The Skill List Project: Starting to Plot

This is another post in The Skill List Project: an attempt to list all the skills involved in writing and selling fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. Last time, I laid out some basic terminology for talking about plot. This time, I’ll look at how to get started on developing a plot: figuring out the elements that will make up your plot.

Growing Seeds

Every story starts from some seed that the writer feels is fertile. This might be a cool concept, a visual image, a kernel of character, an interesting question, a dramatic situation…almost anything. It’s some appealing nugget that captures your fancy. The seed sparks something that wants to be written; it’s that little chunk of grit that slips inside an oyster and eventually gets turned into a pearl. So you start cultivating that seed into a story, and soon you have to start thinking about plot.

How do you build a plot that brings out the most from a seed? How do you develop the skill of developing plots? Every writer will evolve his or her personal process, but let me suggest a few useful principles.

Principle 1: Brainstorm

You have a seed. What does it make you think of?

Scribble things down on paper or index cards. Images. Situations. Bits of action or scenes. Social repercussions. Whatever. As you probably know, the point of brainstorming is to gush out ideas without censoring what comes up. Later on you can decide which ideas are “good” and “bad”, but when you’re starting out, judgment is counterproductive. Write down anything that comes to mind, even if some critical voice in your head says it’s stupid, clichéd, obscene, or any of those other things that critical voices moan about. (Your Inner Critic can be useful in later stages of the writing process, especially once you train the Critic to be a team player…but the Critic has no place when you’re just getting started. Every car needs good brakes, but if you keep the brakes jammed on from the moment you start the car, you’ll never get anywhere.)

Of course, you can also brainstorm at a computer, typing in anything that comes to mind. Personally, I think it’s useful to divide your brainstorming time between the computer and other media (notebooks, index cards, Post-it notes, whiteboards…). Maybe it’s just my own superstition, but I feel as if my brain works differently when I’m writing by hand as opposed to when I’m keyboarding.
You might also try working in different places: on a porch in a sun, in a coffee shop, in a library. When you’re brainstorming, you’re looking for quantity of ideas, and changing your working conditions can help.

Principle 2: What Will Make Your Characters Sweat?

Once you’ve done a good chunk of brainstorming, let things incubate. Don’t commit to anything until you sleep on it, especially if you’re looking at a major project. (Some short stories practically write themselves, in which case, don’t get in their way—write what’s demanding to be written. The skills I’m talking about in the Skill List Project are the ones that help you do good work even when you aren’t in the grip of a white-hot gift from the gods.)

When you feel ready, revisit your brainstorming notes. Almost certainly, some ideas will feel more juicy than others. Make note of those, and start putting things together in a way that will make your characters sweat.

What do I mean by that? I’m sure your English teachers told you that stories are about conflict…or as I prefer to put it, about characters confronting difficulties. No difficulties, no story. (We might dream of living a trouble-free existence, but we’d be bored reading about it.)

So starting from your seed, how does it lead to one or more characters getting into difficulty? If your seed is, say, a clever new bit of science fiction technology, who’s going to suffer because of it? What kind of trouble will it cause for individuals or society? What would be the pushback? Who are the winners and losers?

If your seed is an interesting character, what would make that character’s life worse? What would test his or her mettle? What would force that character to make hard choices and undertake challenging deeds?

If your seed is some kind of dramatic situation, who would be hurt by that situation? What kind of character would take it especially badly? What would make the situation even worse?

By thinking about such questions, you can develop the elements of a plot, along with a cast of characters who’ll be affected by what’s going on.

Principle 3: Inner and Outer Go Hand in Hand

It’s not enough for your characters to face difficulties—the characters must be emotionally invested in what’s going on. Ideally, the most important character(s) should be dealing with social or psychological issues that play off against the overt physical difficulties.

To pick a time-honored example, suppose your characters are accidentally transported back to the age of the dinosaurs. That will obviously give them lots of overt difficulties to overcome, and (usually, but not necessarily) the overall problem of, “How do we get back home?” It can be fun reading about how characters come up with clever survival schemes but adding psychological depth increases the reader’s involvement. A particular character may start out completely self-centered, but slowly develop loyalty to the group. Another might be fearful and neurotic, but gradually develop courage. A third might go through a test of faith, while a fourth learns humility and a fifth gains a measure of redemption from past sins.

When I state these character issues baldly, they sound like clichés, and if done badly, the result could make readers cringe. Yet the principle still applies: major characters should go through an inner journey as well as an outer one, and your plotting should take that into consideration. Luke Skywalker can’t just succeed by being a good shot; he has to learn to use the Force.

Principle 4: How Much Do You Need Before You Start?

Some writers create complete plot outlines before they start to write. Others start as soon as they have a basic situation and a few significant characters. Part of developing your own writing process is learning how much you need to prepare before you’re ready to begin. Are you the sort of writer who has to know exactly where you’re going, or does too much advance planning simply get in the way?

There are no right answers; everyone is different. Personally, I like to know what “engine” will drive the action—the underlying crisis that will keep getting worse, thereby forcing the protagonists to keep upping their game—but for me, it’s counterproductive to decide very much in advance. I like to discover and develop the plot as I go along; good ideas and insights will accrue from the day-to-day writing process, far better than if I try to chart a detailed course beforehand.

But that’s my way; it might not be yours. And I’ve heard of at least one very good writer who reinvents her approach with every novel: planning everything for one book, then practically nothing for the next, changing things up whenever she starts again.

Whatever works—whatever keeps you going until the story is done. The principles I’ve just listed should help you come up with the elements of your plots, but that’s only the first step. As in chemistry, you have to assemble the elements in useful combinations if you want to produce anything new. I’ll say a lot more about organizing and choreographing plot elements in future postings.

Tune in Next Time

Now it’s your turn. How do you go about developing a plot around a seed? What helps? What hurts? No approach will work for everyone, but it’s always interesting to learn how writers start building their foundations. Comment away!

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There are 5 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. Mary

    When brainstorming it helps if you can introduce your original idea to other ideas. Six or seven ideas can make a story jell.

  2. 2. Eric C.

    Thank you for the great list! This links right into something I wrote yesterday. I was struggling to identify ways to help grow my original idea for a story. I was going to write a comment here, but it was too long. So I put something up on my blog: http://www.eric-christensen.com/2011/09/30/comment-on-sfnovelists-com-article-starting-to-plot/

    Thanks again for this post and the Skills List Project. I’m a big fan.

  3. 3. Elias McClellan

    Great points Mr. Gardner. The hardest, of course, is, “Later on you can decide which ideas are “good” and “bad”, but when you’re starting out, judgment is counterproductive.”

    One of my more influential English professors extolled the virtues of free writing with editing as part of the honning process. And I know we all (except for Master Harlan Ellison) do this to one degree or another as part of the process. However, when beginning, if I don’t hewn very closely to the scene that sets the story off in my mind, I lose my way.

    Your tips on developing the story by developing the characters by developing the conflict is an excellent reminder/primer. Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful article.

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Author Information

James Alan Gardner

James Alan Gardner got his M.Math from the University of Waterloo with a thesis on black holes...and then he immediately started writing science fiction instead. He's been a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula awards, and has won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award as well as the Aurora award (twice). He's published seven novels (beginning with "Expendable"), plus a short story collection and (for street cred) a Lara Croft book. He cares deeply about words and sentences, and is working his way up to paragraphs. Visit site.

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