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Plot: some stuff that totally might not work for you. - Barnstorming on an Invisible Segway [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Marissa Lingen

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Plot: some stuff that totally might not work for you. [Sep. 29th, 2012|04:50 pm]
Marissa Lingen
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Over on FB, one of you--under their legal name, so I will not cross-identify--was talking about having difficulty finding plot for ideas for which they had world and character. I offered to make a helpy post about plot. And awhile ago I gave another of you--in a locked post, so again, won't say who--a series of questions to try to spark plot ideas from what that person said was world ideas. So I'm putting some of those here and also some additional ones.

Here's the thing: all happy writers plot alike, but--wait, no. Even happy writers plot differently. Some achieve plot. Some have plot thrust upon them. So if you run across things that are meant to spark plot, and you want to run screaming from those questions or ideas, that's good! It tells you something useful about yourself! It tells you: holy crap, don't do it that way. Because seriously, there is no reason you should do it that way. This is all conscious-brain trouble-shooting. This is totally not how I even do it. This is just how I attempt to help someone who says, "Hey, I am having a problem." Some brains take this approach to this kind of problem and want to curl up and gibber. I have one of those kind of brains! I keep it in the basement in the timprov. So seriously, if all of this sounds hideous to you and like the least fun and functional way of plotting ever, put your trouble-shotting plot methods in the comments, or commiserate in the comments, and maybe that'll help somebody too.

1. Even if the world is neat, someone is usually unhappy there. Who? Why? Are they convinced they would have been better off in a past era, a different country, an alternate way of doing things not yet achieved? Or are they focused on what's wrong with their milieu and not on the alternatives?

2. What has changed for the world or characters recently? What is hard about this for the people living there or living with each other?

3. What can't be sustained about the situation? What is hard about this?

4. Who is considered very odd within this setting? Who is the absolute rock of the [village, city, school of marine biologists, whatever]? How does this setting allow them to interact/prevent them from interacting, and do they balk at the usual things and make their own stuff work for themselves as individuals or is their relationship typical of their roles?

5. Of the characters you have, who thinks that what they really want is not achievable, and what are they going to settle for instead? Are they right? Are they constructive/destructive/something else?

6. What stuff is cool stuff that you like? This could be "love triangles" (oh please do not let it be love triangles, I am so very tired) or "giant squids" or "the bit where a crucial piece of a mystery becomes clear to somebody." Sometimes if you don't have a plot, seeing how you can combine the things you already have (story elements or nouns or verbs, whatever, I'm not picky) can result in one. "I like screwball comedies, I could do one of those," you might say, or else, "Well, if I don't have a mystery, I'm going to have to do some pretty crazy things to have a batty old lady who solves mysteries...hmm," or, "If there is going to be wombat research, it should probably be plot-relevant wombat research somehow or the reader will waste a lot of time trying to figure out what it has to do with anything. Unless I have made it Deeply Symbolickal, and managing that is its own special trick."

Anybody else?
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: timprov
2012-09-29 10:37 pm (UTC)
Triangle Man, Triangle Man, Triangle Man is terribly sad because you have stomped upon his hopes for romantic fulfillment.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-09-29 10:39 pm (UTC)
Okay, the terrible plot where the Heroine Must Choose Between Two Dudes And One Conveniently Dies is hereby taken out of retirement if the Two Dudes are John and John.

But only if the correct John dies.
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[User Picture]From: rikibeth
2012-09-30 12:13 am (UTC)
I'm not sure myself how I'm going to get more plot. Mine was Boy Meets Boy, Boy Meets Girl, Boy Loses Boy, Other Boy Meets Girl, Brief Angst Resolves Into Joyous Poly Triad. All against a background of a pre-existing war which gave me sufficient excuse to move them in and out of proximity to each other and to have other things to think about.

Historical romance is handy that way.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-09-30 12:17 am (UTC)
Pre-existing war! Pre-existing war can totally be part of worldbuilding and part of plot.

Worldbuilding does not hold still. Is the thing about worldbuilding.
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[User Picture]From: ashnistrike
2012-09-30 12:30 am (UTC)
What would force this character to deal with something outside their comfort zone? What would force this character to change? These are my guesses as to what Bujold asks, even though she claims to ask "What's the worst thing that could happen to this character?" Because that question actually gets you less interesting plots, and more depressing ones.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-09-30 12:37 am (UTC)
Right, there are all sorts of things that could happen to Lois's characters that are worse than what actually happens in her books, but it would be less interesting. And less...novel-encapsulated.
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[User Picture]From: aliseadae
2012-09-30 01:01 am (UTC)
With characters but no plot, I've been re-reading Diana Wynne Jones again and I've noticed that one of the things she does is give each character more than one identity ( being both someone's father or grandmother or aunt and also some essential powerful thing that doesn't get revealed until the end, or maybe doesn't get connected until the end.) Pieces of the plot connect themselves to each person/ their identities and as these various characters become woven together, the plot unfolds. Not sure if that is useful, and I haven't tried it myself, but it was what I've been thinking about while rereading lots of DWJ.

Thanks mrissa, for this post! I'll have to think on all of it!
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-09-30 03:25 am (UTC)
I think even more than two can be useful. Yes.
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From: ellen_fremedon
2012-09-30 01:26 am (UTC)
I am bookmarking this thread and watching it with Great Interest, though my problem isn't plot but character.
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[User Picture]From: aliseadae
2012-09-30 03:06 am (UTC)
Mine too. Sort of plot, because I can see ways that plot comes from characters (which I don't have or don't know the details of their lives enough to work them in to the plot.) But setting? I've got setting. Though /that/ also ends up sort of vague. Maybe I just have a detail problem.
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[User Picture]From: alecaustin
2012-09-30 02:24 am (UTC)
If you're me, you ask questions like, "Okay, what horrible thing will this perfectly nice* person have to do even though they don't want to, and why?" and work backwards from there.

(*: Values of 'perfectly nice' may vary from 'actually quite pleasant' to 'not actively malevolent, except when you piss them off'. But you know. Alec stories.)
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[User Picture]From: alecaustin
2012-09-30 04:29 am (UTC)
Okay, taking this on from a less self-focused angle than before:

At the risk of being obvious, I feel like there are two general directions from which one can approach the question of plot, or character, or whatever. One can start with details or images or feelings and try to work outward from there, to make your starting point more concrete and then flesh out the surrounding canvas bit by bit. This is basically the method E. L. Doctorow described as, "driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."

The other approach is more top-down and directed, rather than purely exploratory. You can still start from details, but instead of proceeding onward to more details, you start filling the larger shapes of the canvas. Instead of thinking about what sort of buttons are on the character's coat, you think about the level of industrialization that allowed their coat to be mass-produced. Actually, that's kind of in-between the local detail - wooden buttons mixed in with sections of animal horn with holes bored in them - and a really top-down sort of approach - okay, so I want to have a continent-spanning war ala WW I, which implies some kind of industrialization, which implies advanced logistics via railroad or equivalent, and power sources ala the steam engine, and factory towns, and eventually you get back down to the garment industry and coats...

While I tend to describe my process as very top-down, even I don't actually take a purely command-driven approach. What generally happens is I'll ask myself something like, "What would [blah] look like?" where [blah] = 'World War I fought between the Seelie and Unseelie courts'. And that question immediately makes me free-associate through a series of vivid images relating to World War I and faerie, and I latch onto a few of those and start extrapolating from them on both the macro and micro scales at once. At the same time, the stuff I'm thinking about is sparking other images and scenes and characters, as I think things like, "Whoa wouldn't it be awful to grow up there?" and "Hey, wouldn't it be cool if X had a sister? Hmm, what kind of supernatural powers would she need to survive the war? And wouldn't she kind of resent Y for stealing her brother from her?"

As I agree with Mris that everyone needs to work out what works for them, I'm trying to be descriptive rather than prescriptive here, but I will note that an important development in my process was to learn to free-associate in a way that gives me both micro-level and macro-level details to work with very quickly. I'm not entirely sure how it happened, other than reading a lot and writing a lot and having to constantly make up details on the fly while running RPGs. That said, I'm pretty certain it's a skill, rather than an inborn talent (albeit a skill that can be honed to the point where it eventually becomes second nature).

Edited at 2012-09-30 04:31 am (UTC)
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From: swan_tower
2012-09-30 08:08 am (UTC)
I do a great deal of 6, I think, usually with worldbuilding details. To pick a short story I've been thinking about trying to actually write: I read a cool thing at one point (which may or may not be true for the real world, but that hardly matters when I'm ripping it off for a fantasy setting) about how the Maya had a way of ritually "decommissioning" temples when they abandoned the place, so they wouldn't leave an untended conduit to the spirit world behind them.

So when you're me, you go "that's awesome, I want to tell a story about a temple that didn't get decommissioned properly," and then you have to come up with a plot that will justify talking about this concept. As it happens, I have a pre-existing setting I can slot it into, so now I start asking myself, who might stumble across this kind of thing, and why? I'm thinking an ocelotlacatl (one of the jaguar-people) because they're tough and warriors and might have reason to be out in an uninhabited stretch of jungle, like they're chasing somebody or on their way to another city or whatever, and also I haven't really written much about them yet. But they're generally so good with spiritual stuff, so okay, that's a problem; I either need a way for this jaguar-person (I'm inclined to make her female, just 'cause) to figure out how to shut down a temple on her own, or else I need a reason for somebody more spiritually savvy to be there. And maybe that has something to do with with the reason ocelotlacatl is there? But what would that be?

Dunno. I haven't actually worked out the plot for this one yet. But that's a snapshot of where my brain is, and how I go about working it through. I definitely started from "here is cool thing X; now let's make up a plot excuse to talk about cool thing X," though.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-09-30 11:42 am (UTC)
And the advantage of that is that you are never stuck saying, "But is there anything cool in this story? Why do I even want to write it?" Because you started with the cool stuff in this story.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-09-30 11:49 am (UTC)
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a Norwegian king in possession of Denmark after its entire family's untimely and violent demise, must be in want of a wife and a significant fraction of the Western Roman Empire.
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From: vcmw
2012-09-30 01:23 pm (UTC)
My biggest problem with plot tends to be that I often have a picture of characters, setting, and at least one key thing that happened, but have no ability to articulate the motivations that make the actions of the story meaningful (so often even if I know the key action of the story I don't know the movement toward it or away from it). I spend a lot of time poking at things like 1 and 5, with the specific hope of figuring out what motivated these characters to do these things. I've had luck with any systematic trick that requires me to look at each character in turn and write out each piece of their motivation (past, present, desires, fears, attitude toward each other character, etc.).
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[User Picture]From: mamapduck
2012-09-30 05:35 pm (UTC)
This right here is exactly what prompted me to ask Mris for help (I will out myself as one of the inspirations of this post, it's okay). I have never had a problem with world building or character creation, stemming back to my early childhood background in RPGs. I enjoyed creating characters much more than actually playing them.

There will not be love triangles. Cross my heat, Mris. The pieces currently in development are a short story about child ghosts, probably for a teen/adult audience but the characters are under 12 and dead, and a potential YA novel where the main characters are again under 12 and too busy staying alive to fuss with kissyface.
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[User Picture]From: thanate
2012-09-30 07:02 pm (UTC)
Somewhere at the root of my brainstorming process is a little voice that goes "ok, what can I do with this that I've never seen done before." I think it's a spin-off of the usually quite horrible things I wrote back when I would occasionally run into English teachers making sweeping statements about things that Couldn't Be Done. (And so, of course, I had to prove you *could* write a story without a setting, or whatever...) But I also tend to plot on the fly, as my brain is pretty well trained on how story structure is supposed to unfold, and once I've got a beginning it usually takes care of that on its own.

I'm a great fan of asking brainstorming questions: "What would you expect to find in an enchanted forest?" or "The Wild Hunt has come to reclaim a life it saved generations ago; what do they want it for? Not the tiend, that's been done." Anyone who answers will pretty much invariably misinterpret what I think I'm asking for, thus providing me with a list of things from which I can go off on other tangents I wouldn't have thought of and end up with something three steps removed that does work.

For the completely stumped (or bored/cat-vacuuming), there are also places like the NaNoWriMo forums where vast numbers of people have dropped off spare ideas in the "adopt-a-plot" thread and its various cousins. Again, this is probably more helpful by way of looking at lots of things that are wrong so you can come up with a right thing instead.
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[User Picture]From: mamapduck
2012-09-30 07:21 pm (UTC)
" think it's a spin-off of the usually quite horrible things I wrote back when I would occasionally run into English teachers making sweeping statements about things that Couldn't Be Done."

And this right here is how I ended up writing a sestina with a xylophone and kiwifruit. Because it wasn't until *after* it was done that someone suggested that it probably hadn't been meant as a dare.
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From: stillsostrange
2012-10-01 09:43 pm (UTC)
But sometimes, that cool stuff is vampires.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-10-01 09:45 pm (UTC)
Oh sure, sometimes. Just not obligatory vampires.
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[User Picture]From: rysmiel
2012-10-02 07:54 pm (UTC)
I tend to build my plots crystallising forward and backwards from a key scene, which is often not really discernible from the finished work to anyone who's not me; it can be climactic but it can also be very incidental. I tend also to build threads of consequences in a linear fashion and then thrash about with relative timing for a while until I find cross-links that work to make whatever structure I have come up with feel right and organic.

In the thing I am working on right now, for example, I have a first-contact-with-aliens plot thread and a murder-among-humans plot thread happening concurrently for the last two-thirds or so of it, and one of the key anchors for the relative timing is the bit where the humans realise the aliens have known all along about the murder, despite the amount of effort that's gone into covering it up, but thought it was just perfectly culturally-normal-for-them culling a defective. The first half of the subsequent volume has three such threads and I am having fun with figuring out how they best fit together, timing-wise; with a single first-person POV there's a fair bit of running around between things and making that feel minimally contrived has given me some useful senior officers with different priorities moving my protag back and forth between different issues.

Stealing classic plots to run variations on also helps; I suspect "checking that you have not inadvertently stolen a chunk from the Divine Comedy again and if so whether you really want to do that" is a bit me-specific as advice goes, though.

Edited at 2012-10-02 07:55 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: careswen
2012-10-13 10:13 pm (UTC)
I have one of those kind of brains! I keep it in the basement in the timprov.

*snorfle*

I like this post, and not just in the "Mris says interesting things about writing" way that I usually do. Even though I gave up several years ago on the idea that I might write stories, I still really enjoy creating ideas that go into stories, especially characters and a few awesome themes, bit of imagery, turns of this or that, etc. But the main reason that I gave up on the idea that I might write stories is because I don't seem to be able to string together a plot. But I do immensely enjoy the creative outlet of role-playing games and contributing ideas to mmerriam's Arkady Bloom stories.

But going to these live storytelling events with mmerriam has made me want to try my hand at that. Because (as you know, Bob) I enjoy public speaking. And because I have an idea for a story or framework of stories that I would like to try, which I think could be fun and work well in a storytelling format. But it's a setting and a few vague character concepts -- again, no plot to be seen.

Come to think of it, the character concepts may be less vague, because I do have a tendency to accumulate nifty well-developed RPG characters faster than I can get them played, and some of them could be adaptable to the setting in question.

So your easy ideas for generating plot are especially timely, and seem to be the right kind for making my brain go.
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[User Picture]From: careswen
2012-10-13 10:52 pm (UTC)
And now having read all the comments and made a few more notes, I feel somewhat Fourth Streeted.
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