Recently, another talented writer asked me how I went about plotting my work.
Okay, so I just heard the resounding thud of readers falling from their chairs, stunned insensible with boredom. I know there is nothing quite as obnoxious as writers going on and on about their craft, as if they actually thought about what they were doing instead of just geeking out at a keyboard and calling it art. This won’t be painful I PROMISE.
Yeah, right. Just bear with me.
Plotting. Sure, I own a host of books on the craft of writing. By virtue of owning them, I know I’m already smarter. Someday I’ll even read them cover-to-cover, and then watch me rock the metaphorical niceties of the Jungian subtext! I’ll be all over that next book.
But right, plotting. I’m a traditionalist, fond of a beginning, middle and end. As far as the theoretical framework around story structure—which is where writers start talking about Michael Hauge’s Story Mastery, the hero’s journey, saving the cat, and all the rest of those techniques—I like all of them just fine. They’re valuable tools, and I believe a good writer has a few at his or her fingertips. The trick is finding a good fit for your material and knowing when to use which model.
My story follows a more mythic structure, although it is more shamanic than strictly hero quest (and if you don’t know what that means, that’s okay because half the time I don’t either). I write character-focused books and tend to use more of an ensemble cast than just one or two main protagonists. The Baskerville Affair trilogy has a mystery/adventure plot arc that is resolved at the end of each volume, but the whole story unfolds over the entire series. Evelina, the heroine, has to face her shadow self and master that side of her nature. We see glimmerings of this in A Study in Silks, but it ramps up in A Study in Darkness. The fate of nations literally hangs on her choices, and the weight of it threatens to break her.
Like reflections in a mirror, each of the other players faces their own dark side at different points in the tale—and this might happen literally, metaphorically, or magically. Some pass the test. Some stumble and redeem themselves. Some fail—with interesting consequences. While the outer conflict of political upheaval moves in lock step with the main character’s inner struggle, the other character arcs weave within the larger story of revolution and war. Add mystery, romance, steampunk armies, magic and things that go boom and splat. That’s the works in a nutshell. It’s a steampunk fantasy.
From a bird’s eye view, it’s a fairly simple construct. From the worm/author’s eye view, it’s less elegant. I make copious maps, sticky notes, charts, drawings with arrows and color-coded thingies, and usually I end up tacking a large piece of newsprint to the wall and covering it in scribbles and sticky notes. At some point I’ll probably transfer it all to a spreadsheet, give up and return it to the wall. Sadly, no plot survives unchanged after first contact with the keyboard. Quite a few chapters perished in the making of this trilogy.
I can point to the places where I followed this writing technique or another—or simply strode into the bog with more will than wisdom—but some episodes are better left behind the curtain. Only my editor knows, and let me tell you she does love her colored pencils. But really, despite how clever authors are trying to be, the only thing that matters is whether readers (and authors) have a good time.
(originally published at Ramblings from This Chick)