Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Writer's Block: From Premise to Plot

Most of my book ideas start from a premise: hypocrisy of ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel, a reformed prostitute living on the north shore, tagging crews in Chicago. These are ideas, bases from which stories can grow, not plot. The premise is the who, what, when, where and why of your story. Plot is the how. The plot is how your story ideas and characters get from point A to point B. Novel premises and ideas come all the time, usually without effort. Plot takes time, craft, and lots of thought.

The process of starting a novel can be daunting. You have an idea, you have a few characters, maybe you even know how the story is going to end. But where do you go from there? Do you start writing and see where the story takes you? Or do you outline first, plan ahead?

The answers are different for every writer, but over time, I've grown quite fond of outlining. My first two books had all types of structure problems and I would have loved to figure all that out before I spent months writing hundreds of pages that ended up in the trash. I don't outline in great detail, so much of the plot changes as I go. But the core points remain the same, which allows me to keep focus and hopefully minimize future revision.

There are many different ways to outline. Some writers use dry erase boards, others use post-its. I've seen a few use enormous rolls of butcher paper. A few years ago, I covered my dining room wall with index cards. I'm a visual person; I need to see my story and be able to rearrange it before my eyes. For others, it's enough to take notes or mentally craft the structure. Whichever method you choose, remember the following:
  1. Focus on internal plot points as well as external. Better yet, plan how the two weave together.
  2. Think in terms of pages. Once you have the main turning points figured out, think about where they come into the story. You don't want your first major turning point happening halfway through the book.
  3. Think about different possible scenarios. There are many ways to kill a person, for a P.I. to discover a crucial piece of evidence, or for two people to come together. Think of a few different ways to achieve the same goal and weigh the pros and cons of each. You may run into a problem during the writing that requires a plan B.
  4. Run the outline by your writers group. They'll definitely have questions, concerns and feedback about your plot structure. Much better to hear it in the beginning phases rather than 200 pages into the writing.
  5. Know the ending, or at least have an idea of it. If you don't know the ending, your writing will lack focus. You want every chapter, every scene, every paragraph, to drive the plot towards your end goal. With the exception of some literary works, I'd say it's impossible to write a book with a tightly woven plot without knowing the ending ahead of time.

Writing a novel is far less daunting if you have a plan. It's no fun to stare at a blank page for an hour, thinking about what you're going to write. With an outline, you know exactly where you're going before you even turn on your computer. Know that scenes will change, plot points may shift, and that's okay, as long as you've spend time thinking about the structure of your story and where you want it to go. Just because you have a premise, doesn't mean you have a plot.

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