Thursday, October 27, 2011

One DV Rebel vs. The Plot Summary

The more I write, the more I realize something rather disheartening: I suck at plot development. Really suck. Like, can't-get-the-last-of-the-milkshake-through-the-straw suck. And I never knew this was my problem before. Because I can come up with ideas. Oh, baby, can I come up with ideas. I've got a list of story ideas a mile and a half long, and I'll still come up with a new one before I start writing something new.

At some point, though, I've started to understand that ideas and plots aren't the same thing. This was never more obvious that the other day when I came up with Dash, the tentative title for one of my NaNoWriMo projects (more about that in a future post). The idea was spawned from a text message to Kim: Can you think of a book that's not midway through a series where the main character starts the book and ends the book in the same relationship, and they don't break up and get together somewhere throughout?

We could not.

So the idea was: Book about a couple that doesn't break up. And they do some other stuff too.

See, that other stuff is where I have the problem. In the past, I've taken this idea, developed a couple characters (let's call them Ash and Em for this book because, well, those are their names), and started writing with nothing else to guide me. Sometimes I've developed an outline around this idea, where very little happens except the characters talk a lot (and, in this case, maybe flirt a lot). Then I write a few chapters, decide it sucks, and put it in a drawer.

I'm breaking the cycle.

I don't know if I've actually developed a plot yet, but I wrote the back-of-the-book blurb. I'm finding more and more that this is a much better jumping point than the idea is. At least this hints at conflict and obstacles to overcome. Plus, it makes me smile, because I would totally pick up this book if I read the summary:

It’s not that Emma Flamel likes to keep secrets. It’s just that she has no other choice. Sure, she could tell Ash, her boyfriend of almost a year, that she’s a witch with the power to make him do anything from swat imaginary flies to confess his darkest secrets... but who needs the hassle? It’s already the longest relationship she’s ever been in; why tempt fate by pushing it? But when her 16-year-old “Little Sister” turns up dead and reeking of magic, Em starts to suspect someone’s trying to tell her something. And Ash’s investigative skills may be just what she needs to get to the bottom of it.

Now I know several things I didn't before. I know Em is a witch, and Ash doesn't know that. I know Em hasn't been in a relationship for longer than a year. I know someone killed her Little Sister (as in, Big Brothers/Big Sisters). I know witches can smell/sense/taste/feel magic. I know Ash has investigative skills (cop? PI?). And I know Em is going to investigate this death, probably with Ash's help. These are all from six sentences, and suddenly... I have the beginning of a plot. And the more of a plot I have, the more excited I get about writing this, and the more details I'll fill in.

I know a lot of writers will swear by the outline system. Until recently, I was one of them. But you have to be flexible if you make an outline because things will change, and I find it difficult to do that. Instead, this plot summary and the notes I make from it give me the freedom to create the story as I go, as the characters develop, but also gives me some guidance. Sure, there are still many, many things I should probably know before diving in, like maybe Ash's last name, but it's only October 27, and I already feel like I'm in a way better place than I was the last time I did NaNoWriMo. Sure, my bipolar love affair with writing could swing back to depression at one wrong word or bout of writer's block. And, sure, I still have to worry about hitting 50,000 words by the end of November. But, hey, for now? I'm going to enjoy picturing what the back of my book will look like.


  1. "Like, can't-get-the-last-of-the-milkshake-through-the-straw suck," = genius.

    The summary does create an amazing sounding plot, and don't forget, plot's important, but what will really move your story forward are the characters and the emotions behind the scenes. IMHO, the characters will generally create most of the plot for you.

    Can't wait to see how this develops. I also think I'm going to steal your blog topic for Adjective, Not a Noun. I think I've posted more about tv than I have writing, and that's just wrong.

  2. I agree that the characters create most of the plot. But they need a direction to start, and that's always where my weakness has been. I develop decent enough (sometimes bordering on good) characters, but I don't give them any conflict or obstacles, and they wind up having conversations while they walk through the woods (which has happened startlingly often in my stories). What I think the summary paragraph does is establish what those central conflicts will be, while still giving me room to develop the characters and build the plot through that.

    Steal away. I look forward to reading it!