The Craft: It’s a Great Idea, but Does It Have a Plot?

[This is part of a continuing series on the art of writing fiction.]

Man, have I been busy. Life has really been creeping into my writing and blog time. Since I last posted, I’ve moved house, been best man at my brother’s wedding and now I’m prepping beets and onions for the Thanksgiving feast with some Dutch friends. So, today, I’m going to give you a small treat instead of a full meal.

Before we dive into the meat of today’s post, a quick overview of a what a plot is. You’ve probably seen this before, if you’ve ever tried to write fiction. It’s what I like to call the plot arch, but others call “dramatic structure.”

Freytags_pyramid_2

Basically, you have the setup, rising tension/action, the climax and resolution. Wikipedia attributes this to a German guy, Gustav Freytag, but that’s the first time I’ve heard that. Anyway, that’s not the point.

The point I want to make is simple: just because you have a great idea, doesn’t mean you have a great story. I felt my novel, The Library of Lost Books, had a great idea behind it (a library where all the great lost books are gathered), but one thing that I could have done better was the plot. So, now whenever a great idea comes to me, I think about a plot to go with it. Usually, I do this in layers. I start with the idea and I add characters. The key here is to add characters that “burn, burn, burn” like Kerouac said. You add enough of those types of people into the same place (setting) and you’re almost certain to have conflict (plot). Think about every day life: passionate people usually come into conflict with one another. Suddenly, I have all the essentials of a great story: setting, characters, plot and a GREAT IDEA.

One thing I’ve learned lately is to be more patient when it comes ideation. I have the flash of insight, the core idea. I play with it in my head, maybe write it down. Then, I try to think of a plot and characters to present the idea in a compelling manner. Sometimes, that doesn’t come, it’s just a mystery of the subconscious. I capture the idea on my PC and I wait. Sometimes, I try to force it, sometimes I don’t. Usually, I notice that it all comes to me in a rush: how to take that great idea and wrap it up in a compelling plot with unique characters. (It’s usually when I’m occupied with something totally unrelated to writing. The bike at the gym is a great fountain of new ideas, for example.) Once I have the bones of the story, I usually do a formal prewrite, (which I call a CSP+K Prewrite). I keep adding stuff into the CSP+K matrix—bits of dialog, random scenes, character backstories—until I feel I can start the first draft.

It’s not unlike the process of cellaring wine (wine is another obsession of mine). The grapes, the ideas, are ready for harvest according to the dictates of nature, so you harvest when you must. But once the grape juice is inside the cellar, the craft begins. How long do you keep the grape juice in oak? Do you store it in oak at all? Do you blend it with other wines or just use one type of grape? How long do you cellar it in the bottle? That’s the craft of winemaking. It’s not unlike the craft of writing. You have to strike fast to capture the idea. But once you have the idea on paper you have to know when to back off, to let the idea mature and gain complexity by layering it with plot, character and setting. That’s not only the secret to making great wine, it’s the secret to writing a great story.

Speaking of wine, the Riesling is chilling and the Pinot Noir needs to be breathe. I’m off! Happy Thanksgiving to everyone! And feel good about your down time this Holiday, you might just be giving your brain the break it needs to come up with something truly epic.

Until next time. Keep reading, keep writing.


PS…I’ll continue to be very busy this coming week. Look for my next post on Friday, Dec. 6.

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