Monday, November 21, 2011

Write Brain Report: Chris Mandeville’s “Plot Problems? No Problem!” by Cathy Dilts

Have you written yourself into a corner? Is your main character is in a bleak situation with no way out? Have you been rattling along at a nice pace, churning out the words, but now you’re just plain stuck? Chris Mandeville offered a variety of solutions for plot problems at the November 15 Pikes Peak Writers Write Brain.

Over 25 people and one large yellow dog attended the combination Write Brain and NaNoTRYMo Write-In. Chris, president of PPW, offered the audience plotting tips and tricks, packing an amazing amount of information into thirty minutes.   

Chris defined plot as the events that make a story. They are typically in a pattern and sequence. Plot is what happens to your characters externally, not what their goals are, or how they feel about what’s happening.

When it comes to plot, there are two types of writers: the Plotters and the Pantsers. Plotters plan out their story. They know where they are going, whether they plan their story scene by scene or in a less detailed overview. Pantsers, or seat-of-the-pants writers, just sit down and start writing. Chris believes that most Pantsers actually have a goal in mind. Rarely do writers plunge into the ether without a clue as to their destination.

There are many ways to plot, and Chris demonstrated several approaches. These are just a sample.

1) Create a destination. Do you know where your story is going? Just knowing the story’s ending is enough of a roadmap for some writers. 

2) Chris recommended reading Debra Dixon’s Goal, Motivation and Conflict. Knowing the main character’s goal and motivation enables the writer to dump obstacles in the path (conflict) to keep the character from reaching the goal. If you have used GMC, and you are stuck, try revisiting your character grid. Perhaps you gave your character the “wrong” goal. Perhaps the motivation to achieve the goal is too weak.

3) A logline incorporates goal, motivation, and conflict. Who is your main character? What is at stake (what is the goal, or what do they want)? And what is in the way (obstacle or conflict)? Chris told the audience to revisit the logline if they are stuck. It may remind you of what you originally intended to write about, or show you that your story has evolved.

The logline is also called the “elevator pitch.” How do you respond when someone asks, “What’s your book about?” Chris said that a writing buddy can help you write your logline. He or she might better see the root of your story.

From my experience, if you can’t create a coherent logline, you don’t know your story yet. Spending some time developing the GMC of at least the main character creates a roadmap for your story.

4) Another technique Chris discussed is using the structure described in The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. Based on Joseph Campbell’s academic Hero’s Journey, Vogler’s book is aimed at writers. The techniques he discusses have been used for movies such as Star Wars and The Lion King. Chris explained how knowing this structure can help when you are stuck, using as her example how much or how little “Ordinary World” to present to your reader.     

Grant MacKenzie spoke up to recommend the second edition of The Writer’s Journey, not the third. He described it as more writer-friendly.

Chris demonstrated plotting techniques using a recycled science project tri-fold poster board. She said you can use anything, such as the back of an old calendar. One of her examples used the GMC structure from Dixon’s book. The other used the Hero’s Journey structure.

I have also heard this called creating a storyboard. I use this technique in the early stages of my novels, and I highly recommend it. Chris demonstrated how you can write your scenes on Post-It notes, which can then be rearranged as your plot changes.

Chris said for some writers, knowing the Beginning, Middle, and End provides enough of a map to keep them writing. For others, a heavily detailed, scene by scene outline might be required.

After sharing lots of plotting advice, Chris examined ways to figure out why you’re stuck. She likes to play the “What If” game.

“If you don’t know why you’re stuck, ask yourself ‘what if’ questions,” she said.

  • What if you change the age of your protagonist?
  • What if the story was told from a different character’s point of view?
  • What if you change the time period or setting?
Chris said you will know your story better if you ask and answer the questions on her list. Maybe you make changes based on your answers, or maybe the story stays the same. In her case, she resisted the reality that her main character was 17, not 28. Her novel was a YA. But it was not until she asked, and then answered the questions honestly, that she was able to consider changing the age of her main character. She became unstuck, and was able to move forward with the story.

You can also ask your character questions. My character won’t run for help – why? This might sound silly to non-writers, but I saw lots of nodding heads when Chris suggested this technique.

Next, Chris suggested asking an expert. Are you making assumptions about how something works, when you don’t know the facts? This is obviously essential for a police procedural novel, or hard science fiction, but what if your character works in a mall, or as a chicken farmer? Research the answers to your questions. If you make something up, it needs to make sense.

I decided to use this advice for my current work in progress. I asked one question about wills, and my lawyer brother’s answer sparked new ideas about my story, as well as giving me the information I needed.  

Chris told us that sometimes facing plot problems head on doesn’t work. You have to come at it from a different angle. And if you have problems with your characters, fixing the plot might not help.

The main reason Chris gets stuck is that she hasn’t given herself the time to get unstuck. She described this not as a technical problem, but that she just needs to give her mind time to percolate on story problems. Taking a shower is Chris’ #1 problem solving technique.

Chris turned us loose to continue working on our novels. NaNoTRYMo kicked in as 25 people sharing the same space studiously ignored each other. Some tapped away on laptops, while others scribbled on notepads. We munched on cookies and sipped coffee, the caffeine and sugar fueling our dreams.

Plot problems? If we run into any, we now know techniques and resources to get us “unstuck.” No problem!

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