Monday, December 26, 2011

What To Do When Your Plot Doesn't Go As Planned

-->First of all, I’ll be honest: I’m not so familiar with this scenario.

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!

Jessica Young grew up in Thunder Bay, a small Canadian city on the North Shore of Lake Superior. She earned a B.A. in Fine Art and Psychology from the University of Guelph (Canada) and a M.A. in Expressive Therapies from Lesley University. Currently an art teacher and mother of two, Jessica has also been a: tree planter, art therapist, museum outreach coordinator, lifeguard, homeless shelter art and music group leader, flower arranger, wilderness program canoe trip guide, and (absolutely terrible) waitress. She loves painting, picnics, dancing, kayaking, dark chocolate and dark roast coffee, music, the color blue, the beach, and attending SCBWI conferences. She can be found on her website, Twitter, Facebook, and hanging out at outdoor cafés. Her first picture book, MY BLUE IS HAPPY, will be published by Candlewick in Spring 2013.

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