I mentioned in a very previous post
that I came up with a way to ask something, and it didn't work.
My idea was this: When people talk about characterization or world-building, they get very detailed on how-to -- and often very mechanical; there's role-playing character sheets, for example, or something like Pat Wrede's worldbuilding guide.* When people talk about plot, however, it's all examples and results but very little how to do it
What I need is the kind of granular, how-to equivalent of what people do with character or setting, but I need it for plot.
I thought this was a clear and insightful explanation of what I'm looking for, but I tried it out on two very different groups of people (fellow seminar participants and established pros), and it failed utterly both times. I got some recommendations for the usual plot books, none of which do what I'm talking about; I got a detailed and specific definition of what a plot is, which wasn't wrong, but again wasn't what I was looking for.
Luckily, this was at last year's 4th Street, so I also got a lot of good discussion and further analysis of what I was looking for. Part of the problem is that I'm so at sea when it comes to plot that I'm still trying to find the right way to ask the questions, and we all know that asking the right questions is at least half the battle.
It was Skyler who put her finger on one of the key elements: directing/misdirecting reader attention. I particularly struggle when it comes to writing mysteries, because of course plot is especially important in a mystery story. And a core component of a good mystery is that the reader gets enough clues that the reveal makes sense at the end, but not so many that they figure it out long before the detective does.*** And how do you get those clues in front of the reader in a way that they'll remember them, without going "THIS IS A CLUE, REMEMBER IT"?
Including the clue in a list of other things is one way. If there's a needlepoint cat pillow, a blue teapot, a thread-bare armchair, and a faux-fur rug in a room, and in a later scene a blue teapot's been stolen, the astute reader might connect the two. Another trick is to make the clue mean one thing when introduced, and another later on; there's a couple examples I can think of where something's presented as a formative bit of character backstory, then later it turns out to also
be a vital plot element.
There are doubtless many other ways; feel free to mention your favorites in the comments.
Another good suggestion (and I don't remember whose it was) was to outline/flowchart what's happening from the bad guy's POV (assuming you're writing from the good guy's POV, which I generally am). I may have to try that for the fantasy-mystery that's in the queue, laying out the crime and its fallout from the thief's perspective.
So directing and misdirecting reader attention is part of what I'm looking for. This applies to more than just mysteries; in any story, there are things you want the reader to pick up on without hammering it at them, things you want them to have but not notice that they have until it's time to use them.
I think cause-and-effect is another part of it, but I'm not sure I can yet articulate that part in a way that makes sense to anybody else.
I'm still looking for other questions to ask, and better ways to ask them.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Sometimes I wonder if anybody understands plot, at least in the way I'm trying to.
It may be because most people don't really have plots in their lives. They have a series of events, related chronologically if at all, but that's exactly what you don't want in a novel. Characterization they have: If you want to show your character is lonely and feeling outcast, all you have to do is show a bunch of people sitting at a table in the breakroom, and your character comes in, looks wistfully at them, and then goes to sit at a different table by herself. Anybody who's ever been to high school can relate to that. And of course we're surrounded by setting all the time; one of the classic ways to teach yourself to do setting is just to pay attention to the details of whatever places you find yourself in. Worldbuliding is just setting with more Why behind it; if one doesn't have that already, one can go and read a lot of history and economics to develop the Why muscle. But true plot isn't something that most people directly experience. (I suspect pacing might be equally as hard to teach on the granular level as plot; I wouldn't know, because I'm lucky enough to have been dealt the pacing card and so can generally do it by feel.)
I want the "Look at the room you're in. How would you describe it?" equivalent for plot. But nobody says "Look at the plot you're in, and describe it" for plot practice, and there's a reason for that.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~* All of which bounces right off of me, because character and setting/world-building are among the cards I was dealt for free. I can't wrap my head around creating either in such a mechanistic, deliberate way, because my back-brain spits them up fully-formed (or close enough to be going on with) without any conscious effort on my part. Heck, I can't not come up with characters.
** The 4th Street seminar was a prime example of this. The romance writer detailed a very specific set of techniques to show a character progressing through their arc; the mystery writer talked about the effects a plot should have on the reader, and listed several books that did this or that plot-thing well. No dis to the presenters, they were all good, but it was the same disconnect I've run into elsewhere.
*** And not send the reader haring off in some other, completely unintended, direction entirely. This seems to be something I have trouble with. ;-P