On forests and trees

This probably surprises no one who has read my writing, but while I value plot deeply and explain the techniques pretty well to others, I have serious trouble doing it myself. Which is to say that outlining my NaNoWriMo novel is freaking hard.

I thought of a nifty idea, talked it over with my friend Trai, mulled it over some more, and wrote out a half-page summary of the beats of the story. Felt pretty smug about it, too. I knew everything that happened, and it had a beginning, middle, climax, and end.

Then I sat down and tried something I’ve never done before. I tried to apply Jim Butcher’s basic plot structure to that outline: The character takes action or someone takes action against them, the character reacts emotionally, processes what just happened, and decides how to respond. That decision raises the stakes and propels us into the next action. (Technically, it’s Jack M. Bickham’s structure, but I feel like Jim Butcher explains it much better and reveals its amazing flexibility.) When I applied this structure to the outline I had written, sure enough, I discovered that my outline relied almost exclusively on emotion and processing, some decisions, and almost no actions. It wasn’t clear why the characters were being drawn along certain tracks, and the scenes didn’t flow naturally. Worst of all, considering that the novel centers around a love triangle, the lack of action/reaction meant it wasn’t clear why the main characters liked each other or why they chose at a certain point to shift their affections.

So now I’m back at the drawing board, rewriting my outline and trying to make sure there’s a sturdy trellis of plot to hold all that emotional weight. Trying to make sure that the actions the characters take are interesting, sympathetic, consistent with their personalities, and drive the reader eagerly towards the climax. It’s uncomfortable and frustrating as hell. I have to keep telling myself it’s a necessary skill and I’ll be grateful when I finally figure it out.


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