I got some wonderful responses from everyone about my 8,000 words a day experiment. But now I have a big problem. All I want to do is play with my new toy, this huge, unwieldy mass of creative stuff. There are characters I never heard of, I have to find out what the hell they were doing in that scene, who sent them there, and what do they want?
There are locations to figure out and how characters got there, what is the overall timeline and how is the murderer going to get away with this? I have my big, I mean big, 18 inch by 24 inch sketchbook where I’m working out the main plot line. As it is a murder mystery, not only do I have to work out the sleuth’s timeline and how and where she picks up the clues she needs to solve the puzzle, I also need to know what the pesky murderer is doing to cover his tracks once the body has been found. There are also backstory elements and several other “antagonists” in the sleuth’s life and working out all of their subplots.
And, just for fun, this weekend I attended the Solo Workshop conducted by the amazing Mark W. Travis. This workshop is designed for writers who wish to shape stories from their own lives into what could become an autobiographical one-person show. Mark has been traveling to Hawaii and teaches this workshop once a year. I was fortunate enough to take the first workshop that he offered here back in 2001. He has been one of the most important influences on my writing career. Although he main area of expertise is as a feature film director, he has a unique insight into the storytelling process. If you are ever able to attend any of his workshops, run, I tell you run out and sign up. You won’t regret it.
One lesson that he has taught over the years, which I learned back in 2001, but finally understood this year (yeah, I’m a slow learner) is what I think becomes the trap for many writers who use outlines to create complex plots, such as mystery writers. You create a plot line, knowing what has to be accomplished in each scene. Say for instance, you have a scene where your sleuth is going to interview a possible suspect. In your big picture, you know that this suspect didn’t do it, but that he has a key piece of information that the sleuth needs.
Now, you might have envisioned the scene, you’ve picked a setting, a place the sleuth doesn’t know, so the sleuth is already on edge, and meeting someone she’s never met before, so there is potential for conflict. And you’ve figured out that particular nugget of information that the sleuth is going to weasel out of this low-life. But here’s the thing, if you are writing in first person, or in limited third person, all from the sleuth’s point of view, she really doesn’t know how the scene will turn out. She’s in the middle of it. Where as you, the author, you do know. The trick now becomes, how to capture that unease and doubt within the point of view character, if you can do that well, you’ve just added another layer of tension, what Donald Maass in his books describes as micro-tension. One second, she could feel really confident that she’ll get what she wants, but in the next second, she could be thrown by what the other character says, and she experiences a new emotion, while still trying to show to the suspect that she has her act together.
And it’s that back and forth between the two characters and within the point of view character that creates the tension that as readers we love. That is the push and pull, the emotional highs and lows we crave in good writing. We want to be there, in the scene, as it unfolds, feeling all of those emotions with our hero.
For some of you, this may sound like “well duh” of course that’s what you need to do. But I know myself, when I am the all-seeing-all-knowing author mode it is easy for me to forget what it is like to be the naive character that is experiencing something for the first time.
Does this make any sense to you? Please let me know. I realize there is a great debate between “outliners” and “pantserts” so I’d like to hear from all camps. The more the merrier. Thanks again for stopping by, you are the best!
I think you raise good questions Rachel. I can’t write a scene if I know too much about it in advance. I’m a pantser, and nearly stopped writing when I tried to plot and outline and be more organized. thanks for a great post.
Louise, I’ve discovered that since I am writing a murder mystery, which is very plot heavy, that I did both. I pantsed my way through the 8,000 word days and now I get to take that draft and sort through the scenes and line them up in the way that carries the most impact, and stays true to the murder mystery form. Hope you are having fun on Maui.
Oh gosh, I was actually just thinking about this the other day. I’ve wandered into outlining territory, so I’ve been working harder to plan out the highs and lows of each scene ahead of time… but it does make it challenging to capture the emotional tension within the scene itself. Sometimes it’s hard to see through my character’s eyes, to experience things alongside her, but I’ve been doing silly things like making scene-specific playlists, since music is a big catalyst for how I write. Still, I know I need to do a lot more work in really fleshing out the tension in each scene.
Lena, another thing you might want to try, along with music (I create entire soundtracks for my books) is to look at objects that the characters might be interacting with. I’ve found that really helpful.
I’m a planner/outliner, so while it takes me a little longer to write a scene, I usually know the emotions I want the character to go through, and often I’ve chosen little ways that might work to show this (so that I have options to chose from once I get writing and see which will work best). I find that when I go into a scene and try to write without that guide, the scene ends up being very distant. And I think it’s because of what you said. When I’m not prepared, I end up writing like the all-knowing author.
Thanks for stopping by Marcy, I find if I don’t have some idea of what has to happen in the scene in relation to the plot, then the scene will go all over the place and the whole thing becomes a muddle.
Ah yes, the continuous saga of plotter v. panster. There are those who vehemently argue one way or the other. I’m a little bit of both, although I don’t have a giant sketch pad like you do.
I’m a pantser, but often run into box canyons with no way out but for the way I just came in. It can be frustrating. I’m trying to be a little more plot minded before I begin my new projects, but I rarely stick to that original outline. It’s too confining for me.
Good discussion and points to think about.
Good luck to you in your journey!
w/a Jansen Schmidt
Thanks Patricia. Since I am writing commercial fiction, it is a very plot heavy story, so I’m trying to find a balance between the plot points that I need, but to really have them emerge from the Main Characer’s need to change. I love this stuff!
As you know I am new to this. But I find it hard to plot everything out. I like to see where the character takes me. And for some funny reason, I don’t have a problem, or I don’t know about the problem with keeping the scene on track. I guess that’s a good thing.
How’s it going over in Oahu girl? Isn’t that Louise a doll to keep up with her classmates while on vacation? Love her.
See ya in class! 🙂
Karen, it is going great, I have plotted the book up to the midpoint, the “dark night of the soul” kind of scene, I will load up the front half with my plot and several subplots and by the time I get to the middle, I’ll figure out which subplot to tie up first on the race to the climax. Life on Oahu is grand, we are taking mom out on a picnic today.
Terrific points, Rachel. I’m definitely more of a seat-of-your-panster, which lends itself too easily to going way off the literary deep end. 😉 I find that sticking with a direction, knowing where I’m going and what’s driving my main characters, helps a ton. That said, allowing those fun characters and scenarios is great fun, as you well pointed out. I let them appear, knowing I may have to cut them out…or displace them (easier to think of it that way!)…later.