Formulating a Plot

If you happen to follow the “Current Work In Progress” meter to the right, you might notice a drastic change.  It’s not an illusion or a joke, my work in progress has fallen from 25% done at 15,000+ words to just above 10,000 words.  Maybe you’re scratching your head wondering, why?  Today I chronicle the tough decision I felt forced to make, and what I have been spending the last few days doing about it.

First off, why chop a third of my work in progress?  The simple answer is, I had painted myself into a corner.  I hated it.  When I first started The Veil, I had a vision of it focusing very closely on the main character.  The cast would only expand  if the story became a series.  I already had characters in mind and how they fit into what would become a team setting.  The first book, however, was about finding yourself.  Where I had taken the story, characters appeared far quicker than I had anticipated.  My story about a young man finding himself turned into more of a super-team book.  Not what I wanted.  So I retraced my steps and asked where I went wrong.  The point I decided on meant a third of the work got intimate with the delete button.

So where do I go now?

As discussed in previous posts, writing wildly ahead without a plan or direction is the wrong approach for me.  Like a stubborn fool, I continued to do just that and got myself into trouble.  So I decided to make a plan.

I asked the Twitter gods if there was some sort of form for a plot outline.  I enjoy filling in forms.  Having some structure gives me security.  Unfortunately, the Twitter gods decided to ignore me that day.  Or perhaps were too busy preparing for the Lost finale.  Regardless, I was on my own.

First thing I did was look at Martina Boone’s Plotting Made Easy – The Complications Worksheet.  This gave me some idea of what I should accomplish in each section of the story.

Secondly, I thought long and hard about the Hero’s Journey.  My character’s arc fit the hero journey, so I gave close consideration to the various components.

Third, I allowed my idea to run free.  I said, “If this is the world I’ve created, what’s possible?”  The more I asked what could happen, the more did happen.  I started having some pretty wild ideas.  They worked.  They fit together.  My story excited me again.

With these new ideas, I wrote a synopsis of the story.  It was dirty.  It had holes in it.  I would never give it to anyone if I wanted them to read my book.  But it gave me a framework to pin things on.

Then, I created a space that I called Themes & Ideas.  I used this space just to write words and random sentences.  Some were about mood, others about deeper themes and meanings.  I used it as a space to brainstorm with no restrictions.

Out of those random thoughts, I was able to return to my synopsis and start plugging holes and touching up the paint.

Last night, I started putting together scenes.  For each scene I asked;

  • Scene – [Title]
  • What’s the Purpose of the Scene:
  • What Action Happens:
  • What Do We Learn That’s New:

Making sure that every scene answered these points fleshed out the story.  It was more cohesive.  No scene could be a throw-away, I forced myself to justify their existence.  I didn’t worry about order, I just wrote scenes. As their number expanded, I saw where they fit together.  When I have more, I will create a new file and copy the scenes in their proper order.  When that’s complete, I’ll have my plot map.  Then the fun starts!

While it was hard to kill a lot of work, this new direction is far more exciting and satisfying.  It stays truer to the original vision I had while still managing to provide surprises.

This process is frustrating to a “I want it done now” kind of person.  Which I confess, I am.  Truth, though, cannot be denied.  This is the only way this book is getting written.

The Hero’s Journey Part 4 – The Mentor Appears

Our hero has received a call to action.  In his human frailty and inexperience, he has refused the call.  Our hero needs the tools for success.  While these could be literal tools or skills, perhaps what our hero needs most is someone to give them confidence.  The archetype of the mentor fills this need.

At its essence, the mentor is often wrapped in the guise of the wise man or woman.  Their classic function is to provide the hero with vital tools or clues that will aid him on his quest.  Through their intervention, the hero builds the needed confidence to continue on.

The mentor’s role is temporary.  At some point in the tale, mentor and hero will part ways, allowing the hero to face his destiny alone.

Varied Uses for the Mentor

Sources of Wisdom

The mentor provides the character with knowledge.  This can also occur without a physical mentor, such as the hero finding a book, or a website.

Sources of Conflict

People rarely want to be told what to do.  The dynamic between the mentor and a reluctant hero can add to the conflict, and therefor, character development of your story.

The mentor may eventually become a villain.  This form of misdirection is used often in cautionary fairy tales where a mentor appears to save the day, only to exact an evil price for his services.  This is also a way of avoiding the mentor as too much of a cliche.

Sources of Tragedy

Hero’s suffer.  As a writer, what better way to make your hero suffer than to deprive him of his beloved mentor?  I did say earlier that the mentor and the hero would part ways.  You can use this to add more dimension to your hero and story.

In the end, the mentor can be a very rich and vivid character, or can take the stage for the briefest of moments.  The mentor doesn’t even have to be a person.  In the end, the mentor role is to aid the hero in conquering his fear and moving forward with the quest.  The next challenge for our hero will be to cross the first threshold.

The Hero’s Journey Part 3 – Refusing the Call

In the last of these series, I talked about The Call to Adventure.  We had established our Hero’s Ordinary World and the call was going to start shaking him loose from it.  Before our hero commits entirely to his quest, he gets reluctant and often refuses the call.

Why would your hero do that?  The most simple answer is it’s because it is the human thing to do.  The refusal of the call is mainly about fear.  Not only fear of change and the unknown, but also fear of failure.  By showing fear, the hero becomes more relatable to your reader.  Why they refuse the call, and also what will lead them back to it, can tell the reader so much about your character.

Harry Potter initially is in disbelief that he would be a wizard.  It tells us about his character that he doesn’t immediately accept his fate and instead doubts himself.

Hiccup, in How To Train Your Dragon, folds under the pressure of his father and joins the training course to kill dragons.  It tells us that he wants to please his father, even at the risk of his own life.

Luke Skywalker initially turns down Obi-Wan’s invitation to fight the empire, believing himself nothing but a simple farm boy.  This gives us a true vision of Luke.  Initially, he complains to his uncle that he wants to get away, join the academy, etc.  When the opportunity comes to flee, he refuses because of all the obligations he has previously complained about.  It is a character trait we all recognise and it shows that despite complaint, Luke is reliable and trustworthy.

The simple fact is, a hero who can do no wrong, never shows fear or doubt and overcomes all odds with ease, is boring.  A hero like this only belongs in the realm of caricature.  Your audience is made of real people.  By allowing your hero some weakness, you bring him closer to your audience and increase their sympathy to his plight.

This refusal, while integral to the development of a believable and sympathetic hero, creates a problem; how do you get your hero to accept their quest?  There can be a number of ways, but one of the most common is due to the intervention of the next step I’ll discuss, The Mentor.

The Hero’s Journey Part 2 – Call to Adventure

In my previous post, I discussed the Hero’s Ordinary World.  Since I’ve defined the Hero’s foundation, I now need to shake him loose from it.  Welcome to the Call to Adventure.

The Call to Adventure can literally be a call, but is in general the thing that draws the hero away from their ordinary world.  In fantasy, it could be the day the dragon attacks and kills the hero’s parents. In Romance stories, it could be the first time two lover’s meet.  In short, it doesn’t matter what it is that happens, it is the singular event that ensures the hero will be drawn away from the ordinary.

In Twilight, the call occurs when Bella first sees Edward.  From that point on, her growing obsession with him informs and alters her world, finally culminating in the revelation that he is not human.

In the recent movie, How to Train Your Dragon, it is when Hiccup realises he can’t kill the dragon.  From the start of the movie, he has informed the viewer that all social life within his village revolves around prowess at killing dragons.  When he has the opportunity, he can’t bring himself to do it and his world is forever changed.

In Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s Stone, it’s debatable whether the call to action is Harry’s literal invitation to go to Hogwarts, or maybe it’s when he inadvertently releases the snake.  In both instances it is clear that he is being drawn away from his ordinary world.

The Call to Adventure can be grandiose or it can be subtle.  Both ways work, depending on the context of your story.  Remember too that the call doesn’t have to be something that happens directly to the hero.  In most revenge tales, it is usually an event that happens to a loved one of the hero that stirs him into action.

In the end, the call is the one event you can trace the events of the story back to.  It is also key in setting up the stakes of the game and can often lead to singular questions such as, Will Bella and Edward get together?  Will Hiccup befriend the dragon?  Will Harry become a great wizard?  In case you aren’t guessing, this is the hook.  This is the initial point where you make your reader wonder what will happen.  The key to a great story is keeping them interested until that question is finally answered.

Next, our hero gets all reluctant and Refuses the Call.

The Hero’s Journey Part 1 – The Ordinary World

In keeping with my fascination with the story template originating with Joseph Campbell’s The Hero Has a Thousand faces, I’ve decided to do a multiple post series focusing on each of the steps in the Hero’s Journey.

The steps are;

Today I will be focusing on the first step in the journey, the Ordinary World.

Of all the steps, this one should be the straightest forward.

The Ordinary world is our hero’s starting point.  Since the point of the Hero’s Journey is to show growth and development, we need a point of reference.  Who is your hero?  What is his life like before the journey begins?

In Star Wars, we meet Luke Skywalker as a whiny farm boy who dreams of bigger things.

In Harry Potter, we meet a mistreated boy who is awkward and has no apparent powers.

In How to Train Your Dragon, the main character Hiccup is introduced as the village joke who just wants to fit in.

While this may be the straightest ahead, it is fraught with disaster.

  1. This is the introduction to your hero.  The reader needs to learn who he is.  It is especially important to show those qualities that will change over the course of the story so your reader will see his growth.   On top of all that, you need to make him interesting and worthy of your readers’ sympathy.
  2. You need the opening to be engaging enough that it captures the reader and carries them forward.  How do you make the hero’s ordinary world interesting?  It’s easy to focus on what amazing adventures await, but your reader will never get there if the ordinary world is too boring.
  3. If you intend for your hero to return, it means you need to know how the hero’s journey will ultimately affect the ordinary world.  Will things improve?  Will it cause the world’s destruction, or just destroy the world’s way of life?

In short, the ordinary world is the foundation of your story. Everything that comes after is dependent upon the ground rules established there.

The next step in the Hero’s Journey is The Call to Adventure.

Going With It or Accepting that I Am God

So I’ve been talking a great deal about plot.  Actually, my last four posts have been obsessions about it.  Seeing as how plot is the main vehicle for story, it seems important, right?  Unfortunately, what my researching on plot has revealed to me is that my current work in progress was severely lacking in it.  Sure, I had some characters, I had lots of concepts, but I lacked structure.  I lacked an actual story.  Most stories are propelled forward by some form of conflict, and I was really lacking in that area.  My antagonist was weak and his motivations murky at best.  It left me with a lot of questions regarding the viability of my “story.”

So, breakthrough while out in the car driving last night.  Funny thing though, my initial reaction was what I’m blogging about today.  When I thought of the main antagonist’s motivation, his plan, my initial reaction was, “I can’t do that, it might lead to A or B and that’s just too mean.”  The problem is, sometimes you have to mean.  Sometimes you have to accept that you will become the hated God of your own little created reality.

Does the idea of being God make you wriggle a little?  Does it make you uncomfortable?  Maybe, but it is the truth.  For our stories, we assume the role of the creator.  We breathe life into our characters where none existed before, we create the laws of physics, we populate the world with plants and beasts.  We guide the events of the story toward our desired ending.  Sometimes we are cruel.  Sometimes we are kind.  We need to be above morality, because sometimes we have to let awful things happen.  Sometimes a child, pure and innocent, has to die.  Sometimes an entire city needs to be wiped off the face of the earth.  Sometimes our hero needs to cry, fail, or die.  Ultimately, we are the ones responsible.

I need to let go.  I need to accept that if this is right, if what my antagonist is doing are the actions he would take, I need to let him.  I can move my hero and his companions into places to keep some of them safe, I can ultimately lead them to a place where they may foil his plan, but I also need to accept that there will be casualties along the way.  I have to accept the blood on my hands.  I have to accept that letting these things happen does not make me less of a human being, it makes me more of a writer.

As a reader I’ve been let down in the past by authors setting up certain events, only to have them completely back out in the end.  I felt betrayed and ultimately the book was less fulfilling.  I have to remember that experience as a writer.  I have to live up to my readers, which means I have to live up to my story, even if it makes me feel uncomfortable.  After all, being God is a tough job.

OK, decision made

So in regards to my previous posts on plot, I am now convinced that crashing ahead is the wrong way to go.  I said I’d tell you and here I am.

Here’s the thing.  I’ve been devoting some time and concentration to the links on plot that I posted the other day.  They have been incredibly inspiring and insightful.  The problem is, I’m now looking at the 14,000+ words I’ve already written, not to mention the next 2,000+ those words set up, and I’m thinking it’s now all wrong.  That’s a pretty hard pill to swallow.  So, do I scrap it all and start from scratch?  Do I carry on as if I had written what I had intended, get to the end and then go back during the rewrites.  Or do I bang my head a little more and see if I can make what exists work at least even a little?

I wouldn’t be in exactly this mess if I had done all this work before committing words to page.  I mean, at my current position, I am only vaguely aware of my antagonist.  How am I supposed to have a cohesive plot and conflict without any form of antagonist?  I need to rethink a lot of what I’ve done and where I was going with it.

So I have some challenges ahead.  I’m going to hammer out a plot outline basing it on the idea that I will leave what I already have.  I know there will be major revisions eventually, but at least it won’t be as demoralizing as deleting everything.  Wish me luck.  Progress updates as I go.