Wednesday, June 6, 2012

How to Plot A Novel

A friend of mine, the excellent, and highly impressive, Robert Strong, is leading a team in the Forty-Eight Hour Film Project this weekend. To make such a film come off, participants need to be able to take a theme that they have no prior information about and derive a strong screenplay for it within a matter of hours.

Sound impossible? It's not. You don't need hours. I have helped people craft novels that are far more complicated than the average film. It usually takes about thirty minutes. At the end of that time they have a compelling heroic story arc, the seeds of well-developed characters, and an understanding of what needs to happen in every chapter.

How do you do it? I'm going to show you. But first, a warning.

This approach doesn't work for every kind of novel, or every kind of film. It's a formula, and what makes stories great is the extent to which they deviate from formula. This approach is not a cure-all. If it were, we'd be able to punch some buttons on a script-writing machine and awesome text would pop out.

Having said this, though, there are a lot of smug, uninformed people who will tell you that there is no such thing as a good story that follows formula, and that's why this kind of approach is limited. That's just dead wrong. In fact, it's worse than wrong. It's counterproductive and deluded. Good stories have shared structure because they reflect the processes of human cognition as I've outlined in the last few posts. Stories that don't pay attention to how human minds work aren't respecting their audiences. Consequently, they're generally, objectively, bad.

Sure, there are a plenty of people with letters after their name who will tell you that there are literary-theoretic reasons why what I'm saying cannot possibly be true. They'll point at some dense, opaque books that they claim to love and say that their excellence comes from their complete freshness, and absence of predictability. However, the steamroller of science touches everyone eventually, from priests to philosophers to artists. Storytelling is just as amenable to researched investigation as the origins of life.

Phase One: Story Profile
Your starting point is this: Do you have a message, an environment, or a character you want to write about?
In a well-constructed story, these elements reflect each other.
  • If you're starting with a message, ask yourself what kind of person would have the hardest trouble learning the lesson that your message represents. 
  • If you're starting with a character, ask yourself what their greatest flaw is, and therefore what kind of character-change you want them to undergo. That gives you your message.
  • In both cases, look for the kind of environment that would make your character as uncomfortable as possible, and make learning his or her lesson inevitable.
  • On the other hand, if you're starting with an environment, ask what's special about it. Then ask who'd have the greatest amount of trouble in a setting like that. And use that to build your protagonist. 
One thing to note about your choice of the environment is this. Everything in it, every prop, interior, light-level and weather choice is a symbol. So is every character your protagonist meets. Each choice about exterior environment and the challenges it presents should map onto the transition the hero is making internally. It's the interior change that's the important one.

The same relation also holds in the opposite direction. If there's an important part of your character's inner life that doesn't have an externalized symbol somewhere that you can use to aid storytelling, your story isn't going to turn out as strong as it could be. (Note, symbols can be as subtle as shades of blue. You don't have to beat the audience over the head with them.)

After a little thinking here, you should be able to think up a simple one sentence description for a protagonist, a setting, and a message. The lesson your protagonist learns is going to be a reflection of their heroic flaw, and every good protagonist needs a flaw. Otherwise, they're usually boring. When thinking about your hero's flaw, ask whether the flaw is a reflection of your character's motivation and personality. A good flaw reflects a deep-seated behavior that can be overcome. Also ask whether your flaw enables your audience to see themselves reflected in your character, or whether his attributes will be alienating to them.

Example good flaws: won't stand up for himself, perfectionist, incapable of opening up to others, etc.

Example bad flaws: a limp, vulnerability to a special food, a memory impairment, kills people, etc.

Now ask yourself how you want your protagonist to end up at the end of the story. What's their end point? In a classic heroic arc, the end point should communicate to the audience that the protagonist has a better life now, because he's changed.

Then ask what's the worst thing that could happen to them in the setting you've chosen, and given their flaw. What experience would force them to change and learn their lesson?

Once you've thought of a worst point, put it aside and ask yourself the same question again, because the first thing you thought of almost certainly isn't bad enough. Keep iterating on this until you're making yourself laugh and wince about how bad your protagonist is going to feel. Only stop when you find yourself saying: 'I don't want this story to be that dark'.

Given an ending and a worst point, now ask yourself where your protagonist starts off. Try to find an initial setting for your protagonist that have the following properties:
  • The starting point is often not the setting in which your story will unfold. If the settings are physically the same, your character will have to experience a change in emotional or social condition instead of a physical one. (Try to establish the physical, emotional and social features of your starting place regardless of what story you want to tell.)
  • The protagonist should be uncomfortable but lacking enough momentum or power to change things. Try to think of ways to show that in the initial setting. 
  • The starting point should enable the protagonist out of their ordinary world very quickly when your story starts moving. Hence, the protagonist should somehow be situated at the edge of their normal world, whether physically or otherwise. There should be mechanisms already latent in your starting place that make it easy for them to be pushed out. 
  • For a classic heroic story arc, the protagonist's starting place should be less good, from their perspective, than the place they end up.
  • Your initial setting will usually be populated with support characters who are going to be incidental at best in most of the narrative that follows. Make sure that those characters can help you efficiently depict what the protagonist's life is like. 
Here's your checklist for the things you should have at the end of this phase:
  • A one-line description of who your protagonist is.
  • A setting for your story to play out in.
  • A message that underscores your character's personal transformation.
  • A heroic flaw for your protagonist.
  • An end point for your character's story.
  • A worst point for your story.
  • A starting point for your story from which it's easy to kick off the hero's personal journey. 
That's probably enough for this post. I'll outline some more phases next time.

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