Winter Sunlight

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Writing about writing ... instead of actually writing. But I figured out a plot problem today and the solution was interesting, so I decided to make a post about it.

There was this interesting post about the "mid-book slump", i.e. writing middles of books, at [personal profile] marthawells today. This isn't quite what she was talking about, but it got me thinking along similar lines.

On my current novel (poker players on a cruise ship) I've been stuck for days on a particular chapter. There are two things I wanted to happen in it, during the Big Game that is currently taking place: a supporting character is accused of cheating, and the protagonist runs into somebody he hasn't seen since he was a child.

And I just couldn't get it to work. I'd written part of each scene, and they were just lying there, flat. I could've just slammed out something terrible and moved on to the next bit, but these scenes were going to influence the details of the next one, so I felt like I had to get them nailed down before I could move on.

What I realized was that I could switch around the order of the scenes -- instead of the current "meeting, then cheating", I could make it "cheating, then meeting" and have the childhood-friend meeting result directly from that character's attention being drawn by the altercation that came out of the cheating accusation. The problem, I think, is that in the original version, the two scenes just happened, as opposed to one being directly caused by the other. Which meant they both had equal weight to the reader, so there was this stuttery "event! -- then relax -- then event!" thing happening.

Okay, the only way these "drawn in 20 seconds on my Wacom" graphics could be worse would be if I'd figured out how to do them in ASCII, but ...

Sometimes you'll run into stories where the plotting basically has this choppy staccato feeling, like this:


You get it in chaptered WIP fanfics a lot, for example. A thing happens ... and then another thing ... and then another thing. Each of them might be an interesting thing by itself, but after awhile it starts to feel very self-similar and dull, because it doesn't seem to be going anywhere. There might even be a plot progression happening (for example, the main character finds a clue, then another clue, then yet another, and now they have enough clues to put the mystery together) but the scenes still feel repetitive because the emotional stress and plot tension is roughly the same in each one.

As opposed to the first thing directly leading to the second thing, and the second thing causing the third thing, which feels more like this:


... because it's subconsciously cranking up the plot tension on each iteration. #2 couldn't have happened without #1, which in turn causes #3, etc.

Which, when you see the graphic, is basic plotting 101, right? Like this. But it's hard to see it in practice, when you've got a number of different events plotted out that are supposed to happen, and the connections between them might not be obvious. You might have to create those connections, especially if you're shifting back and forth between different storylines, which is what I was doing here. And it helped me a lot to stop thinking, as I had been, "how can I make this scene happen, and this other scene happen" and instead start thinking in terms of, "I have these two scenes happening together in the same chapter; how can I make one of them directly result in the other?"

It doesn't even have to be a big, important connection. This definitely wasn't. But it made the whole thing feel like a unified whole, instead of some different things that just happened to occur in the same chapter.

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Thank you. Seeing it displayed like that has helped.
That's a very excellent way to illustrate and explain one of the hardest things to get right with plotting out a fiction story. I've seen that choppy turbulence in a lot of self-published novels (I'm a sucker for fishing in the indie author pond) where the author hasn't had much in the way of good feedback while writing or simply doesn't really understand that ebb and flow of pacing doesn't mean a heart attack-level event every other chapter. Sometimes I can overlook it if the rest of the story is engaging (the book I'm reading right now fits that category, as a matter of fact), but sometimes it makes me want to throw my Kindle across the room (which is the one drawback to Kindles... you don't dare throw them like you can a tattered paperbook).
Yeah, I agree! You see it in a lot of first novels, too, even those that are otherwise good. I think it's something you can even know in theory but it's hard to keep in mind and put in practice.

(Kindles ... yes. XD No throwing. Or dropping in the bathtub either.)
I think of those as arcs. It can be so tough to get arcs to intersect.
Yeah, I think it's something that I think about when plotting individual plotlines, but not as a bridge between them, if that makes any sense. But it ties everything together so much better ...
That makes so much more sense when you connect it visually like that. And I think what you figured out about your own plot helped illustrate it, too.

I think that's one of my biggest weaknesses in trying to write anything of significant length. I just never seem to get it all "synced" together in that sense, verses exactly what you were describing: event. event. event. with no connectivity to speak of :-P

Thanks for sharing that!!
I'm glad it was helpful! The syncing is easier for me sometimes than others -- like, if the plotline is fairly linear, it's a lot easier than if I have a bunch of different characters and subplots bouncing all over the place.
This is really fascinating - and I loved the illustrations; they made everything so clear!
Right, I was just thinking about this exact thing recently. I started reading Dresden Files stories (up to book 3 now) and I should really make a post about the books and the plots in them, because some of the things the author does really make me think about how he sets up the rising tension of events. (Obviously given that he wrote the first story following the lessons of his writing course instructor it's really particularly apparent in the first book, but it's apparent later as well). Thanks for making the post!

ETA: btw I commented on Martha Wells' post because she said one particular thing well, about how if you are stumped with the story it's not a matter of "writing through it", you have to figure out what the problem is because it's your subconscious telling you there's a problem with the scene that you're not aware of yet. Thanks for the link!

Edited at 2016-02-06 05:53 pm (UTC)
Oh man, Butcher, YES. I really think he doesn't get enough credit for his plotting skills; he's honestly one of the best action-plotters I've read. He is REALLY good at it. As well as being very good at keeping the rising action moving from chapter to chapter, he is also masterclass-level at setting up an action plot in the first couple of chapters (better in some of his books than others, but when he's good, he's really good, and Book 3 is actually one of the better ones for that, I think!).
I think he's awesome at the "chekov's gun" thing -- if he puts some detail in, it becomes important later. And the best part is even if you as the reader realize that's an important detail, you can't figure out the plot most of the time. It's just predictable enough to be satisfying (e.g. Lasciel plot) and just unpredictable enough to be exciting (the A-plot of each novel). I'm up to book 6 now and I'm really enjoying the books as much as the way I can see him tell the story. I feel like I could re-read these books just to learn from them, not simply for entertainment!
The illustrations really help to show what you're saying, and yes, the second way of doing it is better. If I ever start writing again, this would be a good thing to keep in mind! :)
Very fascinating food for thought. I often call those unconnected series of events "a bunch of stuff happening", especially if those scenes don't really advance anything.

And I think your post just helped me figure out an issue I've been having with a chapter I've been writing. A transition scene has been giving me trouble, and now I think I just need to cut that transition out all together.
haha, YES, "a bunch of stuff happening" sums it up perfectly, I think.

And I'm glad it was helpful!
I'm intrigued by poker players on a cruise ship.

I play poker almost every day. Mostly online, but I've played live too. If you need any poker fact-checking, I'd be happy to take a look.
Ooh! I may take you up on that if I need to (although really, the poker game is mainly an excuse for the action/romance plot; it's taking place on a casino shaped like a giant floating sphinx, so NOT exactly going for hyper-realism here). But I'm trying not to fail at the poker scenes TOO badly, so I will definitely ask if I have questions!