Between a Plot and a Hard place

Okay, okay, so I should be pun-ished for a title like that.  This post is really about finding one’s own right brain/left brain balance in plotting a novel, but I couldn’t work that into a catchy phrase.

The topic was suggested by an article on my friend, Rosi Hollenbeck’s blog, The WriteStuff,  Like all of Rosi’s posts, there is a lot to think about, but this one happens to feature a very flattering account of yours truly.  She talks about another writing friend, the inspiration she finds in Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, and then she describes her own process of weaving a story.

Of my approach, she says:  “What amazes me is the discipline he brings to his writing. He works very hard at learning his craft and even writes synopses before he writes the books. I suspect he even outlines. He always knows where he’s going.” (I wish!)

Of her own method, Rosi says:  “I don’t even feel as if I’m in charge. I sit down with an inkling of an idea and characters walk into my head, fully formed and usually named, and tell me their stories.”

At this time, I am re-imagining my villain and his machinations, which makes it interesting to review some tactics I have used in the past and where they lie between the poles of pre-planning and letting things happen.

Rosi is wrong about one thing:  I am constitutionally incapable of outlining.  Several times over the years I came up with ideas for novels.  Unfortunately, I thought you had to start with an outline, and the inspirations never survived the attempt.  My breakthrough came during my years with the Sacramento Storytellers Guild when I learned that accomplished storytellers do not memorize their tales, but see the story unfold in the mind’s eye and describe the the inner drama.  I discovered this is my natural way of writing too – describing the inner visions with written rather than spoken words.

The advantage of such an approach is the excitement of the unknown and the adventure of discovery, of sitting down and wondering, “What’s going to happen today?”  The downside is incoherent plots.  After 2+ years, I abandoned my first novel as a wonderful learning experience, but one that could not be rescued.  Clearly, what I had learned in the visual arts applies to writing too – the visions of raw imagination must be carefully shaped if I want them to have meaning to anyone else but me.

I set about studying plot and structure, and now my process is something like this:

1)  Write the first chapter and a one line synopsis.  While studying screenwriting, I learned that “high-concept” movies – the only ones that get made these days – can be summarized in one sentence.  I would go so far as to say that until I can do that, I don’t have a story to tell.  Here’s the tagline for Karyn’s Magic:

An apprentice magician must stop a supernatural killer she unwittingly releases from his prison between the worlds.

2) Write a one paragraph synopsis (3-5 sentences).  I do this while writing maybe the first three chapters.  This is also a tactic I picked up from a screenwriter who was telling how she pitches her concept to a producer:  setup – conflict – resolution.

3)  Write a one page synopsis.  I’m going to have to do this anyway, and since a one page synopsis will reveal any glaring plot flaws, I might as well do it when I’m 30-40 pages in rather than 200.  The one page synopsis functions like a map that changes as the story landscape changes, and often the two play together nicely.

4)  The final tool I’ve come to rely on is a scene summary, an idea I got from Syd Field’s excellent book, Screenplay.  As described in an earlier post, a scene summary is a line or two on a 3×5 card that triggers a kind of mental storyboard image of what is going to happen.  Field’s suggest 52, 3×5 cards for a movie, a number he tried because a friend pointed out there are 52 cards on a deck, and which he continues to use because it works:  13 scenes in Act I, 26 scenes in Act II, 13 scenes in Act III.  Here are the two scenes that comprise the first chapter of Karyn’s Magic:

  1. When Karyn Robinson is twelve, her mother dies in a tragic accident, leaving her and her sister Emily, destitute.  (Inciting Incident – sets story in motion).
  2. Kari, proud of her half-fairy ancestry is fascinated by magic, and seeks a prosperity spell from a gypsy.  Despite her sister’s skepticism, Kari follows the gypsy’s instructions.


Letting things happen and planning them out – both are valuable tools, and there’s a time and place for each, but neither is really up to my current task, re-visioning my villain.  He’s already been through several iterations – you could say he exists in several parallel universes.  I don’t need to write more universes or organize the ones I’ve got;  what I need is answers to questions I don’t yet know how to ask.

I need something more powerful than any bag of tricks, something for which there aren’t any rules.  I need a skill I had in spades when I was a kid, but which has been buried by decades of “practical matters.”  I need to drop my sophistication and get to the world of Let’s Pretend.

I guess its a little like Narnia – being grown-up keeps you out, and the entrance is seldom in the same place twice.  Meanwhile two of the dogs are fussing at me, as if they think I’ve been at the computer too long, and they are right.  They want to pretend they are wolves, and I think it’s time I helped them.  The dogs don’t think my concerns are all that urgent, and maybe they’re right.  Besides, animals know how to open the gates of other worlds.

2 thoughts on “Between a Plot and a Hard place

  1. Let’s Pretend is such an important part of writing for children and young adults. Maybe more so for young adults. They are so busy trying to be adults that if they can be reminded to hold onto their childhood a little longer, it will be good for them. They’ve got the whole rest of their lives to be grown ups. Heck, I think it’s good for all of us to play at being kids again.


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