07 June 2013

One Thing Leads to Another: Story Planning

This is the fourth installment in the continuing story of "Editing Mister D," a joint project to coach British nonfiction writer Pete Oxley through completion and publication of his first novel-length fiction work.

Pete and I have been batting his story outline back and forth for about a week, with all sorts of editorial gore, gnashing of teeth, and the obligatory return to drawing board scene.  In short, I'm putting Pete through the wringer, with good reason, and he is coming through with flying colors thus far.

Why is this process so difficult?  We're not trying to do any elaborate setting of scenes or nuanced dialogue.  We're just laying out all of the major plot points in a rough chronological sequence.  The reason, as Pete is finding out, is that we approach our stories in the wrong way.

First, you get the inspiration.  "Eureka!  I have come up with a unique concept that gets me all giddy and makes me want to write and write and write!"  And so you write.  And you write some more.  Then you continue to sit at your computer without writing.  Eventually you realize you're staring blankly at the screen.  "Where was I going with this anyway?" you ask, and then you notice that your Facebook news feed has blown up and you're done writing for the day.  You come back later, but the spark is gone.  Another great idea that just somehow didn't pan out.

If this has ever happened to you, I'll wager you didn't outline your story.  You didn't really nail down the storyline.  You didn't develop your characters or setting enough.  And you probably didn't give near enough thought to your plot.  Your great idea was doomed by your failure to create a compelling story in which that idea could come to fruition.

Not all writers distinguish between outline, storyline, character, setting, and plot the way I do, so let me explain by dragging out the shopworn metaphor of the roadmap.  Let's say you're taking a lengthy road trip.  You have a map (we'll use an old-fashioned paper map) with a line drawn from your starting point to your destination.  This is your outline.  It shows how you're going to get from Point A to Point B and nothing more.

Does your route take you through bustling cities or desolate deserts?  Daytime or nighttime? Are you a passenger on a bus or alone in your car?  Are you driving a gleaming sports car, an eighteen-wheeler, or a decrepit jalopy that might not quite make the trip?  This is your setting.

Now, if you hop in your car and start driving, you're a character in this story.  Any passengers?  More characters.  Every gas station attendant, motel desk clerk, and short order cook you run into is a character.  And your destination will surely be populated with at least one more character.  You're driving, so we'll say you're the main protagonist.  But why are you driving from Point A to Point B?  What's so great about Point B, anyway?

This is where our plot comes into play.  Why are you driving?  Are you running away from something?  Are you meeting someone?  Why is it important to meet them?  What will you gain?  What will you lose by leaving Point A?  What if you don't reach your destination?  These kinds of questions, and their answers, make up the plot.  The plot is the very reason for telling the story.  Without a plot, you never would have got into the car in the first place.

Now, the storyline combines all four of these critical components--outline, characters, setting, and plot--in an organized fashion.  It looks just like an outline, except that it includes the rationale for everything that happens including the back story, or things that happened before the story started.
As an example, here's a short excerpt from Pete's outline of The Whitechapel Incident stripped down to just the story outline components:
  • Augustus is drinking in a dingy tavern in the East End
  • He is approached by a prostitute he knows.
  • She tells him about a series of terrible murders caused by "the devil."
  • Augustus agrees to walk her home.
  • As they walk, the streets grow quieter and quieter
  • They are attacked
All right, we have our setting, which is Victorian London's East End.  We have three characters, Augustus, the prostitute, and the attacker.  What motivates these characters?  Why is Augustus drinking in a tavern?  How well does he know this prostitute?  Why is she drawn to Augustus to ask for his help?  What is the nature of this attacker?  These questions have to have some fairly detailed answers, or the characters become lifeless forms drifting from scene to scene.  (Pete has answered most of these questions, but not all of them).

Many of the questions about character are bound up in the plot, and vice versa.  On the surface, Pete's story is an adventure, with a series of events providing the structure for what is a fairly complex plot involving discovery, metamorphosis, transformation, and rivalry.  Since rivalry is a plot component, perhaps Augustus is drinking because he has had a disagreement with his comparatively successful brother.  We can assume that, but Pete has to know that.

Now there are several things that can move the plot forward, and the writer has to have a firm hand on all of them.  Ideally, the characters move the plot forward.  Augustus is drinking because he is dissatisfied with his station in life.  Consequently, he frequents taverns and houses of ill repute.  Consequently, he encounters a prostitute he has met before.  We have a sensible, logical progression of events.

As it happens, the attack by the mysterious "devil" is a plot device.  In other words, it only happens to advance the story, present the protagonists with a challenge, and move them closer to solving their mysteries and meeting their respective fates.  There are many kinds of plot devices, but there are only two rules that I observe: first, use them sparingly, and second, do not use them gratuitously.  To boil it down to one rule: use them only when nothing else will do.

As you have no doubt guessed, all of this planning is an extraordinary amount of work, but I have good news: The amount of detail you put into your storyline is up to you, and you can start writing at any time.  Indeed, if you have a good feel for your characters, a plot hole just might resolve itself by writing a few pages of dialogue.  However, leaving gaping plot holes and largely unanswered questions go until you're writing the last chapter is a roadmap that leads nowhere.

As Pete and I have gone through his outline and components of his storyline, several weaknesses have become readily apparent, which is precisely why we do it.  The purpose is not to shoot holes in your story until you give up on it; the purpose is to fill holes and give you the confidence to finish.  Adequate preparation sets you up for a successful story, just as knowing your destination, your route, your passengers, and your goals set you up for a successful road trip.  And just as you can take side trips during your journey and make unexpected acqaintances along the way, your story planning doesn't have to hem you into a static, pre-chewed formula.  It's your story to tell any way you like, and the right amount of planning is the key to doing just that.

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