Writer, don’t lose the plot!

“The essential foundation of all good storytelling.”

THE first six sessions of Write, Regardless! are about establishing an online social media platform, something all writers need to be doing for ourselves long before we start the process of publishing our books. Think of it this way… once you’ve got the regular selling process in place, it leaves you more time and energy to focus on regularly creating. To that end, we’ll start looking in more detail at the writing process, beginning with what I believe to be the essential foundation of all good storytelling: effective plotting.

Dig away at your plot

Every writer plots differently, but plotting a story is never executed just once or in isolation, it tends to evolve throughout the process of putting a title together. This article is something you’ll probably need to dip into across the writing of your work in order to stay on course with your plot.

Plotting a first draft

I am often asked if it’s possible to plot well in a first draft, and whether writers can keep track of where we are in our unfolding plots. The short answer is that I am a great advocate for belting out a first draft without focussing too much on plot. See where the inspiration takes you. There is a payoff for this rule-free ‘luxury’, however, which is that eventually we have to get tough on our plots in order to shape subsequent drafts. Having said that, the more we write, the more we become capable of shaping a plot in a first draft.

“This is your chance to make your work engaging and entertaining.”

Second draft and beyond

There’s no excuse for neglecting a tough plot analysis while executing your second and subsequent drafts. This is your chance to make your work engaging and entertaining. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that some literary fairy godmother is going to magically appear and make your first draft perfect. Submitting an incomplete, unworked manuscript is the height of writerly laziness and nobody in the publishing trade is paid to make your raw draft into a workable book. That’s your job. Luckily, there are tools to help.

Bite-sized plot structure

Depending on what genre and format you’re writing, there is more than one way to plot a story. The archetypal five-act plot is the classic structure for novels and can be applied to long-form non-fiction. The archetypal three-act plot is commonly applied to screenplays and plays, although it’s really a truncated form of the five-act plot. Remember, these are a plot’s starting points. The rules are not there to break (if you want to entertain readers/viewers) but rather to bend. Your ability to be flexible with the rules is what will make your writing original.

Perfect plot points

Drilling deeper into plot structure will expose more detail on precise moments that heighten the experience for readers/viewers, such as the narrative hook, the call to action, and the point of no return. Don’t complete a second or subsequent draft of your books/scripts without them.

Fighting the ‘formula’

I’ve had many animated discussions with writers who don’t believe in structured plots. I am not here to convince anyone of the need to plot their stories, but I do know that a joke has a formulaic structure (set-up, punchline) and a ghost story by a campfire has one too. Try telling such stories without sticking to tried and true plot structure will leave the teller looking as though they have no sense of humour. We all anticipate a punchline in a joke, and we know a ghost story has a chilling moment ahead, yet we submit to the formula without question. Plotting a novel or screenplay is no different, in fact these writing formats require more conscious plotting, since they are longer and fall further from the formula, especially if we seek to be original.

ALAS, POOR HAMLET Often used as an excuse for missing plots. Laurence Olivier as the Prince of Denmark in the 1948 film.
ALAS, POOR HAMLET Often used as an excuse for missing plots. Laurence Olivier as the Prince of Denmark in the 1948 film.

The Hamlet argument

Many plotting naysayers pull the Hamlet card, suggesting the Prince of Denmark’s “To be, or not to be” speech by William Shakespeare is literature’s greatest example of a character in some fascinating kind of stasis that gives all writers an excuse to avoid plotting better stories. While it’s true Hamlet works himself into a state of not knowing what to do, his famous monologue is actually almost halfway through Shakespeare’s plot. The play opens with the unlikeliest of events – the purported appearance of a ghost on the ramparts of Elsinore, and on the basis of what may be an hallucination, the hero drives the action through several major plot points before he pauses, thinks, and wonders if it might be better to die than go on. Sorry, plotting naysayers, Hamlet is not your trump card, nor is Waiting for Godot. Great stories have plots.

Create battles

When I get into a plot funk, I use a handy device to cut the crap and uncover what needs fixing by finding the ‘battle’ in my story. All journeys of protagonists (‘heroes’) and antagonists (‘villains’) involve conflict between the two. They get in each other’s way. I believe writers’ reticence to structure these conflicts is the greatest obstacle to good plotting. Name your hero and villain, and let them do battle. If you miss this fundamental core, you’ll have no plot.

When plotting and marketing combine

Rare is the writer who has not fantasised about our work in its finished form, imagining our books on shop shelves, complete with our ideas for titles and covers. This daydreaming can be an absolute writing killer, but there is a way to spin it into plotting gold… although my advice would be to try this process only when your first draft is done.

Try it on for size

If you can’t tell someone what your story is about, it’s probably not well plotted. When you have a first draft, try writing a blurb of your work. If this is hard work, it will show you where your plot is weak. If you don’t know who to focus the blurb on, it’s likely you don’t yet know who your protagonist is. Not being able to create an interesting blurb for a manuscript is a sure sign it is not well-plotted.

Synopsis vs blurb

When you’re approaching the point of submitting a manuscript to a publisher or a literary agent, or you’re preparing to independently publish your work, you will need to create either a synopsis or a blurb of your title. A common trap for writers at this stage is to conflate a synopsis (an abridged version of a title allowing a quick analysis of its entire contents, including all plot points) and a blurb (a promotional ‘taster’ of the work which holds plot points back to generate interest). Writers need to reveal all plot points in a synopsis sent to prospective publishers and agents – let them in on your story’s mysteries. Independent publishers need to entice readers by holding back some plot points (particularly our story’s outcomes) when creating blurbs.

Case studies

During my research on the plotting process, I put a few well-known plots through their paces. Because the stories were not mine, the once-removed quality of the analysis made it easier, and I advise all writers to analyse the plots of their favourite books and scripts. Here are my plot examinations of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and The Sum of Us, both works of fiction, and A Cry in Dark, a non-fiction screenplay. Try your own plot analysis as a way to grow familiar with the way stories are structured.

WRITE REGARDLESSRecap

Structuring an engaging story by building a great plot is not something that magically happens in the editing process. It takes an understanding of storytelling that should be second nature to good writers. But have no fear, good plotting can be learned if you’re prepared to be tough on yourself.

An extract from Write, regardless!

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

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