Perspective on Plotting

When writing fiction, my plotting skills seem to be weaker than my skills at creating enjoyable characters are.  If I attend a writer’s conference, the first workshops I register for are those that reveal the speaker’s view about how to build an engaging, riveting plot.

I attended the New England Crime Bake last fall, and (fortunately for me) Gayle Lynds’ plotting workshop was the first event I participated in. I walked away with an entirely different method of plotting because her advice actually enabled me to view plotting from a character-driven perspective.

Here were my takeaways from her phenomenal presentation, and what I now keep in mind as I plot fiction:

  1. The primary goal of plotting is to create a craving within readers, one that demands they continue reading to find out what happens next
  2. Show readers you’re going to deliver, then postpone making delivery
  3. Each character, including villains and other bad guys, must have at least one unique character trait with which readers can identify (villains who are ALL bad are not realistic)
  4. The POV character in each scene must have a goal, and one with stakes that have consequences
  5. It doesn’t so much matter whether the POV character achieves his or her goal, what matters is that complications occur to delay, prevent, or challenge achievement of the goal
  6. The plot is controlled by the villain (or whatever it is the protagonist in the story is battling with/against)
  7. The plot evolves from what the villain does/does not do, and how the POV character responds/does not respond
  8. Each person thinks/feels differently, therefore, responds differently

Here are a couple of scenarios to illustrate:
Example 1

Oscar (the bad guy) is a murderer who believes the strongest person always wins. Clearly, most of us will not identify with Oscar.

However, think about how you’d feel if you learned Oscar was beaten so badly by his father when he was 10-years-old that he spent 3 months in the hospital. And that when he was in the hospital, one of the nurses urged Oscar to live, to not give up, to be strong and survive–because the strongest person always wins. Are you going to view Oscar differently now?

Probably. I’m not saying you’ll be okay with Oscar being a murderer. But you’ll understand why he is, and why his thinking is so distorted from the way a “normal” person thinks.

Example 2

The villain/antagonist in a story is a killer snowstorm, one against which the Elliot (the protagonist) must pit his strengths.

Do you think Elliott’s chances of survival, and the events that threaten his survival, will be more challenging if he were raised in Alaska … or Texas? Because the snowstorm/Mother Nature is the villain driving the plot, the way Elliott thinks and feels (the character-driven aspects of the story) will dictate how he acts/does not act (the plot).

In short, the plot is always dependent upon the characters. When trying to move through a portion of a story where your plot ideas have dried up, simply put your character in a situation that will call for him or her to take action. If the result doesn’t move the story forward, or reveal significant details about the character or where the story is going, you haven’t placed the character in a good enough place.

Final Point (and a true story)

Remember that first love–the person you adored more than anyone in the world … and lost? Imagine how your life would be now if you two hadn’t been separated. How would you plot this story? How would you take what you know and spin it with your writer’s imagination?

When I put myself in this situation, I learned that when my first love was in his 50s, he wound up serving 5 years in prison for a conviction that involved molestation a teenage boy under the age of 16.

If I were plotting this alternative story, I’d wonder:

  • If I hadn’t moved away and continued dating him, would my life have become a horror story?
  • Would dating me have interfered with his life story and prevented a circumstance that contributed to his grisly behavior?
  • Had his path already been set by the time I met him, and nothing I did or said would have changed who he became as an adult?

(Note: These are just the first 3 things I thought of. If I were really plotting, I’d dream up at least 10 or 12 different scenarios.)

I thought I knew my first love. But, in reality, all I knew about the boy was that he had an older brother, his family lived in a pink house, and he was originally from Florida. God only knows what he experienced before he met me, during the 3 years we lived in the same town, and after I moved away at age 14.