Meandering Plot — Is There a Right Way?

I wonder if one of the reasons I struggle with plot within a story is because I have a hard time seeing a clear plot in my own life.  For the past few years I’ve been describing my personal journey as a winding path, one that sometimes turns back on itself to avoid boulders in the path, or in the form of switch-backs to help climb those steeper segments, one that passes through forests, into open fields, and then back into dense woods — sometimes with a clarity of direction, sometimes without.

Life doesn’t follow a typical plot line, it is far more complicated than that, so why should my stories confine themselves to a plot line?

The semi-typical Plot Line.  AKA:  The bane of my writing existence.
The semi-typical Plot Line.
AKA: The bane of my writing existence.

Remember the plot-line?  The basic outline that a story should follow, with the introductory information or starting point, a turning point or “inciting incident”, rising action, perhaps a few mini-climaxes, the ultimate climax of the story, falling action and resolution?

Yeah, that thing… I hate those things.  Always hated them.  It meant I had to put specific importance on certain things.  I understand the structure, certainly, but often it seems arbitrary.  When I try to dig apart some more complex stories, this plot line becomes less certain.  Sometimes there is a clear-cut climax, a moment where everything comes together (sometimes in a battle, sometimes in an epiphany of some sort), but sometimes that moment is a quiet moment.  And sometimes I have a hard time understanding just what point I’m supposed to consider the real turning point of the story.

I’m probably just being stubborn and difficult.  I am willing to own that.

But when I look at trying to write a story I find that my plots go… a little differently.  The problem may lie in my interpretation of the plot line.  I see it as the base line being time moving forward, and then the rising action being tied to events, to things happening.  This idea that as the story progresses the conflict and action increases, things build and build — and that building and tension is palpable in the story, until it hits a boiling point when something has to happen in order to mark a turning point in the story and allow resolution to occur.  For example:  Girl happily lives in her village (introductory information), when suddenly a monster attacks the village (turning point).  Girl sets off on a mission to find the reason said monster attacked (rising action), she fights monster minions, meets allies, and faces a winter storm (mini-climaxes) before finding the wizard who told the monster to attack.  She fights this wizard, with her new-found group of friends (climax) and they end the wizards evil reign.  The group journeys back to the village (falling action), where they settle into their own, newly enriched lives (conclusion).

There’s nothing wrong with this structure but… I’ve been struggling to make some of the story’s that I’m working on fit it.  For instance, Disparate Threads.  This is the story of four different people that intertwine, intersect, and influence one another, their story’s connected even though they are quite separated.  And I have mapped out the action of the story — moving them through time chronologically, trying to figure out the action.  They are moving forward, and the story is moving forward, but in the middle of the forward action there are times of calm.

My attempt at plotting the disparate threads...
My attempt at plotting the disparate threads…

There are moments when the story is not necessarily moving forward, though the characters are progressing.  And their moments of change are more gradual.  Few (one.. I think that there is one) have a large, clear, moment of change from the building action.  I suppose I could force their individual stories onto a more traditional plot-line, but I think it would be a challenge, and exactly what would I be plotting?  The physical action of the story?  The personal growth and development?  How well they do, or do not, live up to the expectations being held for them?  How they progress on their personal missions/quests/objectives (Which is what I plotted, more or less)?

Ursula K. LeGuin wrote in an essay entitled “Conflict”:

From looking at manuals used in college writing courses, and from listening to participants in a writing workshop, I gather that it is a generally recieved idea that a story is the relation of a conflict, that without conflict there is no plot, that narrative and conflict are inseparable. (Ursula K. LeGuin, “Conflict” (1987) in Dancing at the Edge of the World, Grove Press, 1989)

This essay started me thinking on the question of plotting, because I realized not that long ago that another story I have been working on, that I had been struggling with, seemed to lack in an external enemy.  While Disparate Threads certainly has an enemy, it has clear conflict, this other story Fragments, does not.  Not really, at least.  It is a story about growth and change, about coming to terms with what is, and about discovery and reconciliation of self.  It’s a story whose plot line would be even more challenging to map out for me, in terms of the pivotal points in the story (which do occur, but if you looked at descriptions of the scene with no understanding of the story they would be unlikely to look like the important and pivotal points).

Perhaps this is all why I have taken to mapping out my plots along chronological lines — making note of flashbacks and so forth, but setting the story along a timeline that simply is informed by the passage of time, not putting any events in places of more importance, not labeling a scene as the turning point.

And I find myself wondering, who uses plot lines?  Outside of creative writing classes, is this a model that rings true to other writers?  Am I just off mark or understanding them wrong?  Do you have a plot-structure format that you use?  What works for you?

 

 

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11 thoughts on “Meandering Plot — Is There a Right Way?”

  1. Here’s my two cents for what it’s worth…. First off, you are very brave taking on four different story lines! What a challenge. Second off, in my humble opinion, that most important thing is that you strive to have some kind of tension on every page. Not action, but conflict, whether emotional or between characters or external. That every scene in your book advances something in the plot, whether it’s around the internal conflict your characters are struggling with or the external. I didn’t use to plot before I wrote and I personally ended up with boring crap haha, because I write characters well but actually generating the story is harder for me. Now I actually map it out on an excel spreadsheet, and it’s based on Chris Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structures for Writers. This motif can be used for all stories; I used it for mine, set in modern day Belfast, which acutally features two POV characters with intertwined stories. I usually get a rough plot outline and then start writing, and then the plot evolves from there. Also, you don’t always need an actual person to be the antogonist, it could be your character’s inner demons if that’s what’s mucking up the world and propelling the character into action. Best of luck with your novels 🙂

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    1. I agree, there needs to be tension or.. something that is moving along in some way. I’ll have to check out the book you mentioned — the idea of mapping on a spreadsheet appeals to me, strangely… 🙂

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      1. Haha maybe I’ll post mine up sometime…. Though I don’t know how much it will make sense 😛 For me it really is helpful. Then I made a tab for characters (put name, physical description, attributes) and put ALL them in there so I can just refer back, settings, and in for my current novel i have a MASSIVE spreadsheet for dialect with literally 950 entries!!! Anyway, it just helps me keep everything straight.

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    1. Right now my biggest challenge sends to be matching up the timelines so they make sense when reading them and so the characters are in the right places, at the right times, for when they’re supposed to connect. Time to pull out the sicky notes and poster-board…

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  2. Great post! It’s always cool to hear the ways other writers build their stories. I really liked your point about struggling with plot in stories because it’s difficult to see the plot in your own life… I think that’s true for me as well. I think the desire to find a narrative structure in our lives in pretty universal. I actually wrote a blog post on it a few weeks ago: http://writingtutortips.wordpress.com/2014/03/27/collecting-thoughts/

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  3. Nope. That is the short answer, haha. I don’t map out my plots and look for the turning point or the inciting action or whatnot. I write very instinctively, often putting things into the first draft and not knowing why they need to be there for several drafts later. I tend to more focus on “what do I need to be here” and trust my instincts. But then again, I always work from a standpoint of knowing WHY I am telling the story in the first place (although I can never express it in plain words, hence, writing a story), so it’s a lot easier to look at what my characters are doing and decide what is a part of their arc or a stepping stone to the conclusion, and what isn’t.

    I do however, try very hard to balance the Action and Reaction scenes to keep the pace in check and building. Action is when the characters are actively moving the plot forward and reaction is when the plot has happened to them. Ideally, the story starts in reaction mode, where the inciting event has happened to them and they have to figure out what to do about it. They make a decision and go into action mode, which causes more things to happen so they go back into reaction mode to reflect and decide what to do now. Rinse repeat. Stories that are heavy in action scenes move faster and are more engaging, but are shallow. Stories heavy in reaction scenes move slower and are pensive, but can be tedious. I try not to spend too much time in either mode. Just enough to communicate the important aspects and move on.

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  4. I myself am having a problem with my plot. my novel is based on the idea of a centuries old fight to the death between chosen champions of specific gods. In the backdrop 2 of the most powerful empires have gone to war. Like you I have 4 main characters who’s plot meanders quite a lot. Two of them are royals, and the other two are trained assassins. There is not single big bad which tends to make the writing difficult because at times I feel like I’m writing 4 different stories as opposed to a single story with 4 main characters.

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    1. How are you approaching that? Disparate Threads has been on the shelf for over a year now because I just couldn’t keep a handle on all the different points, and there were some sticky issues that weren’t ironing themselves out very well (I do plan to get back to it though, and figure out how to fix that). I think when we have a lot of plots we also run the chance of getting too complicated into things, and causing our readers to lose connection with the characters — a tricky balance.

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      1. I have a wonderful friend who helps me work out of my plots these days. He’s great and as a war studies student he’s extra helpful.

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