June 3, 2013

Kill Your Blank Pages: Plot

"Your lipstick stains..."
You’ve been working on your story idea for weeks—or maybe days, it doesn’t matter—and you are ready to write. Your fingertips are on the keyboard and a steaming cup of coffee rests at your elbow to keep your energy up—but somehow, it drains out of you anyways as you stare at the blank page in front of you.

My experience (gathered by talking to other writers, and through my own writing life) has convinced me that the number one cause of writer’s block is a weak story premise and poor outlining. Take an analogy—drawing. Some artists can grab a paintbrush and just start flinging paint around without an idea of where they’re going with the piece. Sometimes that works, but more often then that, the audience ends up just as lost about its direction as the painter. Most painters like to plan out their painting so they know exactly where they’re going, and do when they sit down to the project, their creative process comes out in the details—like color and expression. The outline is already there.

I think it works the same way in writing. After all, can you really expect your muse to function properly if it has to think “what’s going to happen next?” AND keep track of your characters AND pick the best way to phrase the next sentence AND come up with good dialogue AND visualize the setting all at the same time?

So the first key to freeing your muse and killing those blank pages is outlining your story in a logical, interesting manner. Use the left side of your brain to plot your novel so the right side can write your novel.

Is Your Plot Slowing You Down?

This is a fairly easy question to answer. When you sit down to write, is trying to figure out “what happens next” the first thing you do? For the most part, when you sit down to right, you should have (at least) a pretty good idea of what you’re about to write.

How Much Should You Plot Out?

Once you’ve decided to plot it, the next question becomes, “how detailed does my plot need to be before I am ready to write?” The answer to this question depends on you. Different writers feel comfortable plotting to different levels of detail—but there are some hints and tips I can give you.

First off, be wary that “over-analysis leads to paralysis.” If you plot out EVERY SINGLE MOMENT of the book, you’re likely to burn yourself out. Don’t use your left-side brain to do what you should leave to your muse. When you sit down to write, there should still be some exciting element of “unknown” and “adventure” left to explore.

Next is another caveat. Some writers do write better with less preparation. Some write better with more. I’ve tried both, and my suggestion is that you start with more, and once you’ve got the hang of successful novel structure, you can begin downsizing how much you prepare beforehand.

So now you’re thinking, “Ok, you’ve told me to start more, but not too much. HOW MUCH IS THAT?!?” Keep your shirt on, I’m getting there.

I’ve tried hundreds of plot outlines over the years, and the one with the MOST detail in my opinion would be the “snowflake” method. Unless you’re like a super control freak (no offense, Randy), this is way too much detail. I tried it once, and died—or well, the story did. It’s been sitting on a shelf deep within my computer files for a couple years while I recover from the attempt. If you like this approach, I recommend only doing steps 1-5, or at most 1-7. I also like step 8 (even if you don’t do steps 6 and 7)—but I’ll get back to that later.

Another setup I thought was brilliant comes from Dramatica. It’s a very technical and BRILLIANT look at how to layer theme, plot, and character—if you think you’re in the writing business for the long haul, I recommend you read the entire book. The chapters on story-forming and story-encoding are the best, but the most useful tool out of the entire (free!!) book is this. I used almost the entire book to plan out my first novel, but the thoroughline concept was pretty much all I needed to plot out the second novel (along with some stuff on “thematic variation,” found towards the bottom of the chapter on story-forming). If you use Dramatica, you may need their dictionary because the terms can be hard to understand.

If you browse the web you can find a lot of “6 step plots” or “7 step plots”—but the above mentioned tools are, in my opinion, the best way to set up your story to the point where it’s writable. Using steps 1-5 of the snowflake method will help you get your story started. Follow it up with a few tools out of the Dramatica toolbox, and if you’re REALLY smart you’ll finish out with step 8 of the snowflake method.

It may seem like a lot of work at first, but trust me—it’s totally worth the effort, especially as it becomes subconscious and you no longer need to do all the steps. Don't feel limited to what I suggested here, though! Research other ways to plot if you find this doesn't work for you. The important part is having a logical, meaningful outline to follow. The better you know where you’re going with your story, the more depth and direction it will have. You will immediately stand out from the crowd because your story will no longer be a one-dimensional mess of random events, and your writing will be better because your muse can focus on creating art instead of building structure.

Best of all, you can kill the blank pages and get to writing, which is really what you want to do. Stay tuned ‘til next week for part two of KILL YOUR BLANK PAGES: A TEN-PART SERIES ON WRITER’S BLOCK.

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