Nuts and Bolts: Thoughts on Plotting





Here, have some really straightforward, practical thoughts about plots and plotting. Of which I have way too many, btw.

(Previous nuts and bolts caveats apply, naturally. Assume I have so many thoughts about this stuff because I’ve fucked it up pretty often.)


1. A short story is a single idea, examined or played out. (Movies are also short stories. This is why turning books into movies leads to tears.) Figure out what your “idea” is — or the goal of your story, or the point you’re trying to make, whichever terminology floats your boat — and aim toward that without wavering.

2. Your plot and your characters go hand in hand. They inform each other — if you have one, you have the other. It’s one of the ways that storytelling is the least like real life. The entire plot might as well be a metaphor for whatever issues are going on in the characters lives — but once you realize that, you can use that fact to reverse-engineer your characters or your plot if you’re stuck without one or the other.

3. Frequently problems with plots are just problems with structure. Go find your favorite book (or rather, your favorite book that is most like the kind of book that you’re trying to write) and break it down, section by section, until you’ve got something really basic like “meet-cute” and “things go bad” and shit like that. Then see if you can’t just drape your plot right on over that structure like a brand new Sunday suit.

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Oh, whoa, what’s this? IT’S MEEEEEE.

Some time ago chriscolfercandy asked for plotting meta and nadiacreek just asked for writing tips, and HERE WE ARE.

Have a +5 fanfic plotting edition:

1. Be happy and joyous that you write fanfic, because you don’t have to do shit with plot if you don’t want to. The entire thing can be a character piece for 20,000 words and I personally will lap it up with a spoon. That being said, character = plot, plot = character. Your story still has to go through a character arc to be satisfying to the reader. If you match the arc up to a plot structure, you may find it looks eerily similar.

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If a short story is a single idea, what is a novel?

This is going to sound really dumb, but – it’s a lot of ideas.

You’ve got more than one character in there, probably, so their issues/themes are going to be different (though complimentary, or commenting on one another’s, or related to the overall theme). You’ve got the overall big overarching Problem that everyone’s dealing with. You’ve got piles of little problems scattered around that distract from the big Problem and mess around with the characters and–

Okay, so, Hamlet. Hamlet’s got five acts, it’s pretty novel-like for these purposes. Of the many, many ideas present in Hamlet, there’s succession crises, the health of the nobility representing the health of the state, the nature of madness, whether it’s right to do shit you want to do just because you think maybe you can justify it but possibly you can’t, the nature of friendship, relationships, oh shit did I just see a demon, false seemings, etc.

All of that is in there, represented in multiple people, in multiple plot lines and turns. Granted, Hamlet is a work of genius, so I totally can’t manage that when I write. I usually go for “what is character A’s major malfunction? cool, cool. Okay, what’s character B’s issue, and how can it be totally dynamically opposed to whatever A’s issue is? Neat.”

And then I stick them both into a situation where I PUSH ALL THE BUTTONS.

–Meanwhile, there’s Nancy Kress’s award-winning short story “Out of All Them Bright Stars” which is, I would say, the in-depth exploration of an idea. The setting, characters, and situation all exist to bring the reader to the point of the story – and then it ends, and the reader is left with an eyeball-kick and whatever emotion Kress was aiming for.

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