Thursday, August 23, 2012

Plot wrestling

I can't believe it! I looked back and it's over a year since I last posted about the Writer's Toolkit.

After all my posts about different kinds of tools to help in different situations, there I was this summer trying to wrestle a plot to the ground, and casting around for the right tools to help me out.

What helped me get moving again was the use of two tools, and, true to the central theme in the Writer's Toolkit series, both of them got modified to suit my immediate purpose.

First, the challenge...

Tiamat's Nest is a web of causal connections. There's a lot of things happening that affects what people know at any given moment, and how they act subsequently. Lots of "X knows this because of Y, but Z doesn't know that yet..."

And there's four major individuals or groups of characters, plus several other minor players, each playing out their own independent story. And these different threads criss-cross and connect to each other.

That's a lot to keep track of and to weave into a single story, and at the point where I got stuck I hadn't fathomed half of it out yet. It felt a bit like wrestling an octopus. The challenge for me was to depict the web in a way that allowed me to see the big picture, and flesh out the details without getting bogged down by them.

The solution...

Tool Number One was inspired by Randy Ingermanson. In a recent newsletter, he talked about story threads and writing character synopses, where you examine each main character in turn and write a brief synopsis of their part in the story.

In Randy's technique, each successive synopsis builds on the previous one and takes you further into the story as a whole. I modified this slightly so that they didn't run together into a linear whole, but essentially told the story from that character's point of view so I had several parallel synopses.

The benefit of this is that it got me closer to the characters, and allowed me to advance the story based on each character's perspective. This was great for ensuring consistency. It also persuaded me to choose a focus character where I previously had a group. The other members of the group are still there, but I now have a much crisper view of the action and a more personal perspective.

Tool Number Two was a modification of something I've used before - a timeline with swimlanes for each main character.

I had tried this originally, because the tool worked very well for me in Ghosts...
...but this is where I very quickly got bogged down in the extra mess of detail present in Tiamat's Nest.

The modification that helped me out was to forget the time aspect for now, and to focus on the key events that cross threads. Instead of each row in the table representing a block of time, each row now introduces a key event in the story. Where the row crosses columns for the main characters, I describe the character's part in that event, plus subsequent actions along that character's story thread for as long as they stay confined to that particular thread.
In this way, I can map out the major highlights of the story and keep the detail under control. This way of arranging information also helps with ensuring that each character's story remains consistent.

Now, you may have noticed that both of these approaches duplicate a lot of information. This is not a good thing. Duplication is wasteful at best. At worst, it gives ample opportunity for introducing contradictions, because keeping duplicate sets of information in step through the inevitable modifications is tricky and error-prone.

I am still working through the plotting, but the way I see it, the character synopses were a great way to get me into my characters' heads. I doubt if I'll flesh out the entire story in this way. Now I've got started on the tabular format, and transferred relevant data over from the synopses, I see this is my main vehicle for the rest of the plot. I will also need to overlay my timeline back onto it eventually, but for now I'm more concerned with the order of events and connections between them.

So, how about you? Do you have any favorite techniques for wrestling a troublesome plot to the ground? Do you use any structured tools? Do you take what you've seen other people do and stick to "the rules", or do you like to innovate to suit your purpose?


  1. I think I'd get lost in all of that! I usually just get the basics down in the outline and then build it up from that point. My last outline took four months before I felt I was ready to write.

  2. Alex, I am half-way between plotter and pantser. I need enough of an outline to know where I'm heading, and then I write, then flip back & forth between writing and fleshing out the outline. The point about this post is that this is an instance where I need to lay out the plot connections in a visible way, no matter which order I do things in.

  3. I am merely an aspiring writer, I don't have your experience nor your astonishing organizational skills. I am more of a "go with the flow" kinda gal. Your methods might spare me lots of hours of rewriting ..but to me...that has its charms as well. You have a beautiful mind Ian :).

  4. With each new project, I find myself outlining more. I think it's because I'm, uh, getting smarter. Solving the problems ahead of time is sooo much easier!

  5. Right now I'd be happy is there were time to write. First week of school and I spend my time running back and forth.
    You'll get your problems worked out soon, I'm sure.

  6. Unikorna, some people find the rewriting to be the most enjoyable part. I don't, so I plan ahead in order to minimize later pain. Personal preference. That's the beauty of writing - there's no right or wrong way to go about it. All that counts is the words on the page at the end of it.

    Anita, I wouldn't consider myself smarter. I am in awe of those lucky folks who can sit down to a blank page and just let the words flow with no idea where they are heading. I've opened a few stories like that and it's a fabulous feeling while it lasts, but my insecurity wins out int the end and I have to wrestle the bigger picture into some shape before I can continue.

    Danette, that is a familiar feeling. Some days I find it tough carving out even an hour to write. Are you back to school already down there? We have another week yet before the fun begins.

  7. I like the idea of character synopses. I do have a plot running out of control right now. Yikes! As series progress, it becomes more and more necessary to find a way to keep things in line, to keep details straight and organized. Nice post, Ian.

    Is your first book published? If so, link? :-)

  8. Character synopses were a good start. More than that, I'm actually drafting separate threads by character at the moment and I'll knit them together later.

  9. I like the idea of character synopses and Randy Inngermanson's idea that each successive synopsis builds on the previous one and takes you further into the story as a whole. This helps me with my plot and getting to know my characters better. It is also a useful tool and it is good to know the goal, motivation and conflict of each character and how their GMC intersects and conflicts with your protagonist's GMC.

    My husband recently lost my briefcase (long and crazy story) but It contained a few of my notebooks. I write my first draft with pen and paper and then transfer it to my laptop. I was so upset and thought I might lose my mind. It contained notebooks of material that had not been transferred to my computer. I managed to calm down and figured out a way to solve the problem (well minimize it). I used some of the tools I have learned from writers. websites, workshops etc., and I managed to recreate the lost scenes by plotting them according to what I knew about the character's goal, motivation, conflict and disaster from each scene. So, I love having tools as a way to work things out, whether it is in the beginning or while struggling during the middle or because of some unforeseeable crazy accident. Great post and I like your charts.

    BTW. You are the second winner of my random comment drawing. You have won a copy of Jennifer Hiller's latest thriller, Freak. Please email me and let me know if you want me to have Amazon mail you the hard copy or if you prefer the Kindle edition. Sugarlaw67 at yahoo dot com.

    Congratulations and thanks for visiting my blog.
    Melissa Sugar

  10. I’m not a very organized writer, and am most definitely a pantser, but the method I’ve used for many years works well for me. I think each of us must simply find what works best for us.

    Some of my writer friends prefer to keep things highly structured and they stick to the rules and their original outline. It works for them.

    I basically just make lots of notes in different files about the storyline, the characters (including all sorts of details about them), and any pertinent research (I’m definitely a research junkie and want my facts to be accurate). As I think of something else, I open the corresponding file and add it.

    As long as I write things down to record them, I’m fine. It’s when I neglect writing something down, certain that I’ll remember it, that I get myself into trouble.

    I always amaze myself with each book that somehow I’ve managed to succeed in pulling all my haphazardly written notes together to craft a good story—and that’s the best feeling in the world!

  11. Melissa, do you take Randy's E-zine? He has some interesting ideas. I'm nowhere near disciplined to put even a fraction of them into practice, but once in a while an idea takes root. That's a scary story about your notes. Somehow, we always assume hard copy notes to be so much safer from accidental loss that those on computer.

    Susan, I am happy to modify my outline to match where the story is heading, so I'm not half as structured as I sometimes appear. Your collections of files sounds very similar to my own. I also need to record facts so that I'll be consistent later.


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