Hatching a Plot
I saw an interesting blog post the other day from a writer talking about her Frankenstein method of plot outlining. This brought a smile to my face, as I can identify with both the problem she describes and her eclectic solution. I’ve recently returned to writing fiction after what looks to have been about a 16-year hiatus. It’s hard for me to believe it’s been that long, but that’s what the evidence I’ve uncovered in recent weeks appears to show. Of course in that amount of time, you accumulate a lot of old hard drives, etc. Even with the most hygienic of intentions, it’s easy to end up with too many copies of important .zip and similar archive files, leading to headaches in determining what was once most current.
So here I am, poised between Project B, my latest enthusiasm, and Project A, which I abandoned around 2001 for reasons I’m only beginning to recall. The most compelling reasons were external to the project and simply stole the time I needed. But there were others more intrinsic to the work.
Now I love the characters in recent Project B and also love its real-world locale. The whole thing began quite improvisationally with thoughts for only a few turning points and a very clear sense of the characters, where they were in life at two different periods of life, and the sort of life content I wanted between the turning points. But I still needed and still need the framework of progression in life (aka plot) to which these events should be attached — the pretext for observing them. Because make no mistake. In this project, external plot is pretext. What matters to me is what happens in the characters’ heads and hearts and how those things evolve. This is generally called character-driven narrative.
You have to understand what it is I like to read. I like books and movies that feel like real life and focus on texture and the things ordinarily unspoken, unrecognized, and unexplained that pass between unusual people. Think The Remains of The Day. (It’s not real life for us today, but it was for the characters then.) Think Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent. Think Merchant-Ivory. I don’t like plots to have that hyped-up feel that most American TV and film and pop literature have. If you’re event-centric, you’re not going to like what I like — nor probably what I write. In the fictional worlds I find the most stimulating, plot should be discreet and never become a distraction from daily living. Most of the time, real life is somewhat plotful but bears little resemblance to escapist literature and entertainment. So I was just beginning to come to grips with how I would integrate into Project B the somewhat-plotfulness I’ve come in later years to prefer. I feel a lot of body-resistance when I read dramatic theory. I know I need some of the insights, but I’m so allergic to the clichés that immediately jump out at me when I pick up bestsellers off the bookstore or grocery store shelf.
But anyway, I thought to myself, “I wonder what’s in that fully-stuffed 3-inch D-ring binder from Project A that’s been sitting in the same place on the same topmost shelf since around 2001.” So I took it down and dusted it off. Lo and behold, there was in essence Frankenstein’s laboratory: tens of pages of outlining on each of four major characters plus less on several others, totaling close to 100 — things they think and need a way to get said; strengths, motivations, weaknesses, distinctive preferences and quirks. Even evolutions that need to occur within them. Then separately, events that need to happen. Places that need to be visited. And quite a detailed scene-by-scene outline into which I had directly written quite a bit of text as well. Around 300 pages total of outline-plus-text. There was even a two-year daily calendar spelling out how all the scenes and events fit together! In many places I’m no longer happy with the tone, but that’s (somewhat) easily remedied and I’m amazed at the overall complexity and at how much I like some chapters. It all appears to have taken shape largely in line with what is today called the Snowflake Method.
And it’s full of classical-performer-insider-stuff, of youthful concerns and ambitions, of love, ambivalence, confliction, betrayal, revenge, truth, lies, remorse, regret, loss, maturation… all that good traditional-plotty stuff.
So what happened? It’s been hard to recall, apart from the external events that began to soak up so much of my attention. But I think the monster turned on its creator. I’m beginning to recall the gradually building sense of hopeless overwhelm from having over-outlined and having been too ambitious in the first place. It’s probably a common first-time mistake. I gathered more content for the book than I could possibly fit into any reasonable book — I wasn’t trying to write Beethoven Shrugged, after all. Most of the material belongs there, in an ideal world, but it just doesn’t fit. The book couldn’t feel as heavy as a Beethoven Shrugged or go on for nearly that long. Also, one of the characters just became too high-energy and high-maintenance for me as the author. Even now it can exhaust me to think about her. I like the three [update: four] main characters and two more almost-main characters a lot, but it feels a little heavy to go back to them and to sift all that material into something. Yet that may be the shorter road.
I still want to get both Project A and Project B written, because even though they take place in similar milieus, the characters and issues and approaches are so different. The protagonists’ levels of maturity are quite different. Somewhere between Project B’s Just-In-Time plot delivery and Project A’s pre-planning down to the last nut and bolt, there has to be a workable compromise.