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And Now We Plot Against Plotting

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Wed Aug 20, 2008 8:57 pm
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Conrad Rice says...

Here we shall talk of plotting, that wonderful activity that writers undertake when they create a story. They spend paper, time, and brainpower working out just what will happen in their stories, often right down to what specific time things will happen. What do I say to this? What a complete waste of time.

But wait, you say. Doesn’t a story require plot? Let’s make it clear right now that I’m not talking about that kind of plot. That kind of plot is the natural progression of a story within that story. This simply means that the story moves along without any hiccups. This is the one that English teachers talk about when they mention progression, climax, and denouement. That kind of plot happens in any decent story, most of the time created unconsciously.

What we are here to talk of is plotting, which is to say planning. But why, you ask. What is wrong with planning? Planning is good. Making sure all our characters do just what we want them to at all the right moments makes sure that nothing unexpected happens, makes sure that we aren’t left lost and alone. You’ll have to forgive me, but that sounds an awful lot like scheming. And, to quote the Joker, “I’m not a schemer.” And you shouldn’t be one either.

But why, you ask yet again. Well, what good is a story if you know what’s going to happen? But you’re the author, you argue. You ought to know that sort of thing. Well, I’ve got a way of looking at it that might surprise you. Aren’t you, the author, also the first person to read that story? And don’t you like to be surprised by something when you’re reading anything else? So, why should your own story be any different?

But then, how will I write my story, you ask? In his brilliant book, “On Writing,” Stephen King gives his method for this. It’s a good method; I’ve taken to following it myself.

The situation comes first. The characters-always flat and unfeatured to begin with-come next. Once these things are fixed in my mind, I begin to write.

He goes on to say that he lets the characters choose the direction of the story. If you develop strong characters, this won’t be a problem at all. If you don’t have those though, well, that’s a skill you need to develop anyway. But I won’t go into that this time. That’s a whole other can of worms.

This method is really quite excellent. It prevents two things that can absolutely kill a story: clichés and deus ex machina. Cliches are things like damsels in distress, evil dragons, angsty teenagers, and the like. They’re overused and dull. Deus ex machina, meaning god in the machine, is a fancy term for anything unexpected that affects the plot. Both of these story-killers are used by lazy writers quite often, although deus ex machina is sometimes used deliberately for comedic effect. But I’m getting off subject.

The point is, if you give yourself a situation, and characters to interact within that situation, then you ought to do just fine. You’ll often find wonderful things happen that you never would have planned out on all the paper in the world. And if your characters do something completely unexpected, then that means they’re alive in the world of the story. And that’s always a good thing, isn’t it?
Garrus Vakarian is my homeboy.

I am and always will be optimist, the hoper of far-flung hopes, the dreamer of improbable dreams.
— 11th Doctor