devious plots

The part of starting a novel that comes between the ideas/vibes and the word vomit/terrible first draft is the part where I need to take the vibes and mash them into some sort of shape. There are many ways to approach the plotting of a novel, and mine is a hybrid.

Sometimes people categorize novel-writers into plotters and pantsers. Pantsers is a very silly non-word, but it means that one doesn’t worry about outlining at all. Just write, and then fix it later. This appeals to me greatly but it is a great way to run into what I call the RomCom Problem, where I have set myself up with a massive rat’s nest that cannot be plausibly resolved and I have to break reality to get to the ending. Despite a deadly mistake, everything is forgiven! Even though she was extremely manipulative, the grand romantic gesture makes up for all the lies and the relationship won’t ever return to this toxic pattern again! The children are somehow smarter than all the adults and able to save the world with a simple fix everyone else overlooked! That always bugs me.

Plotters, at the other extreme, outline everything. This is where the standard writing books spell out the formula that makes books feel similar in their structure and pacing. It’s true that stories follow similar patterns because that’s what humans expect. We want rising action, a climax, and a resolution. If we don’t have those things it feels like the story was a waste of time. A lot of the plotting advice points back to the Hero’s Journey, per Joseph Campbell and The Hero With 1000 Faces. I own the book and I’ve read it; it’s useful to understand the archetype but also deserves all the critiques it gets. That book was converted into a pamphlet that became the bible for Hollywood and codified the 3-act structure that most Hollywood movies rely on. In writing, this is converted into a 4-act structure – loosely, books start with a hook and an introduction and the first act ends with Plot Point 1, or a conflict that points to the climax in some way. The second act takes you to the midpoint of the book, or Plot Point 2/The Turn – things have been going fairly well for the protagonist but then it starts to go downhill. The third act is a hot mess and ends with Plot Point 3, which kicks off the climax, and then in act four, the climax happens and everything wraps up. Advice that’s often given with this structure includes: the protagonist needs to solve their own problem and not a supporting character or a coincidence or the mighty hand of god (deux ex machina); coincidences are great for getting characters into trouble but not out of them; every scene should matter to the plot in some way; use as few adjectives as possible; show don’t tell.

I have read several writing craft books that have taught me all this, plus creative writing classes, and it’s the sort of thing that is only helpful to a point. Or it’s only helpful to know why the rules exist, and it’s because humans have expectations. But to follow all the rules exactly will get you Sweet Valley High, or Nancy Drew, or The Hardy Boys, or The Babysitters Club – formula novels that are churned out really fast and are basically the same book with different details. They’re great for light reading and are an essential part of learning to read and learning to understand stories; I am not disparaging them. But they do get boring, and most people want to read a variety of stories, not the same thing forever.

So what I do is take the vibes, figure out what the climax should be, and then fill in the other plot points to build to it. Then I separate the four acts into chapter descriptions, settle on the main characters’ personalities, note down some subplot possibilities, and start writing. I want to keep myself free to change the plot if I need to, but if I don’t start with a direction I’ll get lost. If I have too much planned out in advance, I get bored. Writing is like reading, except the story doesn’t exist yet and I have to actually create it to find out what happens. It’s hard work.

In terms of the current book, I am heading towards Plot Point 1 and the book has steered me into adding a third component to the main conflict – rather than the external conflict + negotiating new friendships, my girl Penelope is trying to figure out her relationship with her mother in their new home in space. Penelope is a preteen and things get weird with parents at that age. I think this is going to make the book a lot stronger, and if I was strictly following my outline, I wouldn’t have space for it. But if I didn’t have the outline to tie it to, the book would end up being a lot of feelings and there wouldn’t really be any point to setting it in space at all.

I think this is my favourite part of the process. (I may say this several times – there are lots of my favourite parts.) I really am telling myself this story – I don’t know what is cooking in the depths of my brain, and often when I get into the flow of the story, those surprises are just as exciting to write as they are to read.

Currently reading: Interesting Times, by Terry Pratchett. Terry Pratchett is in my top 5; I own all of the Discworld books and read them before bed most nights. Interesting Times is earlier in the series, and it’s a Rincewind the Wizzard book so it’s less good than some of the others, but it’s still very funny. It’s also a little off-putting the way it is satirizing China. However, one of the things I like best about the Discworld is that you can see how Terry Pratchett’s worldview changed and grew over time, and in the context of the series as a whole, it is easier to give him some grace for the flaws, because he added nuance and correction as he went. I’m still sad that he died.

Currently listening: I made a playlist of 60s music called Old and Hot and it’s perfect for belting along while doing neverending care tasks. That link is to Apple Music; I quit Spotify last year. If the link doesn’t work and you want the track list, just let me know.

Currently eating: One week ago we had a massive snowstorm and I couldn’t see my deck or yard or anything, and today the deck is nearly clear, so that means the barbecue is back and I’m so pumped to have the first homemade hamburger of 2023. It’s gonna be amazing.