The other day I happened to be in a large hardware store. I was tagging after a friend, with no errand or list of my own. As I wandered down the aisles, I saw a wide variety of products, all of them useful, and each of them reminding me of chores I needed to tackle or projects I didn’t know until that very moment that I wanted to do.
The longer I lingered, the more items I wanted. Granite cleaner, sponges, epoxy glues, bird feeders, lovely rows of canned spray paint in hues I didn’t know spray paint came in, grilling accessories, Yeti ice chests that evoked a strong desire to go camping in Yellowstone Park, and an entire plethora of garden hoses and devices to organize my closets.
Had I not been possessed of an iron will and a dwindling amount of cash, I might have succumbed that day to the myriad temptations spread before me.
The point is that, just like me on the loose without a list in a hardware store, if you don’t have a plan when you’re pulling together your plot elements for a story, you’re going to be enticed by too many choices, alternatives, and possibilities.
When plotting fiction, the best approach is to follow my instructor Jack Bickham’s advice: “Keep it simple.”
I might add my own advice to that: “Keep it on track.”
In other words, don’t thoughtlessly and heedlessly grab potential plot events, using anything that pops into your head, in an effort to make your story idea more exciting.
Just as you shouldn’t go grocery shopping when you’re hungry because you’re more likely to over-buy, it’s easy to over-plot when you lack a clear direction for what your characters will be doing.
For example: let’s say I want to write a fantasy where a group of five friends embark on a quest to find a mountain oracle that tells the future.
Seems clear enough. But is it?
This scenario has a goal, which implies direction, but it’s much too vague to enable me to plot clearly, simply, cleanly, and effectively.
Well, what’s going to happen first after they set out on their journey?
Maybe I intend them to meet up with a caravan of travelers. They’ll get acquainted, walk together until they reach a fork in the road, and then they’ll part company.
Well, aware that perhaps the traveler episode wasn’t all that lively, let’s say that I want my band to cross a river, encountering a swifter current than expected. They’ll lose their supplies, and maybe one of the group will be swept away. They won’t know if their friend is alive or drowned. This will cause much angst and drama. It will be exciting.
Check. And then what? Gotta top drowning, squelchy shoes, and shivering on the riverbank.
Maybe I have another event in mind, like — hmm — a forest fire or earthquake or an encounter with a stampeding herd of magical moose. Or maybe I’m starting to approach that fuzzy nebulous part of my premise. To fill the void, should I toss in any and every incident that comes to mind? Do I feel a touch of desperation, that niggling little worry that none of this stuff is good enough or exciting enough? Am I going to be reaching for clichés, random events, and over-complication?
Why not step back, pause, and think through a storyline first? In other words, do you have a shopping list – aka story plan – to follow instead of sheer impulse? A plot plan that will get your characters where they need to go and help them accomplish what they need to do from beginning through middle to end?
To return to my quest example: the friends want to seek the mountain oracle. But who or what is actively trying to prevent this? Is it an outside source, or a member within the group? The latter option would allow for events of sabotage, growing suspicion, and friction among the friends. Each action would have a consequence, which would lead to the next decision and next action. Thus, the events become progressive and logical instead of random. I could have arguments and conflict instead of moose stampedes. (And, yeah, maybe I could still drown a character, particularly if that drowning is due to betrayal from the evil member of the group.)
When you develop plot events sequentially, with one leading to the next, you can explore their ramifications instead of jumping impulsively from one disconnected activity to another. Your plot stops being frenetic and becomes engaging instead. And you the writer will be less easily distracted or lured away from the story you originally envisioned.