Please Lose Sight of Your Plot.

September 28, 2011

I’m not a plot person. I never have been. As a reader plot is, and has been since I was a child, no more than background noise to me. If you’d asked my eleven-year-old self to summarise Harry Potter for you, I’m pretty sure I’d have said, “It’s about a boy wizard,” not, “It’s about an ordinary boy who goes to this awesome magical school and is pitted against the forces of good and evil!”. For me, a character is a story in and of themselves and the sequence of events, no matter how awesome, always plays second fiddle.

As a writer, my inability to be seriously invested in the events of a story has been a bit of a shortcoming. I’ve learned to use the people around me to overcome this issue. Friends occasionally veto ridiculous, plotless story ideas of mine — the one about a boy who really, really wanted to be a tree is a good example of this, or the novel featuring a girl who sat about reading poetry all day. Beta readers and crit partners will tell me if my story wanders all over the place, adhering to no evident structure. Even in the final stages of edits on FALL TO PIECES, my editor’s asking me to cut internal monologue, or needless imagery to move the story along.

In my more recent writing, however, perhaps as a result of going through this processs, I’ve found myself doing the polar opposite: over-emphasizing plot (for me, anyway). I make spreadsheets and timelines of events. I try my best to adhere to a three act structure. This is a good thing, in some ways, because it does keep the story moving along. But plotting (I should say over-plotting) has also proved to have some vampiric tendencies, sucking the lifeblood from my stories and sapping my enjoyment of the craft.

The events that looked so awesome in my timeline are reading as completely flat on the page. The characters are reading like caricatures, whose motivations make little sense. My drafts, sometimes, read like synopses rather than novels. It took me forever to figure out that over-emphasizing plot was doing me no favors. That obsessively plotting really didn’t suit me as a writer, or the stories I was trying to tell.

I don’t think the over-plotting phenomenon is unique to me, either, based upon some of my reading experiences. Often, when I’m reading really thrilling books with plots that speed along, ratcheting up tension in just the perfect way, something will happen, something big, like a character death, and this person will not be grieved, their death will not be reflected upon. Onwards with the plot!

When authors do this (me included) they may be keeping their external plot afloat nicely, but they’re compromising the emotional core of their stories. The ultimate goal of fiction is not to take a reader from Point A to Point B. The ultimate goal of fiction is to create something with an interesting aesthetic, that generates emotion in the reader. When we fail to do that, we are really, truly failing our readers.

It’s a failure that I’ve suffering through these past few months, but have finally moved past. I scrapped the timelines and went back to focusing on meaning and characters. For me, it’s easier to get my words down and then whittle them into a plot shape, than to try and force them into a plot structure. Others work differently — plotters, I envy you your talents.

Nevertheless, for the sake of readerly pleasure I think that every writer has to lose sight of their plot. Not all the time, just now and again. Because I think it’s in those uncalculated moments that readers will truly be able to lose themselves in the story.

What do you guys think about the importance of plot?

~~~

Vahini Naidoo is  a YA author and University student from Sydney, Australia. Her debut novel FALL TO PIECES, en edgy psychological thriller, will be released by Marshall Cavendish in Fall, 2012. She’s represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency. You can read more about Vahini on her blog.

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