Lin Wang asked: When starting a new novel, how do you turn your ideas (characters, images, phrases) into a coherent story? Any advice for writers who want to find a balance between outlining and writing without any plans?
Elizabeth asked: How do you pull a plot out of characters?
Where does plot come from? For many writers it feels like a rabbit plucked from a hat. If you’re lucky it’s there. It it’s there, it’s magic.
Over my last several posts I’ve posed questions to help build characters’ inner journeys. Journeys require steps and each step it strongest when it has its own delineated meaning.
A plot is built of pieces too; pieces which for convenience we might call scenes. But how do you pluck them from the hat and make sure that they’re alive when you do?
If your novel is the plot-driven sort, say a mystery or thriller, the trick may feel easy. Each step your protagonist must take to discover a killer or save the world is the basis for a scene. Build into it a step in the inner journey and you have a scene that will feel powerful.
But what if you don’t have that easy framework? What if your story is at first nothing but ideas, intentions, a vague sense that stuff is going to happen and your protagonist will change? What if the hat is truly empty?
Organic and intuitive writers usually hack through a first draft, hoping to discover the events that will dramatize what’s in their hearts. They may have markers for which they aim, known events or moments to include. Generally, though, it takes many drafts for this method to produce the rabbit and sometimes that rabbit is skinny and malnourished.
While I don’t advocate outline writing for authors who hate outlines, there are even so ways to conjure a healthy, fat rabbit. It starts with this recognition: Any scene which occurs to you to write has hidden in the heart of it something important, and if it’s important then it’s something that can be externalized.
That’s the trick: Take every moment in your character’s experience and externalize it—strongly. Ask, what is my character undergoing right now? Suppose that I could not use dialogue or interior monologue to express it…how can the reader know what’s happening only through what they can “see” visually, of “hear” audibly? What’s the strongest external and outward thing that can happen to show the change that’s happening inside?
There’s a hierarchy in externalizations. Things that your protagonist actively does are stronger than things that are done to him. Human actions are stronger than symbolic, poetic or atmospheric evocations. Friction is strongest when it’s interpersonal. Make your protagonist rub up against others rather than just her own self.
Think always: What is the strongest thing my protagonist can do right now? What is the worst turn this scene can take? What is the strongest conflict with someone else at this moment and what is the strongest way in which that conflict can play out?
That approach may sound to you like the antithesis of what is artful, subtle and strong in fiction. But remember, what we’re looking for here are external events. What I observe in most organically written, character-driven manuscripts is a paucity of drama. Turn outward what’s inward. That, really, is plot.
The rabbit is in there, I promise. And it’s not magic. It’s the step-by-step, outward dramatization of what’s burning inside you.
Donald Maass is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency in New York. His agency sells more than 150 novels every year to major publishers in the U.S. and overseas. He’s the author of several craft books for writers, including the highly acclaimed Writing the Breakout Novel and The Fire in Fiction.
Photo courtesy Flickr’s MarcelGermain