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Friday, July 29, 2011

A Plotting Primer – Creating One

You've decided to write your thriller. Now, out of the whirling mass of nothingness you have to create the lifeline for the book, the skeleton along which you will be packing the flesh of events, of characters, of description.

You need a plot.

No plot, no book.

How do you go about it?

Let's find out from a few different sources.

The Save the Cat! Man
 
First we turn to Blake Snyder, the Save the Cat! man we met earlier on.
Snyder says he has a Turn-rule for plots for screenplays, and its basis is:
The plot doesn't just move ahead, it spins and intensifies as it goes ... And the rule is: It's not enough for the plot to go forward, it must move forward faster, and with more complexity, to the climax ... More must be revealed along every step of the plot about your characters and what all this action means.
That's helpful – we know we will re-read his suggestion once we have worked out the plot. But his suggestion is about the speed of the plot, the plot's complexity. What about the other elements of a plot?

Help from a Snowflake

Perhaps you might wish to turn to the science of fractals for inspiration. Fractals are those wonderful pictures we get when mathematicians reduce their calculations to images. It seems that the closer you look at things, the more you spot the patterns of fractals that go to make them up.

Randy Ingermanson

One fractal is the snowflake one. And that concept of a series of steps making up – one by one by one – a whole inspired Randy Ingermanson to come up with his Snowflake Method of building the lifeline of a novel – how to plot the plot ...
Randy describes himself as a physicist, an author and "probably dangerously disturbed". He has authored six novels and one non-fiction book. He also publishes the world's largest electronic magazine on the craft of writing fiction – the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine.
The Snowflake Method based on the Koch Snowflake fractal – see wikipedia for a gif which expands one step at a time to create a snowflake fractal.
Niels Fabian Helge von Koch was born in Sweden in 1870 and became a mathematician, giving his name to the Koch snowflake fractal, one of the earliest fractal  curves to be described.

The Snowflake Method's main recommendation is that it is a way to systematically add one layer on top of another, until the combined layers provide you with "deep snow" for a good working plot. Breaking the task into smaller segments is a tried-and-proven way of tackling many complex problems, so by all means look to the snowflakes for inspiration!

How does the Snowflake Method of building a plot work?

Here's a brief summary (you can find the detailed article on Randy's site).
A fractal

Randy believes that designing your novel's structure before you write it leads to a better result. The Snowflake Method works one step at a time, with each succeeding step adding more complexity and detail to the design. As Randy puts it:
I claim that that's how you design a novel -- you start small, then build stuff up until it looks like a story. Part of this is creative work, and I can't teach you how to do that. Not here, anyway. But part of the work is just managing your creativity -- getting it organized into a well-structured novel.
He breaks the Snowflake  Method into ten steps.

Step 1 is to take an hour to write a one-sentence summary of your novel – click here for my  earlier post on the logline or hook.

Step 2 is to take another hour and expand the sentence "into a full paragraph describing the story setup, major disasters, and ending of the novel." He uses the three disasters plus an ending structure for his novels. 

Step 3 requires another hour to write a one-page summary sheet for each character, describing them in detail (that's one hour per character). Details needed are character's storyline (click here for a discussion of the arc of a character), motivation, goal, conflict, epiphany (what they learn), and storyline.

Step 4 needs you to spend several hours expanding each sentence of your summary paragraph into a full paragraph. According to Randy:
All but the last paragraph should end in a disaster. The final paragraph should tell how the book ends.
The result is a one-page skeleton of your story.

Step 5 takes one or two days. You write a one-page description of each major character and half a page for the minors.

In Step 6 you spend a week  expanding the one-page plot synopsis into a four-page synopsis – the product of Step 4 goes from paragraph to full page.

Another week is needed for Step 7, to expand your characters with lots more detail about each one, emphasizing how each one changes by the end of the novel. The week could expand into a month – you will know when you are finished. You are now ready to write a proposal for your novel and to send it out to agents/publishers.

Now you need to convert your four-page synopsis into a spreadsheet in Step 8. You list the scenes – one line per scene. One column shows the point of view of each character. Another column tells what happens. Randy's spreadsheets end up about one hundred lines long, one line per scene of the novel. He updates his spreadsheet as he writes his novel.

Randy no longer does Step 9 – expanding each line of the spreadsheet in his word processor to a small paragraph describing the scene, adding "cool lines of dialogue you can think of" and spelling out the conflict in that scene. No conflict? You have a problem. 

Now you move on to Step 10 – you write the first draft of your novel.

A word of encouragement from  Randy about what happens in Step 10:
You will be astounded at how fast the story flies out of your fingers at this stage. I have seen writers triple their writing speed overnight, while producing better quality first drafts than they usually produce on a third draft... This stage is incredibly fun and exciting... I've lost track of how many people around the world who have emailed me to say that the Snowflake helped them get their novel on track. So it works for a lot of people.
And now for something completely different ...

On a lighter note, waste sixty seconds of your time by anwering the 6 questions of the Conflict Test, found at this site, with a score of 1 for the correct answer and 0 for a wrong answer. If you get 0-4 then the site's recommendation is:
0-4: You are too nice a person. Watch the evening news, go stand in line at the post office, or try to go through the express line at the grocery story with too many items. You must learn how to truly torment your characters properly.

Menwithpens with advice ...
 
Now let's turn to one of the very interesting series of articles for writers prepared by menwithpens. Menwithpens is a web design and copywriting agency haling from Montreal, in Quebec, that in-again out-again province of sleepy Canada.

This is how the article defines a plot:
Menwithpens
Plot is the nitty-gritty that gives your characters something to do. You’d be shocked at how many people leave this step out of their story. They’ll invent a great, well-developed character with a personality anyone could sympathize with, they’ll come up with a kick-ass backstory, and they’ll place the story in a beautifully described, poignant setting. Then nothing happens... But there won’t be any conflict. There won’t be one driving element that propels the story forward. In essence, there won’t be a plot.
There is a difference between action and plot. Things happening to people in your novel is action, not plot.
The plot, according to the menwithpens article, is simply this:
The plot of any story can more or less be summed up thusly: Your protagonist wants something. He or she is unable to achieve it, for whatever reason. He or she achieves what was desired or fails to achieve it at all. That’s it. This is the plot of almost every story.
They add another important element – motivation of your hero:
What do your characters want? Once you’ve established what your characters want, you need to establish why they want it. These things go hand-in-hand... This helps readers know what’s propelling characters’ actions throughout your story. Either characters support your protagonist in their quest for whatever, or they get in the way somehow.
Noah's advice ...

Our next source of inspiration, Daniel Noah, makes a similar point:
At the center of every good movie there is a single driving force around which all other elements gather. It has the rage of a hurricane, the focus of a cougar, the horsepower of a Lamborghini...  It is deceptively simple, so sly and stealthy you don’t even know it’s there. It’s a question... This is the “Major Dramatic Question,” or MDQ for short. Every good story has its unique MDQ. Think of it as the story’s nucleus. It’s a centrifugal force that propels the story along its path of action,  accelerating it steadily and breathlessly toward a climactic conclusion. And once the MDQ is answered… the story is over.
Noah says the MDQ has three primary parts – the protagonist, the goal that keeps the protagonist on a directed path, and conflict – obstacles between the protagonist and his or her goal.
Noah's article is an excerpt from Chapter 2 of Gotham's book on screenwriting, Writing Movies. The Gotham Writer's Workshop teaches more than 7,000 students a year, with aspiring writers joining the interactive online classes from all over the world.

You might want to check them out.

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