Monday, October 11, 2010

Discovering the Story

I spent the bulk of last week visiting my parents. Dad and I got to talking about my WIP and trying to sort through my worries, fears, and nagging doubts about my plot… or my story, I should say, because they're two different animals. Plot is a sequence of events. Story is what happens to change the character(s). I'll admit to being a little fuzzy on that still, but that's the general idea.

Anyway, Dad gave me this exercise he gives his writing students, but adapted for novels instead of short stories.* "Let's see what happens!" he said. So we did and we saw and it was cool. Cool enough that I want to share the process, actually, because I think it could help any number of people struggling with plot/story woes.

The Short Story Version says:
  1. Get a piece of paper and a pen.
  2. Write numbers across the top of the paper. One number for each scene.
  3. Draw vertical lines between these numbers.
  4. Create two horizontal rows, one for the protagonist, one for the antagonist. Even if the antagonist is not a physical entity.
  5. Draw a line between the two characters so that each scene column is sliced in two. Don't segment the climax, though. 
  6. In each scene column, write a summary of what the protagonist and antagonist are doing.
  7. Look at what you've written for the protagonist and graph how much power he has in the scene, via a line through each scene. 
  8. Repeat for the antagonist.
  9. Normal short story structure is for the protagonist to have consistently low power until the climax, and the antagonist to have consistently high power until the same point. At the climax, there's a power reversal, characterized by the two graphs meeting, and in the final scene(s) the protagonist will have high power and the antagonist low power.
  10. Another benefit of doing this is that you'll be able to see (and tweak) the plot/story without getting bogged down in details like dialogue, location, story-wide metaphors, etc. You'll also be able to see if your climax is at the end of the story (bad spot for it) or one or two scenes before the end (where it should be).

Dad and I looked at a chapter of my WIP this way, for demonstration, and while it didn't match the structure, we did learn some things about the book through doing that. So, considering that we did learn things and I was worried about the full novel, we thought we'd apply the same principles to a book-length work, replacing the word "scene" with "chapter". We also separated each character's section into "positive" and "negative" actions, though I suspect that's optional, based on the book.

We filled out the chart over two sessions. The first session was for the protagonist, because he has far more narration. We discovered that the real climax of the story, based on a previous talk about what I'm trying to convey, is currently the very last chapter (oops) and that there's an interesting parallel between where the good and bad things happen to him, one I didn't exactly intend but is very cool. 

We did the antagonist yesterday, because we finally had time to between visiting people, cooking, eating, and various work-related things we were each doing on our computers. It quickly became clear that there are some Major Issues with his parts, but ones that should be fairly easily solved because of where his plot and story take him. Basically, I need to add more stuff to his beginning, and maybe take a little out of the end to do it. I've got to make him parallel the protagonist, see, and he also has to parallel himself so that he ends with a mirror of his beginning.

Anyway, Dad and I agreed that this was a helpful exercise to do, which I'm taking as 1) should probably do this with every novel and 2) this will probably help someone else. I hope he doesn't mind me sharing….

*For those of you interested, Dad is an author, editor, and creative writing teacher. I have confidence that he knows what he's talking about, writing-wise.


J. Koyanagi said...

What an interesting way to look at plot! Thanks for sharing it.

Shannon said...

Cool idea, I'm going to share it with my writing group and give it a try. Anything that can help is a fabulous tool! :)