I thought about discussing characters in this next post on writing, as I think that is where more people suffer when it comes to writing fiction, and where I tend to struggle as well. But without a good plot, you won’t have a good story 99% of the time, even if you have good characters. Now, to quickly to contradict myself, I want to refer to Patrick Rothfuss’ “A Slow Regard to Silent Things” — this story is purely a character piece with very little plot at all, and in it, he shows that it’s possible to write a great story without having a strong plot. However, though it’s possible, it’s difficult, and Rothfuss was able to do it in part because the character came from a world he’d already created. And so, what follows here are some tips for the rest of us.
But what makes a good plot? What makes a plot that you want to build a story around? It isn’t too difficult — you get a story idea in your head, and you go for it. If you want to tell the epic story of the unsuspecting hero, do it. If you want to tell a story of how the king had to rise up against the evil forces that were without or within, write that story. There are plenty of big picture stories out there — the epic quest, something forgotten coming back, etc., and those are great stories to write.
Now, haven’t most of those stories been done before — and done to death? No, not really — and absolutely, all at the same time. I could write up my reasoning for it, but this quote sums it up well:
Every story has already been told. Once you’ve read Anna Karenina, Bleak House, The Sound and the Fury, To Kill a Mockingbird and A Wrinkle in Time, you understand that there is really no reason to ever write another novel. Except that each writer brings to the table, if she will let herself, something that no one else in the history of time has ever had.
-Anna Quindlen [Commencement Speech; Mount Holyoke College, May 23, 1999]
While the big pictures, the big ideas, have really all been covered, how you tell your story, and the moments, characters, and places that you create, are all yours.
That is what helps separate some fantasy series from others. Books like The Inheritance Cycle series by Christopher Paolini or Sword of Shanarra by Terry Brooks really rip off other book and movie series like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. But then there are series like A Song of Ice and Fire, in which George R. R. Martin creates an epic story that is purely its own, and breaks down the specifics of the politics, jealousy, and violence that fill it.
This is the hard part of writing a story — the line between borrowing a little, but not borrowing too much. By borrowing an epic story of the unsuspecting or unlikely hero but making the hero’s actions their own, you don’t end up with another Lord of the Rings. But if you decide to make a single spot where the bad guy who is thought to be dead is coming back, and you are spending time adventuring with your group of dwarves, elves, and a mystic of some sort, you might want to rethink how you are writing (p.s. we know it is still The Fellowship of the Ring if you gender swap characters, or make the elves seafaring, or whatever you try to do to hide it).
So, how do you set your story apart? How do you make it so that you aren’t ripping someone off and running with a story that has been told before? Build it around who you are. Now, that doesn’t mean I should go around naming all of my main characters “Peder” or something — what I’m saying is that I have life experiences that other people don’t. I’ve been through things in a different way than other people have. No two people have lived life exactly the same. So write loosely from your life experiences, and pick and choose carefully.
Another thing to do is borrow broadly. If you take from 30 different fantasy books and work the pieces together into your story, you probably won’t get accused of stealing. But when you do this, grab small things. If you like the idea of the main characters narrating his story, borrow that idea from Patrick Rothfuss, but don’t make him a kid whose parents died and who is on a revenge quest. If you want the main character to have a companion, don’t make it a whole fellowship or a gardener with a heart of gold, like in J.R.R. Tolkien’s stories.
So now you have a general idea and you are ready to start writing your story down. How do you keep track of all the details/movement of the plot? The most common answer, and the one that works for most people, is to create an outline. Now, I’ll say that I’m terrible at doing that, so I don’t, so not outlining your plot or blog posts is also a valid option. But some form of written outline is going to be helpful for keeping track of your writing. With an outline, you are going to have to get a feel for how much data you need. Maybe you need general terms about the big events that will shape your story. Maybe you write out what each chapter is going to be about. You’ll see lots of things about how to write a proper outline, but my advice is to go as detailed as you need to — you can always cut things later.
And with outlining and writing your plot, one thing to remember is that sometimes you have to kill your darlings, as they say. The scene that you loved the best and was a good fit at first may no longer work for you. Instead of trying to shoehorn it in, take those pages and set them aside. Literally pull them from the document if you are writing by hand, or cut them from your Google doc and put them in a separate one. However, don’t throw away these scenes; you never know what they might inspire in the future. Just because they aren’t right for one book, doesn’t mean that they won’t fit in somewhere else.
Hopefully these tips on plot creation will get you inspired to start devising a story of your own — and stay tuned for the next article in this series, which will be on characters. Creating characters will really help you flesh out your plot and make a basic plot into something that is uniquely you.
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