I have a mental/emotional block when it comes to hashing out plot. I take some comfort in knowing I’m not alone in this, but I’ve decided that it’s time to address the problem directly. Let’s talk about the process of plotting fiction.
Here’s a window into my longstanding M.O.: I create a character and follow him to see where he goes, taking notes all the while like a cub reporter or a half-assed literary peeping tom. Along the way, I stumble upon compelling elements of plot which, if properly organized at the outset, could have yielded an interesting story. Were I to simply overcome my anxiety regarding plot and force myself to pay it its proper due, a lot of heartache and self-recrimination could be avoided.
So, where is all of this coming from?
Recently, I shared a bit of my writing – a fragment without a proper ending – with a friend of mine who also writes. His pointed questions about where the work was headed as well as comments about his own approach amounted to a minor epiphany. You see, like many other writers, my friend knows his ending and often writes that first. This gives him a target at which to aim and helps to shape the balance of the story he has yet to write. This little nugget wasn’t exactly revelatory – it’s a concept I’ve heard many times before – but it reminded me that there’s a literary muscle I’m not exercising. Why am I not exercising it?
Out of fear, I suspect.
Plotting is very hard. It takes some of the fun out of the process because you’re no longer in a touchy-feely mode when you begin to write. You have a roadmap and you follow it. Most people would call this working smarter instead of working harder, but some writers, myself included, have the weird notion that applying too much Craft effectively kills the Art.
It’s a knee-jerk neurotic reaction with very little basis in fact.
Given my love for Film Noir, for the stories of Robert E. Howard, and for the original Star Wars films (tightly plotted creations all), I’m surprised I’ve allowed myself to fall into this more “literary” mindset. It seems to me that, for a writer working on projects aimed at a mass market, fear of plot is a dangerous thing. I had a contemporary some time ago who, while working on a large, expensive commercial property, declared that his writing and the writing of his staff would have a decidedly Literary bent. You know what? I read some of that writing and, while it was beautifully composed, it was also dead; completely devoid of forward momentum or compelling characters. I’m not expecting that project to fire the blood of Joe and Jane Consumer when it finally comes to market.
Joe and Jane want a good yarn; they want to be entertained. All of that pretty metaphor and symbolism isn’t going to console them when they start to think maybe they’ve wasted their money. They won’t know they’ve been cheated. They won’t know the writer didn’t the necessary time in the process of plotting their fiction, they’ll just know they didn’t get a good tale.
Writers: Get over yourself and spend some time, at the very least, working out your twists and turns on a cocktail napkin. A story wants a shape and you have to be the one to do the shaping.