On Writing: Plot that doesn’t plod

Plotting a story is an interesting exercise. I’ve read a ton of different writing guides, blog posts and author’s notes on plot. Some of it even makes sense. A lot of it doesn’t. Not to me anyway.

One definition of “plot” that seems pretty common is: “The sequence of events that take place in the story.” Sometimes a definition will include some comment about how plot needs to follow some plausible path of cause and effect.

As with most things, I think about plot differently than most definitions I’ve read. I’m primarily an outliner when I write. My approach to outlining goes something like this:

1. Write a single sentence that describes the book’s main story line.

2. Take that single sentence and expand it into a paragraph.

3. Take that paragraph and expand it into an outline.

4. Take that outline and expand it into a list of major scenes.

5. Start writing.

The list of major scenes becomes the plot’s skeleton. The writing fleshes things out as I go.

I considered actually posting the original list of scenes for “Warrior” but decided against it since that would essentially be a huge spoiler for anyone who hasn’t yet read the book. The actual scene list was about 40 individual scenes. The scenes themselves are described at a very high level and focus on what I want the reader to take away from those scenes, not on any details in the scene. An example would be something like “Lirak and Mayrie¬†discuss the impact his dreams are having on their relationship. The discussion is contentious, tearful but actually strengthens their bond and ends with their first kiss.”

When I get to the actual writing of a scene, there are usually activities already under way that the scene has to deal with that were set up by earlier scenes. My main purpose is to weave those activities into the scene and allow the character interaction to develop organically from those activities, following the basic goal of the scene. At the end of the scene there will be open ended activities still underway from prior scenes, some activities will come to an end, and others will be created that will have to be addressed in later scenes.

The process is very fluid and flexible. I occasionally will decide that the scene ends up feeling wrong, and will start over, and the result will be significantly different than the first attempt, but will still (usually) fulfill the scene’s intended goals.

When I started working on Warlock I had a one paragraph description of the book. I spent a morning at a coffee shop and turned that one paragraph into a 46 scene document that became the book. As of now, moving into beta reading, at least 90% of those scenes remain on the list. I took out a few scenes when the book felt like I had too many plot threads going and was worried that the reader would lose track of the story line. But for the most part, that morning’s effort in the coffee shop was really when the book was defined. Most of the rest of the work I did over the eight weeks it took to complete the first draft was taking one scene at a time and turning that scene’s plot elements into actual narrative text.

I think I’ve heard this described as a “top down” approach to plot. I don’t really care what it’s called. I just lay out the scenes and then go write them.

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About seandgolden

Husband, father, author
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