I’ve been thinking a lot about plot recently, trying to gain some insights into why it is that outlines so far haven’t worked for me. It ought to be simple enough to write down what happens, right? And then the meaning hangs on that. If I get to know the characters better as I go along, that shouldn’t change what happens, right?
Wrong, apparently. I need to go deeply into the characters before the story hangs together, and to do that, I have to find out what they do in the story. Very circular. So that’s how I’ve been writing, in a circular fashion, in a process that bears a passing resemblance to Ingermanson’s “snowflake” outline, only more random. It’s time consuming but produces good results, so I’m not complaining too much. But why does it work that way? What is it that more conventional outlines leave out?
The answer, it appears, is meaning.
I don’t mean meaning as in that theme-and-symbol stuff that kill so many readers in high school. But everything that happens has significance to the characters, and it goes far beyond just what happens next, which is what the basic plot is about. It’s the string of events that make up the story. Most stories are also influenced by another layer, the details of how it happens — the complications and setbacks that turn a string of events into a more dramatic structure.
Even the most plot-oriented stories don’t operate well at this level. Romances, thrillers, mysteries tend to be straightforward, but if they don’t go beyond the what and the how, they seem like shadow plays. For the characters to have real depth, the story has to get into why it happens — the motivation. And that’s when things start to change, because motivation can go deep. The deeper it goes, the better the story — but also, the more complicated the situation becomes. Characters with motivation want things, and they react to things, and that means what happens in the story changes them. This is good. This is what makes a character arc. But that also means that the character I’ve developed sometimes won’t do the thing I had planned in the plot. It would be out of character.
So the character acts and changes things, and those things change the character. Not just the MC, though. This is true for every single character in the story.
Relationships are changing. Dynamics are changing.
And that’s where another aspect comes in. The events mean something to the characters. The fact that one of my MC’s has an ex-boyfriend who is closeted, so their relationship was never public, so they can’t have a real breakup without giving the relationship away, isn’t just background accounting for why Nicky’s single at the moment. It’s not even just baggage. It causes unexpected complications in what seem like simple events. If Nicky doesn’t go to a certain event because he doesn’t want to run into the ex, reporters will notice. If he sucks it up and goes, the new guy in his life is jealous. The event’s the same as it was in the original outline, but all the context has changed.
And it occurred to me that for the kind of fiction I write, the entire story is taking place at this level. The events don’t really matter. They’re just a stage for the emotional interaction to take place on.
So it isn’t that the outline isn’t working. It just isn’t telling me what I need to know.
Anybody have thoughts on this? Ideas? Does it fit in with your own observations? Am I way off base here?
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