Fiction Writing, Writing Technique

The Story Problem: Five Tips to Tame a Plot

Lately I’ve been wrestling a ferocious shape-shifting beast of immense proportions that breathes fire, spits venom in my eyes and generally makes a nuisance of itself. I am talking, obviously, about plotting. Here I am on my -nth draft with a plot still so full of holes it could double as a fashionable pair of jeans. I go to fix one bit and a new problem pops up. Every time I think I’ve got it beaten, the Promethean plot-plague rises up fresh as a daisy and starts all over again.

“Svipdagr Transformed” by John Bauer

The thing that gets me is that it shouldn’t be this hard, should it? For millennia, practically everyone has known how to do it. Illiterate nurses invented fairytales as easily as they wiped drool off chins. Troubadours kept courtiers happy with off-the-cuff romances. Soldiers in the Thirty Years War, probably starving and delirious with cholera and drunk if they were lucky, told each other perfectly structured dirty jokes. Besides, we have, most of the 7.8 billion of us, ingested and digested so many stories in the form of books, movies, TV shows, audiobooks, anecdotes, news articles and songs that you’d think it would be second nature by now, practically a biological function.

I tell myself, by way of consolation, that just as eating a chocolate éclair is easy, so is consuming a good story. Making one, on the other hand, is a different matter. It’s a skill requiring practice just like performing magic tricks and crocheting trousers. And practice, unfortunately, means failing often.

Years of hard work

Maybe it’s a problem with my brain, but a lot of plotting advice found on writing blogs and websites doesn’t stick. Much of it is tidy analysis-after-the-fact, good for describing an existing masterpiece like Hamlet or Hot Tub Time Machine but not particularly helpful for someone stuck in the Blank-Page Bog or the Fourth-Draft Doldrums. I’m especially unimpressed by diagrams that make everything look so simple and clean that you feel even worse about all the useless word-heavy, plot-poor clunkers slowing down your Lenovo laptop. The Freytag Pyramid looks wonderful but it doesn’t give any indication of the horrifying bulk and mess involved in the writer’s quest for streamlined perfection.

The sad conclusion to which I have come is there is no quick fix when it comes to plotting. You just have to throw your back into it and hope that eventually it will work. Basically, you’re like Edmond Dantès tunnelling his way out of your cell on the Château d’If with a rusty knife.

That said, there are things that might help…a bit.

Me on my fourth draft

1. A Timeline

I like timelines. Not only are they easy to look at, they’re really useful in creating the frame of your story. A timeline can show you, at a glance, the main events in a story’s action and how multiple plot lines fit together in chronological sequence. Not only that, a timeline can create a sense of verisimilitude, if only in your own head, when thinking about a character’s biography or fixing the story in relation to real historical events. In this article How A Timeline Helps You Plot A Novel | Writers Write , Amanda Patterson recommends creating a timeline for each of your main characters.

2. A Beatsheet

For the last six weeks I’ve been attending an online course with seasoned screenwriter and playwright Kathryn Burnett. It’s been a great, clear introduction to audio-visual storytelling and it’s got me thinking about how a lot of the principles of screenwriting could apply to novel writing too. A common way of planning a screenplay is to create a ‘beatsheet‘, a kind of skeleton story that sequentially lists the story’s significant action (‘beats’). It’s especially useful for showing the cause-and-effect progression of scenes, particularly useful for gauging tension and pacing.

3. A Reader

If you already have a draft, or even if you want to test your outline, the best way to see if it’s working is to get another human being to read what you’ve written. It’s sometimes hard to hear criticism but anyone who points out sloppy plotting in the privacy of your first few drafts is honestly doing you a big favor. Joining a writing group or bouncing ideas off writing friends is a great idea – they’re usually coping with the same kinds of problem and might approach it from a fresh angle. My brilliant readers not only identified problems, but they offered solutions tailored to the existing story. If you don’t know any writers, there are plenty of online communities and with a bit of research you may even find an in-person group in your area.

4. Software

This is something I haven’t tried because I know I would just end up reverting to Post-Its, but if you’re a proper 21st-century person there is now a lot of software that can help you organize story elements, in a paper-free and visually appealing way. Bibisco is an example of a free word-processing program that also offers simple tools for story planning. Other programs like Dramatica, and Scapple are specialized plotting tools.

5. Bloody-Minded Persistence

What I have learned is that even if you’re completely stumped today, your brain will keep playing with the problem. Start again tomorrow and you’ll flail around a bit before collapsing into a lifeless heap on the floor. The next day a little more progress will be made. And so on.

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