[I want to make clear from the start that the following this is my perception. You may understand plot differently. Whatever works for you is AWESOME as long as you’re, you know, writing.]
I’m very blessed to have a few new writers in my life. I like new writers. They don’t know the harsh realities of the business yet, which means they’re not jaded and still full of unrealistic hope. Ha. Which, in turn, keeps firmly in my mind the reason I write is because it makes me happy. In my frustration I can forget that.
On two separate occasions last week I found myself talking about plot. One, because both writers were in the blush of their first novel and, two, because I was struggling with my own plot issues. In both cases I walked away not feeling like I nailed what I wanted to say.
Plot’s a frustrating thing. In theory I guess it would be easy to explain, but then if it was so easy how come everyone struggles with it? For me, it’s one of the most difficult things to create, pull off and make it look like it was easy while doing it.
To explain plot I think I need to go back to understanding drafts. With the first draft, especially for a new writer, my advice is (and always will be) throw it on the paper. It doesn’t matter what you write. You will end up changing every word anyway. What you need is a shell to work with. It is impossible to rewrite something that is not written.
This does NOT mean that you can’t have some kind of preparation for your first draft. I think you should! I think you should know who your characters are and what makes them tick. What your overall story is, etc. If you understand your story beforehand, it does help you not run into long periods of writing inactivity (writer’s block – which I think is more “what the heck do I write next” than actual block).
When I talk about plot, I’m actually talking about the second draft. I think if you worry about tinkering with plot too soon, you can hinder that part of your creativity that comes up with the story in the first place. Because as you figure out your plot, you (well, me) tell yourself things like: “that plotline is bad,” or “ that won’t work.” Negativity does not foster creativity.
I see plot as two stories. Every book (every good one, at least) will have two stories: the one they tell and the one they don’t tell.
I’m going to use The Host for example because I just read that she sold movie rights and I think that’s hella cool. I will be standing in line to buy tickets. ;)
The Host is the story of Wanderer, an alien from another planet who takes over the body of a human host. The host doesn’t disappear, though. Oh, no. She stays right there like a shadow in Wanderer’s mind. The story revolves around Wanderer’s journey.
Story #1 is what the book is. It’s what is written. It’s what you query, or is on the back of the book jacket.
This is more illusive. Story #2 is the unwritten story that you understand from reading Story #1.
For The Host, the story #2 is about the aliens. How and why they’re there. What their plans are. Understanding their philosophies and deciding if they’re good or bad.
Story #2 is told in bits and pieces. Through narrative, actions, thoughts and dialog. It’s something that is created in that grey space, slowly built, so that you may not fully understand it until you reach the end of the book.
Now, there are more threads to a plot, of course. Each character needs to relate back to Story #2. They may live in Story #1, but their reasons for their actions come from Story #2. And every character has to have an understanding of why they’re doing something.
For me, when I start draft 2, I like to work backwards. I already have a clear understanding of Story #1. It’s written (the first draft). What I focus on is solidifying Story #2. What is it the real story I’m trying to tell? Once I understand that, I can begin to dissect Story #1 to make sure that I’m telling Story #2.
This is my intangible idea of plot. Plot is the point where Story #1 and Story #2 work together as a cohesive unit, where each one cannot exist without the other.