The Literary Assassin

Fiction, fashion, and hand-to-hand combat by Holly Messinger

The only question more horrible is, "Where do you get your ideas?"

How Do You Plot?

by Holly Messinger

September, 2005
all rights reserved

"How do you plot?" somebody said to me recently.

Big question.

Short answer? I don't. At least not in the sense that I plan a whole story out, start to finish, with a scene-by-scene outline. I sometimes think life would be easier, and writing faster, if I could do that, but I can't. And frankly, when I've read the work of such a writer, I often find it stiff and mechanical. Stephen King says outlining is a crutch, and I'm inclined to agree.

This is not to say I just sit down and start writing and miraculously arrive at a cohesive finish. No. When I was younger, and writing purely for my own amusement, I used to just start writing and let the characters wander until they bumped into a conflict, then let them bumble their way through it until they arrived at a conclusion. Wasteful. Messy. Often unsatisfying.

Occasionally, I will get an idea-driven story concept in mind, and I'll be able to write it all in a swoop. Idea-stories are often short, and not usually dependent upon character (most genuine science fiction falls into this category), so they don't require the complicated bending and meshing of plot and character development that's needed in the meller-drama I usually write.

I'm a character-oriented writer, so I like to let things develop more organically. When I'm building a story, I have to start with a character that I like, just to get interested. When the idea of a vampire-hunting cowboy was first pitched to me, I sneered, because the concept was hokey and adolescent. Taken in those simplistic terms, it still is. What got me committed to the project was getting to know Trace: his faith, his loneliness, his heartache. His problem, in other words.

To being a story you must present 1) setting, 2) character, and 3) problem, on the first page, first paragraph even, so the reader knows what they're dealing with. If you, the writer, don't have that information clearly in mind before you start, then what on earth do you think you're going to say in that story?

So let's assume you have a character, in a (thoroughly researched and internally consistent) setting, and your character has a problem.

What series of events or circumstances created that problem for your character? That's your backstory.

What series of events will resolve this problem for your character? The unfolding of those events are your story, and will constitute the bulk of your word expenditure.

It's that simple. In theory. In practice it's a bit more involved.

As I said, I almost never outline a story. However, after college I wrote a political space-opera screed that was quite unlike anything I'd done before. I outlined Leviatech,, because it was pretty complicated and I needed to make sure I got all my ducks in a row. The outline itself was vague:

  1. Breck gets demoted to New Greenland
    1. While still in a state of mourning and semi-shock, Breck is offered a choice: choose a new networker (to replace Jonah), or take a different post for a while.
      1. She is pressured into taking a supervisor/evaluation position on New Greenland.
      2. "We need somebody with your organizational skills. Go there, assess, write a report. You'll be back in three months."
    2. Situation on NG is bad, of course.
      1. Meet Dane, very quickly. Charismatic guy, obviously respected by the workers, but doesn't seem to have a definite affiliation anywhere.
      2. Meanwhile, there are multiple factions already in place.
        1. Strong anti-Embassy sentiment.
        2. Small faction that's against Leviatech, probably workers in favor of a union.
        3. Many "Security" guards around, protests occurring and unstable situation.
      3. The guy nominally in charge (Cam Bishop) is the charismatic character she clashed with earlier. He is either in place when she arrives or is sent out there after Breck makes her report. He's a powerful speaker who's doing his best to bind the workers to blind Leviatech devotion and make them hate the Embassy.
    3. Spies from both sides try to approach her.
      1. She doesn't realize at first who or what they are, just suspects the company is trying to test her.
      2. There is a sort of secret police here, with a few security people taking names and the workers all eager to rat on each other.
      3. Certain resentment/suspicion of her because she's from Central and she's enhanced, and just because she's the boss.

    Note how vague it all is--I seldom knew exactly what was going to happen, I only knew what kinds of things had to happen: tension, betrayal, revelation. This outline is more a topographical map of emotional arcs than a road map of how to get from A to B to C. I prefer to break fresh trail when it comes to the actual route. Sometimes it doesn't go smoothly: the above section, which was most of Act 2, had to be rewritten two-and-a-half times, with me fitting in characters and then removing them, combining them, rearranging sequences of events and the conveying of information. At one point I trashed fifty pages, went back to the last fork in the road and took a different route. So it's not a foolproof or efficient system.

    In the best stories, the character development and the plot development are symbiotic: the plot imposes a problem on the character, which he then acts according to his nature to correct; his actions invariably cause the plot to throw more obstacles in his way--especially if you're writing a man-vs.-man type of conflict, because the protag and antag's actions should be counterindicative to each other; the difficulties imposed by the plot ideally will change the character in some way, and as a result of his new perspective, he manages to solve his problem.

    The Trace stories present an especially a propos example of plot-and-character symbiosis, because Trace and Miss Fairweather were deliberately designed to complement and infuriate each other. She has her goals, he has his, and a possible resolution to both lies in their working together, but we know the trip will not be a smooth one. To complicate matters further, we've got the Big Bad guy, Mereck, whose motivations are not even known and whose machinations are as merciless and unpredictable as God and the weather.

    With each Trace story, I have three plots to keep in rein: the monster-of-the-week plot, which drives each story; the overarching "Mereck" plot which threads through all of the stories to some degree; and Trace's internal development. I try to make him gain a little toward his own goal--liberation from, or at least mastery of, his curse--in each story. Conveniently, those steps he takes also move us further along in the Mereck plot, because we all know there's a confrontation coming.

    But in the short-term, I try to tie Trace's stair-step progress to the monster of the week story. I want one to affect the other, otherwise there's no point in his having this ability.

    So I start, each time, with Trace. How do I get him to the monster of the week, and how can I slip a ghostie in there en route?

    Research has been invaluable for ideas in this area. My reading for this project has been democratic and schizoid. Real-life legends of hauntings, ghosts that linger around nineteenth-century houses, museums, and battlefields; spiritualist writings and sociological treatises on the spiritualist movement. Cross-reference all of that with first-person accounts of Civil War battles, contemporary travel manuals for settlers crossing the prairie, and a biography of Abraham Lincoln. The Victorian/Old West era was so saturated with death and tragedy that I am simply incredulous that there isn't a serious subgenre of western horror on the market. I simply read, without filtering, and let connections form. Werewolves with wolf-hunters on the cattle range. Parlor spiritualists with a man who can actually see ghosts. The simultaneous assault of science and what would become the New Age movement against ol'time religion--a war that is still on today.

    Generally speaking, Miss Fairweather got into the story because I needed someone to tell Trace where to go--the idea that anyone would just stumble across all this otherworldly stuff in such volume at random was too unbelievable, even if he was a medium. So I created an excuse to get Trace to the action--she sends him. I have conveniently avoided explaining why and how in these earlier stories, both to create suspense and because her methods are still clarifying themselves to me. That's another thing I've been reading up on: alchemy and arcania; the history and theory of magic and science, looking for the points where they divide and intersect.

    But whatever her methods, the built-in motivatrix ex machina made the start of End of the Line easy to write. In fact I had most of the general plot of that story congealed in my head before I started it, and it went something like this:

    Trace and Boz go on a train ride with a bunch of missionaries; the train gets attacked by vampires. There will be a passenger (woman) on the train with whom Trace bonds, who will help him realize his curse doesn't make him a bad person. There will be a couple of examples of Good Religious Folks and Bad Religious Folks; of necessity there will be examples of racism because Boz will have to sit in the colored car; I'd like to get the Chinese railway workers in there somehow, and I need to have one circus-type person (this ended up being Ferris the Fire-Master--my husband's idea) who can crop up again in a later story. Be sure to herd everybody into a cattle-car, because it's more defensible and to use the bit about the steer being thrown against it for gross-out effect.

    And that was about as planned as it got. With those elements in mind, I wrote the first scene, Trace and Boz waiting at the depot, to feel out their relationship, their emerging conflict over Trace's working for Miss Fairweather, to establish time and place and mood. My unconscious tossed up a couple of happy coincidences for me while I was writing this: first, the ghost of the linkman which Trace sees between the cars--I had been reading a bit about the railroads and gotten an inkling of how dangerous they were, which gave me a real convenient opportunity for inserting a ghostie. Second, the tussle over Boz's having to sit in the colored car, which directly led to the linchpin question of the story, "Why you lettin her push you around?"

    When I wrote that line, I knew it was going to work. I didn't plan it out, it just came to me. But it came out of the synthesis of the research and planning I had done: my thorough knowledge of the time and place and Boz's character. Shortly thereafter, I knew what the resolution had to be: Trace's carrot-and-donkey conversation with Miss Fairweather. I wrote that next-to-last scene before I wrote the middle.

    And that seems to be the pattern of story-crafting I've fallen into--the nearest thing I have to a method, though it's certainly not conscious or deliberate on my part. I'll write the beginning of a story, feel it out, see what the mood of the characters is and get them pointed down the road. I know what the monster of the week will be, so I get them moving toward it. In the process, I try to braid-in relevance to Trace's gift, which is the natural thing to do, because he's searching for meaning himself and he's going to look for it in everything that happens, particularly if the happenings are otherworldly. Often I'll get through the setup, into the foothills of the rising action, and pause there to figure out where I'm going, so I can proceed efficiently and make all the markers line up. (Plotting is a very geometric and tactile process with me, can you tell?)

    Usually at this point I have some idea of what the climax will be, but I don't always know how to get here, and that, alas, is the part of the process when I wish I were more of an outliner. As it is, working organically as I do, I can only stare at the problem, stir the compost in my brain a bit, and wait for the pieces to fall in line. Reading helps. Research sometimes suggests routes I can take--for instance I got a little stuck on EOTL, once I had Trace and the passengers in the cattle car; I knew I needed something drastic to prompt further action and mayhem, but I seemed to be stalemated--vampires outside, passengers safely inside. It looked like there were going to be stuck there until morning. Then I read about the "hotboxes" under the cars, and away we went.

    Another crucial thing I have to do at this pre-climactic stage is to semi-consciously look for patterns in what I've written so far, and in the original concept of the plot, until I see a glimmer of the story's point, or at least a pattern from which I can build a point. Once I find that, things tend to fall into place. This is the stage at which I usually write the denouement, or bits of the denouement and the climax in tandem. In the case of Parlor Games, the important pointy bit was very short:

    "Aren't you even going to ask?" [Miss Fairweather said.]

    "I figure you'll tell me," he said. "When you're ready to ask for my help, instead of pushin me around like an ox in the bow, you'll tell me."

    Her chin lifted, stubbornly. Trace touched his hat to her and let himself out.

    Short, sweet, to the point. Of course their actual delivery of these lines was a bit more violent in the final version, but the message was the same.

    These "precognitive" bits of scene are what I do instead of or in conjunction with outlining. They usually are scenes of high tension or conflict between the characters. They may also be turning points or important moments of revelation. They serve as road-markers--points I know I need to get to--as well as shaping my understanding of the character's emotions and reactions. Not all of these preliminary bits get used, and those that do are often modified to fit better with the situation as it has developed en route. But I'm getting better at looking ahead and planning ahead, and more and more often I find the bits get used, just in places and ways different from my early expectations. I also revise continuously as I write, go back to the old stuff and pull it into line as the intent of the story becomes clearer to me. My writer's group sees bits of story in progress, and each time I bring them new copy they'll find small changes to the earlier scenes where I have streamlined things.

    Parlor Games was particularly difficult to get bearings on, because my original intentions were confused. I had wanted to write a short, humorous bit that put Trace in a purple turban, posing as a fraud for some of Miss Fairweather's guests. My husband and I were making jokes one night and realized the humor of such a situation. I would have liked to do such a farcical piece, but the characters just weren't up for it. Trace has put up with a lot, but there's no way he'd agree to putting on a turban, and Miss Fairweather would never in a million years invite society into her house.

    However, I had already written a short scene in which Trace calls on her and finds her ill; I knew the element of her illness would have to be worked into the larger continuity at some point, and I tried it out here. I think it worked because it alluded to the abrupt shift in power that would shortly take place between them, and once it was in there, I was surprised to find that Parlor Games was going to be more revealing about Miss Fairweather than I had thought I was ready for. Made sense, though. In terms of word-count I was already a fourth of the way into a novel; time to get the ball rolling. So I went with it. I decided Mereck would make an appearance, however indirect and shadowy, at the climax of the piece, and in order to do that I needed another of his victims for a sacrifice. Kieler pulled double duty by being Miss Fairweather's pigeon and, by contrast, indicating just how powerful Trace's gift is.

    Of course in order to show Kieler was a demifraud I needed him to do a séance of his own, and so I needed a throwaway ghost character--her name became Agatha, and in the end she was probably more informative to Trace than anyone else has yet been. See how I was working backwards, there, necessity giving birth to invention? I decided to reveal some information about Miss F., and her big secret is Mereck, and to demonstrate how evil Mereck is I needed a patsy, and Kieler was already there because Trace needed to meet another medium, and to demonstrate Kieler's powers I created a new ghost girl, which enabled me to work in a little of my original idea of having Trace pose as a parlor spiritualist. Of course, being Trace, the results are as much tragic as they are amusing.

    By the time I had written through the first séance with Agatha and Kieler, I had some idea of what the last scene with Miss Fairweather would be--her railing at him for not asking questions. This was the direct result of certain complaints I was hearing, from advance readers, about Trace's reticence. I knew why Trace wasn't asking more questions--it wasn't in his nature--but effective characterization is rather like an effective legal defense--you have to explain why your man did the things he did, and why, even though his actions might seem questionable, they were the right thing for him to do at the time. So I used first Boz and later Miss Fairweather as mouthpieces to both justify and condemn Trace's silence. Boz comes to understand that curiosity can kill a cowboy, and Miss Fairweather rails at Trace, tells him it's his own fault he got hurt because he never asked her anything--she assumed he was compliant with what she was doing. Or at least she could claim she did, and can you really blame her? There's a nifty theme running through this story, of communication or the lack thereof; of keeping secrets to protect yourself and having them bite you in the ass. I hoped, also, to bring a little pity to Miss Fairweather's character--she's going to need it later. And of course the whole point of Parlor Games was to push Trace out of his complacency, to force him to act.

    A couple of readers--my husband in particular--have complained that Trace is too wimpy, that he should be tougher and not kowtow to the rich witch, but I disagree. I don't think he's wimpy at all. I think he's distinctly uncomfortable, out of his element and frightened. He's quite brave, actually, in face of these things that he doesn't understand and which scare him to death: he always comes through in the clench. Furthermore, he's a man of his time and upbringing: a good decent man of faith, gentle by nature, strong when the situation demands it, and that, to me, is the most heroic thing about him.

    So that's the long and short of it. To make a story, I take a character that I love and put him through the wringer. Watch him fight his way out of it. Look for signs of deeper meaning along the way. Kind of like life.

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