Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Lessons in Plotting

Do you think that a plotted novel is an abomination? So do I. I'm into character insights, and themes that rock your world. What happens is secondary. Who it happens to, and why, is what matters. Stuff that happens is just stuff that happens. I need more than that. I want a book to change the reader.

But that doesn't mean you can ignore your plot completely, the way I do descriptions of scenery. Plotwise, something has to happen. It doesn't have to be a whole lot, but it does have to be something.

Forty years ago, I'd read 100 pages waiting to get to "the good part." But people just don't do that anymore. I sure don't. There's a reason that Elmore Leonard told us to leave out the parts people skip.

So plotting, the good kind as opposed to the bad kind, means you can get to the good part before your reader quits reading.

Here's an example.

SANDLOT is, on its surface, a light easy read. It's the result of my lovely darling saying "you should write a football novel."

SANDLOT begins with a dead body. After twelve years in China, the not-quite-me main character returns to North Carolina because the not-quite-Daddy dies.

Why China? The answer to that question involves plotting, and thus the point of this rambling diatribe.

In real life, I spent six years in China, five years in Thailand, and one year in Hanoi. But in the novel, this is all back story, so I wanted to make it as brief and simple as possible. In real life, it was not. So let's prevent the truth from getting in the way of a good story.

Of the three countries, I'd much rather write about China. Plus, China does in fact have American-rules flag football. I never played it, but it exists. Part of the novel's plot is that the main character played football and honed all his coaching and quarterbacking skills "over there."

My story is about finding meaning in one's life, wondering why we're here, being 48 years old and still not knowing what you want to be when you grow up. This guy's answer, obviously, involved playing football.

So with just a wee bit of good plotting, I was able to write two pages of back story that set the dead father plot in motion, the football plot in motion, and the overseas plot in motion, while establishing the guy's character and rather quickly moving on to getting his nuts busted in a football game behind the barn in Burgaw. And thus begins the good stuff.

I usually spend more time creating my characters and my conflict, and writing the first chapter, than I do writing the rest of the first draft. If I've done the first part right, my characters tell me what they're going to do after I get the thing started.

So plotting is never the first tool you bring out of your writing toolbox. But do keep it in there. It's an option. And once in a great while, it can get you out of a rough spot.

If you're getting frustrated and/or bored, odds are you're going to write something that your reader would just as soon skip. With a bit of plotting, you can skip it too, and move on to what you really wanted to write all along.

(Oh, and if you read VIGILANTE JUSTICE and knew it was impossible for me to write a sequel, that was my intent, but wouldn't you know it? Ten years later, THE LAZARUS EFFECT, published by the fine folks here at Mocha Memoirs Press. I didn't "plot" it, but I did write the first draft in a single evening, so it's by far my "tightest" manuscript. Enjoy.)

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