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Sunday, June 14, 2009

As if nothing whatsoever had happened

I've been wrestling with a short story's plot lately, trying to get it not to suck. One thing I've noticed is that it's easy to use a maguffin as an excuse for poor plotting. "Oh, the plot doesn't matter because it's really about the character arc" or whatever. I think I flirted with that for a bit; luckily, I've come to my senses.

The specific problems I'm having . . . well first my subconscious threw a complication out there as I was writing, and I really liked it so I decided to keep it, but then that meant I didn't know how the protagonist could achieve his goal. Basically, I had him break his leg in a situation where a broken leg would make it hard if not impossible for him to succeed. Well good, in a way, because it shouldn't be too easy for the character to succeed. But then I spent a day being all, "crap, how *does* he get out of this?!" Then I thought of a solution for that, as well as for one of my other problems, but I began to feel that my solution was too facile; I'd pulled something out of my ass that rendered it just not that big a deal. Well if it's not all that big a deal, then it's a pretty impotent complication. I also started to realize that the toughest challenges faced by my characters were not the *last* challenged faced by them in the story, which undercuts any sense of rising action. If they overcome bigger challenges early in the story, then the later challenges never make the reader doubt that the main characters will win out, and so the ending becomes anticlimactic.

All of this led me to examine my plot more thoroughly, leading to the epiphany about maguffins posted above. I started to feel that my plot was entirely too linear. I've heard some good advice on this, but it's hard to put it into practice. Maybe every writer needs to find his or her own way. Orson Scott Card says you should throw away the first idea or two that come into your head for a given premise, just automatically, because your very first ideas will be the trite ones . . . the obvious solutions. Fair enough, but I tend to fixate on things. Having one solution to a problem, it's difficult for me to see other ones. Elizabeth Bear says it's all about writing enough. When you've written and read enough stories that hew to the tried-and-true, your subconscious mind finally begins to reject clichés and begins to throw out ideas that subvert them rather than implementing them. Again, that's great, but I'm trying to figure out how to improve *now*, not after I've written a hundred crappy stories. I mean, improving eventually is better than not improving at all, of course, but shouldn't the goal be to improve sooner?

This isn't wisdom, because I'm on the road, not looking back on it from afar, but where I am right now in the process is analyzing how I generate plot. I tend to have a starting point and an ending point, and then try to figure out how to get from point A to point B.

(This isn't about being a plotter versus a pantser, because whether you plot in advance or you do it as you go, you still plot. I'm interested in how to make that process result in more original ideas, regardless of where in the writing process I do it. I have a story out there making the rounds which has gotten very positive feedback on my writing ability, but the general sense that it's not terribly inventive or original. I'm just doing what has already been done.)

Anyway, I'm thinking that certain "Point B"s only lend themselves to certain paths from A to B, and that if I want a truly original plot, I need to change where it's going altogether. If I know the rebels destroy the death star, well there's only so many ways to make that happen. I mean, there are infinite possibilities in the details, but few in terms of the big picture. If I want to do something original, I need to veer away from the ending point I have in mind, to one that's less obvious.



lotusgirl said...

I'm also dealing with trying to keep things from being trite and repetitious. I'm not sure I have any real solutions for you. Card's thoughts seem to be good. The broken leg could be something to keep things from being cliché. How often do you see the hero breaking his leg? It never happens to James Bond.

Joe Iriarte said...

Hopefully knowing is half the battle. :)