March 24th, 2010

Workshop #4: Plot

Today’s workshop is on plot! Boo, I say, but I’ve found kids really do need this kind of structure–you need to learn the dimensions of the box before you can think outside of it. And it is kind of interesting for me to review the standard plot graph–it’s good to remember that that’s at least a possibility when I’m writing, and if I choose not to use it I should at least acknowledge that I’m choosing.

But I actually wouldn’t really suggest grown-up writers try writing an entire story by the graph–it’s not a terrible idea, but it’s a lot of work if you are in the middle of a project–to make it worthwhile you’d have to really invest some time in the story, so that the graph didn’t just dominate it. But, heck, if you are more disciplined than I, it probably would be illuminating, what you can do with that inverted tick mark.

Instead, here are a couple less ambitious exercises I often do with stories I’m working on, which I found help immensely plotwise. Maybe they’ll help you too:

1) Graph your plot *after* you get to the second draft. If you are finding that there’s something wonky about the pacing, graph the amount of event/dialogue/description per page and see if you are finding bits that are overloaded versus bits that are slack. In my classes today, we’ll definitely be talking about non-standard plot graphs–flat lines, loop-de-loops, parallel arcs, connect-the-dots…all work if you work them, natch, but I find I often don’t even know I’m doing these things until I write/draw it out. And it’s easier to improve the structure once you know what it is.

If the sketch seems to gimmicky, simply write yourself an outline–Jenny walks to the garden supply centre (two pages), Jenny remembers Derek ski accident (1/2 page), Jenny runs into Derek in the parking lot (4 1/2 pages)–to see if you can spot pacing errors. I never ouline at the beginning, but I find at this point it is really helpful to see where I’m spending my pages. This is especially helpful if it’s a double (or more) narration, or a story with a lot of flashbacks, or anything that’s important to keep balanced.

2) I’m going to have the kids base their first round of plot graphs not on their own stories but on back-jacket copy from novels–they’ll have the basic plots from those, and fill in the rest from their own brains (at least, this is the hope). For an adult, I would suggest doing this in reverse–writing a book-cover blurb for you own story at the midway point in the process. I find that summarizing a story in the manner of back-jacket copy is…well, just as horrible and painful as summarizing in any other context. When asked to summarize, my instinct is always, “I can’t, the story doesn’t work that way, if you want to know what it’s about read it, bah I don’t wanna I hate you.” And it devolves from there. But at least thinking about the book cover reminds me that this is a necessary process–someday, I hope to have the story *in* a book, and that book will need to have some sort of description written on the cover. Sometimes, the push helps.

If I’m *really* struggling with the summary, that’s probably a sign that there’s something wrong with the story–there should be a few elements that can be easily described, at least. You’re going to judge me for being self-indulgent, but sometimes I also try writing these summaries as reviews–glowing ones. And that of course *is* self-indulgent, but it is also true that if I write down the nice things I want people to say about the work, it reminds me of what my goals for the piece actually are–which is not always so apparent on the page. And, also, on a tough day, it’s nice to imagine someone saying nice things about my work.

So…that’s a few suggestions on working with plot. Feel free to add more if you have your own better/different plotting exercises, or to let me know if these work or don’t work for you. I hope the kids like’em.


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