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.
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...
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.
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?