How A Plot Develops
When people find out that I’m an author, they immediately ask, “What’s your book about?” A reasonable question and I cheerfully answer, “It’s about a 500-year-old woman forcing an author to interview her.” The people seem to understand this premise and their next question is, “How did you come up such a far-out idea?” I tell them that I thought up my concept up a long time ago and worked on it for many years until I had the confidence to write about it. They then say, “I have always wanted to be an author. How did you go from your idea to a book?”
That is a complex answer. In my first three books, I mentally modified the story hundreds of times over many years. When it came time to actually write them, the words just flowed. However, that approach created a big problem. When my beta reader (mom), editors and book helper read my story and they had big concerns. The basic plot had several major issues. In just about every area, I was missing the motivation. A big part of this missed motivation was the “critical decision.” This is when a character decided to do something and the author has to pull their thoughts out of the characters heads. For example, “Bob killed Fred.” Why did he do this? What happened afterward? How did Bob feel about his actions? What did he tell people? Well, I just kind of assumed that the reader had been paying attention and magically knew what was in Bob’s head. Oops.
Overall, I was missing was the basic flow of a good story. A character gets into trouble and then either get’s out of trouble or they don’t. When I’m writing, I like to resolve issues as quickly as possible. A character simply cannot remain in indeterminate trouble over several chapters. I guess that’s a part of my engineer personality. Everything I have control over in my life is neat and organized. The problem with a logical approach is that it doesn’t build conflict and sustain the reader’s interest. Readers like to have a good long read about how a conflict starts and then have their hand held through the resolution. That is how a good writer builds a great story and this is the difference between a news report and a novel. One is presentable and the other is enjoyable.
Not all stories have to have deep conflict in order to be great. The book, The Zen and Art of Motorcycle Repair has a very basic story. A dad takes his son on a motorcycle road trip. There’s no controversy, adventure or radical concepts. However, it is an astounding book that everybody should read at least once. Why? Because of the way the simple story flows. This book goes far over the top to expand the characters and their motivations in a very mellow way. The plot builds over several chapters and then slowly settles with a gentle conclusion.
There is a genuine art to developing a flow within the plot. There has to be an overall plan and I have only recently begun to formalize that approach. I do this with an outline that allows me to really craft the story. With a basic outline, it’s much easier to tie story elements together over multiple chapters. For example, a person can have a mysterious health issue for the first 90% of the book and then get it resolved at the end. Readers generally like this approach when they read a story. However, I still prefer to get the major issues resolved quickly. The good news is that using outlines is helping me resist this trend. The bad news is that I still hate when a character is in trouble.
The next book I’m going to work on is a spy drama. This sequel to my third book Cable Ties (in the editing process now) and the overall plot while straightforward has many elements. I’m going to try to have a few unresolved conflicts, open-ended questions and other areas that leave the reader confused. I’m also working much more on the motivation behind each of the characters to give the reader a better perspective.
The problem with this new book (which is still in the outline stage) is that the plot isn’t too strong. While there are some really good ideas, I’m not sure it will hold the reader's interest. Overall, it’s a messy plot without a core focus. I have been going over the plot for a while and come to no revelations. I think the overall problem is that there is no central adversary with a central agenda. However, this is often the case with real-life spy stories. This type of story is about one big government organization versus another with thousands of individual people making their big goals happen. Their overall plan (with regards to spying) is to keep their country safe and ahead of the other country. I am trying to keep it real with a focus on the many little people who are diligently doing their job. The important part of the plot behind this book is to weave through the characters’ lives. They are going to have real dilemmas and have to work hard to resolve their conflicts. For me, the worst part is going to be that I am forcing myself to make this happen over several chapters. I still have a lot of work to do before I start writing. The outline needs a lot more tweaking and I know that I need to make several big changes. That’s why this book is still at the outline stage for the last 6 months.
What will my future plots hold? Well, I have many ideas that I want to explore. I also have wondered about a book of short stories. One of them is a great idea about time travel involving Amelia Earhart. The good news is that I am getting much better at crafting the overall story. The bad news is that I still want to solve my plot too quickly. Got to work on that.
You’re the best -Bill
June 12, 2018
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