Author’s Log: The Plot’s The Thing

Warning Okay. I’ve got my characters. Time to build my stage–after all, what are players without a stage to swan around on? (Answer: Mimes. Perhaps performance artists. But let’s not get too silly with the metaphors, hmmmm?)

Sidenote: Shakespeare had a rather wicked sense of humor, chock full of groaners. I think of him as the Eddie Izzard of the Elizabethan age. Seriously, Shakespeare’s theatre in London was called The Globe…BECAUSE ALL THE WORLD’S A STAGE! Get it? Get it? *jab jab*

First I have to build my scaffolding–the architecture upon which my story hangs. Leonardo DaVinci and Dali didn’t just slap the paint onto the canvas–they didn’t even start with an underdrawing first. They started with a grid. The grid allowed them to keep things balanced, in proportion, and in perspective. What it also does is help ensure resonance, which is something you definitely want your audience to feel as a creative individual. Resonance is what makes your work “speak” to them.

Architecture, structure, framework–whatever you call it, you need a toolkit, safety goggles, and bandages.

Hey, those papercuts can bleed like a sieve.

I build my story structure–or blueprint, if you will, on a white board. My white board has a template already sketched out in gaffer’s tape (aka electrical tape–yeah, my husband looks at me weird, too).  The diagonal, horizontal line markes the escalation of events from Opening Scene to Closing Scene. Key plot points are marked in smaller, vertical lines along the horizontal one. Some of you may recognize this as Aristotle’s Incline, and it looks something like this (YAY, Power Point!):

Plot Structure

These are the all-important, must-have scenes or scene sequences that are the milestones of my story. For a novella like one of my Keepers of the Flame stories, the entire manuscript will be made up of nothing but key scenes and sequences, due to the limited word count. I use a classic three-act structure, where ACT I ends at Plot Point 1, and ACT II ends at Plot Point 2. The percentages help me keep pacing under control. So, whether I’m writing toward a goal of 30K or 90K, my Inciting Incident has to come at about the 10% mark (3K or 9K, respectively).

Let me iterate: THIS IS NOT A FORMULA. Formulae are for SPREADSHEETS, of which I am very, very fond. This is structure. Dali and Da Vinci both used a grid as their underlying architecture before they let a pencil or paint brush anywhere near a canvas. Yet, their paintings were very, very different. And there are few things less formulaic than a Dali painting–a Tarantino film, for instance (who also mastered story structure before he started messing with it).

I guess what I’m (finally) getting at is that plot is not story. Plot is what happens to characters, story is about how it changes them, how they act and react. In other words, story is the chain reaction resulting from plot.

Plot is the craft of writing, story is the art.

Now I begin my under drawing, which means I’m going to sketch in my milestones. These are my big-ticket set pieces. Again, I’m also looking to create resonance through balance and mirror images, so when I draft, I write my key chapters first, and out of order.

Take Big Dang Projeckt, for instance. My opening scene takes place on a ship, at night, in fog, right before a shipwreck. The destination is my hero’s hometown. The closing scene takes place on a ship, at dawn, in fog, right after a big sea battle. The destination is my titular character’s home. They both represent a new beginning for my hero, something my audience can easily relate to.  Resonance.

Here’s the order of events for my rough draft process:

  1. Opening Scene and Closing Scene
  2. Inciting Incident and Climax
  3. Plot Point 1 and Plot Point 2
  4. Pinch Point 1 and Pinch Point 2
  5. Midpoint (Everything Changes!)

I couldn’t do this without a structure in place–a map to follow. Once I have a very rough draft of each scene in place, I develop them into chapters–usually scene sequences of three scenes a piece. For a novella, this will usually give me most or all of a rough draft. For a novel, about 1/3 of a rough draft. YAY!

For a novel, I’ll then break my novel into three chunks to tackle, one for each Act,  and those chucks get broken into smaller, more manageable chunks, to fill in the connective tissue between each key chapter.

Okay, time for you to chime in! How do you plan and execute the beginnings of a new project?

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