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Bewildering Stories

The Critics’ Corner

On Plotting

by Dario Ciriello

I’ve always found plotting very difficult. After several years of writing, I finally realized why: it’s because I didn’t know my characters.

Plot doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Plot is what happens when a character with a goal runs into opposition. The resulting conflict gives birth to plot.

I’m mostly what my author friend Janice Hardy (The Pain Merchants trilogy) calls a pantser — that is, I write mostly by the seat of my pants rather than by careful advance plotting and outlining. In the past that’s gotten me into an awful lot of trouble, with stories ending up irrevocably beached like ships on sandbars.

I’d read books on Plot but they never made sense to me; they seemed mechanistic, dead, formulaic, with all those silly graphs showing the story’s various complications and crises rising in a series of arcs to the Supreme Black Moment at the story’s climax. I railed against these. Dammit, Jim, I’m an artist, not a mathematician!

After a while, I started not exactly outlining but making sure I knew both the endpoint of my story and at least a couple of waypoints. Like fences along a racetrack, these would at least keep me going in the right direction to the finish line, wouldn’t they?

The strategy was partly successful: I’d reach the end, yeah, but the story took a lot of manipulation and heavy-handed steering, and it showed. “It feels like it’s on rails,” a critiquer once told me about a story I’d worked particularly hard to keep on track.

After some long while of my puzzled and patient colleagues in Written in Blood talking to me about character, the penny started to drop. I’d had, over a few years, a couple of stories published that worked very well. Flashes in the pan? No: in both of these, I understood the protagonist and their goals very well.

It’s amazing to me how slow and stupid even smart people — I consider myself one — can be sometimes... the puzzle wasn’t together yet, but I was starting to find how some of the pieces fit in.

What I think finally made all the pieces click into place was reading (and rereading, and re-rereading) Stephen King’s excellent little book, On Writing: a Memoir of the Craft, in which he confesses that he doesn’t plot and doesn’t believe in plotting. This was a revelation to me, because I really didn’t either. I was vindicated!

And yet King’s stories were full of plotting, of complications and reversals, of ever-rising series of crises from start to finish. But no, he insisted his stories were based on situations and that he relied heavily on intuition. His process, he swore, was to “put a group of characters (perhaps a pair, perhaps even just one) in some sort of predicament and then watch them try to work themselves free.” The key words here were character and predicament.

Another writer I immensely respect, C.J. Cherryh, has a particularly luminous sentence on plotting in her blog. She says, “I think of it not as anything like a sequence of events but as a webwork of tension-lines between characters and sets of characters. You pull one, and one yank moves several characters. It’s not events. It’s tensions.”

In my current novel-in-progress (working title: ‘Sutherland’s Rules’) I tried to put these ideas into practice. I thought long and hard about my principal characters, wrote little bios for them, made up backstory; most important of all, I worked hard at understanding their conscious and subconscious goals and motivations, hopes and fears, and the relationships between the protagonists. I did the same for the antagonists. With this done, I built not an outline but a very loose plot exoskeleton, as it were, roughly based on the typical Campbellian Hero’s-Journey type of structure. And then I turned everyone loose.

To my amazement, what resulted was a complex and very tightly-plotted story as the protagonists, opposed by their antagonists and forced to work within some tight real-world parameters (windows of opportunity, seasonal factors, physical limits of mass and velocity that bear on their scheme), used all their ingenuity and resources to achieve their goals. By taking the time to breathe real life into my characters, they came alive and worked to achieve their ends without any manipulation or heavy-handed effort on my part.

The result is something close to a Swiss watch, far more tightly plotted than anything I could have envisioned, and without ever resorting to what King calls, ‘the noisy jackhammer of plot’: I’d put my characters into a predicament and watched them work themselves free, chronicling their progress as they went.

When I sent the first draft out to my trusty and stalwart beta readers they confirmed what I’d thought: I’d broken into fresh territory and mostly achieved my goals; there was even some excitement. Oh, there were a few issues, but — and this confirmed my new understanding — these were mostly to do with a couple of characters whom I’d not understood fully enough, and neglected to develop as thoroughly as my two chief protagonists.

So in the rewrite, which I’m currently in the middle of, I’m putting the same effort into fleshing out and thoroughly knowing these other characters, confident that this will lead them to act as real, fully-empowered people; the result, I’m quite confident, will be to transform and elevate those parts of the story which aren’t working so well. Beyond that are a few simple environment and situation factors that require tweaking.

So, in the end, there really is no such thing as plot as a cause or driver: plot is simply the result of character and will in motion.

Originally published in
Copyright © 2012 by Dario Ciriello.
Reprinted by permission.

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