Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Hitchhiker's Guide To Plotting.

By Jay Stringer

Whatever works. That's the only thing that really matters in all of our plotting chat. You've got a story to finish, and whatever gets you there is okay. It might well be a different thing next time. That's also okay. There's more than one way to take cocaine. Ummm...I mean, there's more than one way to skin a rabbit. Or something. Shit, ignore me.

So any advice you're given should always be taken purely as what has worked most recently for the person giving the advice. It's not a rule, and it might not be the way that works for you.

With that out of the way, here's some specifics about my own methods.

Pantser or Plotter?

I call myself a pantser. But in truth, I'm somewhere in the middle. I know the ending when I set out. I'm a big believer in endings. You haven't told a story if you haven't hit an ending. And because of that, I'm always aiming for something when I write. I don't know the details of how to get there, but I already have the final scene, or image, or line of dialogue. There are times I've tried setting off without knowing the ending, and those are the times I've failed to finish. Also, there are times I've set off with an ending in mind and then gone a different way. Those are fun times.

I've written about dyslexia many times before, so I won't go back over all of it. But what it does mean  is that I knew storytelling and structure before I knew reading and writing. I'd learned from comics, films and television. I find this is common with other dyslexic writers that I speak to; we're bleedin' obsessed with structure. Other writers at DSD have already discussed various definitions and distinctions, whether they're plotters, pantsers, whether they think more of character, whether plot and character are the same thing.

My writing process is really about putting a character into a collision course with something. It might be the ending that I have in mind, it might be a political argument I'm having with myself. It might be the colour blue. It all comes down to throwing character and theme at a structure. If there's no structure there, there's no story.

So, while I talk like a pantser, and while I make up the large part of the book on the fly, I'm always writing with an ending in mind and I'm always aware of three act structure as I go. Even with my first couple of books, when I was essentially learning everything as I went along, I was aware when I was approaching the end of an act, or when I needed to hit some kind of mid-point reveal.


Old Gold is the exception to my rule. It only has two acts. I got to the point where I expected the second act to end, and I hit a moment, and a line of dialogue, that felt like the ending of the book. So I left it there. No third act. And that worked out okay, because then I got a trilogy out of it....

For the book I was writing this year -currently called Criminals- I decided to try things a little differently. I kept a loose road map. I was only plotting ahead one act at time, but it felt like a good hybrid between the two different sides of my writing brain.

So, in case this helps anyone, I'll talk some specifics about writing this book.

How I Structure

Firstly, I took a look at my last few books and decided on a loose guide of where I was going. This is what I came up with, and the numbers in brackets are what I actually achieved;

Act 1-     80 pages  20k words                        (19755)
Act 2A-  60 Pages 15k words                         (13150)
Act 2B-  60 Pages 15k words                         (15769)
Act 2C-  30 Pages  8k words                          (9951)
Act 3 -    60 pages  15k words                         (14221)

You'll see from that rough guide that I break my second act into three chunks. Some people might see this as five acts, but they're not. Act's 2A, 2B and 2C are all very much part of the same long progression, but I use the three-act structure within it to keep things moving. Act 2 has it's own beginning, middle and end, so that the situation at the start of the act is completely changed by the end of it.

Each section of ACT 2 moves things along.

During ACT 2A, the status quo that started the book is still in sight. Things could go back the way they were. Nobody has gone all in. There's a slow burn at this point. Or picture the fuse in the Mission Impossible opening credits. The plot is moving, the fuse is burning, but it hasn't all blown up yet. I do a lot of character work here, but as the act progresses things start to get out of control, there may be some violence or emotional arguments.

During ACT 2B, the slow burn gets fast. The emotional dynamite goes off, and pieces fly everywhere. By the end of this segment, things can't go back to the way they were. This whole section is really the mid-point reversal or climax, but I give myself  plenty of time to linger on it.

ACT 2C is then the point where the characters try and figure out what they're left with after the can of worms was opened. Things are moving out of their control now, but they're not happy about it. They might even be kidding themselves they can stop it. This is all the night before the war, leading up to a point at the end of ACT 2 where everyone is all-in. ACT 3 is coming and they realise they can't stop it, so they just strap in for the ride.

I also make a point of ending each act on an emotional beat, rather than an action scene or some heavy-lifting plot-wise. Sometimes I can managed to do all three in one scene, but my emphasis is always on the emotion. I'm aiming for the feels. The rest is just an added bonus.

In this picture, you can see me keeping track of the structure. The little marks you might be able to make out on the right are for violence. The more stars, the higher the violence. And, of course, as the story progresses, there are more stars.

So there you go. For what it's worth, this is my current process. It may well change completely when I start the new book in a couple weeks.

-Three Acts, but think of ACT 2 as a moving thing, a story in itself, with a beginning, middle and end. 

-End an act on an emotional beat. 

-Have an ending in mind, a landing that you're aiming for. 

-Keeping a visual aid for the structure helps to keep track of the pace. 

-Remember to go to the toilet sometimes. 


Kristi said...

Love this Jay.
You are right - do whatever works.
I find, like many of us have said, if I start writing without an outline or without plotting, I stall about 40K words in ... thanks for sharing your process and kickstarting this awesome week of posts on plotting!

Kristi said...
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