1. Mackers
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    Mackers Contributing Member

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    Need tips on constructing a plot

    Discussion in 'Plot Development' started by Mackers, Feb 17, 2014.

    Without doubt, the weakest part of my writing is in constructing a good plot. When I'm writing, words and phrases come easy to me out of a natural instinct rather than a sense of outright planning. When I started writing at 17/18, this is what I always did when I wrote stories - I sat down and wrote what came natural to me. Sometimes it was decent, other times it was too rambling. I learnt from my mistakes as I went along.

    Fast forward a number of years, and my skills as regards plot development continue to stunt fully-imagined, coherent and tight stories. If you write on a whimsy you'll find you can run yourself down dead-end alleys, or spend time on something which, as it transpires, doesn't turn out to be a strong enough idea.

    The point of this thread is I am curious to see if anyone has any tips on how to improve this weakness? In particular, do people make use of a story board, do they make notes on their story before beginning, and have an ending in mind before a single word is put down.

    What I've started doing recently, is taking films that I like and noting the plot scene by scene - I focus on how much of it is character development, or whether it is simply a situational scene which drives the story. You'd be surprised at what you learn. This way my mind views stories in a better perspective, seeing things in short, linear phases which makes more sense, and which I've found helps me when I go to write my own stories.

    Interested to see people's thoughts :)
     
  2. David K. Thomasson
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    David K. Thomasson Contributing Member

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    Rather than focus on process (making notes, storyboards, outlines, etc.), I think you might make more progress if you address specific problems in a particular story. Perhaps have other, more experienced writers read a chapter and suggest ways to avoid dead-end alleys. As you solve specific problems, I suspect you'll find yourself shifting to a different, less whimsical process.
     
  3. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    David makes a good point. I think you need to go over and discover where you're missing it. It could be a really simple issue.

    I already know why my novels can derail because the story goal is not always known. I'm searching avenues, following twists, it's a labyrinth with dead ends because I don't know where I'm going. I can't see the end. And I'm writing to discover it - which is vastly time consuming.

    Maybe plot backwards - take Star Wars. The end goal is to destroy the death star by hero Luke. But to get to that point he must, find the secret plans to the death star, be mentored by Obi Wan, rescue a Princess, and make friends with Hans Solo. He also must grow from a whiny bored farm-boy yearning for adventure to a loyal, focused hero.
     
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  4. JayG
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    JayG Banned Contributor

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    I know it may seem that way, but if it really was a natural instinct you wouldn't have had to be taught to write. What I mean is that after twelve or more years of writing reports and essays using the techniques you were taught in school they feel intuitive. But they're really a set of learned skills practiced daily for twelve or more years. And the question is, are they the skills you need for the job you're attempting to do? My answer is no, and that the plotting problems you're having is a direct result of that fact.

    Look at why public education was instituted. At the beginning of the industrial revolution it was the mother's responsibility to teach her children what they needed to know. As a result, there was no consistency and predictability when an employer sought people to hire. Maybe they could write, but spelling wasmostly creative guesswork, based on phonetics and what mom taught you. As a result a given employee might, or might not, be able to read
    a notice or write a message. Perhaps they could read a ruler and do simple math, but there was no predictability, so employers were forced to institute classes for the basics.

    For that reason, they pressured the government to provide universal schooling in the three R's: Read'n, Rit'n, and 'Rithmatic. And that purpose continues today, as we all learn a set of general skills useful to all adults in becoming productive, and self-supporting. But nowhere is there is a mandate to teach the skills needed to write fiction for the printed word because other than when writing stockholders reports and press releases fiction writing isn't a required skill.

    So what we learn is how to clearly and dispassionately inform. The writing techniques we learn are fact-based and author-centric. And as such we tell about the story. We report events. We explain emotion. And none of that entertains any more than does a history book.

    The problem is that fiction is supposed to entertain. It's emotion based. And character's centric. Our goal, as writers, is to move the reader emotionally, to make them fall in love, seethe with hatred, and lust for victory. They don't want to learn of James Bond's adventures and conquests, they want to live them, in real-time. They want to take risks that in life would leave them quite dead. They want the passionate affair with the beautiful stranger who, in life would laugh at the thought of their advances. And none of that comes by using the plain vanilla skills we learn in our primary education.

    How can we plot a scene if we don't truly understand what a scene actually is, and how it serves to motivate a reader? If we're not aware that scenes end in disaster for the protagonist, for example, and why, can we write what a reader views as a satisfying scene? I don't think so.

    What I'm saying is that before you can plot a story you need to know what the options are, and the criteria for making your choices. You need both the tools and the knowledge of what those tools can do before you can decide which one to use, and how best to use it.

    A story at its most basic level is about a problem. So before anything else you need to know what the problem is—what your protagonist needs so badly that it's all s/he can focus on. You need to know what event caused that problem and then start the story as close to that as possible. You need to know what the protagonist needs and cannot have, along with the things that keep him/her from having it, so you can orchestrate the struggle to get it. You should know what the story is about—the thrust of it and the lesson the protagonist will learn. That will give you the basics to structure the progress of the story, and know the goal that will be resolved at the climax.

    You should know what's actively keeping your protagonist from success and why they feel it necessary to continue when good sense says, "Hey, I could get killed...I'm outta here!".

    Then, it's your protagonist's job to make the decisions, yours to give him/her reasons for making them in a way that drives the plot forward. And that takes knowledge that isn't intuitive. It takes the skills and knowledge that the publishers and the pros take for granted.
     
  5. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I learned something about myself while I was writing and constructing my novel. I enjoy problem-solving!

    If you think of plot-construction as problem-solving, and you enjoy this process, you'll have fun. However, you MUST stick with the problem until it gets solved, and you can't walk away with an airy flip of fingers, saying ...ach well, it will all work out eventually. You need to dig in and figure out WHY and HOW it will all work out 'eventually.'

    As you write a story, presumably you are constantly creating problems for your characters to solve. Now the trick is, stick with the process and make sure they DO solve the story's problems. Don't just walk away from them, or give up on a particular story too easily.

    If you find yourself in a dead-end alley with your characters or plot, get yourself and your characters out of the alley. How? Work out every possible avenue of escape—and consider any new problems this escape will create. Or go back to where your characters turned into the alley in the first place, and have them go somewhere else at that point.

    It's probably as bad to focus on writing style (at the expense of good plotting) as it would be the other way around. A story with a good plot, written in a dull fashion, will not be fun to read. Nor are a load of well-turned words and phrases, if they don't go anywhere much. Eventually they don't matter, and the reader will probably stop reading. I know I would. Even poets have to find a 'point' to their poetry; novelists and short-story writers definitely do.

    You will benefit from time away from your writing tools (computer, whatever) to do your story's problem-solving. Problem-solving, after all, is not a 'writing' issue, but a story-construction one. This is best done inside your head.

    I find the best tool for solving a problem like this is a good long walk in the fresh air. The kind of walk where you know the terrain well, and don't have to avoid traffic or make decisions to avoid getting 'lost.' Also, choose a route where you are unlikely to be interrupted by people you meet, or other distractions. Just walk. It might take a few walks before the problem-solving brain kicks in, but I have solved ALL my major story problems this way. There will be that lovely 'eureka' moment where it all falls into place, so make sure you've got a pen and notebook with you, to jot your revelations down.

    I was still working at a 'job' while I was writing my first novel, and the 25-minute walk I took to work every morning was where all these kinds of problems saw light and got solved. Since I retired, I found writing my second novel became difficult, until I realised why. Now (weather permitting) I try to walk every morning, and bingo! The problem-solving aspect of this writing lark is once again...solved!
     
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  6. Mackers
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    Mackers Contributing Member

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    Thanks Jannert, that's great advice :)
     
  7. Fizpok
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    Fizpok Member

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    Well, I definitely write down all names and if the story line takes few years - ages of characters. It is quite embarassing to discover a child that is still a child five years later, of a John that suddenly turns Bill.
     

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