Friday, September 14, 2012

Plotting--How to Go from Predictable to Perfection in Your Storyline

Plot is the most basic outer-story structure your book can have.  Fiction and memoir plots are all about action--what happens, where it happens, who is involved.  It's always external, never inside someone's head.  We see plotted events onstage, in front of us.   

Nonfiction writers also use plot.  Their outer story is about the method or ideas they are delivering.   

Obviously, in both cases, plot that's predictable is boring.  How many books have you picked up where you can foresee the ending so easily it's not even worth reading?  Plots must surprise the reader, and therefore also surprise the writer.  Again, nonfiction writers attend to this too--they have to present their material (their "plot" or outer story) in a way that shows its uniqueness.

Like agents will ask you:  How is your book unique, different, a twist or a surprise?  Plots give you this opportunity.

But most of us stay safe with our plots.  We keep to the knowns rather than venture into material that will surprise.  How do you get out of this rut, as a writer?  How do you stop repeating yourself with predictable plotting?

Learning from Screenwriters
Some of the best outer-story writers are screenwriters.  Movies must have interesting plots.  Twists are normal coinage among filmmakers and the writers need to explore what WOULDN'T be expected.

A friend sent me a great article by a storyboard artist who worked for Pixar.  The article was published in the Wall Street Journal (a surprisingly good resource for craft information via its Word Craft column). Emma Coats, a storyboard artist on the movie "Brave,"talked about what she'd learned about plot in her years developing animated characters.


Even if you're not a screenwriter, your characters may feel like they could use Ms. Coats's help to get more animated!  These tips are universal.  

I enjoyed all of them, but my top favorite for teaching plot is this simple formula: 

 Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

A person (your character, yourself, your reader) is in a certain stasis; maybe a longing develops and a fire starts to burn.  Often there is a triggering event that starts craziness, exacerbates the longing, and begins the hero's journey of your story.  That breaks up whatever the "every day" life is, turning it into "one day" and changes.

Here's another great one:

What are your characters good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?   
I've used this approach a lot (see the exercise at the end of this post for the way I teach it in my classes).  It's called "working with opposites" and it's a perfect way to get out of a rut with your plotting.  My favorite example was a writer from my class who used this exercise and suddenly found her story in a completely different city.  It was true material, but she'd forgotten (discounted) it as a possible location.  Made her writing perk up tremendously and got her completely unstuck.

A variation on this might be (again from Emma Coats): 

When you're stuck, make a list of what wouldn't happen next. Often the material to get you unstuck will show up.
Stay in the Room
But my favorite piece of advice for good plotting comes from short-story writer Ron Carlson in his marvelous little book, Ron Carlson Writes a Story.  If you were to have one inspiring book to keep your writing going, this would be it.   

Ron's main tenant:  Stay in the room.  The coffee in the kitchen will call, the bed and TV will call, you'll worry that the rug hasn't been vacuumed in seventeen days, but stay in the room with the story when you're writing forward in plot.   

I worked with Ron's book for one week, to see if I'd write more.  I read a short excerpt before I began working on my chapters each morning.  Then, predictably, I would get stuck (I always do) about twenty minutes in.  The kitchen and snacks would call, the unvacuumed rug would leer at me.  I picked up Ron's book again at each of those moments and read how he stays in the room, how he doesn't leave the story.

Like he says, the best writing he's done comes within twenty minutes after his first desire to leave the room.

I found that very true.

To check out Ron's book, click here.  To read the whole article by Emma Coats, click here.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
1.  Make a list of 10 things your character, you, or your reader (if you're writing nonfiction)  would never do.
2.  Pick one.
3.  Set a timer for 30 minutes.  Write a scene (fictional) where the person does that thing they'd never do.  Imagine it thoroughly, and see what emerges about your plot that you'd overlooked.  Maybe some unspoken longings and desires leak through this freewrite that give you new insight on your character, real or imagined, that you'd overlooked.
4.  List your main plots points in your book so far and see if any of them address this new information you've discovered.
5.  If not, consider how you might incorporate it.


  1. This is so good. Thanks. I'm going to use some of this in my next novel.

  2. Great post, very helpful. I've linked it to my regular writing blog round-up at The Funnily Enough.

    Moody Writing

  3. Thanks for visiting and spreading the word!