Sunday, 3 February 2008

On plotting

I suppose it's possible that some writers love plotting, but I'm not one of them, or not yet. Indeed, three years ago, I swore I couldn't plot for toffee (not that anyone was offering me any toffee at the time). It's one of the reasons I believed I'd have a hard time trying to hack it as a crime writer. Then I wrote (in fact, co-wrote) an opus that exceeded a quarter of a million words, and surprised myself by managing to conjure the illusion of progression and, moreover, by bringing the story to a definite conclusion. My co-writer, a wise and wonderful woman, told me not to get hung up on the notion of plotting - 'What is plot, anyway? Just a series of coat-hangers, one leading to the next.' She was right, too. There's an art to arranging those hangers, though, and it helps to have most of them in place before you get too deep into the process of writing. That, at least, has been my experience. What do other writers find? Care to share a few tips? I'll go first.

Writing Tip#1 - The Synopsis Shortcut

Of course, there's no such thing as a shortcut in writing. No matter how many books you read about your craft, or forums you join, or courses you attend, at the end of the day you have to sit down and write 80,000 words or more, or less. But when it comes to plotting, when you're sitting with that blank sheet of paper, wondering how on earth to make the idea in your head take coherent form over those 80,000 words, try this. Make yourself write a synopsis that fits on a single side of A4 (around 800 words). Make it have a beginning, a middle and an end. If, like most writers, you have preconceived ideas of 'your limits' (those little voices in your head that tell you that you can't write conflict or action or pathos) - ignore them. This is the key. Shuck off all your expectations, free yourself from worrying about how on earth you're going to write this story. Tell yourself the synopsis is not for a book you are required to write. Rather it's a book you'd like to read. Nothing is impossible, no parameters, no comfort zone, no limits. Just the need to tell a story that will grab the reader and carry him/her through to the very end. That means intrigue, excitement, menace, tension, action - the whole works. Cheat if you like, give the synopsis a blazing ending that subverts the assumptions you started out with. You can go back and fix the inconsistencies later. Think in three acts, each with a climax. This will force you to concentrate on the necessary momentum and narrative progression. When you have a synopsis that makes you sit up straight, THEN you can start expanding it into a chapter-by-chapter plot.

I know that many writers find it harder to tackle a synopsis than just about anything else. I used to be one of them. But, trust me, this will work if you give it a chance. Because you're not writing a synopsis to submit to an agent or publisher; you're writing it as a brain-storming exercise to get a first draft of your plot in place. There's no pressure to produce a synopsis which is fit to be seen by anyone else. This is for your eyes only.

I wrote the one-page synopsis for my new novel sitting in a noisy playground surrounded by screaming children. I refined it at my leisure, in a quieter setting, amazed by the new-found confidence I have in my ability to plot. That single side of A4 is my talisman - tangible proof that I have a story worth telling. Of course I still worry whether I CAN write it; those little voices are persistent. But when they get the better of me, I reach for the synopsis and remind myself why I'm so excited about this writing lark.


Rivers Fic said...

I was just yesterday trying to think about how to fit my fear of plot into the 10 minute presentation on myself that I have to give on Tuesday. (no not dreading that at all, why do you ask?)

I do like the idea of synopsis rather than outline though. more organic and less like something I might do with my fifth grade teacher standing over me.

Sarah Hilary said...

I hope it helps. It was a technique I discovered by accident and it may work for me because I respond to deadlines in a particular way, which might not suit everyone. I think focusing on the hard-end of what makes a story worth telling (and reading) is a good discipline, though. Good luck with the presentation!

JohnA said...

As with most writing questions, the jury is still out on this one. Some writers (Stephen King, for one) drops his characerters into a situation and sees what happens for there.

But for me it really helps to have some form of structure before I start writing - a line on a map which I know is taking me somewhere (rather than just wandering!)

But I have to say, that line gets re-drawn may times as the writing progresses - as I discover, for instance, that the people my characters have become somehow no longer match the end I had in mind.

So I agree, start with a structure - but don't believe it's set in concrete.


Sarah Hilary said...

Very sound advice, JA. I should have added that. I suspect I found writing this latest synopsis/plot outline easier than any other because it's a sequel and I know my characters that much better, so I know how they'd react in certain situations which makes it easier to structure in a way that challenges them enough to be exciting and intriguing. Nothing's ever set in stone, though. Better not be, given that the agent, publisher and editor(s) will doubtless want to put their stamp on it somewhere down the line!