Monday, March 14, 2011

Making the plot-sausage

The old saw tells us that laws and sausages are two things we shouldn’t see being made. Add to that list story plots. But since this blog is partly a play for attention like a two-year-old throwing a public tantrum, I thought I’d blog a little about how I turn the random fragments of an idea floating through my brain into something you’d actually want to read.

Most of my stories start with a notebook. Sometimes they begin in the Book of Good Dreams; sometimes they show up fully formed enough to merit a notebook of their own right away, especially if the story is one I’ll need fairly soon. I carry the notebook around with me and jot down story ideas and scene fragments as they come. The dates in the notebook I keep for the new serial indicate that I got a new fragment about every day or every other day for perhaps a month. Sometimes they were big, like an ancient myth I used as a model for the larger plot; sometimes they were small, like a character getting a haircut at a significant moment. But I fill up pages in the notebook until I’m satisfied that I pretty much know what’s going into the sausage.

Then I turn to the dreaded Thinking Board.

I created my Thinking Board because I live in a tiny room with very little exposed wall space. One wall is taken up by towering bookcases; another wall is taken up by a closet and a door; a third wall is covered with wood paneling that I’d rather not damage; and the fourth wall, the one behind my bed, is half filled with a window, leaving the other half bare. I used to stick index cards to that square of exposed wall with putty, but it alarmed guests, who thought I was turning into a Darren Aronofsky character. So I made myself a portable bulletin board that can be slipped behind my desk when company comes over. This makes me no more sane, but perhaps a bit more socially acceptable.

The board starts out blank, except for a prototype Masks button at the corner for good luck.

Then I split the board into points of view. The serial will use the same alternating-POV structure Masks did, so one of my primary tasks is to figure out which point of view each scene will have. I will be making a list of the events in the story in roughly chronological order, and dividing them into events that must be described through the eyes of Character X (usually because Character Y is not present for them), events that must be described through the eyes of Character Y, and events that could be described either way. Character X gets the left column with cards shaded in green marker, Character Y the right with blue, and the either/or moments get the middle of the board.

My old drama teacher used to tell me that if you have an opening and a finale, you have a show. It’s not strictly true—the middle is important—but if you’re plotting and you don’t yet know what you’re doing, it helps to lay down where your story will begin and where it will end. That helps you plan the route. I knew that my story would open with a scene featuring Character X, then one featuring Character Y, then a moment where they meet. I knew what the closing image of the story would be. So I pinned those cards up first.

Then I added a few more key events down the center line, to make sure I had things paced out pretty well. I also added more cards to the midpoint of the story—a moment where I like to dramatically reverse something, even if it’s something small. The midpoint event makes a nice milestone when I’m plotting, so you can see little bits of Character X and Character Y radiating out from the midpoint as they are affected by that event.

Then I had to go to work for a few hours, and it was dark when I got back. I added more events to the board, filling in the full central timeline and adding more single-POV scenes at the sides. I went back through the notebook and made cards for everything I wrote down, from the mythological parallels to the haircut, and I pinned them up in the appropriate places.

Then, when I had everything up on the board where I could see it, I began making scene cards—one index card for each chapter or scene (in my serial work, chapters and scenes are almost synonymous). The stripe down the left side of the card indicates the chapter’s point of view (green for Character X, blue for Character Y) and the stripe along the top, if any, indicates that the scene is a high point (orange for a high-action scene, brown for a high-emotion scene). You can see that as the serial progresses, the action and emotion will both ratchet up, but there will still be points where the reader can breathe.

And that, more or less, is how it works for me. I know many writers prefer to “just write” and discover where their story goes as they follow it, but I tend to do that in the prewriting phase, in the notebook. When I sit down to draw up a writing schedule, I like having a solid outline. I back up these outlines on my computer, as well, in case I lose the deck of index cards.

Yes, you can say it. Just in case I find I’m not playing with a full deck …

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