I got in a discussion the other day with a writer friend who’s having difficulty moving forward with her story. I’m having similar problems, so we sat down to compare notes. “So what’s the plot?” I said, because I’m a plotty kind of writer.
“Well, there’s this goddess, and she takes a vacation to the mortal world as a cat and meets this girl and…and…and they have adventures!”
“Um, right,” I said. “What adventures?”
“I don’t know; I haven’t made them up.”
“That would be why you’re having trouble writing them. That, and the fact that you don’t have a plot.”
Now, I don’t have a plot, either, but I at least know that I don’t have one. My friend, on the other hand, was so enamored of her vacationing goddess-cat and heroine that she hadn’t noticed that she didn’t. She had two characters (whom she loved), and a situation with plenty of potential, and maybe even an incident or two (she could describe the scene where the goddess left the Etherial Realm for the mortal world, and she knew exactly what happened when the goddess-cat met the heroine), but that was it. She had no central problem to be solved; she didn’t even have minor character problems to be solved. Nothing was at stake for either of her characters, and there wasn’t any urgency to the situation. Most of all, there was no big “why” – when asked, she couldn’t tell me why the goddess needed a vacation, nor could she tell me why the heroine decided to adopt the goddess-cat, let alone why she would get involved with whatever adventures were supposedly going to happen next.
Part of the problem was, she couldn’t decide which character to use as her viewpoint (and which one was the “main character,” and whether they’d be the same or not). There were points and possibilities on both sides, but which character she chose was going to make a huge difference in what kind of plot she could look for. A goddess, even one who is temporarily masquerading as a cat, is likely to have rather different problems than a more-or-less normal girl.
The other part of the problem was, she didn’t have a setting. It makes a huge difference whether the girl and the goddess-cat are operating in a near-accurate or totally alternate historical setting (be that Ancient Greece, warring-states China, pre-Columbus South America, Elizabethan England, revolutionary France, or modern-day Canada), or in a completely invented world (past, present, or future). The kinds of problems that could occur, which would eventually come together for a plot, are significantly different in each place and time.
In short, she had a whole lot of decisions to make before she could really begin to start writing even though she knew what the first couple of scenes were. She’d run into difficulty because knowing those two scenes (the goddess leaving the Etherial Realm in a snit and the mortal girl meeting the goddess-cat and taking her home) were so clear in her head that it felt like she knew enough to start writing.
And she did know enough…to write those two scenes. For some writers, that would be plenty; by the time she finished writing those scenes, she’d know enough more to write the next one, and the next, and eventually there’d be a book at the end of it. Unfortunately, she doesn’t normally work that way, and she had the brains to know that she couldn’t write those “perfectly clear” scenes without a bunch more work on the setting and viewpoint.
Lots of stories start life as a couple of characters in an interesting situation, and for “surprise me” writers (the sort who can’t do any planning, even in their own heads, without killing the story), that’s enough for them to take off running. Most writers, though, need a bit more than that (how much more, as I said, varies writer to writer). Half the trick is realizing when one still needs more – recognizing that the lovely idea is a situation or an incident or a couple of related events, but not really a complete plot yet. The other half the trick is developing the idea, incident, or events until one has enough (whatever “enough” means to the particular writer).
There’s also always the possibility that the story one has hold of is something picaresque – a “marvelous journey” story that really doesn’t need much of a plot except maybe “eventually, we need to get home or settle down somewhere.” That doesn’t mean the initial idea/characters/situation doesn’t need developing; it just means the kind of development will be a little different. A marvelous journey story has to be marvelous; the place the characters journey through and the sub-stories and other characters they encounter on the way have to be fascinating enough to keep the reader going even when the characters don’t have a central plot problem and/or steadily increasing urgency and tension to drive the story forward.