Wednesday, May 01, 2013

From Idea to Plot

Our ballet teacher happened to have some tutus in the room last night, and there were only three of us adult students there, with no men. So, we shut the door, closed the blinds on the room's observation window, and we played ballerina. And, you know, we really did dance better while wearing tutus. For one thing, the short, fluffy tutus force you to keep your arms in proper positions. For another, when you feel like a dancer, you carry yourself like a dancer, and that makes everything work better. Too bad I was having a bad knee day and had to be very careful about not jumping too much and keeping everything low-impact.

I'm giving a workshop on building a book this weekend, and that give me fodder for today's writing post. For most writers, ideas are a dime a dozen. They're constantly hitting us, from every direction. I barely get through an entire day without getting at least a fragment of an idea for a story. When I first started trying to write, back when I was in junior high, this was a real problem because an idea would hit me, I'd start writing with great enthusiasm, and then it would fizzle out because it was lacking all the essential ingredients for a story. But then a new idea would strike me, and I'd forget about the previous one and strike out on the new one. This pattern repeated for more than a decade before I finally finished a book. It sometimes pops up again when I get hit with an idea, figure I know what I'm doing by now, and plunge into writing, only to find it fizzling.

I've found that there are some key ingredients to every story, and making sure to find or develop those ingredients in your idea can set you on the road to having a viable story (or if you can't find or develop these elements, you know it isn't a viable idea). These ingredients may come to you in different orders. Sometimes you think of the characters, then have to develop the situation. Sometimes you've got the situation and need characters and conflict. Sometimes, you may come up with a concept that has none of these elements and you have to figure it all out. So, this is in no particular order.

Just about every story needs:
Characters -- you need someone who can do something in order for much of anything to happen. These characters need to want something -- generally in addition to their story goal, and achieving their story goal may allow them to achieve this other desire, or that desire may change. Even before they realize that there's an evil wizard who must be vanquished, they may personally desire something like adventure, knowledge, love or money. This desire can be either a strength or a weakness (and sometimes both). They may be called upon to sacrifice this desire for the greater good.

A Situation -- There's something amiss in the world that must be put right. That's generally what your plot is about, putting that thing right. It can be as big-picture as an evil wizard with plans to plunge the world into hell in an epic fantasy saga or as personal as a person who needs to learn to trust again in a category romance. Setting this thing right is the job for your hero -- willingly or otherwise. The hero may or may not be aware of the situation at the beginning of the story. The story usually kicks off when the hero either learns of the situation or learns that he's the one who has to deal with it.

Conflict -- this is usually inherent in the situation, but you need something that's stopping the hero from setting things right and from achieving his personal desire. There's big-picture conflict -- that overall thing keeping the hero from achieving the main goal -- and steps-along-the-way conflicts that make it more difficult to achieve the steps needed to achieve the final goal. There may also be internal conflicts within characters, like fears and doubts, and personal conflicts between characters, such as the good guys disagreeing about the best way to do things.

Once you have these three elements figured out and developed, you can build a story plot. You know what your characters need to achieve, and you know what will get in their way. From there, you can get fancy with turning points and reversals and all that stuff, and you can add depth with the characters' internal goals. There's not much point in trying to plot or write until you know these things. If you're a "pantser" who doesn't plot, you probably have some sense of the characters, situation and conflict in your head before you start, even if you don't have it written down, or else you probably figure these things out early in your writing.

In the workshop, we'll take a story idea from the audience and build it into a basic plot. I hope. If all else fails, there's always the plot to Star Wars to use as an illustration (it's a very basic, universal plot structure and almost everyone is familiar with it, so I use it often as an example).

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