Not because I stick to a beautifully-crafted outline. Not because of my wicked plotting skilz. But because I don’t plan much in the first place. I’m one of those feel-your-way-through-the-dark-with-a-flashlight-types who is constantly surprised by things my characters say or do. So things not going as planned is pretty much the plan. Sometimes I have an idea of where I’m going – major sources of conflict, the climax, the ending. But I usually don’t start out that way.
Most often I start out with an idea, a title, a character, or a scene – then follow it and see where it leads. As characters do and say things, or as the situation changes, I react. I think, “What next?” Then I try things out to see what happens. When I write picture books (which is most of the time), the feedback from this process happens much faster. I can see pretty quickly if something works or doesn’t. With longer manuscripts, I may follow one path for a while before realizing it isn’t working, and that can be frustrating. Then I try to take a step back and revisit what the story is about: my MC's needs and wants and how they intersect with situations and other characters in escalating conflicts and, ultimately, a resolution.
While this may not be the best method for everyone, it’s the way I go about it most of the time. I’ve tried to work in a more systematic, structured way, but I quickly lose momentum and interest. There’s something about the process of discovery that pushes me forward. I like following the clues to where my story is going, interacting with it in a fluid way.
Curious about what others do, I asked some friends about how they deal with unplanned plot developments:
Rae Ann Parker: When my characters do something that surprises me or moves things up on the timeline, I usually say out loud to my computer screen, "You're not supposed to do that!". As a plotter, this sometimes aggravates me, but I try to go with it, since the characters know best and I revisit my outline before moving on to other scenes.
Hannah Dills: I like to start a book with a concept I love and dive in to get a feel for the story, but then I take the time to complete Blake Snyder's Beat Sheets to make sure that I map out my characters' journey and include all of the necessary plot points to make sure it will be a story everyone will love!
Patsi Trollinger: My secret word for resolving plot problems: Yarn. When I am truly desperate, I take a long piece of yarn and create a rough approximation of the traditional story arc on the floor in our house. Then I place scene cards along the arc. ('Scene card' sounds impressive. In this case, it's a rectangle cut from scrap paper with one or two handwritten phrases summarizing the action in a scene.) The yarn and cards give me a visual representation of the so-called rising action. And if my descriptions of the action don't sound more and more exciting as they get closer to the peak of my yarn (no pun intended), I know I have to work to do. Often, it becomes apparent where the work needs to be done. That's it: yarn.
Kim Norman: Here's my favorite tactic with a problem manuscript: I put it in a drawer for about 7 years.
Even those who plan more extensively have to adjust when characters won’t cooperate or a scene isn’t working. But if there’s anything that all of my writer friends have in common, it’s flexibility and perseverance, no matter where they are on the plot-planning continuum.
Happy holidays, and here's to a great 2012!