Thick Plots and Progress

I’m spine-tingly close to finishing reading The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. To be honest, I’d rather leave this blog and go read – but it can wait until the bus trip tomorrow. Or perhaps before bed tonight.

This morning I was thinking about the thick plotting in The Name of the Wind. Not thick as in dense or stupid, but thick as in many-layered. In my first novel, Vengeance Will Come, I have quite a few points of view, but there is really only two major plot lines – two main goals, with a few minor goals running in parallel.

In contrast The Name of the Wind has only one point of view, most of the story is told in past tense, but it is jam-packed with a plethora of goals, intrigue, wonder and danger.

Spoiler alert: I’m about to share some I can come up with in the next 5 minutes.

  1. The story opens with Kvothe (aka Kote) “hiding” in a backwater pub. Is he hiding from danger, fame or infamy?
  2. What does he know about the “demons” on the country roads?
  3. There’s something different about Kvothe, the young boy, who is exceptional in learning. What is it and why?
  4. What is the name of the wind, and will Kvothe ever learn it?
  5. Will he get to go to the university?
  6. His family, his entire troupe, is killed. Why, exactly? What part of his father’s song was so dangerous to the Chadrian?
  7. We see Kvothe struggle to survive on his own – first in the wilderness, and then in the city. He must avoid his also-homeless arch-enemy and the cruelty of the constables. He battles against hunger, sickness, isolation and trauma. Will he ever reclaim who he was before tragedy struck?
  8. He gets admitted to the university, but how will he pay his tuition and have enough to live on? Will his pride be his undoing?
  9. He makes enemies among the Masters (teachers).
  10. He is banned from the Arcanum for recklessness after being tricked by a privileged peer. Unwilling to be beaten, the two of them will be continually at each other’s throats.
  11. His tuition fees keep increasing because he antagonises some of the Masters. How will he pay back the dangerous money lender? Will he finally go too far and be expelled?
  12. He has a love interest, but there are also other suitors for both of them. Will they find true love with one another? What secrets does his beloved have?
  13. The demons are back…why?

As you can see his battling to have his desires met (attend the university, music, get revenge on the Chadrian); battling his own stubborn character and those around him; wrestling with people he doesn’t get on well, and love interests. There’s just so much going on!

I wish that the book had been less engaging – so I could have studied it more. It would make a great study in wish fulfilment, and balancing success with failure.

And about Vengeance Will Come…

I’ve got 34 things on my TODO list (most relate to checking the timing of scenes) and I am working my way through merging chapters together to make them longer.

 

 

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A Reformation is Needed

One of my earliest posts on this blog was about creating a Story Bible – an in-world encyclopaedia to go with my novel.

It’s somewhat depressing to read in that post:

I am getting closer to finishing my first novel…

and be still talking about the same novel, two and a bit years later. Well, I guess technically any progress is moving closer… and (in some respects) I have finished it; now I’m just polishing.

I’m currently revising Vengeance Will Come, hopefully for the last time (pre-publication or pre-free-release), and I’ve noticed that only best intentions weren’t enough to keep my story bible well organised or up-to-date. If only I’d used best intentions and discipline it’d be in a better state.

The question is do I use valuable editing time to tidy up the story bible, ensuring it’s true to the current version of the story? The answer is yes. Vengeance Will Come is book 1 of a series, and so I need my source material to be easily accessible (and accurate) for when writing other books in the series.

I’ll however keep editing for a while longer while my brain is sharp. As the Writing Excuses podcast would say, “‘Smart Ben’ can edit. When ‘Dumb Ben’ subs-in later, he can work on the story bible.”

And then the other shoe drops…

Ever changed the plot and had it have unforeseen consequences later in the story? Well, now I have…

CoolClips_cart1959.png
Source: CoolClips.com

And as yet I don’t know how I’m going to solve the problem of my own making.

On another note I came across a story yesterday about Japan’s evaporating people. Reading stories like these help to broaden my mind beyond my own culture, which is never a bad thing when you’re trying to create your own cultures.

Weak Plot Avoidance Syndrome

Eradicating Jaja should have been easy; change the dialogue slightly and move on. If only…

While looking at Jaja I thought I’d step back one scene to “read myself in”. That’s when I discovered the scene before was also flawed. For someone who is revising a 100,000 word novel is kind of like hearing the watchman yell “iceberg ahead”.

As the editor/author you want to ignore that watchman. Sure, he’s just doing his job, but it’s probably only a small iceberg. It’d be so nice to carry on your merry way steaming ahead, but to do so leaves you vulnerable. It’s a moment like this when I remember a saying I read recently (paraphrased), “I like discovering my past mistakes; it means I am wiser now to be able to recognise them.”

Please, learn from my mistakes. Before drafting a scene ask yourself the question: Do my character’s actions and words fit their role and the context? There’s a reason we have the saying “that’s out of character”. A character’s actions and words should suit them. For example: we a shouldn’t expect a school dropout to cure cancer unless they are either brilliant, lucky or they have recently visited a lab and have sticky fingers. A priest isn’t going to commit cold-blooded murder unless they are really desperate or a closet-psychopath. We can be surprised by hidden motives but we shouldn’t encounter illogical reactions. Illogical reactions are like the mighty clash of a cymbal that rips your readers from the world with confusion or scorn.

My character wasn’t consistent. I had a high level thug who was overly helpful – even compassionate – toward the authorities. Career criminals are rarely so easily or conveniently reached, even if the response was helpful to the plot. That means the plot could use some strengthening.

The fix took me about a week to get through Weak Plot Avoidance syndrome:

  1. One+ days to admit the problem. (“But I’ve already edited that bit, I don’t want to change it. Are you sure it’s a problem? I could fix it, but it’s going to be hard…I could just look at my emails instead…”)
  2. Two days to work out how I was going to solve the problem, and flow-on effects.
  3. Two more for writing and re-writing the scene into a consumable quality. (“Yeah I’ve got the words on the page but they don’t flow well together”).

If only I’d identified this issue earlier there would have been less angst and no flow-on effects. And my poor, unpaid alpha readers might not have had to witness it…

Plot Twists

(These are my notes and thoughts in relation to the Writing Excuses podcast Season 1, episodes 19. I will also disseminate this information to the topical sections of my resource section).

I admire great plot twists. The go-to example of plot twists has to be the movies Sixth Sense and Snowpiercer. In the literary world, Isaac Asimov does a brilliant job in Second Foundation where the heroine succeeds almost by mistake in solving several problems at once.

I aspire to writing great plot twists. In my experience these have been a mixture of planned and unplanned events. When I wrote my short story The Captive I knew from the beginning that essentially the whole story is about the plot twist. In writing my first novel Vengeance Will Come I have plot twists which occur in the novel and twists that are only foreshadowed to be revealed later in the series.

What is a plot twist?

  • A plot twist should be something that surprises the reader (they weren’t expecting it), but makes total sense in hindsight.
  • Using plot twists correctly is about out-thinking your readers: fulfilling the promises you made, in a way they don’t expect.
  • Plot twists should be character- affecting, because otherwise there is no emotional investment for the reader.

How do you ‘come up’ with plot twists?

  • For the discovery writer it is an act of discovery, for the outliner it is discovering a conflict that can be used.
  • Sometimes its serendipity: you might not plan it, but it works out that way.

How do you do plot twists?

Surprising: The reader should not expect the plot twist. Throw away the first couple of ideas you have that readers would assume is going to happen.

In the podcast they say: “If you’ve seen it before in a movie or read it before in a book, then it’s not good enough.”

This statement stopped me. I agree with the following:

  1. A fresh plot twist is an excellent plot twist
  2. An overused plot twist is a bad plot twist

But what about those plot twists that sit in the middle; not fresh, but not overused? Surely there is room for some of those plot twists occasionally? To me books are not all about plot twists. I can enjoy a book with basic plot twists if it also has great characters or a solid plot. In all the books that have been written over the centuries, I think truly fresh plot twists would have to be rare. I think the statement is a little strong: or it could be the difference between being a writer and an amazing writer.

I wonder also whether it will get harder to write good plot twists. For example, previously killing off a main character might have been a good plot twist… after George RR Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series (aka Game of Thrones) which kills of characters as regularly as most people take showers the wow factor is gone. Seriously, I think the man single-handedly saturated that technique, among others. So a good plot twist is going to require something more intelligent to do well.

Foreshadowing: Because a plot twists must make sense, it must be foreshadowed carefully. This is normally ‘added’ during successive drafts (retroactive foreshadowing). They suggest that for foreshadowing you should mention something three times, in a different context, to hint at it. Anything that you needed to use in the third act has a story of its own, told in act 1 or early in act 2.

Thankfully, this means you don’t have to get it right the first time. You can have many drafts over which to perfect the execution of it. (You may not even see the major plot twist until you have nearly written the entire story).

Misdirection: Make sure there is a lot going on so that the reader gets ‘red herrings’ and can’t guess what the plot twist will be. Think of a magician who keeps the audience looking at his left hand while his right hand is performing the trick, and aspire to that.

Research and practice: Analyse critically how other authors do it.

Other Tips

  • You don’t want to dilute the impact by putting too many plot twists in a single story.
  • Keep ideas for plot twists. It may not fit in this book but it might in the next.

Laying out the Plot

As I learn to write I am developing my own tools and techniques of how I write. This is of course mostly through trial and error; the methods I use are improving incrementally all the time. What works for me might work for you. I recently shared how I solve plot problems (part one and two), but how do I go about planning the overall plot of a story? This is how I did it for my current project, The Rebel Queen.

I designed the plot document in Microsoft Excel because it formats things nicely in a grid. Otherwise I would have to line them all up myself; I’m a bit OCDish in that regard. I will admit that I do tend to spend a bit longer “tidying” (aka procrastinating) on these things than I should so the formatting can get a bit pedantic. I do however like to work with things being “neat”, so it is still a valid and important part of my process. Or at least that’s what I tell myself. I almost believe it.

Step 1: Identify the actors

plot-actors

These are mostly the characters, but can also be a faction or group within the story world who are involved in the plot.

Each of these I place in the first column of the spreadsheet, with a small row between each to provide a visual gap. I have written the character’s name and role, and sometimes also add their mood or disposition at the start of the story.

(Pedantic detail: The background is the same colour for the different core factions e.g. the good guys get one colour, the bad guys another colour etc. The “main” character in each group gets a slightly darker shade. All of the characters have a different colour font which is consistent throughout the plot document).

Step 2: Outline plot elements

plot-example

Under a heading of “Chapter 1” I then use the background colour to shade the cell. Inside of the cell, I add a brief description of what the character is doing or feeling in the chapter. Note that this is per chapter and a character having a box here doesn’t mean they necessarily get a point-of-view in the chapter. Not every actor will have a plot box in every chapter. Any additional detail that I want to write beyond a short description goes into a comment attached to the cell.

(Pedantic detail: The columns are uniform throughout the rest of the document. I always have the text box with a width of 16.09, then a visual gap column of width 2.18 and then an indicator column of width 0.5. Just to be clear the columns in the document are therefore 16.09, 2.18, 0.5, 16.09, 2.18, 0.5, 16.09, 2.18, 0.5 etc).

The “indicator column” which is green in the above picture starts off life with a grey shading. Grey denotes that it hasn’t been written yet; I change it to green when it has been written. Writing one scene may result in “completing” one or more indicators at a time.

Obviously I then continue with a column for each chapter…

Step 3: Tweak, and repeat

Inevitably the plot will change as you write. It’s a living document and I make changes as I realise that things needs to be adjusted.

Final thoughts

  • I haven’t described it above, but I also use the COUNTIF formula and text hidden in the indicator column of the plot boxes to calculate the percentage of how far through the plot line I am.
  • I probably should write a macro to make it easier to insert columns as needed; it’s a little tedious.

If you want to see the full plot laid out (but obfuscated) I posted it in a previous blog post. Hopefully you found this post or part of it helpful.

If you have any hints/tips that work for you I’d love to hear them.

How I Solve Plot Problems (2/2)

This post is part 2 of how I solve plot problems in my fiction writing. (See part 1 for the background and an understanding of the problem to be solved). Note that this post contains some spoilers for the novelette I am currently working on, The Rebel Queen.

I’m not sure why, but the process tends to work better for me if I write it out on paper, at least initially. I think it’s because of the speed with which I can strike out, draw arrows etc. Or perhaps it is because I have less distractions trying to format perfectly 🙂

Identifying the problem

I start by writing down the problem to solved at the top left of the page. Normally I put it inside of a starburst or a bordered-box to make it stand out. It’s the problem to be solved and it’s what I want to focus on.

I don’t usually get it right the first time. For example when I started working on this problem I wrote down ‘Make The Touched an integral part of Deckarian society’. But as I worked through the problem I realised that making them integral to society wouldn’t work because of the power imbalance it would cause. Instead the problem description became: ‘How can the cloaking devices be maintained by the Touched?’

Identify the Constraints

On the left hand side of the page below the starburst I write down the constraints. These are the things that need to happen. I try to think about them and work down the issues to the lowest level, without any previous thinking slipping in to muddy the waters.

In this case I need to:

  • Limit the exposure of the Talmeni secret to the outside, including the colony and other species.
  • The Talmeni/Touched must still be involved with the colony, at least annually and have influence over the colony.

Brainstorm Solutions

On the right hand side of the page I start to brainstorm solutions. Indented under each solution I try and identify its strengths and weaknesses, and assign a positive or a negative number (as to how badly or positively they affect things).

In this example I had written:

  • The ships could be serviced at the Talmeni homeworld
    • -3 chance of keeping secret from outsiders/aliens
    • -3 chance of the Deckarians learning the Talmeni secret
  • The ships could be serviced at a satellite/hidden location
    • -3 chance of keeping secret from outsiders/aliens
    • -2 chance of the Deckarians learning the Talmeni secret
    • -1 The Talmeni are supposed to be non-expansionist
  • The Touched could live in the colony
    • -5 power imbalance caused by their presence
    • -5 unlikely to be kept separate and for secret to remain intact
    • -2 The possibility of The Touched being captured is greater if the Deckarian world were invaded. Chance of a suicide-pact working for a large group.
    • -2 Talmeni control would be reduced.
  • The Touched could visit the colony periodically
    • +2 limits exposure of The Touched to aliens
    • +5 no power imbalance created
    • +2 allow strengthening of associated plot.
  • Ships could be delivered “whole” to the Deckarians; no maintenance provided.
    • -4 Realism. The Talmeni are not going to want pay for entire ships, or be happy with half-working ships travelling around. Creates too much of a dependence.

From these options, it’s fairly clear which solution would be the best: the Touched could periodically visit the colony. This solution solves the plot problems, and allows for strengthening of other plot issues.