25th Trillium Award

FICTION CRAFT BY SHAUN SMITH, ET AL

 
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Plot Ploys

With James Bartleman, Lauren B. Davis, Janet Gurtler, S.P. Hozy, Kathy-Diane Leveille, Claire Mulligan, and Cathie Pelletier.

There?s an old question that nicely sums up the plotting challenge: Are you a plotter or a pantser? Meaning, do you plot out your fiction before you begin, or do you fly by the seat of your pants and plot as you write. This month in Fiction Craft, I asked a handful of authors to tell me how they tackle plotting.

Myself, I am a little bit plotter and a little bit pantser. Typically I will have been thinking about a plot in a ?what if? capacity for a while before I start. For example: ?What if a dying old man escapes from prison to see the grandson who doesn?t know he exists?? That?s the scenario that drives the overall story, but it is not the plot, per se. The plot consists of all those intricate little moments that follow one after the next to build the story told in the entire novel. It is the events that happen in the lives of all the characters in the story. When I begin to write, I have a very good sense of where the story is going to go. I may not know in detail every moment that will arise or become necessary to create, but the writing is initially compelled by the basic scenario. But I usually have a large handful of milestones that I know the characters will pass. And I also like to use a Socratic three-act structure as a guideline. So, in that, I am a plotter. But I do not like to intricately plot out each event in the novel before I write because I find it bleeds the life out of the creative process. I trust myself to know enough about where the story is going, to be able to bridge the space between milestones. So, in that I am a pantser. As I write more scenes, and pass existing milestones, new milestones will appear to me. Eventually it becomes necessary to re-cap for oneself everything that has taken place and where it is all headed. But never, for me, does the ?organic? process take a back seat to a pre-meditated structure. What I typically end up with is a flow sheet of sorts that indicates the scenes by title and the narrative path of all the individual characters. This functions like a road map. I know I am going from point ?A? to point ?B?, but I don?t intricately lay out on that map where I am going to give the engine more gas, or where I might put on the brakes. I trust those particulars to the writing process. For me, that journey of discovery is the fun part of writing.

Now, let?s find out how some other writers travel down the plotting highway.

 

James Bartleman is the author of the novels The Redemption of Oscar Wolf and As Long as the Rivers Flow. He lives in Perth, ON.

I have written two novels, As Long as the Rivers Flow released in 2011 and The Redemption of Oscar Wolf in bookstores across Canada in June 2013. Both have social justice themes. As Long as the Rivers Flow deals with the insidious impact on both Native and non-Native Canadians of the Indian Residential School system. The Redemption of Oscar Wolf covers this issue but is broader in scope and could be considered to be a parable of aboriginal life in mid-twentieth century Canada and abroad.

In both cases, after extensive research involving background reading, visits to aboriginal communities in Canada and elsewhere, and in-depth interviews with Native and non-Native people directly concerned with the issues I selected, I sketched out the outlines of character and idea based plots. In other words, I developed story-lines in which external events affected the lives of the principal characters.

In As Long as the Rivers Flow, misguided government policies that ordered the of Indian children from their parents and their relegation to harsh residential schools to be raised constitutes the outside force. In The Redemption of Oscar Wolf, Divine Providence plays a role in the fate of the protagonist. In both books, I deal with issues all readers can relate to: spousal and maternal love, the desire for revenge, the search for meaning in life, hubris, pride, and above all, the need for redemption. In both books as well, after completing my outline, I prepared many dozens of key scenes summary form to be fitted into the evolving plot.

 

Lauren B. Davis is the author of numerous books of fiction, including The Empty Room, The Radiant City, and The Stubborn City. She lives in Princeton, NJ.

I tackle it obliquely, which I realize sounds pretty, well, oblique. What I mean is that I?m not one of those writers who story-boards everything before I write, or who makes graphs and charts and breakdowns of every scene. Perhaps I should, but when I?ve tried that method I get bored with the story before I?ve even started writing it, and that, surely, is the kiss of death. I think it was Margaret Atwood who said story-boarding was, for her, like painting by numbers. I agree. I have to be surprised by the twists and turns of the adventures my characters have in order to maintain enough enthusiasm to get me through the longs months of writing. If I?m not surprised and enthused, how can I expect my readers to be?

Still, I do keep in mind what E.M. Forester said about plot, that it is ?a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. ?The King died and then the queen died,? is a story. ?The king died, and the queen died of grief,? is a plot.? In order words, rather than ask, ?and then what happened?? we should ask, ?why did that happen?? The human desire to know why is as powerful as the desire to know what happened next, and it is a desire of a higher order.

Which leads us back to character. All fiction is about human longing, yearning ? desires both large and small. What does someone want? Why does she want it? Why can?t she have it? What will happen, and why, if she gets it? What about if she doesn?t?

So, beginning with those questions, I begin muddling about with first one scene, then another, first one point of view and then another, until it feels right. I complicate things, throw metaphorical rocks and raging rivers and mountains in my character?s path. And then, round about the hundred page mark, just like magic (which I?m convinced it is) a final scene pops into my head. Once I have that, and not until, I believe I have a book and I aim for that final scene.

What?s always surprised me (and I think I mentioned I love surprise), is that by the time I get to that final scene the people in it, the setting, the dialogue and the events may all have changed, but the emotions, the atmosphere and the resonance never does. In other words, it feels exactly as I first imagined it.

And although it may sound mysterious, that?s the extent of my plotting mechanics. After all, who doesn?t love a good mystery?

 

Janet Gurtler is the author of the novels How I Lost You, I?m Not Her and If I Tell. She lives in Calgary, AB.

Confession. I am a character driven writer. I wish I came up with brilliant Hunger Games-ish plots, with world building and layers of action, but my stories are contemporary and my ideas usually start with a person. Or a scene. An idea. I am definitely a ?panster? writer.

I do love Donald Maass?s book, Writing The Breakout Novel Workbook. I use it with every book I write. It helps me build characters and figure out motivations, which leads me to plotting. Understanding my characters leads to plot points. There is of course a lot of writing that doesn?t take place on paper. Thinking about the story, brewing it.

One of the most essential elements of writing for me is the rewriting. The first draft is where I belch everything out and come up with twists as I move through the story. Revisions give my story shape. Where authors who do extensive outlining do plotting before they write, I tend to do it as I go along. This also means I have to fix a lot later.

When I begin a story I know the basic elements. For example, when I wrote Who I Kissed my story was basically, ?A girl kisses a boy and he dies from what is apparently an anaphylactic reaction to the peanut butter sandwich she ate.?

I built the story around that. I had a main character and an idea. What did she want to accomplish most? Why should the reader root for her? What would keep her from reaching her goal? In Who I Kissed, Sam was a competitive swimmer. She wanted to break records, be the best, and maybe have a chance with a cute boy on her team. Then, at a party, she kisses a boy and he dies. She no longer feels she deserves those things, and her new goal is to punish herself, make sure she never gets to do any of the things the boy she killed could no longer do. The story was her journey to forgiveness. And there were, of course, hiccups for her along the way. The plot.

In How I Lost You, my story idea was essentially about two best friends who believe their friendship will last forever and how that is tested in the summer before senior year. My main character, Grace, needed a goal and that?s where the idea of the girls playing paintball came from. I built the story by exploring the history of Grace and her friends. I needed to know what Grace wanted most, a paintball scholarship, but also to protect her wounded best friend. And I had to figure out why her friend was wounded and make her test Grace over and over. Grace?s two goals began to conflict until she was forced to choose.

For me, first come the basic idea and the characters. The plot evolves from there. I highly recommend Donald Maass?s workbook as a tool for plotting story.

 

S.P. Hozy is the author of the novels The Scarlet Macaw, A Cold Season in Shanghai, If Only to Say Goodbye, and Some Comfort Among Us. She divides her time between Penang, Malaysia, and Toronto, Ontario.

I usually start with an idea for a character that I want to present with some sort of challenge that sends them on a journey of the self. And I usually have a place in mind that I want to send them to?someplace way out of their comfort zone. With those two elements in mind, I begin to plot. I believe in making a chapter-by-chapter plan. I find that real life often intervenes in novel writing and I have to set the work aside for a time, sometimes weeks or even months. With a plan, I can refresh my memory and get back into the novel, with luck in the same tone, voice, and with the same intent.

In two of my novels, I did that, and in two I did not; I just began writing with an ending in mind. The two that were planned required far less extensive re-writing. That?s not to say that the plan won?t change, but I?ve found that it?s best to follow the plan to the end and see if it works, then begin the re-writing process. If you keep re-writing what you?ve written before you get to the end of the first draft, you?re liable to wander all over the place and lose the focus of the story.

Although I plan the basic content of each chapter in order to move the plot along, I don?t work out the details until I?m actually writing the chapter. So the chapter plan might only be a few sentences, which the descriptions and the dialogue then flesh out. For my current book, The Scarlet Macaw, I even used Microsoft Office Excel, which worked fine, but a simple table would have worked as well.

That type of plotting works well with a linear narrative but, with the next book I?m writing, I don?t seem to be able to do that. The book is a series of first-person narratives, plus a couple of third-person narratives, all of them telling parts of the story from their point of view. It took me a long time to crack the structure of the novel and how I was going to plan the chapters. I finally decided to write point-by-point bios of the characters, incorporating the events of the story as it happened to them. (I usually write bios for my characters, but more as back story than plot points.) So what I?m doing is following the stream of one narrative until I come to a point that allows me to jump into another character?s narrative. I have no idea if it will work. Again, my experience as an editor tells me to keep going until I have completed a first draft, no matter how rough it may seem. Only then will I know whether it?s ?readable? in terms of the logic of the story.

 

Kathy-Diane Leveille is the author of Standing in the Whale?s Jaws, Let the Shadows Fall Behind You, and Roads Unravelling: Short Stories. She lives in Quispmasis, New Brunswick .

Plotting is never first on my list of things to do in novel writing. It would be if I was a brilliant writer who always had an organized game plan. Sadly, I'm not. I never create extensive plot summaries or detailed lists of plot points before embarking. My novel ideas arrive when I least expect them to. While I'm performing a mundane task like weeding sow thistle, a character forms in my imagination. A scene manifests as a moment of transition. In order to find out what happens next--and excavate the layers of all that came before--I am forced to exchange the garden trowel for a pen. In the novel Standing in the Whale's Jaw, the instigating scene was a 15-year-old girl in the 1930s discovering a man hiding in a barn and deciding to keep it a secret. When this kind of beginning arrives, curiosity pushes me forward despite the fear of venturing out on a limb. Naturally a part of me wants to know all the plot answers and be handed a guarantee of success, but years ago, when I did attempt to write a plot summary beforehand, it cinched tighter than a straight jacket. The writing dried up. I've learned I can only begin a novel without a blue print. If nothing is set in stone, exploration and experimentation have no bounds and the organic story line is free to rise without me getting in the way. I do always begin by writing this familiar quote at the top of a notebook: ?Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.? -- E.L. Doctorow

In fits and starts, I write the first draft long-hand and by the time I reach the end, hopefully my husband has finished eradicating the sow thistles. Also, hopefully I clearly recognize the beginning, middle and end of the character's journey. I type the rough draft into the computer and then start shaping. This is where the element of plotting enters: the narrative flesh needs strong bones for support. In some areas the plot is self-evident, already intrinsically embodied while, in others, it's buried beneath whole chunks that must be ruthlessly cut. Only a return to writing in the note book will bring clarity on where to pick up the thread. Throughout, I possess a nagging faith that if I just keep at it, the story, plot and all, will emerge. Eventually, finally, hundreds of buckets of blood, sweat and nerves later, it does.

 

Claire Mulligan is the author of the novels The Dark and The Reckoning of Boston Jim. She lives in Pennsylvania.

Tell what happens and you have a story. Pose a question and delay the answer and you have a plot. And I love plot, particularly complicated ones. I love it when everything notches together, when the answers make sense, but still offer surprise. With my own work I?ve not always known the answers while I?m writing; and I rather like it that way. Thing is, I believe it?s my job to discover the answers, not invent them, as if the plot exists outside my imagining. In The Reckoning of Boston Jim the big question to discover was: what will Jim ultimately decide is the best token of reciprocity for Dora? A rather drastic token, I realized, once I got to know him better. Character is plot, after all.

Now the challenge in The Dark was to take this dramatic, true story and make it more than an exposition of events as one would expect, say, from non-fiction. The Fox family, fortunately for a novelist (if not for them) left many unanswered questions. How much did the sisters believe of their own ghost-talking powers? How did they fool people for so long? Where did their father go for ten years? Why is the mysterious Mrs. Mellon so determined to help the ailing Maggie Fox? And the big, tantalizing question: why a body was found in the cellar years after all the family was dead. Was it the ghost of the man the young sisters claimed started it all? A later date plant? I tinkered with these details, their reveals and consequences and effects on the characters and created, in the end, a puzzle-box plot that suits the nature of the material and hopefully does justice to the real life family. What I can offer from all this is: to create a compelling story drawn from true events you should offer more to the reader than what can be found on the internet or in non-fiction books. Offer speculation, theme, character motivation. And find the plot. It?s out there.

 

Cathie Pelletier is the author of numerous novels including One-Way Bridge, The Funeral Makers, The Weight of Winter and Running the Bulls. She lives in Maine.

My novels tend to be character-driven, so the characters often tackle the issues of plot for me. Many writers will tell you that it sometimes feels as if we are only recording what our characters want to say or do. That?s true for me, too, since I?m a very emotional, organic kind of writer. I have friends who write two pages a day and then have a celebratory glass of wine each night. I sometimes wish I wrote like that. My job is more of a roller-coaster ride of scribbling fast right behind the heels of my characters. At the end of a writing day, I might have 20 pages and celebrate enough that a whole bottle of wine is required. But, of course, our characters are doing and saying things which we have filed in what I call the ?subconscious trunk? we have in our minds, our own fears and loves and hates and joys. We work from that trunk by digging around in it to find what we need. It?s a fearful ride for me until I suddenly feel that I?m in control of the novel. It?s like reining in a horse. I start to see why the characters were saying and doing those things. I then realize the themes that were woven into the story, and the connections of the plots and subplots, and so on. We might not be thinking of structure upfront, but by a kind of literary osmosis from reading and practicing our craft for years, our so-called ?organic? writing comes with a sense of story structure. Then I?m ready to be sure the characters wrap the whole novel up in a sane and believable fashion, so they listen to me from there on out. Every novel is, of course, different. I once wrote the ending of a novel, thinking it was part of a short story. Then I realized I needed to write an entire novel just to use that big scene! Aspiring writers shouldn?t think too much about plot. They should invest their emotions into the characters themselves to discover what they want to say and do. Sometimes, you can?t let them do what you wrote on Wednesday. It just doesn?t fit the tone of the rest of the novel, or it?s not believable for that particular character. So let them do something new now that you know their hearts and minds better on Saturday then you did on Wednesday. It?s a poker game most of the time. You often write without a safety net. It might be easier on the ulcer to be a 2-page-a-day writer, especially since the end result is still a completed novel. The only bad thing I see in being a 2-page-a-day writer is that one glass of wine, rather than the whole bottle.

---

SHAUN SMITH is a novelist and award-winning journalist in Toronto, Canada. His young-adult novel Snakes & Ladders was published in 2009 by the Dundurn Group. His book Magical Narcissism: Selected Writings on Books, Writers, Food, and Chefs is forthcoming from Tightrope Books in June 2013. shaunsmith.ca

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