Join us as Christopher Koehler goes Outside the Margins.
When I started writing I stumbled into one of the big debates going around. No, not whether or not women should write m/m (don’t get me started…), but plotting versus pantsing it. This baffled me. I thought everyone outlined, but oh no, nothing of the sort. Apparently quite a rift exists between those of us who plot and those of us who write by the seat of our pants. Not the second-person plural pronoun. I still regard us all as part of the same community. It’s just that you pantsters make me nervous.
I started outlining my essays at the end of my undergrad career when my papers grew too convoluted to keep track of in my head. At some point in time, assignments reached a critical mass of complexity and keeping track of the details exceeded my capacities. No comments from the gallery, thank you very much. The complexity of papers certainly didn’t decline in grad school and I just kept outlining, which is plotting by another name.
When it came to the biggest paper of my life until that time, I plotted like Machiavelli. I certainly never informed my dissertation committee that I viewed my dissertation as a dry run for a novel, but that’s what it was. Think about it—what’s a dissertation but carrying an idea along for tens of thousands of words, developing it along the way? It’s a plot, I tell you, a plot, only a lot more boring.
I carried this right on into fiction, long or short. The only difference was one of detail. And fun. You must never forget the fun. Writing should be enjoyable. Yes, it’s maddening and frustrating, and most writers I know write because we have to, but it’s also highly enjoyable.
So what exactly do I get out of plotting, besides a deep-seated satisfaction at seeing things line up mostly the way I need and want them to? To begin with, by the time I’m done with my first draft I’m basically done with my last draft, too. Yep, that’s right, I don’t have to throw out tens of thousands of words. The thought of that makes me twitch, by the way. I hate wasting time and effort.
Sure, I have edits to make. You wouldn’t believe how often I drop words. Sometimes my husbands thinks that’s what his job as my first beta reader is—official dropped word catcher. I have to rewrite a passage here or there to improve clarity. I’ll even add passages. But wholesale deleting? Nope. Knock yourselves out, pantsters. Since I know where I’m going, I almost never write myself into a corner.
Okay, so what do my plots actually look like?
I plot so much that I even follow a plot structure. Think of it the scaffolding on which I build my story, or the endoskeleton on which the meat goes. I use a W-shaped plot structure when I write. The ends of the W represent the high and low points in the action, both emotional and dramatic: things are great; then it goes to crap; but then the protagonist pulls it out of the manure pile and everything looks wonderful; but wait! just when he thinks all is golden something happens to pull the rug back from under him; then there’s one last, desperate chance to fix it all; and then it’s the HEA.
Technically, at that last, desperate chance, it could go either way, but this is Romancelandia and it always ends in the HEA, or at least happy enough for now.
I’ve thought of experimenting with other plot structures, but when it comes down to it, the W works for me. Of course, when I write a short story, like my Toby and Derek stories, I’ll use a part of a W. Think of it was a V—(action starts), high point, low point, resolution on a cheerful note. See how this works?
The W is a fairly standard plot structure in television, although motion pictures seem to follow a different structure. That said, there are many, many structures for plots, and if this is something that interests you, I recommending looking up ‘plot structure’ on your favorite search engine. Prepare to be inundated.
Here’s a snippet from First Impressions. It represents the first arm of the W. Actually it gets me to the first arm of the W, because I plan even that out. As a writer I map out as much as I can.
|Setting the stage: introduce Henry & Cameron, their friends, their needs and goals|
|0 à 1
You’ll note that it’s actually a table within a table, but that’s because I’m an inveterate user of Word. There are plenty of writing programs that may well make this easier. I just don’t use them. My goal is to make money and I already own MS Office. These other programs cost money, and writing is a low-paying profession as is it. Anyway, you’ll notice that the inner columns detail the dramatic action, as well as what the protagonist of each scene feels. One of the major criticisms of my early fiction was that characters were divorced from their emotions, so this dual track outline helped me to include both drama and emotion.
So what of the charge that plotting eliminates spontaneity? To that I say, poppycock! Even with this admittedly anal-retentive approach to outline, I still have a subconscious mind, and it still churns constantly with thoughts of my plot and my characters, or as I think of them, my guys. Every outline has its vague spaces, places that are less detailed than others, and in those places my subconscious plays. Then, too, the internal logic of the story trumps any outline, and if something comes to me that makes more sense than the outline, that part of the outline goes right out the window.
Exhibit A is the character Owen Douglas in Tipping the Balance. He was the hot daddy firefighter Brad Sundstrom tricked with. He was one of the two protagonists in Burning It Down. Owen and that scene with Brad appeared nowhere in my notes or outline for TTB. Owen spun himself into existence in my imagination in hour it took me to write that scene in TTB. He simply demanded my attention and wouldn’t shut up until I gave it to him. Then he demanded a book of his own. The CalPac Crew series was originally supposed envisioned as a trilogy. Oops.
Usually this column aims to challenge people, but not this time. I have no intention of abandoning plotting. It serves me too well. I even plotted out this column.
~ Christopher Koehler
I have a number of paperbacks, most of which are signed, to giveaway. Over the between now (11 Mar 2017) and 31 Mar 2017, every comment on the blog (this post and all other new posts), will be entered to win 1 of these paperbacks. There are also some misc swag items, so there will be a few packs of these to give away as well.
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