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Are You There, Plot? It’s Me, the Writer

Recently, a dragon of my acquaintance was ruminating on fanfic and said something that really hit home with me:

I’ve got characters by the score. A lot of you know a few of them: I’ve roleplayed them, online and on the tabletop. Some of you have heard me kick around ideas and concepts for others. There’s a passel of them that even I’ve forgotten about, or recycled into other characters.

What I don’t have is stories, and that, arguably, is a lot more important if you actually want to write.

The reason that particular bit shot out of the monitor and pinned me to my chair like a javelin through the gut is because it echoes so precisely my own hardest struggle as a writer. At the risk of tooting my own horn, I feel like I’ve got a pretty good handle on crafting prose, and I’ve been told I have a knack with making interesting characters. But my problem is always, “Okay, I’ve got these characters, but what do they do? Or alternatively, what does the universe do to them?”

Whenever I have a neat idea for my writing, I write it down in a file so I don’t lose it. Unfortunately, most of these ideas are just fragments. For instance, one that somebody recently beat me to the punch with was the phrase, “Cowboys and Aliens.” Obviously, this was a viable concept, as somebody made a graphic novel out of it, and said graphic novel is being made into a movie with Harrison-friggin’-Ford. But I didn’t have a story to go with the phrase, all I had was the phrase.

Here’s another one (and if you see this idea later, you’ll know it was here first!):

“Glass Island” – Island made of glass out at sea – super-slick and almost impossible to see unless you’re right on top of it. Pirates or some such have their loot down in caves. Torchlight flickering in the caves makes weird kaleidoscope lights.

Pretty neat image, I thought, worthy of a tale starring Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. Only problem? No plot. Pirate loot in the caves suggests possibilities, but it would take some pretty serious developing to come up with more than just a rehash of Treasure Island. If and when I ever use this image, it’s entirely possible that it won’t involve pirates at all.

With years of practice, I have become more adept at actually forcing myself to come up with a plot instead of just writing until I run out of steam — the story I’ve been working on for the past month was built up from nothing but the phrase “Blackbird singing in the dead of night.” So I can do it, but it’s always the hardest part. Writing in synopsis form helps sometimes: the entire last year of The Suburban Jungle was written out in a page-and-a-half summary before I started writing any actual scripts. But the danger I always run there is that once I’ve come up with the story from start to finish, my brain will flagged it as ‘done’ and I’ll lose interest.

Of course, one of the things that makes a pro writer is that he keeps on writing anyway, and that’s the other skill I’ve been teaching myself over the past few years. There were times when I wanted to drop SJ right where it was and say “To heck with it!” But I didn’t let myself, and I’m glad I didn’t, because that’s helped give me the discipline I’ll need to carry forward.

-The Gneech

Originally published at gneech.com. You can comment here or there.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 15th, 2010 01:46 pm (UTC)
That there is also the biggest stumbling block for me when i try to GM, i think. I suppose it's also why i've not pointed my drawing efforts at anything sequential, for that matter.

May. 15th, 2010 03:58 pm (UTC)
As for a plot for the glass island, well, why and how? Why did the pirates choose that place to hide their loot? How did they get it to the caves? Can it be seen through the glass? What can go wrong? How do they fix what goes wrong? (Cover it with seaweed?)

What happens if the glass breaks? Does someone think the pieces are icebergs? What made it break (a giant tuning fork)?

As to what or who made the glass island in the first place, and why and how -- that's optional. ;-)
May. 15th, 2010 04:23 pm (UTC)
feychildthe was saying much the same thing to me not too long ago. The Stick Figure Dragons largely dried up as she seemed to have exhausted her inspiration for them. For years I'd been trying to gently nudge her to to a Lizard People strip - because the characters are just so bloody marvelous! Her bemoaning was that - she had characters, but no stories to tell.

What I told her (and may or may not be useful to you - is probably meaningless to a grown author who's gone down he road of writers' block) is that the minute you have a character - for instance one of her drawings had a note under the character's name 'the sleeze ball' - you have a story. Now it may not be the story you're looking to tell. If you know he's a sleeze ball - well what is it that makes him a sleeze ball, what happened to him/did he do that makes him a sleeze ball? Even if that's not the story you're telling - telling that story may very well lead you to telling the story you do want to tell.

I know many writers who sit down and plan out a plot, sketch a framework - have a storyline . Chapter 1 will be... Maybe you're one of those writers and that works for you. Me - I can't write that way, exactly because the character comes first. Maid On The Shore had a whole cast of pre-defined characters (in my head) before pen ever took to paper. For me it's a sitting down with a 'what if?' question. 'What would happen if?.... and I simply set the character free and see where he/she goes. It's a bit free form I guess, and I'm hardly accomplished or published enough to be called a 'professional' for the purposes of giving advice. But .. it works for me.

And if it doesn't work for me. I pull out my big book of .. well things .. daily assignments (A Writer's Book Of Days). For instance today: May 15 - "Write About A Reflection". And that - the process of sitting down and just writing, lubes up the wheels, starts the process spinning, and maybe I've written something completely useless and not anywhere I want to go but once I quit spinning my wheels it's much easier to head in a direction I do want to go.


Edited at 2010-05-15 04:26 pm (UTC)
May. 15th, 2010 11:39 pm (UTC)
Funny, I saw the phrase "Cowboys and Aliens" and thought,- "Oh, somebody is doing a remake of Firefly?"
May. 16th, 2010 03:12 am (UTC)
I've written some fanfics myself, but have trouble writing my own material for the opposite reason. I can think of interesting stories, but cannot write more then cardboard characters. Writing fanfic provided ready made characters (and settings) that I could run with.
May. 16th, 2010 06:58 am (UTC)
Same here, Gneech. I've got the characters, I've got the general idea. I've no literary vehicle to take them anywhere.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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