Saturday, December 23, 2006

Concept Then Plot

Charles Gramlich has made two excellent postings on writing on his blog. But one posting on plot, based on something by Dean Koontz, has prompted me to make this observation. I'll elaborate upon what I started in a comment there. Also, author C.S.Harris has written a piquant observation called "plotters v. seat-of-the-pantsers"

Some people when they write have a concept in mind. Their faces light up and they say: "I've got a great idea. I'm going to write a story about two people who live together, one a slob and one neat, and about the conflict those personalities must have living in close proximity." CONCEPT. My experience though is that as people express this, the excitement of that initial concept prompts them to sit down and start writing. Bang. Unfortunately, this often results in a poorly executed bit of prose which doesn't live up to the initial enthusiasm.

What's missing though is that concept isn't plot. Now, according to the quote on Charles' blog, Koontz says he doesn't plot, but allows the characters to drive the story.

I think allowing the characters to develop is fine for Koontz, but with many people I know, without having a clear plot, without having some sense of an end, they flounder. That's why I try and have some sort of outline when seriously sitting down to work, even if it is only the most rudimentary structure. An outline can be detailed, with extensive character notes and even sketches of scenes that occur in your mind, or it can be a few paragraphs which just get you from point A to point B.

In the defunct horror writers group to which I belonged, several members talked about outlining and plot development as though they were rebellious children standing against their parents' rules...oh nevermind. I've picked on them enough. Maybe I'll devote some posts to them later on, but for now, lets return to the point...

Some people hate to see writing as work. They don't want to reduce it to the mundane, to take away anything of the romance they see in writing. These people want to be WRITERS, not writers. They're the ones who have trouble revising, sending stuff out, dealing with rejection, and then sending it out again. An outline is work, and they feel it is too restrictive.

Now I understand that every writer has his or her own way of doing something. However, if you are a writer and you find that you are swimming in your stories, having trouble getting stuff completed. If you find that plot is a weakness, that you have trouble with endings. If logic is an issue and stuff doesn't make sense....then why not do an outline?

Why? I'm asking? I'm begging you to explain it to me, because I can't figure out why WRITERS don't want to become writers?

Yes, characters drive the story. Yes, characters are what the readers will connect with in a story. Yes, characters are just about everything, but they aren't the only thing. The plot gives characters something to do and provides for conflict. It's the framework about which theme and characters are strung. Anyone who knows me knows I think character development is critical and the most important thing about a story. Just not the only thing.

So..concept, then plot. Concept---plot. And above all else...Serenity Now.

So what do you think? Am I wrong? Am I being too anal, too tough on people? Too...Stewart?


Lucas Pederson said...

Thanks for stopping by and taking a gander at my blog. I was goign to put in some emotional scenes with Tyler and his wife, but chose to keep the story moving along. In the end though, I think I might have been wrong.
Anyway. I rarely plot stories, although I think it can fun it also feels like the story isn't as spontaneous or as driven as it should be, to me at least. I like the rush of not knowning what's going to happen next and just charge right on through. Most often though, I've got a clear idea for an ending waiting in the back of my mind.
There's nothing wrong with plotting though and I say whatever works best go for it! Okay...I'm done ranting now. Thanks again for visiting my blog.

SQT said...

I can't say whether you're right or wrong. I know successful writers who don't plot and write their stories out of sequence, and that works for them.

I have to have a plot in mind before I write. Depending on the length, I may have a full outline. I don't map every single thing, but I do know where the story is going ahead of time.

I don't personally like books that seem to have the characters running around just to keep them busy. I like a goal in mind and some structure to the whole thing. But that's a personal preference.

And for the life of me, I can't figure out how people can just start writing and end up with a finished, piece of work. If I try to do that I end up throwing too many elements in and end up with a mess.

But ultimately, if a certain method works for someone, who am I to tell them they're doing it wrong? Especially if they can tell a good story.

Stewart Sternberg said...

I agree SQT. To each their own. I focused on the idea that the outline is a great vehicle for someone who is drifting...someone who has trouble ending the novel, or loses track of certain threads or themes.

JR's Thumbprints said...

Everything in moderation, Stewart.

Chuck Zaglanis said...

Normally I have a collection of scenes, a theme, and an ending in mind, and then I have my chars. jump through hoops to get from scene to scene. In my latest story, that hasn’t been working so well, so I’ve been utilizing a outline Stewart tricked me into writing.

Ormondroyd's Encyclopedia Esoterica said...

I just get as much of the damned thing down on paper as I can, and then look at the plot/character/technical questions in my first revisions. Blocking is a problem for me, caused by perfectionistic expectations towards my own stuff, so it's dangerous for me to think about technique until the story's told at least once. This is called strangling the Hamlet within.
The best editor I ever had was a newspaper writer who rather than fill my head with MFA wooziness, would ask questions about characters or side stories that hadn't even occured to me, or point out when I "buried the lead", i.e. spent two pages on atmosphere before the story actually got underway. It made the advice much less personal and focused my anxities on craft,

Ormondroyd's Encyclopedia Esoterica said...

Forgot to add that I DO write outlines, the most detailed being for a historical fantasy that depended on getting the date of a snowstorm right-- I just don't do plotting until the 2nd, 3rd or 4th draft.
Another trick that I swiped from theatrical friends is asking a reader to ask questions that might not be apparent to me. Or asking a character questions. Or imagining them interacting on the day off. The information received might not show up in the final mss, or "performance", but it helps sometimes.

Stewart Sternberg said...

That is a GREAT idea. Thanks Michael. Ask the character questions. I'm going to do that in my next short story, or when I return to my novel. An extended Q and A. It sounds like a wonderful way to get to know the character and to bring out elements of the character that I may not have considered.

Michelle's Spell said...

Merry Christmas and much peace to you as well, Stewart! May the new year hold many good and happy things!

heartinsanfrancisco said...

I used to be an actor, so I also employ the Q&A method (sometimes) to my characters. Such "back story" helps to make characters authentic because they do not spring fully-formed from my head. They had childhoods, earlier relationships, trauma, experiences that conditioned them to react as they do to the present situation.

We all do. Why should the people we write about be any less real than we, ourselves, are?

My difficulties are with plot, yet I've never been comfortable outlining. Obviously, this needs to be reconsidered because I AM serious about writing.

Stewart Sternberg said...

I think some people have gotten the impression that my statements on outlining were declarative and definitive.

What I meant to communicate was that first, concept must be developed into plot to take a story to its natural conclusion. And that second, for many writers wallowing in plot who may have difficulty ending their work and tying up loose ends, an outline is a great idea.


Charles Gramlich said...

I think you're right pretty much down the line, Stewart. One thing to remember about Koontz, too, is that he's written a huge number of books. Just having so much practice has probably helped him immensely in the process of plotting a novel. He probably doesn't need an outline, at least anymore. But most of us less prolific folks shouldn't try to follow his model.

Christina Rundle said...

I outline. I need a basic plot, even if it won't work later, at least I have that notion to work with. So far though, every ending I mapped out, doesn't end up being the ending I used. I will write my story a number of times because I decide that events would be better this way or that.

I wish I could do it the Koontz way, but until then, I'll just keep plotting.

Clifford said...

I fail at outlining. Nearly every time. Within a page or two, the story veers and the outline is left behind. It seems to me that outlining and the actual writing use different parts of the brain and lead to different outcomes. Following an outline keeps me from going into that more creative part of the brain and the end result is much less dynamic.

But that's just me.

Anonymous said...

I think one of the flaws of less experienced writers is the lack of conflict because of inattention to plot. Donald Maass (speaking to a tutee rather than to a peer) says you can almost never have too much conflict. I'm not an anal plotter, but I do have plot points now when I write a story--usually I do the setup then go to the end, then figure out an interesting way(s) to get there. Peter Selgin taught me that model in a workshop and I've used it ever since.

sgt says he doesn't like books with characters running around pointlessly. I prefer character-driven fiction, too. But one of the things I've used is Alicia Rasley's idea of an overarching journey. Select a journey for your viewpoint character--from fear to courage, from shame to self-acceptance, from mistrust to trust, etc, to help guide your plot choices.

Stewart Sternberg said...

The journey. Theme is one of things that I try and focus on in my writing. It gives me a compass. Gem, your comment about the journey, the idea that something bigger is moving the characters is close to my heart.

I think I am going to do a posting about Campbell's journey of the hero.

Cindy-Lou said...

I don't know why people say Paul was the hot Beatle.

(I would comment on your post but I'm not a writer and writing an outline seems like homework to me)