If you’re like me and most of the writers I’ve known over the years in writers’ groups, at conferences and in classes, you’re coming to plot the hard way. A scene, a bit of dialogue, a character sets you happily scribbling or keyboarding away. And then, too often, something happens. The story starts to slow and go sour, dead ending is frustrated scraps of revision. It’s eventually tossed with the rest of the might-have-beens – in the bottom of your sock drawer or even in the wastebasket.
Or maybe you want to write a story based on real life and real incidents. That should be a cinch, right? All the events really happened; the characters are people you know. Nothing easier than writing it all down, you think confidently. Just change the names and locale, and you’re set.
But then the events, so compelling when they happened and when you thought about them, bog down in detail and explanations. The familiar people you felt certain would be enthralling characters turn into jabbering trolls.
You feel the silent inner thud that tells you that truth – or, more accurately, fact-based fiction – is no more a guarantee against writing dull, unconvincing tales than is inventing the whole thing from the start.
Begin to sound familiar yet?
Have you haver had what seemed like a vivid story idea that fizzled out as soon as you got your first words on paper? Or have you written a story you thought was great and had it come back with a rejection slip commenting that it “seemed distant and uninvolving”? What’s distant, for heaven’s sake? What do you do now?
Or you’re starting your second novel while the first one is in the mail, and somewhere about page 90 you find one of your subplots is becoming a lot more interesting than your main plot. It seems to want to take over the whole book. You get bored whenever you have to return to the main character’s problems, which now seem to you about as dramatic as watching ice cream melt.
Or you’ve written and sold some fiction by good gut instinct. And now the problem arises: how did you do it before? And how can you do it again? You want to bring your unconscious craft under greater conscious control, so that you can make choices, not just blunder through until something goes wrong, or right.
Are you one of the writers whose instincts are better than their knowledge, who write merrily along when inspiration strikes and bog down in despair when inspiration inevitably fails?
If this list of woes sounds at all familiar, you’re in good company.
Melville wrote a large chunk of Moby Dick thinking that the pivotal figure was going to be a man named (I’m not kidding) Bulkington. Read the first couple of Chapters and notice all the build-up about Bulkington, who’s then abruptly washed overboard the first day the Pequod leaves harbour and is never heard of again. What happened? Melville had discovered a character named Ahab. Melville wasn’t a tidy writer: the original beginning is still there. Alas, poor Bulkington.
Similary, J.R.R. Tolkien has confessed that about a third of the way through The Fellowship of the Ring, some ruffian named Strider confronted the hobbits in an inn, and Tolkien was in despair. He didn’t know who Strider was, where the book was going, or what to write next. Strider turns out to be no lesser person than Aragorn, the unrecognized and uncrowned king of all the forces of god, whose restoration to rule is, along with the destruction of the evil ring, the engine that moves the plot of the whole massive trilogy, The Lord of the Rings.
Neither Melville nor Tolkien knew what he was getting into, going in. And neither was, at that point, a beginner.
It happens, one time or another, to everybody. Fiction is so nearly like life that a good fiction nearly always changes under your hands, takes on an atmosphere, a feel, a will of its own. Your subconscious is sending you smoke signals: ideas seem to come out of nowhere and flash onto the page. Sometimes, as with Ahab and Strider, that’s for the good, and a wise, experienced writer recognizes that what was imagined along the way is stronger than what was original intended. But sometimes, the turning of the material into its own shape can be destructive, and the story collapses into mismatched fragments.
The subconscious sends up, not only smoke signals, but smoke screens that can obscure, distort, and sometimes destroy your vision of what you’re trying to create.
You can make outlines and try to lock out that kind of change. But you know, and I know, that writing is as much a process of discovery as it is one of invention, and the more serious you are about your writing the most complex the story you’re trying to tell, the more likely it is to start creating itself in unexpected ways.
Unfortunately, the inevitable flip side is that the story is also much more likely to take a quick dive into the sock drawer, unless you can identify what’s going wrong and choose an effective strategy for coping with it.
There are really two problems, then: creating plot, and controlling plot. In your first tries at fiction, whether short stories or novels, you’re apt to be coping more with the creating part of the problem. The more experienced you are, the more apt you are to be dealing with the difficulties of controlling plot – which sometimes involves simply getting out of the plot’s way and discovering your Strider, your Ahab, your own special story.
Whatever stage you’re at now, it’s important to recognize that all the false starts, the fizzled conclusions, the saggy, random middles, the corners you paint your characters into, and all the rest of the trolls that pop up from under what seemed safe bridges are a normal part of fiction writing. One of the writers’ corollaries to Murphy’s Law should read: Every Plot Starts to Go Wrong Just After the First Big Scene. The exceptions to this rule, in a writing life, you could fold into an average-size paper airplane.
Expect it, accept it. Any story worth writing is going to bring problems, for you as well as for your characters. As in fiction, the interesting part will be how those problems get solved.
Meeting a problem only means you’re smart enough to know one when you see one: it’s not a short-cut to the sock drawer. Don’t give up. When initial inspiration and enthusiasm sag, that’s when craft and experience can get you rolling again. Whatever doesn’t kill your story dead in its tracks is likely to make it, and you, stronger.
There’s life after the sock drawer – and maybe life in it for stories you gave up on too soon. There are ways to create, fix, steer, an discover plots – ways which, over a writing life, you’d eventually puzzle out for yourself. They aren’t laws. They’re an array of choices, things to try, once you’ve put a name to the particular problem your story is facing now.
That’s what this chapter is about: learning to put a name to the problem and then deciding which, of the whole array of possible choices, is the one that’s appropriate for your story, whether short fiction or long.
Whether you’re writing fact-based fiction or spinning the whole thing out of your head, you have the responsibility of creating a satisfying, self-consistent, independent world and making it all come alive on the page.
Other writers have evolved methods of making worlds out of words. You can find them too.
©Dodgsons KingsWay Sanctuary, 1973.