Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Plotting for Pantsers 2 - Build your storytelling muscles

Last time, I introduced some of the benefits of being a pantser and some of the problems with writing by the seat of your pants. The freedom, creativity, surprises, imagination, and real fun that come from just letting the images form in your mind, listening to the voices of the characters, and allowing the words flow are worth all the pain, and need to be protected against overzealous drives for productivity. So my main aim here is to provide options that will not interfere with all that is good about working spontaneously.

If you are a pantser, and any of the tips in my articles don't feel right, avoid them. Sacrifice productivity before you drive away your muse. But don't let fear hold you back. Use good judgment.

The easiest way to build plotting prowess without doing any damage is to work those plotting muscles in an arena away from your work in progress. Most pantsers I know are huge consumers of stories. They read all the time and seemed to know about all the best in television and film. However, even though some can tell you about the highlights of the stories they consume, many are unable to retell the stories. And even fewer are able to immediately isolate key plot points. Plotters, on the other hand, have no problems dissecting stories (often, distressingly, in real time).

It is a simple thing to begin to pay attention to plot points and even the turns that are in scenes. It may take some time to do this automatically, but, with practice, anyone who love story can acquire the skill. Here's a step-by-step approach you may wish to try:
  1. Learn the elements of plot. There are many books on plotting. Since the structure is such an essential part of Hollywood films, I recommend a book like Save the Cat, but there are many choices available. Master these plot elements intellectually, so that you could easily recite them with explanations to others.
  2. Look for examples of plot analyses of popular stories. Again, film may provide the most accessible examples. Many books and websites include breakdowns and beat sheets, and these often explicitly tag the plot elements.
  3. Analyze the stories that you are consuming. Write down the plot elements in full sentences and begin to keep a journal of these. Make sure that you are analyzing traditional stories with the beginning–middle–end structure. Dissect shorter works (movies, short stories) so you can quickly gain experience. If possible, discuss your work with a plotter who is familiar with the material.

Your work in plot analysis may (probably will) decrease your enjoyment of the stories you consume, especially in the short term. It will make it harder to become immersed in the stories, and you'll begin to see the strings the storyteller is pulling. It may even stories you have enjoyed to obvious to appreciate anymore.

This is part of the price you pay for your own art. Mourn and move on. Know that, if you work hard at this, you're build your plotting muscles without damaging your own work. All this knowledge will be active in the background as you compose. And it will be explicitly available when it's time to rewrite your work.

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