Round and Round–How doth your story garden grow?

Posted By on November 16, 2011

This is a road. Do you see the story in it?

How do you know when a story plan is working? I’m a mixture of plotter and pantser. When I first began to write I was all pantser. Planning and plotting meant I’d already told the story. Even in college, if I had to provide a theme or some other statement of what I intended to do with a paper (And let me tell you, English majors write. A lot.), I knew I was in trouble. Once the road was set for me, I meandered into another path.

Not always a good or beautiful path.

So, when I began to write fiction, I did it the same way. Off, into the mist, with the rainbows and the unicorns, and the birdies singing their tralalas! Only, you can’t see in the mist, and unicorns have horns, and I’d love to love birds like most sensible people do, but they sport an enormous variety of (probably lethal) germs!

I had to learn to plan–to light a path through the mist, and not impale myself on a unicorn crossing against my traffic, or catch freaking bubonic plague from one of those birdies.

I walk a tightrope when I’m plotting. I need the emotional arc, but if I have too many plot points–actual details of the story–things go sour in a hurry. First of all, I usually only provide details when I’m trying to sell from a synopsis, and I’ll be honest. I have yet to write a book that totally follows the snopes (borrowed from Faulkner’s wicked barn-burning family because snopes are inherently evil). The book I recently finished (twice), is actually pretty close to the snopes I submitted with the partial. I’m writing for a new editor, and I didn’t want to scare her. And I’m grateful most of the plan worked. Because the parts that didn’t, I had to change.

And here, we arrive at the point. (I once had a friend who wrote in the dark moment of her snopes, “And here, a plotting miracle occurs!” Who amongst us has not been in her shoes?) When do you know if this story is working?

I know when I start to feel echoes. Each major turning point begins to round back on the central emotional conflict in an echo, because each incident takes us farther into the depths of the respective needs and wants and goals keeping the characters apart.

That’s conflict based on characterization–each character’s toolbox for living in his world, the viewpoint that colors motivation and response. The thing inside the hero and heroine that makes them totally incapable of sorting out their differences with a conversation.

They can talk. They should talk, but talking doesn’t heal them. Talking, trying to work out their conflict, only points a spotlight at the reasons they cannot be together.

Each plot point, while driving the characters apart (because of who they are), also provides a moment of growth. As in life, the moment my heroine sees why she can’t trust the one man in the world she wants to trust, she also glimpses a hint of the something inside her that makes trust impossible. A heroine won’t accept “impossible.” She’ll grow because growth comes from knowledge, and knowing that she cannot change her response because of who she is, inches open a door on the path to change.

When I start seeing the motivation and response echoing the conflict, like circles of story narrowing into the ultimate moment of truth, the moment when motivation dies because the hero and heroine have more to gain by overcoming their own inner conflict than by taking strength from the flaws and weaknesses that have pried them apart–that’s when the plot is working for me.

Unless I have to tell someone how I plan to tell the story.

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