It’s been three years since I started writing The Dead Don’t Cry, three years since I’ve really had to think about my elusive friend, the plot. The last time I wrote about him, I talked about delving into the minds of your characters, letting them do all the legwork. Useful as that can be, the actual art tends to be a bit more gritty, considerably more hands on. We’ve all heard the saying: there’s a story in each and every one of us. What no one told us was just how piecemeal that story actually is.
Creating a plot isn’t so much like creating something out of nothing as it is spinning these pieces into a tightly knit rope. The tighter the story, the better suited it is to keep your audience hanging on to every word. This is more than just a metaphor. It should be a complete paradigm shift in thinking. When I look at my notebooks, drawings, my computer, at anything that contributes to my writing, I’m looking at tools designed to tie story threads together. And just where exactly do these threads come from?
Rebecca from Diary of a Virgin Novelist writes:
“I like fleeting feelings…ugly feelings that grow in your bowels. I like greed and selfishness and jealousy. I also tend to start with images. A flash of something. A dingy cubicle. Stained carpet. So, I guess you could say that I take an ugly feeling and marry it with an image.”
What she’s doing here is taking an image and weaving it into a story, effectively using threads culled from the image itself. Why is the cubicle dingy? What stained the carpet? Was it red wine or something more sinister? There’s no limit to how much information we can get this way, so I encourage you to take to unraveling those threads the way my children take to their toy chest: do not stop until you’re absolutely breathless and knee-deep in threads, then go ahead and reach for one more.
Once you’ve considered every possible direction that your book can go in, the next challenge is deciding which threads to implement and which to ignore. Keep in mind that the best ropes are both aesthetically pleasing and powerfully strung. Plots are no different. They should look and feel organic, plausible, and at the very least topically entertaining. But if there isn’t substance supporting your elaborate stitching, you can rest assured that it will fall apart the moment your readers attempt to latch on.
Threads in hand, the final stage is the stitching itself. There’s no one way to do this, but I’ll happily share my technique with you. I like to construct a plot through scenes, each one independent to yet wholly dependent upon the other. Graded on mood, pace, and tension, the grade for one tells me how to approach the next. For example, if the mood is particularly light in one scene, I compensate by going darker for the next, and so on. The idea is to create a string of scenes that constantly engages the reader, rather than a plot that suffers from redundancy and ultimately, boredom.
Make no mistake, plotting is difficult. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun with it. Find an image(internally or externally), extrapolate all you can from it, then watch where it takes you, tightening and hemming as needed. If you’re feeling especially adventurous, don’t complete the plot until after you’ve started writing. You might be surprised at how thrilling it can be to grab hold of something without fully knowing if it’s secure. After all, completed outlines are for people who lack faith in their muse. And you don’t want to anger your muse.
Next week: What do we tie at the end of the rope? The hook.