At The Foot of Plot

Wednesday, June 7th, 2017 12:38 am
lizvogel: Good / Bad (Good Bad)
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
lizvogel: What is this work of which you speak? (Cat on briefcase.) (Work)
(Whattaya know, for once I've actually managed to do the 'nother post!)

So, I've been flailing pretty hard on the Haley novel lately. I've worked out the new plot satisfactorily, for definitions of "plot" that include where the characters start and where they end up. But as I've said before, there's knowing what happens, and then there's knowing what happens.

And I've been stressing a lot over what happens. Trying to work out the intricate puzzle-piece steps of getting from E to Z. Trying, in short, to write a plot-driven book, or rest-of-book. And I've realized that I'm barking up not just the wrong tree, but possibly an entire wrong grove, if not outright forest.

Some things to remember, for the rest of this book and perhaps future ones:

1. When in doubt, play to my strengths. I'm good at character stuff, perhaps especially angsty character stuff. Intricate puzzle-piece plot, not so much. And I've been so focused on making the replacement plot work that I lost sight of anything else. This was never meant to be a plot-driven book, I've no desire to write all-plot-no-character, and let's face it, anybody who's looking for a Christie-esque puzzle will have given up long before the end of Chapter 7. I need to focus on the characters; while the plot has to hold together, it is primarily a framework to hang the character stuff on.

A practical demonstration: I had two options for a minor point in the scene I was working on the other night. I stopped and considered: which way would make my MC suffer more? And 900 words just fell out of my fingers.

2. Real mysteries don't do what I'm trying to do, either. This part of the book is essentially a mystery plot; my character has to figure out what the bad guy is up to, and how all these other people connect to it. This, I've been telling myself, mostly involves my character looking at a lot of accounting records and similar tedious legwork details. How on earth do you make that interesting?

Answer: You don't.

I've been studying mystery plots a bit lately. Mostly by watching Remington Steele, a task which is its own reward. Remington Steele is an all-around good show; while I primarily watch it for character, it also has solid mystery plots. Frequently -- I'd hazard more than half the time -- key clues to the mystery are found via the DMV, tax and financial records, and other equally exciting database searches. And yet, these are virtually never shown on screen. Oh, occasionally we'll see Laura surrounded by stacks of paper or Steele struggling with the computer, but even those are brief glimpses; we don't see the process. The vital information is presented by the simple expedient of one character telling it to another. (Mildred especially does a lot of this. A lot.)

And this is a thing I've been really struggling with in the current WIP. My MC needs to be looking up this sort of info, and since I've been doing spy-procedural stuff in other sections, I felt like I ought to show her doing it. But while I know generally what's in these sources, I don't know what they look like, so the usual descriptive tactics aren't available to me. And there's still the issue that even the cleverest wordsmithing can only do so much to make a computer search sound cool.

So the solution is: Don't describe it. Just present the end results to the reader, perhaps with some reported thought about how hard/easy it was to find. It feels like cheating, but it's cheating with a long and honorable tradition behind it.

3. Characters can talk to each other. The other significant thing in the above is that a character reveals the discovered-off-screen information by telling it to another character. This works great if you have a detective duo (or trio). It's trickier if you have a character flying solo. You can always have a character talk to themselves, of course, either outright or as reported thought, but it works a lot better if they've got someone to explain things to. (Cue every Doctor Who companion ever.) And my poor MC is flying solo for much of this story.

I was already subconsciously leaning toward addressing this: there's a scene where the MC's boss passes along a fistful of leads, several of which I'd tucked in before I quite knew what I was going to do with them. And to keep other factors balanced, I was setting my MC up to have to work with, hmm, not the antagonist, exactly, but another player whom she for very good reasons doesn't trust, but, for equally good reasons, has to keep at least somewhat involved. (Some of those reasons are the same reason, in fact.) So there's a question of how much she'll willingly tell this person, which limits their utility as a reveal-to-the-reader sounding board... but there are interesting character things I can do to work around that. Which takes me right back to #1, not coincidentally.

Add these up, and I might just be able to get a finished novel out of this thing.

Oh, yes, and:

4. Get the damn coffee, already. Yes, money, calories, whatever. Bought the double mocha?: 900 words, easily. Didn't really "need" the mocha?: struggling to write anything. You do the math.
lizvogel: Good / Bad (Good Bad)
Ever have one of those days when you can't seem to finish anything without twelve other things interrupting, if you set something down for a second you end up having to ransack the entire house to find it again, and the only way to get something put away is to keep it clutched tightly in your hand until it's where it belongs and never set it down until then no matter what else happens?

I realized a couple weeks ago that that's the problem I'm having with the Haley novel. Every time I thought I had a handle on a plot thread, it was at the cost of some other thread slipping through my mental fingers. And if I stopped clutching at the distant end of a thread long enough to write the next bit, I ended up having to work out all over again where it was going.

I actually resorted to hanging on to my favorite pen while I was typing, in the don't-set-it-down model. It did seem to help. That, and flowcharting what's going on behind the scenes.

And then I figured out what the real problem was. Which is another post.




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