Shape Your Plot
SHAPE YOUR PLOT
With certain genres, for example standard screen-plays, sit-coms and twist-in-the-tale short stories, the basic shape is set and the task is to write to it (some authors may disagree). Adopting this approach is rather like being given a recipe and assembling the ingredients accordingly. When not writing within a specific genre, we have choices about the form our work will finally take. To pursue the cooking metaphor; we look at the ingredients we have, and find or create a recipe which will make the best use of them. Many strongly right-brained writers are happier with this method. However, just as a hastily improvised recipe can let you down, stories that are insufficiently planned can end up going nowhere. Without a well-designed structure, all projects are destined to collapse.
‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said, very gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end: then, stop.’
(Lewis Carroll: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland)
The way in which you structure your narrative affects the way in which your reader receives it, and is therefore of vital importance.
Within the basic structure of the plot there are, of course, many ways of telling the story, e.g. flash-back, implication, reported incident, symbolic representation, dream sequences, letters. In How to Write a Million, Ansen Dibell says ‘All this structural hanky-panky isn’t something to engage in just for the fun of it. Any departure from linear, sequential storytelling is going to make the story harder to read and call attention to the container rather than the content, the technique rather than the story those techniques should be serving.’ She also advises, ‘Make sure the running plot in your story’s present is strong, clear and well established before splitting off to do anything else.’
When working out the structure of your story, constantly question your motives for choosing to tell it that way. If the answer is because it is ‘original’ or ‘clever’, you need to think very carefully about whether that is the only reason. If it is, you may be sacrificing other qualities – such as clarity – which are more important and might be better served by a more straight-forward approach. However, even straight narrative is fraught with dilemmas of choice. Should I use past, present or future tense, first, second or third person – whose viewpoint? These are often difficult decisions to make. Try an inner dialogue with the elements in question. Study the effects achieved by other writers. Keep the following guidelines in mind:
- If it is difficult to decide between first and third person narrative, think about the basic temperament of the character. Are they introverted or extraverted? Are they friendly or stand-offish? In other words, would they be happy to tell their own story, or would they rather somebody told it for them?
- Who is the audience? Would the character want to speak directly to them?
- If you choose present tense narrative, it is likely to quicken the pace. It is also very intimate. Are these the effects you want?
- Look again at the novel you studied in Chapters 4 and 5. Can any of the structural devices used by that writer be adapted to your purposes?
- How will your current decisions affect your last line or last idea?
Many creative people struggle with the idea of structure. It can conjure images of algebra, AGMs, tax forms and a thousand other things which render the muse dry-mouthed and dysfunctional. Novelist Alison Harding prefers to view structure as organic – an integral part of story-making, just as sentence construction is an integral part of meaning-making. As with the weaving process above, this shifts emphasis away from ‘should’ and ‘ought’, towards a more muser-friendly consideration of how the story wants and needs to be told. With this approach, the story is acknowledged as a living entity. The structure evolves as a result of inner dialogue with characters, setting and plot. Details are checked out as if compiling a biography. ‘Is this how it was? Have I emphasised that strongly enough? Is this the best way to tell it?’
Try out different designs
Organise your notes
A planning strategy used by a number of writers is that of putting ideas, scenes, descriptive passages, etc. on separate sheets of paper and shuffling them around until a workable pattern emerges. Some writers blu-tack these notes to the wall, some pin them to a board or lay them out on the floor. Index cards are a more manageable option. Their size also encourages concise note-making. Several well-organised writer friends plan their work on index cards and file them, initially under topics and later under chapter headings. (Index trays long enough to accommodate a full-length play or novel are quite expensive. Sheila used shoe boxes – a viable alternative which cost her nothing.) Other planning systems – some of which may be used in conjunction with index cards – are suggested below.
These are often used in planning screen plays. The sheet or board is divided into squares, one for each scene. In each square, everything the director or continuity person needs to know about that scene is noted in words or sketches. The end result is like an expanded version of the narrative steps described in the last chapter, and provides a valuable overview which enables any repetitions or omissions to be corrected. The method is equally useful to writers, both at the initial planning stage and as a means of keeping track of changes as the work progresses. Notes (on index cards or post-it notes) can be grouped on or around the appropriate squares.
If we take Little Red Riding Hood as an example again, at the initial planning stage a story board for that tale might look something like Figure 7.
Musician Penny Gordon plans her compositions by drawing a linear picture that outlines the moods she wishes to evoke in the piece. She uses colour, pattern, and a mixture of abstract and pictorial representation. Underneath each sector she sketches her ideas in words and music. The pattern of moods in such a picture could be inspired by a painting, a piece of music, a poem, a specific event – anything which affects feeling and mood.
This approach appealed greatly to Zubin and gave him the impetus he needed to start planning his novel. As an artist he found his own ways of doing this, but for an example of how this mood-led strategy could be applied to story-making, see Figure 8 (and imagine the colours). This particular example shows how a story such as Red Riding Hood might have evolved from the ideas generated by such a mood-picture.
Like the story board, it provides a valuable overview of work in progress – as do the next three approaches:
Map the route of your story as if it were the Central Line on the underground, each stop representing a narrative step in the main plot. Show any sub-plots as auxiliary lines. Group idea sheets or index cards around the appropriate stops.
This type of map shows the location of key events in a story. Tolkein’s maps of Middle Earth, and A.A. Milne/E.H.Shephard’s map of Christopher Robin’s world are well-known examples.
Some other layouts on which a story could be based are: a meal set out on a table, the plans of a house or garden, a musical score, a seating plan, a photograph, a game board or games pitch.
The longer the work, the more comprehensive the drawing up of family trees needs to be in order to prevent chronological errors. A family tree can also be the starting point around which the story is structured.
Often used in computing, a flow chart shows possible paths through a programme or task. The Yes/No choices which have to be negotiated in using a cashpoint machine could be plotted as a simple flow chart.
The choices involved in self-assessment income tax forms would provide a far more elaborate example. A flow chart can be used to chart a character’s progress. Unlike narrative trees, which give two choices at each juncture, flow charts operate on an ‘if this happens, do this’ basis. Also unlike narrative trees, they can jump several steps forwards or backwards, return the user to the beginning or eject them from the system entirely. See Red Riding Hood Flow Chart (Figure 9).
Instructions, directions and other sources of information
Stories have been based on recipes, menus, knitting patterns, the weather forecast, the ten commandments and train timetables to give but a few examples.
Anything in which items are gathered together and viewed as a collection can be used as the basis of a story. A chest of drawers, a china cabinet, a library, a fridge, a shed, a sewing box, all have their story to tell. Personal memories associated with the contents can be evoked through guided visualisation (as with the toy box and wardrobe in Chapter 6). Or the story of the objects and the events which brought them together can be told.
There are many tarot spreads, both simple and complex, around which a story can be structured. Each position in the spread represents the answer to a question, so that the spread can be used as a plan with or without the accompanying cards. (See Chapter 3, Figure 5 for an example.)
This is an approach used particularly when writing twist-in-the-tale stories and comedy sketches. In both cases the writer needs to set up certain expectations in the mind of the reader, viewer or listener in order to create the maximum surprise at the end. For this reason the ending is often worked out first and the rest of the story then ‘written backwards’ to a pre-determined structure. The techniques used in both genres are very specific and require separate study if this is an avenue you wish to pursue (see reading list for further information).
However, the idea of beginning with an ending and writing backwards from it can be applied to other types of story – as it was in Chapter 5. In that instance we brainstormed penultimate sentences, chose one, then created a new story by writing towards the new two-sentence ending.
This time we will work backwards step by step, first choosing a final sentence, then brainstorming scenarios which might have preceded it.
For example, some scenarios which might have preceded Ray Bradbury’s final sentence ‘Then . . . some idiot turned on the lights’ are:
- 1.The boy opened the headmaster’s drawer to return money stolen by his friend (then some idiot turned on the lights).
- 2.The men were standing naked in the middle of the women’s changing room (then some idiot . . . ).
- 3.A film containing vital photographic evidence had just been removed from the camera (then . . . )
- 4.The car’s lights were wired to a bomb (etc.).
- 5.The woman thought the man in bed with her was her husband.
- 6.The funeral cortege was proceeding with dignity along the front at Blackpool.
Choose one brainstormed scenario, then one or more scenarios which could have preceded it. A scenario is then chosen to precede that and so on until the beginning of the story is reached. You then have a basic plot with which to work.
When crafting work:
- blend right – and left-brain approaches
- tune in to various elements to see how they are responding to each other
- think of structure as organic
- choose an idea-organising system which gives you an overview
- check out other writers’ solutions.
Also, if you want to write twist-in-the-tale stories or comedy sketches, you need to study the finer points involved in writing backwards.