Sunday, September 12, 2010

How Do I Plot Thee? Let Me Count the Ways

Last month I talked about my general plotting process, how I pre-plan the highlights only, keeping the story details open until I get to that point in the book. That said, my pre-planning tends to be a bit more complicated than that blog post indicated. Before I can start on that writing journey there are certain things I absolutely have to know, three of which are main characters--the hero, the heroine, and the primary villain (if there is one). Stories, at least the kinds of stories I write, are ultimately about people. Yes there's action and conflict and plot, but if the characters don't come across as real, no one's going to care about them. Including me.

With a series like the Feral Warriors, at least one of the characters has been in other books and I already know him pretty well. Maybe I don't know why he's the way he is, but I have a pretty good sense of him. Kougar, for example, has always been kind of a scary dude, cold to the point that most of his Feral brothers give him a wide berth, never quite sure what he'll do. I knew that about him when it was time to write his book. What I didn't know was why. And that was the very thing I had to figure out. A lot of that 'why' was tied up in his past. And there was a woman involved. A woman, as it turned out, who wasn't only his past but his future--Ariana, Queen of the Ilinas. I knew from earlier books that a thousand years ago the Ilinas faked the extinction of their race. Again, it was time to understand exactly why.

Much of my plotting takes the form of questions. Years ago, I learned a technique from Carolyn Greene (the Plot Doctor) called the List of 20. Although I never get anywhere near twenty, the process has been immensely helpful. Why is Kougar so cold? Why did the Ilinas fake their extinction? Why are Ariana's deadly minions suddenly interfering in Kougar's life? For each question, I started a List of 20, numbering down the page, then brainstorming ideas until I hit on the one that resonated. I usually find what I want within the first four or five. And like the perfect musical note, I feel it resonate deep inside. Sometimes I don't find the right answer immediately. So I'll go on to the next question, and the next, questioning everything from the villain's goals to the heroine's history to Lyon's plans for the Ferals at that point in time. I go round and round, asking questions, digging up answers, hitting the story from every angle until the answers start singing inside me.

Notice, I haven't even started to find actual plot or scenes at this point. I'm searching for goals and motivations and truths about my characters and their worlds. And it's all about truths--insight, understanding, and empathy. It's through these that I find the emotion and heart of the stories I'm telling. When I was figuring out Rapture Untamed, I knew in my gut that late in the story Jag was going to betray Olivia. He was going to hurt her. I didn't know why or how, but I knew Olivia, that tough little fighter, was going to need some hidden vulnerability. That List of 20 was one of the longest I've done as I wrote down every possible vulnerability I could think of--everything from the mundane (a fear of spiders or an inability to swim) to the truly unique. As I brainstormed, I pulled out everything I knew of the Ferals' world, hit it from every angle, and ultimately came up with Olivia's being draden-kissed, a gift/curse that enables her to steal the life force of others like a draden does. It's a condition that carries a death sentence if anyone finds out. And of course Jag, that bad boy, was going to find out.

So with each new story I dig and dig until I think I have enough, which is hard to know sometimes. Then I'll start figuring out the three or four major plot points or turning points. It's at this stage that I can usually tell if I've dug up enough to tell a full, rich story. If not, I keep digging.

Once I feel like I've thoroughly tilled the soil, I explore each of the story threads--the hero's emotional journey, the heroine's, the arc of the romance, the hero/villain dance (or battle), the external plot, and subplots, etc. Once all these things feel strong, full, and cohesive, I set those plot tent poles and start writing. I may not know exactly what's going to happen, but I'm embarking on the journey well stocked with provisions and ammunition, gas in the tank, a rough road map in my hand, and the characters pulsing with life and emotions and, if I've done my job right, charging ahead, leading the way.


Vicki Pettersson said...

Isn't it funny how much work goes into a book before you can even type the words "Chapter One"?

Fortunately, this unearthing and thinking time is so much *fun.* Hardly like work at all.

Thanks for expanding on your process. It's endlessly fascinating for me to see how other authors get it done.


Helen Lowe said...

Intriguing insight into your process, Pamela. Similarly, I often "dooddle" ideas longhand before I actually write them and with one particular character in my forthcoming novel, The Heir of Night, I spent nearly a day writing his backstory (which barely coems into the novel) simply so I could understand what really makes him tick and ensure that his behaviors in the book ring true.

Brenda Hyde said...

This really came at a good time for me because I'm working on a WIP with my husband and I was trying to figure out how to plot it-- I really like the 20 question idea. Thanks:)

nymfaux said...

Great to see how you work, and very interesting ideas, too---It's always cool to hear about the behind the scenes stuff!!!

Sherr said...

Interesting on how you develop the characters and adapt that with the other character to develop a story.

Crystal @ RBtWBC said...

Thank you for this post. It's always interesting to see the process of how authors come up with their stories and characters.
I loved Rapture Untamed, Jag & Olivia's story. Looking forward to Kougar's.