Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A Case For Plotting

There are many methods of writing fiction. Here are the most common.

A Found Thing

This is the term Stephen King gives to his style of writing in his book On Writing. It's also known as "By the Seat of One's Pants," but I prefer King's term. It's been a while since I read "On Writing," but this is how I recall King describing it.

Let's say you're having a leisurely stroll through the woods when something on the ground catches your eye. You stop, stoop, and take a look, and discover what you're really looking at is the top of some buried thing. You inspect the thing and form an opinion of what it might be based on what you can see.

It's captured your interest so you clean it off with your hand, and now that you can see it better, your opinion of what it might be changes a little. Now you're really interested so you dig around the edges with your trusty Swiss Army knife and uncover more of the object. Okay, maybe it wasn't exactly what you thought it was when you couldn't see as much of it, so your opinion changes again.

This process continues as you uncover more of the object until you've dug the thing up. Based on what it is, you may or not know what you've found. It could be a treasure chest with yet unknown treasures (or terrors!) inside. You'll have to pry the chest open to see what's inside. It might be some kid's backpack he lost a few years ago, containing textbooks his parents had to pay for. It could be a baseball mitt, with nothing to discover inside.

This is how I wrote my first novel, CANALS. I began with a premise: there's a monster in the canals that flow around and through Modesto, California. I planted myself in front of the old Windows 95 computer in the spare bedroom and wrote the first scene of the novel. By the time I finished the first scene, I had an inkling of what would happen next; i.e., I uncovered more of the object. I continued in this manner until I finished the novel.

Writing like this is both exhilarating and frustrating. You might learn, as you write your story, that a character is not the same as you envisioned him or her at the beginning. Or, you'll think of something that should've happened earlier to set up a scene you're currently writing. In other words, an author who writes like this has to do a lot of rewriting. At least I do, maybe King's so good he doesn't have to go bad and edit before he's done with the first draft.

Another negative I've noted is, you can write yourself into some tight spaces where your only logical plot possibilities don't make much sense, or are bizarre. I refer you to King's book It. A great book made into a pretty good TV movie. People the world over are afraid of clowns because of that movie. But the ending... A big spider? Really? To me, a really dumb ending. Many of King's books have endings that make you scratch your head and wonder why. Now you know why.

Strict Plotting

Some writers figure out what happens before they write the story, and they rarely deviate from their pre-determined plot. Much time is spent plotting as they have to flesh out every detail in advance.

King wrote that the only book he plotted was Dead Zone. A pretty good book and movie, in my opinion. Christopher Walken was a perfect choice for the lead. He can do nutty like no one else.

There are advantages to strict plotting: there are no surprises to try and figure out how to handle. And, I understand the actual writing goes much faster. It should, you've already decided what's going to happen, and when.

Fiction Based On Real Events

Truman Capote wrote In Cold Blood in this manner. Find an event that really happened and write a book about it, but turn the truth into fiction by changing things up. If you don't, you're documenting instead of writing fiction. Little plotting is needed because the writer need only follow the path of history.

Mixture of the Above Methods

This is how I write fiction. I begin with a premise, figure out how I want the story to end, then let my imagination tell me what happens in between. You might also call it the lazy-man's plotting; I'm too lazy to plot out a whole book. And for me, it would do away with the exhilaration I had writing CANALS.

Oh, I plot, but I plot in chunks. I think of it like driving at night: I can only see what the headlights illuminate. But the funny thing is, when I reach the last chunk of illuminated roadway, I can already see another chunk in front of me. In this manner I plot pieces of a book at a time. Sometimes I can see a chapter ahead, sometimes half a chapter. Occasionally two chapters, but not often.

You might find it helps to give some thought to your characters before you start writing, but not too much. Don't get your feet planted in a block of cement. Get an idea what they look like and give them some weaknesses; no one likes a perfect person.

For instance, my WIP, which takes place in north Seattle, features a local detective named Ira Utter. I've pictured him as about six feet tall, slim, with dark short-cropped dark hair. He's got a problem: he has trouble pronouncing even the simplest names, even after people tell him how to pronounce them. He's also a germ phobe, but not bad like Monk. And he's a recovering alcoholic who really feels the pull of the booze, like many do.

By giving Utter some characteristics in advance I've set up a number of possibilities. He could fall off the wagon, although that would be a little too cliché. He could have an ex-wife because of his years of drinking, but again, too cliché. Or, his marriage could show the baggage of his years of drinking and be a little messed up. The problem pronouncing names could lead to some humor, as could the germ-phobe thing.

But I've digressed and haven't addressed the topic suggested in the title of my post. Here's what happened to me recently.

I had written an opening with two women getting picked up at a bar by a third woman, only to end up dead in a dumpster a couple of days later. Utter draws the case because he's had four similar cases before. He's the guy chasing the Sunset Hill Slasher. I figured out a way to get Grant, Amber, and Bensen involved that didn't sound hokey, since they live in Central California.

But then I ran into some difficulties I couldn't find a way out of. I had Utter surprised when a witness told him the two women left with another woman, but how could he be if these deaths were his fifth and sixth Slasher cases? If the killer always picks his/her victims up at a bar, Utter should have learned this on the first case. When I decided this had to be Utter's first Slasher case, I also figured out a better way to introduce Grant and his team.

I just figured all this out today so now, starting tomorrow morning, I get to go back and rewrite thirty pages. That's the hazard of not being a strict plotter. On the other hand, I think the direction I'm going in now is far superior that what I had going before.

Every writer has to figure out what works best for him or her, and then work at getting better at it.