Plot is one of the things that has nearly always come easy for me. I had to spend a long time learning how to develop characters, how to write dialog that didn’t sound like one person monologuing, how to put together a setting that worked, and how to get all that stuff onto the page where readers could see it. Plot, on the other hand, was what I started with in most of my books (all but two, actually). Oh, it always morphed and changed along the way, and it didn’t always end up going quite where I initially thought it would, but it was always there.
Well, if there is one thing I’ve learned about writing in thirty-plus years, it is that nothing is ever the same for long. The current work-in-development has dozens of characters, a mountain of history and backstory…and an enormous number of plot-like bits that, for a solid year, have refused to jell into anything that sticks.
A large part of the problem is… Well, when you are doing something you have done before, you obviously begin by trying whatever worked the last time. When you have been doing similar things for thirty-plus years, the list of things that have worked at least once gets fairly long. If none of them is quite right for this story, it can take a long time to work your way through the list. And if there are a couple of specific angles that have worked reliably several times, it can be tough to admit that this time they aren’t doing the job.
In this particular case, the last several novels I’ve done have been character-focused. My main character had a desire, a goal, or a plain old job that gave them a direction, and it was relatively easy to come up with obstacles and problems and so on – in other words, plot. My current main character has a lovely snarky voice and a decided personality … and she is quite happy with her life, thanks all the same. Nobody is trying to keep her from doing what she wants, and while she’s not perfectly certain what that will be, she is in no great hurry to make decisions about it. She has no particular reason to be interested in the political conflicts between the various magicians’ guilds, nor in the problems of the merchants’ guild. There are responsible adults taking care of various family problems and doing a reasonably good job of it. And so on.
What this means is that looking at what my main character wants but can’t have is not going to be much help in generating plot for this one. The plot is going to have to come from outside, and it will have to impinge on my character in a way that will get her moving and keep her moving.
This is a lot harder to do than it sounds if you are used to looking to the main character for plot generation. Oh, there are classic macro events, like having a dragon show up and burn the city to the ground, leaving my character with the problem of surviving (and possibly with preventing a repeat occurrence), or having her rather odd uncle bequeath her a magic ring of great importance that needs to be dropped into a volcano, but those would not be anywhere close to the book I set out to write. Also, it doesn’t feel right for this character’s story, which is exceedingly important since I don’t have a deadline or a contract or any reason why I absolutely positively must make something happen Right Now.
There is plenty of plot floating around in the background. There’s the infighting among the three mages’ guilds, various overlapping plots involving city government, and several possible ways to connect all this stuff to international intrigues. There are interesting (to me, anyway) characters up the wazoo, several of whom have backstories that would make nice plots, except that they don’t involve my narrator. There’s a MacGuffin that fits my story-needs down to the ground, except that there’s no good way for my narrator to stumble across it and no reason for her not to hand it off to the first responsible adult who comes along even if she does stumble across it.
There are two to four possible primary villains, none of whom have any reason to be interested in my narrator or to involve her in their plots. There are any number of secondary villains and thugs who might possibly stumble into my narrator’s circle of influence, if I could think of a reason for such a connection. And so on.
Several solutions present themselves almost immediately. The first is to find a different narrator/main character, one who is involved with the MacGuffin or the politics or the guild infighting. The second would be to insert something in the narrator’s backstory that would connect to one of those plot centers, something that would drag her in whether she wanted to be there or not. The third would be to make her less content with her life, or to give her a burning desire for…something, anything, that could translate into classic plot.
After a year of poking, I can say with some certainty that none of those will work. I can junk this whole proto-story and write something completely different, about another character in another place and time, but this story is about this character, who walked into my head complete with voice, personality, and a fair amount of background and situation, none of which are amenable to change.
What I am currently thinking is that I need to approach from a different angle. I have plenty of plot pieces; what I don’t have are the connections among them…and most especially, the ways they might connect directly to my central character and give her a stake in the outcome. I’m used to getting a few of the main plot-pieces and then being able to see how they fit, like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, but that isn’t working this time. This time, it’s more like Tinker Toys – I have a stack of spools, and now I need a bunch of connecting rods in different sizes. And once I have them, I’ll have to play with them for a while to see what interesting shape I can make out of them.
And I will continue on the topic of plot next time, with a little less self-indulgent whinging.