Small Details, Big Picture

Plotting is a pain in the … neck.

Recently, a non-writing acquaintance of mine sent me what she called the “plot for a book.” What she had, in fact, was just an idea–a concept too tiny to be identified even as a premise.

Now I try to be patient when conversing with non-writers because they don’t know the arcane vocabulary of my profession. I remind myself of how I can sound like a gibbering idiot when I’m talking with my friend who restores antique lamps. His frown quickly transforms into a bewildered scowl as I fumble for terms such as socket cover, insulator, torchiere shade holder, base cap, etc. When I visit the car mechanic, I might as well be speaking Flemish. Pretty soon I’m resorting to hand gestures and grunting as I convey what type of sound the car is making and from which area of the undercarriage the green goo is oozing. As for haircuts, I don’t know a layer from a stack, and “tipping the ends” doesn’t involve paying extra dollars.

So, although most writers groan when someone starts sharing his idea for a story (and if we’re kindly folks we don’t growl, “If it’s so good why don’t you write it yourself?”), we tend to listen in hopes that we really will gleam something useful.

As I did. Whether I’ll do anything directly with this concept is unknown. It did, however, spark an idea in my imagination.

Trouble is, how do you get from the concept to the plot outline?

To everyone that blithely boasts, “It all just comes to me perfectly from start to finish,” I reply: Die now.

Can you tell that I’m in the middle of writing a plot synopsis? Can you tell that it’s a) not going smoothly or b) I’m stuck halfway through?

Why am I stuck?

Because I’m revising/modifying a synopsis that I liked, and I’m having trouble jettisoning certain sections to make way for the new direction the story will take.

Why am I doing this?

To better fit my intended market.

I’ve identified the problematic area. My agent put his finger right on the same spot and said, basically, “Fix that.”

I knew it was weak. He saw immediately that it was weak. If I want to form a decent, salable plot, this portion can’t be weak.

However, brilliance, inspiration, and crumbs from the muses have not yet struck me.

As a working professional, I know better than to wait for any muse to hand me a solution on her clammy little hand. Which means I have to draw on my experience, my story sense, my training, and my knowledge of the craft in order to fix the problem.

Drat! Why can’t it be easier than that?

(It never is.)

Presently, my artistic temperament is getting in my way by rebelling and bringing out my stubborn streak. My inner child is wailing, This looks hard and I don’t wanna work it out!

Meanwhile, instead of pulling on my professionalism and getting down to the task of figuring out villain motivation so that character actions are plausible, I’m acting like an amateur and procrastinating.

Oh, I’m sitting in my chair. I’m even opening the computer file daily and typing. I can say truthfully that I’ve worked hard and kept to my writing schedule. So why do I have a 30-page outline instead of a 10-pager? Why am I only 2/3rds through? Why wasn’t it finished at least two weeks ago?

Because instead of looking at the larger picture of the plot in its entirety, I’m focusing on small details. I’m even writing dialogue, which seldom has a place in a plot synopsis. After all, what does synopsis mean?

I’m moving at a glacial pace, grinding away at the less-important details in a colossal avoidance tactic. When you’re plotting, you need to figure out these basics:

-Protagonist’s goal or objective
-Why the antagonist is thwarting that goal or objective
-The most dramatic, exciting point to start the story
-A big twist or shock in the middle
-How it’s going to end

Now, until all seven of these foundation points are established, you got nothing.

Maybe you know how your story will end. Maybe you’re envisioning the start. But you don’t know what the villain’s motivation is and you have no clue what you’ll do in the middle of the story.

Result? You got nothing.

If you ignore this and start writing anyway because the first scene is just sooooo exciting, you’ll find yourself taking longer and longer to write less and less. Your story sense is putting on the brakes because a ravine lies dead ahead.

As for me? If I know all this, how come I’m making this kind of mistake?

Any number of reasons and excuses could roll out here before you. The main one is that I just finished a writing project, and I don’t want to work on another one right away. Too bad, Lazy Inner Child! Let the violins play but I have more projects to do.

What’s much more important here is the fact that pros can derail, too. Whether you’ve published nothing or 20 novels, you can’t ignore the writing principles. Rules? Yeah, you can break those, once you know what you’re doing. But ignore the principles at your own peril.

By tomorrow, I’ll buckle down and work out the knot that’s tangling my plot’s many threads. Then I can wrap up the synopsis in a couple of days and go forward to the next item on my writing checklist.

Right now, however? I can’t fix it ’cause I don’t wanna.


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3 responses to “Small Details, Big Picture

  1. “I’m acting like an amateur and procrastinating.” Ah, so that’s what I’m doing. My problem is fear of what happens next, but that’s exactly what I’m doing.

    I’m still chuckling at the “die now.” 😀

  2. It’s always easy to tell other people to get over their fears, less easy to do it ourselves. I’ve found that the best way to succeed in writing something is to ignore the fears and just back your ears and go for it. You have nothing to lose.

  3. When you’re building and diagnosing plot structures, do you have some worksheets, recipes, or checklists you can share?

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