Supposedly a writer who has written several novels knows what a plot is. Supposedly said writer has studied everything there is to study about writing and has formed a solid understanding of craft basics, plot being one of the most important of them. Here comes a secret. Are you ready for this?
I have written 3 novels (well, 1 of them a trilogy) and I've been cutting off my head and slamming it against the wall every single time someone asked me about plot or suggested I do something to my plot or else, attempting to discuss my plots with me, rightly assuming that I know what I'm doing. Well, I don't. I mean, I sort of do, but not really. Plot is that elusive thing that was giving me nightmares. I'm about to reveal to you the mystery, the puzzle, the riddle of plotting, and I expect you to shower me with affection for this, said affection consisting of cash and of more cash and of various precious metals delivered to my door tomorrow.
Here is the evolution of my plot understanding and struggles for you. It is but an epic saga. Pop your popcorn and settle in.
- If you read books or articles on plotting, they all say the same thing. Plot is a string of events that make up a story. This definition always confused me. I couldn't understand how it was different from the story itself, but I went along with it and wrote my first trilogy.
- I have plotted Siren Suicides to death, carefully writing out chapter after chapter in little summaries in a notebook, making notes, crossing things out, rewriting and rewriting it, until I was satisfied. I knew my plot. I was ready to start writing. Only this was the first and the last story I have ever plotted.
- With Rosehead, my second novel, I have abandoned plotting in favor of pantsing (which is simply writing every day by the seat of your pants with only a vague idea of where the story is going) or, as some call it, drafting. Plotters usually have fewer drafts than pantsers, or drafters. It's because plotters set out writing what they already know, and drafters discover the story through multiple drafts. I felt constricted by the whole plotting idea, it took the fun and the discovery out of writing.
- With Irkadura I have, again, gone the drafting route. In it, I would use multiple post-it notes to steer me in the right direction. In would go like this. I'd write a draft, set it aside for 2 weeks, come back to it, read it, take copious post-it notes, then start the next draft and guide myself by those sticky notes hanging on the board above my table, peeling them off one by one as I'd go along. Those were my events in the plot. I still didn't get what it meant.
- Now I'm writing Corners. And I have read From Where You Dream, a little book on writing fiction. Its author, Robert Butler, said that plotting is the character's yearning for something like that. And it suddenly clicked for me.
PLOT IS YOUR CHARACTER'S WANT.
This is why I couldn't understand the logic of it. I didn't come to writing from studying it and wanting to become a writer, I came to writing through my pain, through therapy, and I have written characters with strong wants simply because those were my wants, and they were driving me bananas. If I didn't write them out, I'd probably explode.
This makes sense because every good story is driven by characters. Plot is secondary. Anything plotted before characters usually sucks. It might be beautifully executed, with long flowing sentences that make you open your mouth in awe, but they leave you cold. For the longest time I couldn't understand why people would read my books since I don't think they're written that well. Not yet. Irkadura comes close to how I want my writing to look like, but still, it's years away from perfection, at least the level of perfection that I'm striving for.
But now I get it. People are reading my books because they are after my character's wants. They forgive my mishaps and novice blunders and flowery or coarse or muddy prose for the story, and the story hinges on the characters.
This understanding has liberated something in me. Plot is not the structure that drives characters to do things, it's the other way around. Characters drive plot. And there are no "types of plots," so please don't fall into the trap of reading about them: the journey, the love story, the whatever. None of this matters. Yes, people will attempt to categorize your book once it's written, yes, they will discuss your plot, but only because we're used to categorizing things in an attempt to understand them, to know what shelf to put it on in a bookstore.
Here is the rub.
Art is not understood. Art is felt.
The greatest stories have made us all feel something. That's all. And what we felt were the wants of characters. All you have to do is know what your character wants. It can be as simple as a glass of water. You can write a whole novel based on this simple desire. You can break people's hearts.
Here comes the fun part. You know how every story has the good guys and the bad guys? Well, all my writing comes from facing the monsters of my past, both people and concepts. So I have distilled my book plots in this manner. Here they are for your amusement (and, perhaps, enlightenment):
- SIREN SUICIDES: I want to teach a monster a lesson.
- ROSEHEAD: I want to investigate a monster.
- IRKADURA: I want to make sense of monsters.
- CORNERS: We want to escape monsters.
- TUBE: I want to love a monster.
- JANNA: I want to kill monsters.
- MARQUIS: I want to make fun of monsters.
- CUPID: I want to date monsters.
- SEAMSTRESS: I want to imitate monsters.
I must step aside and give you a little background on the novels mentioned here. Corners is the one I'm writing right now, about 4 kids jumping in and out of 25 books. Tube will be about a ballerina-eating train. Janna about a black woman serial killer murdering rapists. Marquis about a dog born as a cat and befriending a pigeon. Cupid about a librarian divorcing after a barren 30-year-long marriage and discovering sex. Seamstress about a girl sewing copies of people's clothes and becoming those people when dressed like them. I have more novels planned, but suddenly the road is very clear.
NO MORE BLOODY NOTES.
Yes, this is another thing that dawned on me. All these post-it notes were holding me back just like the plotting ideas did. Once I put a note down, I was very tempted to use it. Just like when you plot, you are naturally wanting to stick to it because you have invested so much time in those notes. Well, I will let my characters dictate what they want and ditch all the notes. On Monday, when I'm starting to read the second draft of Corners, I won't take a single note. I will try to feel what each of my 4 characters wants. That's all.
Based on all this every plot breaks down to:
A CHARACTER WANTS SOMETHING.
A CHARACTER SETS OUT TO GET IT.
A CHARACTER EITHER GETS IT OR NOT.
There is your three-act structure. Or whatever. Now, to tie it all together, think about your novel's opening line. If you know what your main character wants, you will have no trouble doing it, and at the same time you will hook the reader. Consider some of the most famous openings:
"The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed." Bam. Who is the main character? The gunslinger. What does he want? To catch the man in black. Who is the bad guy? Must be this dude in black. In one sentence both the protagonist and the antagonist are introduced, and the plot, and the whole novel, no, the entire Dark Tower series is summarized.
"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins." Boom. We know the pain, the yearning, the overwhelming desire. Which is another thing you must do. Every want comes from a void. There is something missing from your character's life, and that is why your character wants it. Be sure to tell the reader about this in the first couple sentences.
"I am an invisible man." Ka-ching! Could you have said it any shorter and any better?
"If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth." Drumroll!! We feel the pain and the want right away.
A couple more. Just because I can't help myself. See if you recognize them.
"Mother died today."
"He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish."
"It was a pleasure to burn."
"You better not never tell nobody but God."
Now I am curious to analyze my own openings which I wrote intuitively, without understanding all this beautiful stuff I've written for you above.
"I chose to die in the bathroom because it’s the only room in the house that can be locked." Okay, not bad. There is a pain and a want here, but I didn't need to explain it (the fear of every beginning writer—what if the reader won't get it??), "because" could've been cut.
"Lilith Bloom had a peculiar feeling that the rose garden wanted to eat her." Whack! I get it. I get the want. But perhaps it could be stronger, though I wanted it to be funny, and it is funny.
"I wake up and feel for the boar." I don't know. Some people tell me a better opening line for Irkadura would been the one that comes 15 sentences later. "It’s good you have a fat dick, Lyosha. Something for me to hold on to, when I gut you." Or maybe it would've been better if it opened with, "He tried to sell me yesterday." But Irkadura is one of those novels where I want you to sense the duplicity of the main character's world from the start, so I still stand behind the "boar" opening line, because it's so inconceivable to imagine. Why would one wake up next to a boar? Where could that happen? How? At the same time, the want is clear. The want is to make sense of the monsters, and one way of doing it is to pretend they're animals, and that's what Irina does.
"It was a bad idea, turning corners, especially corners of pages." Okay, this is the current opening of Corners, and it's weak. I will be working on it, now that I understand the process of writing better. Albeit this is only the second draft, so nothing to worry about. Corners is about kids escaping the monsters in their lives by reading books. Eventually they will learn—through reading—to face them, to conquer them. And that is the want that I have to capture somehow in the opening. It'll be hard work, but I'm ready for it.
Are you ready for it? Good. Let's do it. Let's plot and write and want.