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Creative writing lessons, Shop talk (anything and everything on writing)

Fairy dust and farting about with plots


Here’s an interesting thought: lots of authors don’t like plotting their stories. They say they’re waiting to do it, they say they’re willing to do it. But when it comes to the moment with a blank sheet of paper and a pencil, do they really want to do it? No, they don’t.

Look at me. All this stuff I’ve written. Have I ever plotted it out? No. Not properly. I’ve scrawled a few ideas on a sheet of paper and then thought, bugger this, I want to get started. Also, there seems to be a feeling that if you plan something out, you knock the fairy dust off it. You are turning what should be an artistic creative exploration into some kind of mechanistic plodding.

In the last few weeks, I’ve decided that I’ve got to get off my butt and write another romance. When it came down to starting, this week, did I plot it out first? Did I plan? Did I take any of my own advice, as given to everyone else in my blog posts? No, I bloody didn’t. I shied away from it. I decided, instead, to just freewrite; I wouldn’t , as I usually do, rewrite and rewrite,  I would just keep going until the end, which would probably be about 5,000 – 7,000 words, and then I would use that as my plot. Clever, huh?  Yeah, right.

And I suppose I would have gone on like that and probably got through, if it wasn’t for the fact that I teach a creative writing class and they’re all having some difficulty with giving their stories real narrative drive. I mean, making the reader feel as if the author is in charge, that they know where they’re going.

The research on plotting that I’d done up until that point hadn’t come up with anything that’s really useful. I wrote about it last week, about how you start with your hero wanting something, and then you keep putting obstacles in their way until you decide they’ve had enough and bring it all to a satisfying conclusion. But it was all too vague. If I’m going to get advice, I want practical stuff. I want something that I can use, that is going to work for me.

And then, quite by chance, on Twitter, I found this brilliant website: thescreenwritingprocess.com. It’s for screenwriters really, (no shit, Sherlock) but they have step by step instructions on how to lay out a plot, and I read them and I felt as if I had discovered New Life.

You can get the whole bit, if you’re interested, by going to their site. But in a nutshell, the first thing they advise is to write a premise (or a logline as sreenwriters call it). This is how you do it: Describe your protagonist (cab driver, mother, superhero, whatever) then give them an adjective that sums them up (world weary, alcoholic, retired), then describe their aim (saving the world, saving a child, singing in Eurovision). Then describe who/what is standing in their way. Then put it in a sentence. Like so: World weary mother wants to sing in Eurovision, but has to fight off alcoholic superhero.

Try it with something you’re working on. It’s hard. I thought I would find it easy. I thought I had all my plot in my head. It was only when I attempted this, that I realised that my heroine was a wet blanketty drooping victim, my hero had no personality, and there was no narrative drive.

The trouble was, in many ways, I was rather fond of what I’d written. Promising myself that this was just an exercise, I re wrote my logline just so that sentence sounded good, and then I thought, half grudgingly, half excitedly, Hey, this might actually work as the basis for my story. Then, I followed their plotting instructions. I found myself sketching out a completely new story on the foundations of the old one, but one that now had structure and flow.

Then I took it to my class. I could tell that some didn’t want to do it at all (see fairy dust, above) but they all tried it, even if, for some, it was just as an exercise that they were certainly not going to let anywhere near their inky darlings. Some found the loglines really hard to complete. Some felt the whole thing was silly. Some felt that it showed their stories weren’t dramatic enough, but I don’t think this matters. A premise doesn’t have to be Kerpow! You can apply a logline as easily to Pride and Prejudice as you can to X Men. The point is that you, as an author, know where you’re going. Then we went through the plot stages, with a similarly doubtful reception (see fairy dust, again)  but once started, I could see them beginning to think really hard about the structure of their stories and what needed to happen when. Now they’ve taken them home to complete. I can’t wait to see what they come up with.

About elainecanham

I started blogging because I'm a writer, and I thought I ought to. Now I realise that I blog because I lwant to; even when I can't think of much to say. I do a lot of work for local businesses - get in touch if you like my style.


17 thoughts on “Fairy dust and farting about with plots

  1. ” A premise doesn’t have to be Kerpow!”</i.

    Exactly. I don't write novels or anything beyond 3-4 pages but I always start with a central idea and then begin writing on it. Before I am done I have re-written most of it and altered the initial concept I started with. Like any art form writing is something you develop during the process, chipping away at here and there, adding other dimensions until you can finally step back and observe it in its entirety.

    Posted by lbwoodgate | May 27, 2014, 3:24 pm
  2. Great advice as always, overlayed with a dose of practical common sense. I’m beginning to outline my second novel, so this is most pertinent. Thank you!

    Posted by Jools | May 25, 2014, 6:00 pm
  3. Great post! I had a teacher tell me that taking a screenwriting course would really help me nail down plot. I did take the course and I think it helped but my teacher wasn’t so great and it was a long time ago. You’ve inspired me to look back at those notes 😊

    Posted by Cassie | May 25, 2014, 3:25 pm
  4. Very insightful. And helpful. Thank you

    Posted by katmphotography | May 25, 2014, 2:14 pm
  5. What a brilliant post–totally insightful and honest. Love the fairy dust bit, mainly because it’s so painfully true. And I also LOVE the link. This will add some spark to the daily doings.
    Cheers to you, Elaine. You’ve done the writing world a terrific service today. 🙂

    Posted by peakperspective | May 25, 2014, 2:05 pm
    • Thank you, PP! I just thought it was useful. Let me know if you use it. All I’ve got to do now, is start writing. Maybe I’ll do the ironing first….

      Posted by elainecanham | May 25, 2014, 2:13 pm
  6. I DIG what you say about PLOTS. Actually, I’ve printed off your posting, O Wondrous One, and it’s getting filed. I shall attempt to apply it when I get off my bum and do something. Thanks!

    Posted by Bruce Goodman | May 25, 2014, 2:04 pm
  7. Sounds deceptively simple but worth a try I guess 🙂 I’ve always wanted to write a novel but never manage to get past the first few chapters without finding what I’ve written depressingly boring! Maybe this technique will help me

    Posted by Sally | May 25, 2014, 1:37 pm

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