simultaneously.

Character naturally has an impact on scenes and plot, and these will change as the characters develop because they will drive the narrative, and as a consequence present new scenes. Previously envisaged scenes may need to be dropped as characters develop too - you can't force them to do something against their nature.

This worked for me, because it allowed me to make use of my half-formed characters and my stack of un-related story scenes. I was then able to knit these all together, while still allowing myself room for both to develop and evolve during the writing.

How do you generate your plots? Or do you just write it all out? Is there another plot creation method I've missed? Let me know.

1 comment:

  1. How about the daydream approach? I have my characters (so probably 3. A character Driven Plot) and daydream about them in various situations.
    If I've a plot idea I'll have to have my characters all sorted in my mind before I can go ahead.
    I used to try King's approach but got in such a mess I soon abandoned it!