Monday, May 23, 2011

Part One: How much Plot is too much Plot?

You’d think there’d be a rule or something. God knows, there are rules for everything else. Is there a percentage or specific technique you have to use when you plot? How important “is” plot and is plot-heavy a bad word?

Plot-driven writers rarely struggle with an overabundance of plot because plot takes precedence over character, but character-driven writers are always struggling with the three biggies.

1. “It’s not a story if it’s not about something.”
2. “Are my people doing enough?”
3. “It’s not exciting.”

And in a huge amount of ways, the reason there isn’t a single pat answer is because there are many, long answers that touch on a lot more than plot.

So let’s look at the first statement—it’s not a story if it’s not about something.

A story shouldn’t just be about two people having dinner, not because you can’t write about two people and dinner, but because there’s a limited readership. If John and Jane eat dinner it actually “is” a story. There’s a beginning, where they decide what to eat, a middle, where they eat, and an end, where they stop eating.

By itself, John and Jane’s dinner isn’t interesting, so maybe the statement needs to be: A story should be about something interesting enough to hold a reader’s attention.

You “want” the dinner in there, in fact—you want to open with the dinner, and that’s okay. You can keep it if you know why you want to keep it.

A. You just like writing about dinner. No reason. It’s good word count and eating is sexy.

Is John feeding Jane strawberries dipped in champagne while she’s straddling him and she’s tearing each one off the green part with a growl and a toss of her head? Then it’s not sexy. Unless your people are actually doing something that an independent reader considers sexy—it’s not, and it needs to be reworked.

Look at the proportion. How much food preparation, food description, and weasel-wording adjectives do you have in there?

Does it start with Jane walking into the kitchen?
Jane walked into the kitchen, pulled out a pan and set it on the stove.

Continue with her getting out some food and cooking it.
Then she opened the refrigerator, pulled out two sirloin steaks she’d bought at the butcher yesterday knowing John would stop by, and deliberated over the butter. Butter wasn’t as healthy as olive oil, but olive oil didn’t taste as good.

--which is guilty of a couple of sins.

There’s no reason for Jane to walk into the kitchen. Dinner with John doesn’t count. The first sentence definitely “shows” Jane getting ready to cook, but it’s stripped. There’s no color or emotion.

What’s going on, other than Jane and her pan? Does she feel anything about John or the situation? And what’s up with the mini info-dump and butter? Are they just leftover thoughts--stuff your mom told you about butter and olive oil that you wanted to get in there because you were writing about steak? And where’s John?

Scenes operate on more than one level. If this is simply a scene about John and Jane eating dinner—and it doesn’t do what you want it to do, then it can condensed.

After John and Jane ate dinner…

…because it’s not important or interesting.

But, you want to keep the scene because it’s important to you.

When you feel something is important, it’s simply your subconscious telling you it “is”. Character-driven writers don’t always know why something is important because until recently plot was way more important--story is about something, remember--which meant there had to be a solid, plot-backed reason for dinner to happen.

You’re writing the scene, wondering why your characters aren’t jumping off the page, wondering if maybe you should have great-aunt Lucia, the half gypsy fortuneteller drop by, or maybe Uncle Benny, the guy who works for the mob. Or maybe you already thought of it and Lucia and Benny, one dog, two cats, John’s childhood friend, Bill, the undercover cop and Busby the flying circus monkey are already sitting around the dinner table waiting for steak.

Little do John and Jane know, that Lucia is really clairvoyant, and can “see” Benny and Bill facing off at the circus where John will try to rescue his friend and Jane will run between John and Benny who will shoot Jane so John can realize just how much he loves her. But luckily, Busby the flying monkey also loves Jane and throws himself in front of her, which knocks her to the ground giving her the appearance of being killed so John and Jane can have their happily ever after.

It’s like that bumper sticker, “Got Plot?” There’s a lot going on.

What’s your gut feeling? You want to show the relationship between John and Jane? Or the inciting incident for the story? The reason the characters aren’t jumping off the page isn’t because it’s lacking plot, it’s because there’s no emotional investment.

Why should I care if Jane uses butter? She’s not a thinker, she hasn’t shown me she’s got hidden depths, and “..knowing John would drop by” what does that mean? Does she hate John, love John, want to kill him?

The scene doesn’t need extra people; it needs focus and the right proportion.
Maybe Jane looks out the window, watching for John’s car or hesitates over the butter because of John. That leans the focus a little more toward John and Jane’s relationship.

Then she opened the refrigerator and pulled out a sirloin steak for her, and a piece of flounder for John. John liked butter, but she hated the thought of him with clogged arteries. Olive oil was healthier for him.

There's a higher proportion of Jane's feelings about John, and she feels a little more controlling.

That’s because John and Jane break up during dinner—he can’t stand her controlling ways and she can’t understand why he doesn’t see it’s her way of showing love.

You can have two people eating dinner if you feel it needs to be in the story, “and” it shows something about the people or starts something in the story—or continues something in the story.

It’s not a story if it’s not about something.

Relationships and characterization are something. Adding in Lucia, Benny and Bill--that's just overkill unless the story you're trying to write is an over the top romantic suspense with comedic elements.

Next up:
Are my people doing enough?

14 comments:

Hailey Edwards said...

It's like you're reading my mind. Every time, every project, I worry I don't have enough plot. Or I don't have the right plot. Or it's a bad plot.

I will be glued to my seat for this.

jodi said...

it's actually my version of a mini-workshop while I figure out what I want to say. :)

er...if you have questions, that'd be cool. That way I can tweak it or get a better focus

deanna said...

Characters drive my life, and my writing, so I love your instruction. I always need to revisit whether what I'm doing is about something, so I can know why I'm telling it to people (or if I should be). Thanks, Jodi.

jodi said...

lol, Deanna. You're more than welcome :)

Janet said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Janet said...

(Deleted previous post because of typos)

Great post! I thought you meant the plotting posts i should read were in the archives. I'm going to love these new ones.

So we get rid of all those quirky secondary characters and just focus on Jane and John. They are having dinner so this dinner needs to show characterisation, John and Jane's relationship, their feelings towards each other and a certain amount of tension arising from that.

So anything that happens in the external world needs to come from John and Jane's feelings? If she accidentally splashes hot fat on her hand it's because she finds John so attractive she can't concentrate properly on what she's doing? If she chops the carrots with a series of rapid staccatto motions it's because John has said something to make her angry. She can't come out and say she's angry so her body language shows it instead.

Then in addition to this, both characters need to want something from this dinner? We need to know why each of them is there and what each hopes to gain from it?

So the dinner is in our story to bring the characters together (and keep them together for a short while)and to bring out the tensions in their relationship?

jodi said...

1 of 2

(Deleted previous post because of typos)

....lol, I speak typo-ese.

So we get rid of all those quirky secondary characters and just focus on Jane and John. They are having dinner so this dinner needs to show characterisation, John and Jane's relationship, their feelings towards each other and a certain amount of tension arising from that.

...You can and don’t “have” to have secondaries. If secondaries work for you—I’d say just put them in. Usually it’s just back brain working for you, giving you reflection characters (like Hauge would say) or some way of pointing out what your character needs or doesn’t need. Maybe you’ve got a subconscious theme going and your secondaries are the reinforcement.

...But yes, I strongly feel that a contemporary doesn’t need secondaries strong enough for their own plots. Brockman does it beautifully, but the secondary plots are strong enough to read on their own. If you want to do it that way, it’s simply a matter of voice, but then it becomes a multiple protagonist story and not a co-protagonist story like most romances.

...which is a lot of wordage for me to say, yes. If you tighten the focus and keep the story from flying off all over the place, characterization and the emotional under structure of the story will actually create the needed story events. Sort of like a fill in the blank template.

...You already have the “big” idea. Maybe…this story is about John and Jane breaking up only to find out they love each other so much they have to talk. Which sounds pretty simple, but is actually enough of a plot to drive at least 60k.

So anything that happens in the external world needs to come from John and Jane's feelings? If she accidentally splashes hot fat on her hand it's because she finds John so attractive she can't concentrate properly on what she's doing? If she chops the carrots with a series of rapid staccatto motions it's because John has said something to make her angry. She can't come out and say she's angry so her body language shows it instead.

...YES!! Nice catch. You’re actually talking about a lot of things, although you’re coming at it very organically. In other words? It’s flowing out of your realization that story events happen because of story emotions and story emotions come from character.

...You’re layering, showing and creating subtext all at the same time, because “you” know John and Jane, what they’re feeling and their subconscious motivations. People don’t always realize what’s going on in their heads, but a writer needs to know what’s going on, what you want to happen (ideally) and if what “does” happen is true to character. AND you have to be flexible enough to work with events even if they’re not what you wanted, but are true to your people.

Then in addition to this, both characters need to want something from this dinner? We need to know why each of them is there and what each hopes to gain from it?

...nicely said.

So the dinner is in our story to bring the characters together (and keep them together for a short while)and to bring out the tensions in their relationship?

...the dinner is there because you want it there. Every story needs to start somewhere and people tend to have things they really love and can’t part with. A ball. A dance? Their mom’s kitchen or a cute meet of some sort.

jodi said...

2 of 2

...you can set John and Jane anywhere and the same scene will play out. Where you choose to put it, what you have in the scene and how your people act and move and dress are all style choices and part of your voice. You can have them meeting at Olive Garden, driving to Reno (while Jane fiddles with the GPS and worries that John is tired and needs to let her drive) or running in a half marathon. Dinner is simply a device. It’s the forced proximity (many people don’t get their hero and heroine together) and fact a dinner takes a set time (usually). So you’re right in that too. The time, the contact, and the interaction. That’s the important stuff when it comes to characters. You can’t show character or story in a vacuum.

Nice job. :)

Janet said...

Thank you, Jodi. I'm beginning to understand this much better now. I was far too worried about making my external plot interesting.

I see now that it doesn't matter if external story events are mundane, because that isn't the true plot.

Our plot isn't that they go out to dinner, take a stroll on the moomlight and spend the next day having a picnic. (All pretty banal stuff) The real plot is actually a series of conversations leading to emotional change!

Gradually they reveal things they've each kept hidden from the other, and come to understand they've made wrong assumptions about each other. Just when it looks as though their emotonal issues are about to be resolved something happens to remind them why they can't be together.(To keep up that emotional tension)

The external plot is only there to keep the two charcters together while they sort out their emotional issues. They could spend the whole book in a cottage trapped in a snow storm and the story wouldn't be boring if we got the emotional tension right. So we need to make sure we have a really good conflict --one that can't be solved easily.

A synopsis for this sort of story maybe needs to be a conflict synopsis ---the story will have a clear structure with goals and obstacles as in a more plot-led story , but the goals and obstacles need to be emotional ones?

jodi said...

Very true. And I almost capitalized that. :)

When most people write synopsizes (which I can never spell, btw) they hit external highlights, and that's not what a character-driven story runs on. I really hate things that start with...

...and then John hits Jane backing out of the driveway, but she really isn't hurt. Only her prized tri-color peony which a friend of hers who'd won the Cheshire Garden show three times running had given her. Later, during the local garden show, Jane meets John again--but "this" time he's a judge.

I mean--what does that have to do with anything? It's all externals Nothing about what Jane wants out of the garden show, or whether or not John feels bad about hitting Jane and killing her prized specimen.

In a character-driven synopsis you'd want to talk about why Jane wants her plant to win, and what John feels about Jane. Maybe he feels enormous guilt and gives her first place when she doesn't deserve it.

Maybe Jane needs to let go and realize she doesn't need the prize, or taking something she didn't win isn't worth much, and John needs to realize what he did was wrong and take the prize back--clearing the record. And if he's fallen in love with her by then, totally blowing up his own relationship.

Honor v. love. Honor v. self-respect. And can you really, truly love someone if you don't like yourself first?

Your comments help me clear my mind. Thanks, Janet.

Jodi

Hailey Edwards said...

I have questions, it's forming them that's the problem. I'm a decent sponge, but good luck wringing anything of use out of me. ;)

I wonder how this applies to fantasy/PNR is my first thought. Since conflict grows out of your characters, the potential for conflict in fantasy is enormous. While I'm content to focus on the characters, there's this sense of "more" hanging over my head.

So while the book could be about the h/h meeting in a small village and talking about their lives in the local tavern, sparking a connection, it feels like it's always more important to talk about the dragon they were each hired to kill which led them to the small village and to their eventual meeting. You know what I mean?

As I type this, it occurs to me that scenario feeds the character-driven aspect because if they were both hired to kill the same dragon, you've got competition. You've also got attraction. Is killing the dragon and winning the purse more important than the connection the h/h feel? Can the hero let the heroine collect the prize even though it's not about money for him, it's about the dragon that ate his parents when he was a small boy and his crusade to rid the world of the vile beasts so other children can sleep soundly at night?

I guess what I'm saying is I have no idea what I'm saying. I'll go back to my corner now. LOL

jodi said...

lol, Hailey. I was saving that for the next installment, but yeah--I was pretty much talking about contemporaries since that's what I usually work on.

I'm going to take your comment and roll into the next installment. It'll help me write faster. :)

suzzy said...

Hi Jodi, I thought this post was very interesting. It's fun to write and get your ideas blossom in the mind of a reader. But I also feel you should have an idea worth passing on when you write. Thanks for all the good tips.

jodi said...

Hi Suzzy! Thank you very much. :)