Monday, June 7, 2010

What I’ve Learned So Far

Hey All,

Hopefully Jen, Claire, and Rachel will have something more to add, but I thought I’d start in on what I’ve learned during about writing after all these years. Yeah, how did it get to be YEARS??

Today I thought I’d talk about plotting and conflict, which for me, means talking about my characters. Plotting was my Achilles heel, do doubt about that. When I started writing, I didn’t really have a story in mind. I had characters. Characters would pop up in my mind fully formed and rearing to go. I’d hear them quite clearly and tended to follow where they wanted to go. Mushrooms, Diana calls them. And this was all very good. Characters, likeable and fully-fleshed ones, are the pillars of a good story. Except…

Well there is a huge danger in just letting your characters go willy-nilly on their way. The danger being that you have this meandering story that, well, goes nowhere. This is a problem for several reasons. One, in this day and age, new novelist just aren’t going to be given that sort of room. Your book has a space limit. Long, meandering novels just won’t fly for most publishers. Which means that you are going to have to tighten that plot, shorten that word count. Sigh. Sad but true.

But more importantly, things tend to happen to these characters, sure, but this is more a reactionary process. Let’s talk about that for a moment.

1. Reactionary Plotting

This is when you let things happen to your character, rather than having the plot revolve around the character acting. Huh? Well, it is like this. It is all very well to throw obstacles and conflict in your character’s way but the key is that the plot propels forward based on what actions the MC takes rather than how the MC reacts.

See the difference? One has the character bumping along, towed by life. The other is when a character takes charge of his life, and hopefully changes in some way by the end of the journey. One story might be interesting to the reader, the other will engage the reader. It is often the difference between a lose plot and a tight, ‘unputdownable’ plot.

Why is this? In part I think it is because, as readers, we admire action. Often times, when we read about a MC who has conflict after conflict thrown at them without working in a decisive manner to solve the conflicts, we start to think, “what now?” or “really? Another issue?” However, when the character acts, we often sit back with anticipation and wonder, how with Mr. X get out of this pickle?

2. Conflict for conflict’s sake.

Here was a hard one for me to work through. Conflict is awesome. Layers of conflict are even more so. But at some point, you are going to slip into over-complicated melodrama. Or farce. Does everyone remember KISS? Or Keep It Simple Stupid (I’m sure there is a nicer term for that last “S” but I don’t know it *g*)

The best books have conflict, but it is a simple thing. Yes, the stakes are constantly upped, but the conflict is never a matter of the writer tossing as much as she can at the MC. No. The conflict is an organic thing. This is a mystery to be solved, a problem at hand. And let’s be clear, when I say conflict, I am discussing plot devices –i.e. occurrences that happen within the story.

Let’s look at the typical soap opera model.

In a soap, conflict goes something like this:

Man and woman fall in love, except there is someone else who loves either man or woman as well. That someone else does everything under the sun to steal their love away. Meanwhile woman finds out that she is really the illegitimate daughter of man’s deepest enemy while man finds out that the only way he can save woman from her sudden deadly illness is to sleep with evil woman villain who happens to have the formula for the only known antidote… and on it goes.

It can make for great drama. And yet it gets overwhelming, doesn’t it? And farcical.

In short, your MC’s need only have simple goals, desires, wants. And yes, you should throw obstacles in their way, but let those obstacles grow naturally, and NOT be there for shock factor alone. Or to look at it another way, everything in hindsight should make sense. Revelations coming from that next step, rather than the next step always being needed because of a new conflict. Clear as mud? Good. Onto the next problem.

3. Loving your characters too much.

Ah, this was SUCH a problem for me. What do I mean by too much loving? Well, it goes something like this…

You fall so in love with your characters that you want to spend all your time with them. Hence, there will be scene after scene with your character doing something wonderful, witty, exciting, etc. This is a bit of a Mary Sue issue. Sure, these scenes can forward the plot, give good headway into character development and all that. But why are you really writing them? If it is because you simply love spending time with your characters, beware.

No one is going to have the same level of total connection with your characters as you do. And even if they do, at some point, all of these great little scenes are going to have the negative effect of bloating your plot.

I can’t tell you how hard this one is for me. I have so many cut scene that I simply love. I adore them. But in the end, I had to bite that bullet and realize that they weren’t really needed. A scene these days needs to do double, triple time. I’ve said that before. But it is SO true. In editing my current manuscript, my agent said, ‘Uh, sorry, you’re going to have to cut 100 pages.’ Well, shite. I mean, I had already cut a load of them. These scenes were essential!! So what to do?

In the end, I had to look at every scene, identify what I was trying to convey in regards to PLOT. Inevitably, what forwarded the plot took up about ten percent of the scene. Hence, I had take that key info and condense it into another scene.

Some of these types of cuts are painful. Hell, I mourn some scenes. Character development is always good. But if we do our job well, character development will be present in every line, but we must keep our eye on moving the plot ever forward.

Novel writing is tough. It is an art and a craft. No matter how much fun that initial falling in love with your story phase it, the truth is, you are going to have to be a general. And a strong one at that. You are going to have to take control of all aspects. Learn when to cut the bloat, understand when to redirect, retreat, and –sadly- have a bit of a dispassionate eye toward your troops. Tough decisions must be made and there is no place for sentimentality.

Of course, this is just one writer’s opinion. I’d love to hear what the rest of you have learned…


  1. Ah, plotting! I'm surprised I'm not bald from all the hair pulling I've done over my own plot. And I think I need to print out the KISS motto and plaster it to my wall; I'm a serial offender for making things WAY more complex than they need be.

    As for things I've learned ... well, I'll be along on Wednesday with my own little kernels of wisdom (emphasis on the "little", mind. :-) )

  2. Such fantastic advice, Kristen :) I'm still learning almost all those lessons- especially the one about reactionary plotting. It bothers me constantly. But I'm getting there!

    Just wanted to say that when your book is published, I think you should suggest to the publisher that they hand out a little booklet with all the cut scenes for people to peruse at their leisure- because I sure as hell want to read them, even if they don't advance the plot. And while I know I've been frustrated by many a book that meanders on for too long for the same reasons, I can't say I've ever felt overexposed to your characters. But never mind! Plot and brevity are the masters in these tough economic times! (g). I too will endeavour to dig up some good advice.

  3. Claire-- you an me are of like mind. :) I wish we could get away with more character development and less brevity. I blame TV and the short attention span. LOL

    Hmm...wouldn't it be great to have a "director's cut" edition of books?

    Actually, I've learned SO much about plotting from you, Rachel, and Jen. You all have been my guides in that department.

  4. I'll echo that request for cut scenes!
    I worry that I have too many internals, too much discussion and not enough action. And I worry about this "One has the character bumping along, towed by life. The other is when a character takes charge of his life, and hopefully changes in some way by the end of the journey."
    Being a chunkster, I only ever have a vague idea of the end, which helps in the first and second drafts, but later needs major editing.
    I don't know how you wrote a mystery! I'd love to write one but...