Sunday, March 30, 2008

Plot Go Vroom

About a month ago, I attended MarsCon here in the Cities and sat on several panels. One of these panels was on Plot.

I know, I know...we've talked about plot on this blog before, and you can find any number of blogs and articles and books on the subject out there. (I direct our gentle readers here, here, here and here for some of the earlier plot discussions on this blog.) How much more can you say on the subject?

Well, lots, actually. I mean, there are books and articles and blogs out there on this subject for a reason: it's a darn slippery fish to get hold of when you start trying to say what it *is*. Agreement, let us say, is far from universal.

Which is why I'm not going to even try to define the fish today. Nope. I'm just going to talk about how it swims in different streams.

"A-wha?" you say.

Bear with me here.

During the Plot panel's discussion, each writer took a turn explaining what plot was for them -- how they saw it, how they used it, etc. Fortunately, we had several "kinds" of writers up there: world builders, character followers, plot hounds, and idea mavens. And as we worked through the panelists, it became clear to me that we each saw plot based, at least in part, on how we wrote. In other words, our initial approaches to the story helped define how we interacted with the fish we call plot.

Okay. What does that mean? Well, to explain it, I need to switch metaphors. Now, plot is a car. (No, really, forget the fish.)

One of the things the panelists (more or less) agreed on was that plot is the thing that moves you through the story. This is over-simplification of a long discussion, but let's just work with it right now. So, if plot is the thing that drives the story forward, then we can just as easily see it as a vehicle that gets us to our ultimate destination (the end of the story, the revelation of a message, the completion of a theme -- whatever). Thus, plot = car: it gets us where we, the writer and reader, need to go. And how we, as writers, view and interact with that car depends a lot on how we approach Story in the first place.

So, if I am a world builder (start by building the world of the story and only later populate it with people and a storyline), I am going to tend to view my plot car as a touring vehicle. I am going to see it primarily as something I use to drive around my cool world, looking out the windows a lot and stopping to see the sights.

If, however, I am a character follower (create the characters first, and then watch them as they interact with the story and world), I am going to be more of a back seat passenger. I am going to watch the characters operate the plot car and see where they go and when they stop for gas. I may or may not have a road map to help, but my main focus is to see how they drive the plot car.

Plot hounds (create a detailed outline and follow it to the end, with as few variations as possible) are going to make sure the plot car follows the route they mapped out for it. An occasional diversion may be all right, but for the most part there is a trip plan and a schedule and we are going to stick with that. The plot car is a well-maintained machine that gets us to our final destination with the fewest possible hiccups or break downs.

Idea mavens (the main purpose behind the story is explore and play with a core idea -- be it technical, philosophical, ideological -- presenting it to the reader in glorious and fascinating detail) are most interested in the guts of the plot car itself. They like to get under the hood, play with the transmission, even replace or modify parts that they think will increase performance and better convey their core idea(s). It's not the journey that is key here, but conveying just how cool the engine is that runs the car in the first place.

Of course, there are any number of variants on this. There are writers who won't fit any of the above, or who may fit several of the "drivers" cited. It can even change from book to book for some people. But I'm not trying to define writers here, or even approaches to writing. What I am saying is that how we view plot is impacted by how we approach writing and story in the first place. And that, I think, is part of the reason we continue to have such a hard time talking about what plot is; because it is, at base, subtly different for each of us. How we approach story determines, in part, how we interact with plot, and that is going to be different for everyone.

In short, it's not so much a matter of defining what plot is or is not, but understanding our particular approach to it. We all use the car that is plot -- the question is, how do we see that car in relation to the trip we are taking it on?

How do you see your plot car? Or is it not a car for you at all? If not, then what?


^JR^ said...

That was a great post.

ryan v said...

I like the metaphor. :D

I'm a combination of all of them right now, varying on the setting I'm in. ;)

Antony B said...

Yeah, good metaphor.

I'm a backseat passenger letting the characters drive the car to wherever they need to go. And of course, it's interesting to have two characters who want to go different directions fighting over the steering wheel. Then you don't know where you'll end up.

(And as backseat author, I like to metaphorically cut the brake line before we set off. Don't want the plot car stopping suddenly at any point.)

Kelly McCullough said...

This is a really nice post, Doug. I liked the metaphor when you proposed and I like it even more reading this.

lydamorehouse said...

My plot car has dinosaurs!

Oh, no, seriously, this is a great post, Doug. I think my plot car might be a combination. I'm a back seat driver (as in character driven), but my car is really spiffy (like the idea maven.) Do you suppose people who write historical fiction get to tool around in Model-Ts? Or horse and buggies?

Douglas Hulick said...

jr and Kelly: Thanks. :) Like I said, this has been kicking around in my head since the Con -- I'm glad it came out coherently.

ryan: Sounds like you have a really interested view of the fish, then. :)

antony: I'm a lot like you, although if anything, I might say I tend to fiddle with the knobs on the stereo too much, trying to find the right music (read: phrasing). That can cause some delays. Maybe I need to take a look at those brake lines the next time we hit a rest stop...

Lyda: So then SF writers get flying cars? Man, am I writing the wrong sub-genre!

Stephanie Zvan said...

I'm late to the party, but since my take is a little different, here goes. For me, plot is more like dancing or moving through a crowd. It's all the movements, postures and calculations required to get there rather than a vehicle that gets me there.

Thinking of it this way helps keep everything integrated and smooth. However, it does mean that once the plot is in place, I have a tough time breaking it back down if some part of it isn't working. I've joked before that I write because I have to free up space in my head, but I really do keep everything up there in one big structure while I'm working. Notes and outlines are for pacing, making sure I'm not falling behind the music.

Radish said...

Another a back-seat driver of the Idea-Mobile [with fins!].

But my characters typically engage the child-proof safety locks, or pitch me into the boot. Or, worse, my plot gets car-jacked.

sexy said...