Inspired by Pyriel’s question on plotting and ideas, I thought I’d blog my response in case it’s of interest to others and gets missed amongst the comments. If you’ve read this already, feel free to move on.
Plotting is a tricky business, and you’re right when you say there are only a finite number of plots. Some commentators on the subject would have us believe there are only seven basic plots (Christopher Brooker’s book of the same name cites this). To a general extent it’s probably true: revenge, redemption, fall from grace, the quest, fighting the monster – within and without.
Broadly speaking, these are a few examples that could be applied to a great deal of novels. The skill is in interpretation and trying to offer something new within those broad principles. Perhaps it’s a melange of two or more plot themes, or maybe it’s something within the setting and overall milieu that provides the invention and interest. It’s up to the writer to decide how to approach this and what sort of story he or she wants to tell.
In a previous post I’ve mentioned the M.I.C.E method of analysing the story ‘you’ want to write/are telling. This natty little acronym/mnemonic basically stands for Milieu, Idea, Character & Event (this comes from a great book called Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card). Roughly speaking, milieu concerns a specific place or time (a unique world if you will) that operates as the main focus/draw of the story; idea is simply that, a concept upon which the story hinges, a problem established at the outset and solved by the denouement – crime and mystery stories use this method often; character again does what it says, it’s a story that focuses on a given individual or group of individuals and explores them and their life/motivations/rationale etc; and event concerns a story in which an overarching event has put the world into some kind of imbalance and the protagonists are charged with finding a way of trying to right it again.
Phew! Long answer that one. But I do have more…
Regards the Salamanders; you’re totally right – I was no expert at the outset. I’ve read ferociously on the subject, though (and a solid grounding in 40K background definitely helped) and been delighted at the response of fans offering me their sage wisdom on the Chapter – In case I haven’t said it enough already: Thank you all so very much for this; it is really appreciated.
Ideas are a funny thing; they can strike you in the weirdest of places: on the bus, in the shower, eating breakfast, checking the football results – these are all places where inspiration has struck for me. Of course, there’s the more conventional too, like sat here at my laptop for instance or hunched over my notebook with a cooling cup of coffee in my hand (probably my one and only vice).
Like anything creative, though, ideas need work. Inspiration is only a piecemeal part of the process; at least that’s how it work for me. Once I’ve got my nascent kernel of ’something’ that I think will make an interesting part of plot/central theme/character quirk etc, I develop it, test it’s logic and see if I can make it work. Ideas breed ideas too, they propagate like you wouldn’t believe – the trickiest part is getting the ball rolling. Characters help, because they’re the ones that inhabit the world you create (albeit a ready-made one like the 41st millennium, told in microcosm). Often, your characters (and all of this I’m explaining from my point of view – I’m sure other writers might do it differently) will help dictate the kind of story you’ll end up telling, either through their relationships with others or some idiosyncratic quirk that makes them who they are.
A broad concept is another good way to get going. I could ask myself (after doing some research – another great way to get ideas moving): what makes these characters who they are and what thing would challenge them? What is it about their lives, ethos and environment that I find interesting? How can I make this into a meaningful story? Subplots come later, hitching a ride on the anchor that is your main plot or even your meta-plot if more than one book make up something altogether too large to fit into a single volume.
The most important thing about plotting, though, is structure. It should have a beginning middle and an end. I like to break my novels up into acts (at least that’s how I’ve played it with both Oathbreaker and Honourkeeper). Now, a novel doesn’t necessary have to be in order and non-linear/chronological story telling can be very effective. There’s a great book that I dip into now and again called The Writer’s Little Helper. It sounds a little kooky, but in actual fact there’s a lot of really good pointers in there that often help me get back onto the right track by reminding me of what I should be doing. Now, I’m not a huge advocate of these types of books and personally I’d avoid anything that says: how to write science fiction or how to get your work published because then you’re straying into prescriptive writing territory. But the odd good strong tenet describing good practices is fine, I think. My motto is take it or leave it – if something strikes a cord and is useful: great. If not, don’t worry about it. So, back on to structure and the Little Helper, there’s a really useful diagram that encourages you to think about structuring your novel and figuring out the most important scenes before you get started. These are often openers, closers, conflicts and points of no return. I find it helps me to think in little peaks and troughs of excitement. Relentless action (the peaks) would be hard work for anyone to read and quickly gets tedious, so you need the odd lull in the storm to catch a breath, take stock and develop your characters (the troughs). Building up to mini-cliff hangers is another good way to tell your story and one that will hopefully have the reader screaming for more and I find a discrete act structure helps with this.
As for source of inspiration: it can come from anywhere and everywhere. I read (A LOT), write, watch TV and movies, go out and see the world and crucially ‘think’ about things. I’ve said before on the blog that ‘think time’ is really useful. I jot things down in my notebook or on post-its and when I come back to them I try to mesh them together, see the linking threads and reach for the story inherent within them.