Plotting a story is one of those writing things where not only does every writer work differently, every book works differently. Oh, there are patterns – I’ve talked before about my write-a-plan-and-then-toss-it method – but they never seem to work one hundred percent consistently for even one writer, let alone a sizeable number of them.
A lot of people have particular trouble with plot. I think there are a variety of reasons for that, but most of them start with the notion that there is One True Way to come up with and develop one. There also seems to be a serious lack of understanding of what a plot is, at least in some cases.
A setting is not a plot. An idea is not a plot, nor is a character (or set of characters). Matching up a character and a setting does not automatically produce a plot, though for some writers getting the match-up right is a first and necessary step that can trigger a cascade of useful ideas.
Yet time after time, when I ask a would-be writer what the plot is, I get a description of a character or a situation. These things can lead to plots, but that’s not what they are.
A plot, by my definition, is a sequence of events, nearly always tied together by causality, that involve characters and take place in a setting. I prefer the sort that have a problem to solve and some sort of resolution or closure at the end.
This is why so many writing-advice types claim that in order to write a satisfactory plot, the writer must know how the story is going to end. But actually, one doesn’t always need to know exactly how the characters will solve the central story-problem; for many writers, it is often enough just to know what the problem is, at least during the early chapters. However, if one doesn’t have a resolution in mind, one does have to keep alert so as to avoid writing oneself into a corner.
How a particular writer goes about plotting a book depends on two things: first, what bits of story-idea they’re starting with, and second, the writer’s personal preferences – whether she is usually most interested in the spiritual journey of the characters, or in displaying their competence at puzzle-solving, for instance.
Stories can and do start with any of the usual story-bits – plot, theme, idea, setting, character, even bits of description or dialog. Some of these require more development and decision-making than others; if the writer begins with a situation involving a couple of characters, it’s usually easier to figure out what problems these people will be having than it is if one begins with a general theme. If one begins with an idea and setting, but no characters, it can take a while to figure out who the players will be, what they want and need, and how their wants and needs will drive the idea to a conclusion. And so on.
This is where the writer’s personal preferences come in. Some writers like to surprise themselves, and for them, too much planning can kill a story stone dead. In extreme cases, all they can have to begin with are characters and a setting; they have to develop everything else as they write, including the central story-problem and especially the eventual resolution. (This working method sounds terribly, terribly tempting to those of us who need to do a certain amount of work before we ever sit down to type “Chapter One.” Going straight to the fun stuff and letting the characters develop it all sounds SO much nicer than working up a plot outline. If it’s not your method, though, it seldom is as easy as that.)
At the other extreme are the writers who need a detailed, step-by-step plan to follow – something that gives them a clear framework within which they can let their backbrain loose to be as wildly creative as it can within those strict limits. And strung out between those two extremes are the rest of us.
Personal preferences also influence where a writer goes to look for a plot. One of the most common ways is to examine the characters, looking at what each of them wants and needs, and at the internal and external obstacles preventing them from getting those things. Some writers make a list of things they want in the story, which can range from “bandit raid” to “heroine jilts hero at ball” to “use vines as metaphor” to “include family – little sister?” to “giant explosions!” Some look at what’s going on in their story-world – the politics, the natural disasters, the culture clashes – find something they’re interested in examining, and put together a plot by looking at ways of examining it.
All this sounds very general…and it is. There’s really no way I can think of to explain plot-construction that isn’t either very general principles, or else so tied to a specific story that it isn’t likely to be helpful to anyone but the author of that story. It’s always a balance between what the author finds interesting to write about and what is available from the story elements the author has. It’s kind of hard to write a comedy-of-manners if your idea is to have your character cast away alone on a desert island for 90% of the story.