To plot or not to plot? (Yes, I’ve spent too much time at the Shakespeare theater down the street.)
Since it’s almost NaNo season, I figured I’d toss out my thoughts on plotting, since they’ve evolved some over the years. I’ve gone through a lot of iterations on this over the years, but my current — and fairly successful — approach is a hybrid.
I start with the key moment, which I shorthand as the HWYS moment. It’s a nod to Jesse Stern, who explained on the S7 NCIS DVDs that he had the line before the Act 3 phoof in Truth or Consequences in mind from the beginning, and then built the story in the first three acts to give the line its necessary impact. It’s an approach I took unconsciously in Razor’s Edge, when I knew I wanted to get to the point where Abby realizes McGee isn’t her geek anymore. Of course, I originally thought that was going to be chapter 4 or 5 out of eight, not chapter 49 of 50. 🙂 Along the way, the story took a lot of twists and turns I hadn’t expected, in part because good, rich characters tend to react to events as they happen, not follow the path you lay out for them.
Three stories since then have been long enough to need a plotting approach: Living By the Rules, Steal My Breath Away and Life Is Made. Each one played out differently, writing-wise, but also have some things in common. And I’m going to try to do this without spoiling it for people who haven’t read any of them. Differences first:
In Rules, the point was choosing between two options that each seem right for different reasons. It’s the one longer story I’ve written where I didn’t know what was going to happen going in. Part of that was deliberate; I didn’t want to write one possibility weaker than the other because I was colored by what would happen in the end. And part was because I really couldn’t figure it out. I think I considered every possible ending before finally setting on the one that seemed most true to the characters. It was an experiment, and I think it worked, though the ending seemed to only satisfy most people in a theoretical sense — almost everybody either thought McGee should have chosen the other option, or liked the one he chose, but didn’t like his reasoning.
Breath is the only true case fic I’ve written, in part because that type of plotting is the one I have the most trouble with. It’s also the only multi-chapter story that was basically done before I started posting, and the only one that I did detailed plotting on before writing. Both were mostly to avoid backing myself into a corner case-wise, which I did in one of the RE cases. Kyrie and I actually hashed everything out before I wrote any of it, which isn’t typical for us. (She’s seen what happens when I try to write mysteries before and knew it wouldn’t be pretty unless we worked it out first.) The story also basically didn’t change as I went along, at least not in the major plot points, which also isn’t typical. For something like a case fic, where there are puzzle pieces that have to fit together, I think detailed plotting is almost essential.
Life is the first story I’ve written since watching Jesse Stern’s HWYS bit, so it’s the first one I actively chose to write that way. I had set some wheels in motion in Breath, and Life is all about taking those shifting priorities and setting the team on their slightly different paths because of the Breath outcome. There was a gap between finishing Breath and starting Life because I had a few chapters of a future fic I needed to write while those plot bunnies were chomping at the bit. During that time, Kyrie and I hashed out some of the things I wanted to happen in Life. It wasn’t until I was driving back from a weekend at her place that I had the idea for the plot thread that became the source of the HWYS moment. Once I had that, a lot of things started falling into place, because, as JS said, I had to build the first two-thirds of the story to get to that moment. Fairly early on, I drafted out a couple of the key chapters leading into the HWYS moment so I had that road map of where I was going. To get the timing right on all the plot threads (a dozen, at last count), I figured out key elements and where they had to go to have everything weave into the right pattern, but I wouldn’t call it detailed plotting. More like 3-5 bullet points for each chapter — less for some of the later ones. As I’ve gone along, some of those points have shifted or vanished; lots of other scenes that weren’t on the list have popped up. It’s less step-by-step directions and more a list of possible sights along the way. 🙂
For all of them, I’ve had a theme of sorts. Because I write best with music, I’ve kept my eyes out for songs that speak to the themes involved, as they help my brain process the possibilities. Some songs on my writing playlist are story themes: Where I Stood for RE; Change for Life. Some are themes for particular storylines or scenes, like Listen to Your Heart for the Jimmy/Abby thread in Life. And some are general themes that can relate to any number of scenarios: Fear and Off I Go. And my fallback music since I was a rookie reporter writing on deadline is The Boxer because the rhythm gets my brain into super-productive mode. (My sister’s right – I’m so Asperger’s about stuff.)
Also, I try to let the story evolve naturally, even when it’s a plotted case-fic. If I have strong, rich characters with lots of facets and human flaws, they don’t need to be moved around like chess pieces. They’ll act on their own. I joke that there are times I’m not writing; I’m transcribing on the characters’ behalf. I’m actually mostly serious. Also, one of the benefits of writing a series like I’ve done with Breathe, is that it builds in even more backstory. Ch. 8 of Life had Abby reflecting on something using the same analogy she used in Dares to Stand, and that same analogy led to the title of my deslashed Jimmy/Abby story going up Sunday. A story I wrote on a whim to get into Ziva’s character a bit more (Heart of the Matter) had some bits that have shown up in Life. A moment in Faith & Family became a key point in a critical conversation in Life. Etc., etc. It works within stories, too. I wrote DTS early on thinking it would be part of RE. A key object in that then-chapter spawned three earlier scenes, plus a fairly big aspect of one of my original characters in terms of his motivation/personality. That then spawned a few other scenes going forward in other stories in the universe. And if you had ever told me it would start with a picture frame, I would have laughed.
Finally, the biggest thing I do is let Kyrie watch as I go along. Because we’ve been working together as writer and editor for 10 years across two fandoms, plus my novel, we’ve decided we now share a brain. She’s really good at knowing when I’m just BSing without thinking stuff through and making me stop and explain a character’s motivation until she’s satisfied I’ve got the understanding I need to write it well. Had we had the ability to do that virtually eight years ago, my novel might actually have been publishable.