I’ve concluded that plotting for plot’s sake is a mathematical exercise doomed to yield soulless results.
Starting with plot and ending with plot isn’t storytelling, it’s puzzle-making. There is now and always has been a market for these sorts of puzzles — the Mystery and Science Fiction sections of your local bookstore are full of them — but that isn’t the sort of writing I’m interested in. To me, the best kinds of stories — the stories that last — are the ones which provoke a genuine emotion or reinforce a core human value.
This cannot be achieved without interesting characters with whom we empathize.
In an essay I wrote long ago (which I won’t trouble you with here) I said: “I create a character and then I follow him around to see where he’ll go. I often have no idea what the story’s truly about, I just know the guy I’ve created (or the situation I’ve put him in) is interesting”. Upon reflection, I don’t see anything wrong with this approach as long as it isn’t allowed to proceed without regard to premise. My understanding of the word premise is that it is the springboard or gist upon which a plot can be built. It’s the true nub of story.
Here’s a premise most of you will probably recognize: A killer shark stakes a claim to the waters off a New England town, and the local sheriff is forced to deal with the problem. Plot is the series of events which connect together to deliver on the promise of the premise. In the case of our example, the heroic sheriff recruits a marine biologist and a master fisherman, and goes out to sea to face the monster shark on its own turf. While either a strong character or a strong premise can provide the impetus which sets the writer to writing, both should be considered in conjunction with one another if the goal is a story with emotional resonance.
If premise is fleshed out into plot without regard to character, the result is a Puzzle Story. If character is the springboard and premise is largely ignored, you get the Character Study. Again, both can be valid forms, but neither should be viewed as genuinely whole. As an aside — and as something which is strictly a matter of personal taste — I would choose Character over Puzzle were I forced, at gunpoint, to adopt one of these two bastardized forms. My point in telling you this is that we should be more forgiving of our basic predilections. I have an abiding interest in character and that isn’t going to change merely because I’m now trying to convince myself that my approach is wrong. It would be smarter for me to try and honor my tastes even as I temper them with a healthier respect for premise.
Most people will tell you it’s good to know your ending so that plot can be reverse engineered toward that conclusion. I’m sure there is some truth to this, but taking it as a universal principle would be a mistake. I’d wager that just as many writers don’t know their ending at the outset as do. Furthermore, I’m afraid there’s a danger in following the know-your-ending rule too assiduously. Down that path lies plot for plot’s sake, and the awesome power of the unconscious mind is waylaid. If an ending comes organically, then it should be honored. But since writing is not truly a mathematical exercise, it could be wrong to discard a story simply because an ending doesn’t immediately suggest itself. If the tale’s other elements — character, premise, setting, theme, etc. — are compelling, the work should be allowed to breathe for a while before it’s aborted.
Anyway, here is my evolving strategy (such as it is): When plotting, throw two stones into a pond. One stone is Character and the other is Premise. Where the ripples intersect, plot begins to form. Perhaps this sort of thinking constitutes a small step between the what and the how.