Monday, February 8, 2010

The Elusive Plot

I'm sure I've mentioned this before, but I tend to wing it when it comes to my storylines-- in other words, I'm a pantster.  I thoroughly enjoy the freedom it allows, and my characters always surprise me, often taking the plot where I would not have thought to go.  There have been rare occasions when I've tried to work with an outline, however my characters have a tendency to misbehave and it usually results in a deviation from my original plans.

And yet, there are times when I just cannot figure out where my story is going.  Sometimes it's because I've taken a wrong turn.  These are the easy issues to correct-- I backtrack to that fork in the road, and go a different way.  However there are times when I feel like I don't have a very good grip on my plot and it goes beyond taking a wrong turn.  These are the times when I find myself rewriting and tweaking the first hundred pages of my manuscript several times, hoping I'll find that magical combination. 

But no matter how bleak things may look at times, I always try and write through it.  There is no other option for me.  Not writing won't change the problems with my story, so I might as well get on with it and deal with the matter at hand.

Here are a couple of things I like to try to help me find my way.  Maybe they can help you too.

*  First determine if it's something as simple as "The Wrong Turn".  If you think that's the case, determine where your story veered off the right path, and simply back the story up to that point.  You may have to delete a fair amount of pages, but it'll be well worth it.

*  Brainstorm some ideas with loose outlines.  I find this helps solidify my thoughts and the plot.  Even if I follow a vague outline for a short while, I can always let the story go where it wants afterwards, once it's picked up a bit of speed.

*  Raise the stakes.  And then raise them again.  What does your protagonist have to lose if she/he fails? What if their failure will affect far more than just their life?  By raising the stakes, we raise the tension, and the tension can help strengthen the plot.

*  Make your protagonist's life miserable.  If something can go wrong, it should.  Pile on the hurt, and when you think they couldn't possibly take anymore, pile on some more.  However, in between all the misery I like to sprinkle moments of hapiness, which only adds to what could be lost when it all goes wrong.

*  And when all else fails, a dead body always helps to move things along.  *mwa ha ha*  I'd like to say I'm kidding, but really, dead bodies do wonders for raising the stakes, the misery and the tension.  Granted, not every storyline can carry off a dead body, but you'd be surprised.

The very last thing to keep in mind is once you're done, there is always the editing phase where you can tweak your story, strengthen your plotlines and rein in those loose threads.  So, what about you?  Any tips for finding that elusive plot?

28 comments:

Falen said...

i used to be a pantser, but when i would get stuck, i'd get frustrated and frequently give up. So now i'm not so much of one. I make an outline, but it's perfectly OK if the story veers off - with the outline I at least know where i need to get back to.
Though i wish i had had your above tips back when i was still a strict pantser

Calista Taylor said...

Falen, it seems there's a huge range between pantster and plotter, and as long as you find something that works for you, you're doing great. And you never know where the story might go when it veers off-- I think that's the part I like best.

Sara McClung ♥ said...

You and your dead bodies :-)

I'm a pantser by nature, but for my new WIP I'm outlining... it's a pretty interesting switch and, for me, I think it's kinda working! But it's also been on hiatus for a month or so, so we'll see what tune I'm singing when I'm ready to pick it up!

Calista Taylor said...

LOL, Sara! Every romance needs at least one dead body, don't you think. ; )

I think flexibility is key. What might work with one story, might not work so well with another. Can't wait to see what you come up with, Sara!

Simon C. Larter said...

I heard tell recently that you can only have three of the same kind of thing happen in a row before the audience checks out: three happy things, three tragic things... whatever. It's a balancing act, I guess. So while we're making things miserable for our characters, there has to be at least a little glimmer of hope along the way, right?

Good advice, good lady. Thanks

atsiko said...

I know there was some famous author who said he always got out of writer’s block with a dead body. It’s the ultimate tension-raiser, especially if it’s a “mysterious” dead body.

Great post.

Calista Taylor said...

That's an excellent point, Simon! If it's all bad then there's no reason for them to fight through it all. It's those small jewels of happiness found amongst the rubble that make our characters pull through the adversity.

Calista Taylor said...

Thanks Atsiko! I don't know what I'd do without a dead body. lol. ; )

Elana Johnson said...

I'm like you. I just make stuff up as I go. My editing sessions are cry-worthy. It's basically like rewriting the book. And then the next time through, I delete all the crap I made up that I can't tie up anymore. And then I do that again.

So basically I just rewrite my book after I've written it. Somehow I stitch it all back together after many nights of pulling my hair out and crying into my pillow.

Great post!

Calista Taylor said...

I can totally relate, Elana. Usually I rewrite the first 100 pages 3 or 4 times. I think with the manuscript I'm currently working on, I may need to jot down some plot points I want to hit along the way. I'm hoping that will keep me moving forward. And if not, there's always that bottle of Jameson and edits.

Matt Sinclair said...

I just picked up a half-full bottle of Jameson.

Do I have to wait until I'm editing?

Maybe I should find a dead body and get to work. ;-)

Jemi Fraser said...

I'm another pantster :) I like the freedom as well. I did find a few plot threads in the read through of my ms that I'd completely forgotten about. One of them led me to the conclusion that had been eluding me!

Calista Taylor said...

Matt, there's never a reason to wait if there's Jameson around. lol.

Jemi, so glad you found your ending!! I can't wait for you to start querying it!

Alexandra Shostak said...

Hey Calista! What a fantastic post! I'm a pantser, too, and I've recognized the same problem. I love your list of things to look at or do to get the plot moving again. I have to admit I tend to take "The Wrong Turn" more often than I would like ;)

p.s. I got a blogger account!

Calista Taylor said...

Glad you liked it, Alexandra! I think we're going to need to start a pantster support group at the rate we're all going. lol.

Terry said...

Panster here. Writing is a lot like reading for me. It's an adventure. I like to find out what's going to happen next, not plot it all ahead. I wrote an outline once and never wrote the story. It was no fun after that.

Thanks for the sex scene link. I enjoyed it and got a lot out of it.

Also, beautiful blog. Great look and atmosphere.

nickileigh said...

I would like to add that if you are stuck in a plot, making the phone ring or having someone show up at the front door does wonders ;) However, I must say I am the same as you when it comes to my characters writing their own stories.

I used to use outlines, but anymore I find that it just does not work for me ;)

Calista Taylor said...

Terry, I feel the same way. I too like to be surprised. And I'm glad you found the link helpful! : )

Nicki, I think your front door and phone ringing is like my dead body. lol. I think every writer must have their "go to" scenario when things get tough. ; )

導暑紀時 said...

good, excellent, nice job!!........................................

catwoods said...

I'm a panster too. I haven't ever been able to do more than jot down a few ideas here and there. Usually things take care of themselves while writing. If not, I skip ahead to where I know I want to be and fill in the plot holes later.

Thanks for the post.

Calista Taylor said...

Cat, that's a fantastic idea! I'd never thought to skip ahead, write what I know of the plot, and then fill in the rest later. Nice! I think I'd always worried about the cohesiveness of the details, but those can smoothed out in edits. So simple and yet so brilliant an idea. Thanks, Cat! : )

Amanda B. said...

I think I need to torture my characters more. I'm too nice to them. LOL I like dead bodies, though. :p

Have you ever read about the snowflake method? A friend just told me about Ingermanson's snowflake method of writing fiction. I guess you use it instead of a writing regular outline (which I'd rather pop out my eyeballs than write).

Faith E. Hough said...

Hey, I just found your blog; it's fun to look at and fun to read!
The thing about dead bodies...so true.

Calista Taylor said...

Amanda, I'll have to look into the snowflake method. Thanks!

Faith, so glad you found the blog! Gotta love the dead bodies! lol.

Theresa Milstein said...

This is an hysterical, yet helpful post.

Throwing in a dead body definitely has to mix things up, and if you're trying to make your protagonist go through a lot of trials and tribulations, the dead body kills two birds with one stone. (Sorry, couldn't help it.)

I like to let the story take me as I write it. Sometimes, I have a rough outline, but usually only until mid-point, and then I won't know until the characters take me there. Now I just need to insert a dead body somewhere...

Calista Taylor said...

Theresa, always happy when I can get a laugh! The dead body works wonders, though I haven't thrown one into my current ms. Yet! lol.

Glad you found the post helpful!

CamrynMorrell said...

Whether I'm a pantser or outliner depends on the situation. When I want to finish something in a hurry, I use outlines. When I'm not worried about deadlines, I simply become a pantser and let my characters take me on a ride. LOL.

I love your suggestions. I'm thinking about piling more misery on my characters and adding a dead body. Haha.

Calista Taylor said...

That's a great point about the deadline, Camryn. I'm sure that having a general idea of where you're going to next will move the writing along at a much quicker pace, and it doesn't have to be set in stone if a better idea comes along while you're working.

Misery and dead bodies-- just gotta love them! : )