Tuesday, March 26, 2019

So You Think You Have an Original Plot. Think again.

So you think you have an original story idea. Um, think again.

Christopher Booker, who took thirty-eight years to write The Seven Basic Plots, subtitled, Why We Tell Stories, boiled down all the plots to these:

Overcoming the Monster
Rags to Riches
The Quest
Voyage and Return
Comedy
Tragedy
Rebirth

Every story plot derives from one of these themes, according to Booker. I can see how a writer could manipulate her plot to fit into one of these, except maybe Riches to Rags, but that’s tragedy then, isn’t it? I won’t bust your bubble, but whatever storyline you are working on, someone has done it before―thousands of times. Now if that isn’t a downer, I don’t know what is. Your job, should you choose to accept it, is to create something different, knowing it's impossible. 

There are dozens of books on how to write a novel. Many teach structure: In The Hero’s Journey, Joseph Campbell’s narrative arc, refined by Christopher Vogler in The Writer’s Journey, the hero’s journey is defined in twelve-stages. It stresses that the hero in every story is the same but presented in different forms.


Outline or wing it? I attended a writing seminar where Jeffrey Deaver said his outline sometimes extends to 800 pages. What? I’ve read a lot of Deaver, and if it’s one thing I can expect it’s to know the bad guy is no one you expect.

There are positives on both sides, but how many people really follow their outline? Does doing so leave no room for a creative path? I'm a pantser―one who writes by the seat of her pants. However, I wish I had done a more thoughtful approach, or at least a timeline, to the book I’m working on now, because I had to go back and rewrite part of it when I realized I lost a day somewhere in the story. A lesson learned.

Then there’s Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method, where you start with a simple premise and expand upon it, adding complexity in character and plot until you turn a one-sentence idea into a complete novel. I’d say this is the closest to my process. For me, it’s an idea about a character and a “what if” situation.

A man who spent fifteen years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit is accused of a similar murder.

A call girl is blackmailed into working for the police or go to prison for tax evasion.

A blind psychologist helps a deaf cop cope with his disability, while he protects her from an unseen stalker.

A psychic is targeted by a psychic serial killer playing a deadly game.

When I started writing, I knew NOTHING. I took courses, read books on writing, on plotting, on the technical aspects, and everything else I didn’t know. I hired an editor when I thought I had something good enough—it wasn’t—and learned more from him. He edited three books for me. It was like taking a private writing course in sentence structure. But there was something he didn’t know, which I didn’t know he didn’t know, until much later. To this day, I need an editor, and even writers who know all the rules need one.


Using some of the aforementioned constructions are good beginnings, but it also leads to overthinking a project. Staying “within the lines” and thinking “inside the box” can also produce a formulaic piece of work. Necessary in the beginning? A qualified yes, and here’s why. We have to know the basics in order to create something different in much the same way that Picasso studied and painted in the classical manner before he could evolve into abstract expressionism and cubism.

The longer one writes, the more those basic tenets become second nature. That leaves a writer free to go outside the lines and create something outside the box. Think of your favorite writers. Study their early work and their later work. Of course, once a writer has a name, she can stretch and take chances. Now, isn’t that fun?

How do you work, and what methods do you employ?


Polly Iyer is the author of nine novels: standalones Hooked, InSight, Murder Déjà Vu, Threads, and Indiscretion, and four books in the Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series, Mind Games, Goddess of the Moon, Backlash and The Scent of Murder. A Massachusetts native, she makes her home in the beautiful Piedmont region of South Carolina. You can visit her website for more on Polly and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

19 comments :

  1. "Study their early work and their later work" - exactly why reading ALL the Nora Roberts novels starting with the latest was invaluable for me. And in a fairly short period of time - maybe two years? Now I'm rereading the strongest to see what makes them click. How fortunate to have a modern, living writing with so many titles to examine and compare over 30 years.

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    1. Curious. Did you find some of them following a formula? I find Romantic Suspense one of the worst offenders.

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    2. I should have asked: Did you find some of them followed a formula?

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  2. Thank you for the fabulous post! When I began critiquing shorts for a friend, I had a crash course in how to write them, something I hadn't considered. Reading is a big valuable tool.

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    1. I really think you learn more reading others' stories than you do in the actual writing. Sometimes you learn what NOT to do as much as what to do. That's because we see their mistakes clearer than we see our own. Thanks, Vicki.

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  3. I waste a lot of time by writing fast without an outline. That means my revision/editing process takes a long time. However, I enjoy the revision/editing process more than the writing, so perhaps there's method to my madness.

    As for story, I agree that a few story themes are repeated over and over. The trick is to find the unusual setting (historical westerns set east of the Mississippi, for instance) or characters or circumstances to bring that unique flavor to a story.

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    1. Boy, are you right about wasting time. I am still trying to get my WIP in order, and it's taken longer this time than ever before. Maybe I'll learn something. I like the editing but only after I've got the story down pat. What I'm going through now is a nightmare.

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  4. I couldn't make the Hero's journey or Snowflake method etc. work for me. That's when I developed my four layers of conflict back in 2008 for the Mythikas series. I start with a 40+ sentence skeleton. It is adaptable as I flesh it out, but I still have to make the changed sentences work for the foundation to remain stable. I resisted outlining. But I found having goal posts kept me from getting stuck in the middle and showed me how to fill out the spaces between the typical plot point diagrams. Going back to the skeleton after changes helped me identify cause and effect problems. I see a lot of wasted real estate in many books in the form of. chapters that do nothing and plot holes so large you could drive a car in them. But everyone should do what works for them.

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    1. Sounds like your 40+ sentences is a form of an outline. Many of my most interesting characters and situations come out of the blue. I know I would never create them if I outlined. But your last sentence is the most important. Whatever works.

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  5. I have a general story idea when I start out, but I don't outline. You might call me a panster who lets her characters tell their own stories——within some limitations. When I wrote my first book, I had a definite story line in mind, but it didn't take the path I had imagined. My antagonist had other plans, and he never listened to women. (This writer is, of course, a woman.) To his credit, his path was right for him, much more in character than the one I had envisioned.

    Speaking of character, I believe one of the most powerful answers to limited story themes is careful and thoughtful characterization. While humans may have some common traits, we are all uniquely different. The secret to creating strong characters who step off the page to invite readers into their lives lies in definitive and detailed character sketches. Before I start writing, I know my characters perhaps even better than I know myself. As Pat mentioned, settings and circumstances also play significant roles in the creation of a one-of-a-kind tale. Side note: this is a far better way to establish ourselves as credible authors than to plagiarize someone else's work——such as has been in the news lately.

    This is a fabulous post, Polly, a definite keeper. :-)

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    1. Interesting point on the characters. I always try to give my characters traits or tics, something that defines them and makes them real. One of my characters rubs the back of his neck when he's stuck for words. Others have faults and make mistakes. We need to keep them real.

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    2. You've hit the nail on the head, Linda. You can have the same type of plot, but it is the characters that differentiate the stories.

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  6. I've tried everything and for a while, everything worked, but then I realized I needed slightly different processes for different types of stories. Started out strictly outlining and formulaic on purpose. Gradually became a pantser but that wasted a lot more time. Then I wrote to 2-4 key plot points. Now I'm back to plotting before I write, but I don't figure everything out in the outline. I need some room for pantser freedom of expression. Great post, my friend.

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    1. I admire that you try different things. I personally don't think the same plan works for every book, but the book/characters tell us as we write. it's not a one-size-fits-all system. Meanwhile, whatever you're doing is working, so keep at it.

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  7. I'm a pantser when I write. But in my current mystery, I started with an expanded chapter-by-chapter outline because the plot is more complex than usual. I want to make sure the timeline of who knows what and when stays accurate.
    Also I agree with the concern. "Staying “within the lines” and thinking “inside the box” can also produce a formulaic piece of work." I see that a lot. I also see people who know nothing about arts criticism being really hard on a book that doesn't follow the formula. It makes no sense to criticize a cozy for not being a noir story. Or a noir for not being a cozy.

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    1. I had to laugh at your conclusion, because it's so true. Get this. My alter ego writes erotic romance, and I had one review that said there was too much sex. Not sure a writer can please everyone. We do our best, try to find plot holes, and write an ending that satisfies the reader. In between all that, we aim to find some angle that makes our books a little different, whether it be in the plot, an intriguing character, or an unusual setting. We try.

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  8. Too much sex in an erotic romance? That's a good one. Yep, we can't make everybody happy.

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  9. A terrific post, Polly and a great discussion that follows.

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