If you’re a writer, then you already know the basis of building a plot. Your high school creative writing teacher probably drew a diagram of a mountain on the white board, showing the “steps” or plot developments of the rising action flowing up the side of the mountain until the “peak” or climax of the story is reached. However, creating well crafted plots is seldom so simple, especially if you are right-brained like me and therefore easily daunted by that horrible formal outline with Roman numerals; which, by the way, I NEVER use.
When I read Stephen King’s chapters about plot development in his terrific book On Writing, it was a revelatory moment. Plots, he explained, are mined or excavated from the earth (representing our creative selves). The comments he wrote about this illogical process struck me as so true that I said out loud, “He gets it! Somebody out there actually gets it!” I seriously thought about sending him a gushing email but controlled myself.
How, then, do we “mine” the creative part of our subconscious for those plot seeds we desperately want to plant and then harvest? I have a couple of unorthodox suggestions, though here’s the disclaimer: this is how I do it and maybe it won’t work for you. Still, you might find it refreshing to know there’s another option to the step-by-step Roman numeral outline that causes such a gag reflex in creativity. (I have to admit here that I’ve always felt nothing could “jinx” the imaginative process faster, and make a story seem more trite and inane, that jotting down a linear outline.)
Instead, this is what I suggest. First, when that little story idea niggles at the back of your brain, give it some serious think-time before you ever even jot down a note. Early in the morning, prior to getting out of bed, and at night before going to sleep, THINK about your story. Step into your character and experience what he or she does. Let your thoughts drift in and out of those pathways, but don’t leave the story. Be relaxed about it and follow the threads. Later, in quiet moments during the day, continue to visit your story and develop your characters. With practice you’ll frequently access your creative subconscious, and if you’re a writer you’ve probably been doing this sort of thing for years and have been labeled a daydreamer. (That’s why I prefer the dark solitude before and after sleep, though a quick trip into your story while at a stoplight or in a boring seminar can still work.) There are books out there about tapping into your creative subconscious which can give you more good ideas, but I’ve been doing this since I was a kid, before ever reading anything about it. You probably have, too, though now that you know it’s a legitimate process you can stop feeling embarrassed.
As the story builds inside your head, and action escalates or pieces of dialogue create themselves, play around with it. Enjoy it. That’s what I do. Then, after a few days, when I reach the point where I’m afraid I’ll start to lose parts of this first idea if I don’t get a hard copy, I rapidly write down the scene that’s been keeping my thoughts captive. In The Vanishing Game (formerly: The Third Freak) it was chapter one: Jocelyn terrified, running through the rain, sneaking into the back of Noah’s car, and then his attack in the garage when she’d thought he’d gone into the house.
For me, the first scene is usually quite complex, with a lot of new details that surface as I write. Also, it’s not necessarily the first chapter of the book, but can be any scene that first comes to mind. At this point the plot is still pretty vague. As I write this scene, my character might say or do something unexpected and I know I’ll have to figure it out later, but it’s in there because instinct told me it needed to be to make the plot stronger.
Though the writing may allude to some bizarre events that have happened, or will happen, I have no idea WHY. Stuffing down my initial panic of how I’ll come up with that “why” I just tell myself that eventually I will. (Which I always do.) Using Jocelyn as an example again, in the first chapter she lets slip the fact that five years ago Noah threatened to kill her if he ever saw her again. That came up all on its own and at first I sort of panicked, but then the creative side of my mind insisted it was needed for storyline tension. (Also, why would she hide in his car instead of just approaching him for help?) Although I accepted this new detail, my next question was, of course, why Noah had said that five years ago. But I just filed it away and was actually about a third of the way through the book before I was able to come up with something “bad” that Jocelyn did which wasn’t bad enough to stop us (me and the reader) from still caring about her, but actually made us love her more. Best of all, this “twist” became a huge crux of the story. If you let them, these story twists that your creative self comes up with can greatly increase the complexity of your work and sometimes evolve into much more than they were.
When the first scene is done: At this point my first writing experience is sort of like walking up to a fancy house with an elaborate front, opening the door, and staring into an empty lot that has a large hole dug in the dirt where the house will someday be. If I’m lucky it might even have the foundation poured, but there’s usually not much else. If I happen to open that door and see there’s also a bit of framing done (more plot than I’d expected) then I’m happy. And ALWAYS I’m excited, with butterflies (or cannibalistic moths) fluttering inside my stomach.
Whether the story idea only has an excavated pit, or a cement foundation with an emerging framework, it doesn’t matter because now I’m energized and entranced. I’m falling in love with the characters and the story idea, scared that there are two many unanswered plot holes, and yet determined to make it all happen. It’s a high. I don’t need to go bungee jumping, tour Paris, or cliff dive. I’ve got the adventure I want, and it’s more addictive than chocolate or shopping with an unlimited credit card. If you’re a writer, then you already know this.
Now, addictive high aside, the real work begins, and a portion of my mind will be sectioned off and donated to the story until it’s done. I also start writing notes and observations, though NEVER in a formal outline. If I outline at all, it’s in a free-flowing brainstorm web. The rest stays inside my head, or in little note reminders so I don’t forget small ideas, because I don’t want my characters to be limited to what’s in a hard-copy outline. I want to let my subconscious creativity surprise me, which means if you’re a control freak, you have to let go. Trust yourself and your imagination. Now is when I also repeat the think-time process for character development, relationship development between the main characters, and new scenes. This will continue until the novel is finished.
Last of all, to build the rising action and plot events, I access several helps. They are:
1) Personal Experiences: i.e. small, unusual stuff that’s interesting; scenes from a painful childhood; the uncertainty of falling in love; places I’ve visited, people I’ve met, etc. What experiences are you having now, or have had in the past, that can fill out your story’s environment? Even if it’s as simple as being a high school junior, a tourist in a unique place, or a dog lover, these are experiences which can flesh out your story and make it seem more real.
2) Emotions: An example is fear: Jocelyn in the dark cellar. Or curiosity: In The Sender it’s Noelle’s desperate search for truth. This is an easy one because we can all identify, but it’s surprising how some plots focus on events rather than their characters’ reactions to those events. Without emotions a story is bloodless and readers won’t identify with it.
3) Knowledge Base: What do you know about or have some sort of training in? (A little different than personal experiences, this involves professional or semi-professional expertise.) I’ve used sign language and deafness in a couple of novels. One of my characters loved to take photos. Because my professional workday takes place in a high school now, I have plans for my new novel to be set in that arena. You probably have knowledge that readers might be interested in and which can add to your plot details, as long as you don’t turn your novel into a how-to book.
4) Research: This is used for everything else. I research a ton but use only a fraction. The more I know then the better the character and story backgrounds can become, but there’s a balance between using just enough info to flavor the novel but not so much that you bore your readers with details. You need to learn everything you can that will enhance your novel’s setting and enlarge its parameters, but your reader doesn’t.
Once you’ve gathered your resources and developed your characters (See: Character Development) start the real writing. If you have talent, your story will take off. And when it’s right, the creativity flows and you can soar up that plot mountainside, your breath snatched away as you go. For a writer, there’s nothing more exhilirating or fullfilling.