Sunday, October 30, 2011

This month on DSD and Follow the Yellow Brick Road….

by: Joelle Charbonneau

For all of our regular readers, you know that our DSD group tends to march to the beat of our own drummers. We tend to blog about whatever topic is festering at that moment in the dark corners of our minds. This month, however, we decided to give you a look into writing topics from each of our individual points of view. Every week will be dedicated to a specific topic and we are hoping it will be educational, inspirational and just plain fun to see how each writer approaches the same writing challenges in very different ways.

This week – Plotting!

Which leads us to the second part of this blog post which I have titled:

Follow The Yellow Brick Road

As a reader, I always dreamed that writers sat down at their keyboard and knew with absolute certainty where their story was going the minute they typed the first sentence. This meant when I started writing I believed I had to know exactly where the yellow brick road was going to lead me before I took my first step down the path.

So, I outlined. I sat in front of my computer screen and brick by brick, plot point by plot point, I mapped out where my yellow brick road was going to take my characters. I knew where it started. I knew where it ended and I knew every stop in between. It all looked awesome.

Until I started writing.

Somehow the beautiful path I’d created for myself that should have gotten me from the opening line to The End landed me in a ditch somewhere around page 70. Nothing worked. Why? On paper, everything I’d plotted made complete sense. And yet, while I was writing, my path slowly, but steadily began to travel in a different direction. The characters reacted just a bit differently to situations that I’d originally imagined which moved them off the yellow brick road and onto a new path. One that didn’t follow any of the plot points I’d so painstakingly constructed.


For a while I tried desperately to push my story back onto the track the outline said it was supposed to travel. It didn’t work. No matter how hard I tried, the story didn’t ring true to me unless it was allowed to follow its own course. What’s a girl to do?

I tossed the outline and decided to follow the path that the characters wanted me to travel. That book never got published, but it taught me something important about my own writing. While other writers can create detailed roadmaps for their work – I can’t. Trust me, I tried more than once to fashion the perfect outline that would help guide me through the story. But while outlines sound glorious, I’m just not wired to follow them.

For me each action or moment of dialogue from a character determines the next action. I might think I know how a scene is going to go, but there are always surprises and small variations that move the plot in new and interesting directions. The cause and effect of each action and reaction drives the story. Until I see exactly how the dialogue or action unfolds, I can’t know precisely what comes next.

So how do I plot? Well, I’d like to say that I don’t, but that isn’t technically true. I can’t do a linear outline that takes the story from plot point to plot point, but I don’t fly completely blind either. In my mysteries, I determine what the main mystery plot is. I then write down a couple of things I think might happen in the course of my sleuth investigating that mystery. Once that’s done, I create a couple of other columns for other plot arcs I’d like to explore such as relationships between certain characters or secondary mysteries. I then list a few ideas I have for each of those plot threads under each of the headings. The last thing I do before writing the first sentence is I decide how chapter one is going to end. Once I have that hook, I start to write. I don’t necessarily know who done it? I don’t have a clue what the final reveal moment is. I just write.

It might seem strange that I only know where chapter one is going, but it helps me focus on making sure each moment of the chapter is geared toward getting the characters to that point. Once they get to the hook, I can then show the characters reactions to it and begin to write to the next hook – whatever that might be. As the story unfolds, I will go back and look at ideas I had for each plot heading. Sometimes my initial ideas work and I am able to weave them into the course of the story. Other times, well, the action of the story no longer makes them such great ideas. Cause and effect. One moment drives the next to wherever it is supposed to go.

Or at least I hope it does. That is the goal.

Personally, I envy anyone who can not only outline but follows that outline to the bitter end. But this method, as odd as it might seem, works for me. And part of me wonders if maybe the reader in me doesn’t want to know where the story is going until I get there. That way, my inner reader gets to enjoy the story, too.


Mike Dennis said...

I'm with you, Joelle. I can't outline, either. Which speaks to the larger statement that I can't make up stories. I begin with some flimsy idea or opening line or something, and the characters take it from there.

Cathy Shouse said...

This is interesting, Joelle.

So when you finish the draft, how much rewriting do you have to do? I'm still working out what my method is, it seems. I want to be a plotter but am struggling with that, too. :)

Thomas Pluck said...

Outlines drain the life out of me. I make notes of scenes I want to happen, and maybe an ending. The characters and their desires come first. Then I let the dogs loose and see what they find on the chase.

Joelle Charbonneau said...

Cathy - I have to admit that I've thus far been lucky. Because I am so concerned with each action causing the right reaction and then pushing the next action forward, my revisions are always pretty easy. When I get stuck writing, it is always because the action doesn't ring true to me. So I often have to do some thinking during my drafting process in order to rework things and keep moving forward. It is sometimes painful during the drafting, but the rewrites more often than not go smoothly.