Plot Plans seem contentious. Some writers love them. Some loathe them. I’ve reached a new evolution in plot planning this fall. I didn’t reach it alone. I’ve been taking a series of classes with Dutch Writer Mina Witteman (aka Marvellous Mina). I always knew this approach was out there but it seems I needed someone to encourage me to work through the pain of plot-planning.
We’ve been covering the all essential elements of writing for YA and one of those elements was plot and structure. We talked plot, sub-plot, plot-lines and graphs. We talked about the advantage of pre-plotting, looking at the opening, the rising action, the crisis, the climax and the resolution (or denouement). If you’re a writer, and maybe even if you’re not, you’ll have heard or seen all of these concepts before. Remember high school? This is the same stuff your teachers made you analyse when you were reading novels. I should have paid more attention.
So, why plot plan? Not everyone does. Some writers are PANTSERS and some are PLOTTERS. There is no right or wrong here. Many writers will tell you they resist plot-planning on purpose. They prefer to write their way into the novel and most especially, the characters. They find it more creative, organic. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. I’m all for the non-formulaic product. That was me for years. It was how I wrote all my stories. However, when I decided to try my hand at novels I discovered some curious facts.
- The longer I spent with a character the more (s)he changed and developed. Characters became richer and deeper and started to act and speak in ways I could not have predicted. If you’re really in the zone when you’re writing, your character will take over. While that is a wonderful thing, those characters’ changing actions and reactions change the direction of the novel.
- If I start my novel knowing where it’s going to end, the navigation is easier and the detours are fewer.
Here’s a personal example. My M.Y. novel The Adventures of Alex Blixem (originally titled The Realm) is an adventure fantasy. The entire novel grew from a single scene written for class where I described an old Medieval Norseman sitting in a carved throne. The ultimate definition of a PLODDER, I picked a main character and wrote my way into a situation where she entered a magical realm and discovered the Norseman. I had no idea what was going to happen after that. As the Princess of Plodding I just kept writing.
The more I wrote the more things changed. I added characters. They started to do stuff. They had adventures and took risks. Mina taught me a terrific writers’ phrase. “Put your character in a tree, then set the tree on fire.” Bwahaha. I did that. I stuck a character in rickety old fire tower and arranged to have it struck by lightning.
I was having a blast UNTIL I couldn’t nail the ending. Based on what I’d plodded through so far, I couldn’t find any good place to end. Too many variables and not enough constants. With a little expert guidance from my best friend and wise reader (aka The Hubby) I realised I needed to expand the fantasy section of the novel and spend more effort building that world. It was only then that I could write an effective ending.
All these lovely, revolutionary discoveries and lightbulb moments made while PLODDING meant that the plot had to change. Each time. Different things had to happen at different moments. I had new scenes to write and old scenes to cull. Even when an existing scene could be re-used plot-wise, I discovered that after so many rewrites that the tone of old scene no longer matched the more recent versions. Even the characters’ voices had changed and developed. And that meant MORE rewrites. For voice. For tone. For character consistency and development. Entire scope-of-work, replot-then-rewrite-the-whole-freaking-novel rewrites.
When I had the idea for a new YA novel I was searching for a better system. I sat down with a notebook and sketched out the concept of the novel in words. I asked myself a version of Mina’s questions: What am I trying to accomplish? Who am I trying to reach? Why am I writing this? I sketched out in words some of my plot ideas and what might happen. And since this novel will have an alien as the protagonist, I knew I would need a solid understanding of his world, his physiology, his culture… everything… before I could really nail the plot. And so I wrote pages and pages about world building. I researched and I asked myself questions. But I couldn’t mentally get too far past the end of Act One.
Mina showed us a series of plot plans and suggested different ways to use them. I wasn’t unfamiliar with this. I have read the Plot Whisperer’s books and had even bought the large roll of paper to set up a plot plan. But it was too daunting and I stuck the roll of paper in my quilting cupboard and tried to forget it was there. My ideas (and lack of ideas) seemed like such a tangled mess that I couldn’t imagine how to begin constructing a plot plan. Until I had to.
One of our class assignments in the Mina Witteman YA Workshop (that’s fun to say) was to write the Resolution of your novel-in-progress. I though I was going to throw up. How the heck could I write the Resolution when the entire middle section of the novel seemed foggy? I bit the bullet and started to draw out a plot on a large roll paper. I drew in the plot-line structure I felt most comfortable with, then I taped the beast to the mirror in the front hall. Every time I walked to the kitchen or the living room I had to pass this blank behemoth.
The next step was to assemble post it notes of different colours. I have two protagonists: an alien male and a human female. There are two antagonist also: one alien one human. Each character was allotted their own colour of post-it. I began to write important scenes on the post its and place them on the graph in their approximate place. Act One was great. Sorted. Snappy even. But the Middle section was noticeably bare. Not surprising of course, that’s where novels often sag.
So over the next few weeks I paced and stared and slowly added scene by scene until I had a solidly plotted story which took me to the Crisis and the Climax. That done, I had my Eureka Moment. I found the perfect scene for the Resolution (Denouement) and I was able to point-form the end of the book. Now that I have an end and a direction I can relax and write.
I know I will still discover things about my characters and my plot as a write. And I’ll have to make changes and be flexible. Though… even there, Mina’s workshop has helped refine character in the pre-writing phases through pre-planning and asking important questions.
And now I’ve set a new goal for the novel. I’ve applied for a really nifty workshop in May. It’s called Book Bound. I saw it advertised on the SCBWI NL page. When I first clicked on the link I recognised Sara Grant as one of the organisers and I knew right then that I wanted to apply. I’ve seen her talk three times now and each time I get excited and motivated. She’s brilliant and I would love a chance to work with her. Here’s the rub… IF I get accepted (and with the novel in the stage and state it’s in, that is a big IF) I’d need a completed manuscript to take full advantage of the situation. Now that I have that plot plan hanging in the front hallway nagging me daily, I think I’ll be able to meet that target.