The Paths To Plot (Part 1)

There are several approaches to plotting, all of which accomplish the same thing in different ways. Not all of them work for every story, however, so make sure to treat them as organic growths, rather than defined limits.

What you’re looking for by structuring your plot is a clear sense of progression. The reason it is only a ‘sense’ is because any progress that occurs in a novel is actually artificial. The writer has complete control over the evolution of time within a story; he can make one second play out over 300 pages or portray a millennium in a single sentence. You want to structure your plot in such a way that there is constantly a sense of motion towards (or away from) the goals and promises that have been made. Usually, if a story begins to lag, it is because this progression has been compromised, and you may want to start fulfilling some promises. (Otherwise you are unintentionally promising that your promises won’t be fulfilled, which may be why the plot feels slow and boring.)

Here are a couple of the tried and true structures that you may want to try out for your own plot:

  1. Bracketing: This isn’t so much a plotting method as an overall system that can apply to any of the ones below, but it plays heavily on last post’s concept (fulfilling promises), so I’ll put it first. Bracketing is the idea that if you start with something, or open a bracket, then you have to close that bracket later on. For example, if the book begins with our protagonist being bested by a superior force, a closing bracket may be her ultimate dominance over that force. If she at first does not trust anyone enough to confide in them, she may very well have overcome that flaw by the conclusion of the novel. Each open bracket promises a level of fulfillment to the reader, which then drives them through the story in an attempt to reach that satisfying, closing bracket.
  • Orson Scott Card uses a similar concept to structure a story based on its core concepts, which he divides into four possible categories: Milieu, Idea, Character, Event. The MICE Quotient, as it is called, works in much the same way as bracketing, identifying the story’s ideal entry points, then closing them in reverse. ‘Milieu’ stories begin when a new space is entered, and ends with our exit. ‘Idea’ plots introduce a question, and close with its answer. ‘Character’-centered tales are much like a character arc: They begin with character dissatisfaction, and end with either a newfound fulfillment or acceptance of their dissatisfied state. Lastly, ‘Event’ stories open as the status quo is disrupted and close when it is returned to some level of normalcy. Similar to bracketing, the stories’ endings each mirror their beginnings, and are therefore closed in the opposite order they were opened.
  1. Try-Fail Cycles: This format works very well for discovery writers especially, though it has many tools that can be utilized to great effect by outliners as well. The basic principle is that the character has to earn their victory, and does so by failing consistently on the way up. The generally accepted form seems to be to fail at least two times before any meaningful success, though that is not by any means a hard number. A possible way of implementing this is by using the “yes, but”, “no, and” method. At every fork in the plotting road ask yourself: Does the character achieve their desired goal? Then answer, “yes they do, but something even worse happens,” or “no they don’t, and something even worse happens.” Start with a random scene in which the character desperately wants something, show them trying to get it, and go from there.
  2. Three-Act Format:  This is probably the most famous approach to plotting, mostly because it is used so often in film. It also has an intrinsic sense of motion to it, and divides the story cleanly into three progressive parts, all leading up to the story’s explosive climax. This somewhat generalized structure can work very well for many writers who find themselves leaning toward discovery writing, but not being at the complete end of the spectrum.
  • ACT I: This is your introduction phase, and is generally the second longest of the three acts. In it, the protagonist is still reacting to events around him, a time you can take to establish both his character and the overall story’s setting and tone. The act closes at a crisis point where the protagonist is called to action, forcing him to stop reacting and start acting. This act is often referred to as the point when you “chase your hero up a tree.”
  • ACT II: This is your escalation phase, and is generally the longest of the three acts. In it, the protagonist tries to resolve the conflict, but just ends up making things worse. The act closes at a low point for the character; if he fails again, all will be lost. This act is often referred to as the point when you “throw rocks at your hero.”
  • ACT III: This is your climax phase, and is generally the shortest of the three acts. In it, the protagonist manages to marshal all his remaining strength to just barely achieve his goal (or fail), making good on the promises of the crisis point in Act I. This act is often referred to as the point when you “cut the tree down.”

Final note: This format is not only used to structure single novels, it is often a great way to structure an entire trilogy! Also, the middle act, being the longest, can sometimes be structured in a similar way, by dividing it into its own, smaller version of the three-act structure.

So that’s the first couple of formats for you, though there’s still another two I wanted to cover in next week’s post (don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten the hero’s journey.) I think the most important thing to recognize about these formats is that they are guidelines, not strict rules. Recognize that each of them has something to offer, then play around with them as you wish. Next week: The Paths To Plot (Part 2).

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Of Gardeners and Architects

Let me preface this by saying there is no one true way to write. There are various paths to success, and not all will appeal to every type of writer. Each path is a tool, to be kept in a box until needed–or discarded if unnecessary. That being said, many writers do tend to fall into one of two camps, both of which engineer their stories in slightly different ways. These groups consist of outliners and discovery writers.

Discovery writers, or pantsers, as they are sometimes called, work best when they are free to create on the fly, without a pre-established structure to restrict the spontaneity of their imagination. To them, the joy of writing lies in discovering the story, and so creating an outline beforehand removes much of the pleasure they feel in the craft. A clear sign you are a discovery writer is if you finish an outline and find you have completely lost interest in the story. After all, at least to your mind, you already wrote it!

Discovery writers tend to have very vibrant characters, as their approach to writing leads to a very organic, almost self-imposed character growth. This poses yet another frustration in outlining, as outlines often confine the character to the requirements of the plot, resulting in what, to a discovery writer, is little more than a cardboard cutout.

Outliners, on the other hand, are crippled by the very thing that discovery writers flourish on. Complete freedom, to an outliner, results in nothing being accomplished. Outliners need direction, they need to know where they are headed before they even put that first sentence down on paper. Knowing their end goal allows them to break the rest of the story into smaller pieces, which they can then tackle one at a time. In other words, if a discovery writer writes one huge story, an outliner writes several smaller stories that are only complete when finally joined together.

Due to their systematic approach, outliners tend to have explosive endings to their stories, as they have been quietly building towards them throughout the entire book. Discovery writers’ endings, however, seem to do just that, end. They are often abrupt, almost as if the writer decided, “well, here’s a good place to stop,” and don’t provide much in the way of resolution. (Often this can be fixed simply by knowing where the book will end, then completely discovery writing the rest of it.) Additionally, the outlining approach usually results in fewer revisions, simply because any major problems have already been cut out of the book back in the outlining phase. To discovery writers, the first draft is the outline, and so they tend to revise constantly, never making much progress. They often require that push to just go ahead and finish the book, with the promise that they can then go back and revise once everything has been completed.

In contrast, outliners tend to fall prey to world builder’s disease (we’ll talk more about this later.) They can spend years creating the perfect world, but never getting to the heart of the story, which are the events that take place within it. The enjoyment they get from tweaking the finer details of their fictional world blinds them to their inciting goal, that of writing a novel. Alternatively, outliners may find themselves ripping through their first draft, completing it, and immediately moving onto something else–without regard to revisions. Both writing approaches carry with them their own strengths and their particular weaknesses, but both have methods to cope with either when necessary.

George R. R. Martin has a great way of explaining the difference between these two types of writers, whom he has compared to architects and gardeners:

“The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if they planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows.”

In practice, most writers fall somewhere in between the two ends to this spectrum, with very few being true gardeners or architects. Some discovery writers create very general outlines, covering the broad strokes of their book, or jotting down the major plot points, but never confining their eventual creativity through overly detailed planning. George R. R. Martin has counted himself among these, claiming he is “very much more of a gardener,” but that he does have an overall goal in mind. Brandon Sanderson, on the other hand, avoids the inherent dullness of outlined characters by outlining his plot and setting, but discovery writing his characters. This blend of the two methodologies, tending towards on side or another, is far more common in the writing world than one of the two extremes.

Interestingly, it is nearly impossible to find out which of these approaches works best for you without trying them both out. Even then, you may find that a balance of the two will aid you most in your writing. As you can probably tell, I lean more towards the outliner, or architect side. However, one problem I frequently encounter is that I finish an outline, then find that most of my interest in the story is gone and I want to move on to another of my ideas–a distinct call from the discovery writer within me. I’ve learned the only way I can be productive is if I stifle that urge and force myself to write this story. More often than not, my interest is piqued again after writing for just a short time.

And of course, all writing is actually discovery writing. Even the most detailed outline will not go down to the sentence or word choice level. If it did, the book would already be finished. It all comes down to finding which of the two mindsets–which exist in every writer–is stronger when it comes to you. Which makes you a better writer? Answer that, and you are well on your way to improving your writing skill.