AJ Reads ‘Plot & Structure’: Chapter 13

The craft of writing is largely about solving problems.
— James Scott Bell

So while I was waiting to rewrite my NaNoWriMo script (or rather, blow it away almost entirely), I decided to write up a short story detailing the background of one of the main characters. The developing problems with the story, and the flu, kept me from reading any more of Plot & Structure until today, which is unfortunate because I would have gotten a lot of reassurance if I had bothered to read the chapter through: Common Plot Problems and Cures.

Bell is really batting it out of the park on the later chapters. Some of my favorites (and by no means is this a complete list):

  • Scenes falling flat? You may not be starting your scene in the right place. Try finding the “hot spot” from Obstfeld’s Novelist’s Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes. Find the focal point of your scene, then scan sentences before it and cut any that aren’t needed to get to the heart of the scene.

  • Plot veering off on a tangent you didn’t plan on? No need to panic. Take the prospective tangent out for a drive, outlining subsequent scenes as if you hadn’t planned the rest of the novel out yet. Bell puts a great emphasis on visualizing scenes during this part.

  • Meeting character resistance with regards to your plot? Get to know your character better. Put them in a hypothetical situation that will show off their personality to you, and get you to know them better. Bell suggests the following mind exercise:

    1. Visualize your character clearly. Get them ready for a night at a social event.
    2. Have your character enter the social event. Visualize and sense this in detail.
    3. Let your character see both old friends and powerful people in their world there. How do they react to each other?
    4. At some point in the night, someone (who?) tosses a glass of water ((Probably not holy water. Or maybe so!)) in your character’s face. What happens?
    5. Take your character back home and get them ready for bed, and muse about what happened to a significant other, pet, or the wall.
  • Feel like things are dragging? Perhaps backtrack to a point where you felt good about what you were writing, and question the material that came afterwards. Come up with alternatives; brainstorm. Jump to another scene you can visualize, and then connect up the scenes later with more scenes.

  • Blocked entirely? You may need to step away from the keyboard ((Not Bell’s words, but the words of a greybeard software engineer I know. It’s as applicable in programming as it is when writing.)) to rest a bit. Ignore your inner editor; you always have permission to suck on first drafts. ((And probably second ones. And thirds. And so on. It’s the final draft where it shouldn’t suck anymore.)) Being afraid is normal even for professional writers (and reminds me that I need to read Ralph Keyes’ The Courage to Write).

  • Bell favors a visual approach to solving blockages. His other suggestion is to relive the scenes you’ve written, to turn on the projector in your head and watch what happens. I’ve not yet really tried this, but I’m going to try it soon, because good gods this short story is exploding.

  • Recapturing your vision: what does your story mean outside of its boundaries? It should be something that excites you, so think about it, come up with ideas, and let that reinvigorate you.

A lot of food for thought. I… need to go apply this to the short story now, which is turning out not to be so short. At the very least, I was already doing backtracking to deal with a blockage and that worked (though it took days to work out the more possibly right way to go).

Ah writing. You are so full of ambiguous problems.