When it comes to plot strategies, I’m all over the map

Posted on | June 29, 2018

Recently, I’ve been thinking about plot strategies.

A "plot strategy" is the technique a writer uses to come up with a plot. Most writers have one, and there are writers who use the same one over and over and over: cozy mysteries series, routine romances, and low-rent space opera serials all seem to have the same strategy, using the same beat sheet over and over.

As I just finished a novel, I’ve been looking at my cache of unfinished stories and ideas, and wondering what I should write next. I have a few things in the pot:

  • A new story set in the Aimee series, about Barraminum’s colonial masters, a young princess, and a tragic story a century in the past that continues to color the present.
  • The Angels story, a kind of sexy, anime-esque take on one of my favorite short stories, "Hell is the Absence of God."
  • Command Line, a contemporary about sex robots.
  • Boomer, a straightforward cyberpunk thriller.
  • Thorn, a take on the "generic fantasy setting" a’la Warcraft, only coded for Homeric Greek values rather than traditional Western Fantasy values, which explores the Biblical meaning of porneia through a relationship with a male prostitute and a gods-cursed Arima (a variant of the Cyclopses, and an easy stand-in for westernized Orcs).
  • Small Wars and Falling Star, two stories set in an STL trans-humanist setting. These were both "Trying to be Iain Banks and saying something" stories. Falling Star was also a Superman commentary, and Small Wars was inspired by the phrase "Battle Angel Lolita," so, yeah, just so you know.
  • Semithree, a story set in the Bastet universe about a woman who discovers something else has survived the magic going away, and discovers her own, rather large, tentacle monster in her basement.

There’s also a bunch of unfinished stories in the Journal Entries WIP tree, including the long-suffering Robots of the Deep Versus The Vampire Girl of Fallow Five, which includes a name-drop that’s I find hilarious, even if no one else would, a couple of Sterlings stories (including a sequel for the first novel), a story exploring what really happened to the people who attacked llerkin, and one arc I’ve labeled "The Grand Army of the Republic’s schism over Order 66 spills over into The Culture, as seen by the staff and crew of the Rhabwar."

Looking through these, I’m struck by a few details. First: I kinda make up plot strategies as I go along. "Start with theme." "Start with premise." "Start with what the character wants." "Write the last chapter, showing what the character got and work backwards." "Come up with a wham line; now justify it."

Since I write serials, "When last we left our hero, he/she was feeling X. What’s the opposite of X, and how do we get them there?" Eventually, everything get assembled: there is a theme (often "love conquers much"), there’s a premise (you know by the end of the first act who’s gonna boink whom; it’s all a question of how will I torture the characters to get there), there a McKee-ian shift (Hey, this character’s opening mood is stable, how do we mess that up?). Sometimes I write the Big Battle first, sometimes I write the denouement, and then ask myself, "What are all these things they’re talking about?" Usually because my subconscious already knows, it just hasn’t told me.

I am struggling with all of the ones above. Boomer and the Aimee story are outlined, although there’s a bit of meat missing from the middle. Angels and Thorn both suffer from having no ending. Falling Star is in a similar position, but both books are heavily influenced not only by Against a Dark Background and The Algebraist, but also by a lot of the Viz books, like Usurper of the Sun and Stories of Ibis— my work has always had comics and anime and Japanese literature like Harboiled Wonderland and the End of the World in the background as heavy influences. Semithree has some fantastic sex scenes, but the only ending I’ve been able to come up with is tragic.

But I have had some recent successes:

Honest Impulses is written entirely around a Wham Line. The wham line is in Chapter 20, "Antique Notions." I came up with the wham line first, and then said, "What theme leads to this wham line?" (which, in retrospect, turned out to be kinda obvious), and that in turn led to asking the question, "What would characters have to want to get into a situation where this wham line is delivered to explicate this theme?" From there, writing the book was actually easy.

In contrast, Star Kingdom is written around a few simple premises: (1) write a story in a Napoleon-in-Space™ setting that illustrates how badly thought out the economics of such universes usually are, and (2) take two well known characters and do the usual chase-them-up-a-tree-and-set-the-tree-on-fire scenarios. Yeah, there’s a lot of troping in Star Kingdom, but I wrote it for fun. The plot is therefore easy: Two characters in a highly dynamic setting meet and develop mad infatuation for each other. The dynamic setting is the contrast between the usual Napoleon-in-Space™ setting and a more sensible hard-science, hard-economy world. It worked surprisingly well.

Recently completed Journal Entries include Freya’s Senses, which is based first around a simple conflict: Freya is a sex robot (sort-of) who’s soon to be obligated to hang around people she adores personally but is not sexually attracted to at all; how does she reconcile these different parts of herself? Size and Duration has similar theme: the heroine finds herself being romanced by, and is attracted to, a character who a role-playing game would characterize as "high wisdom, but low intelligence," and she’s not sure if she can reconcile that in her head. Dates is just a scene report, and therefore not a story so much as an anecdote. Pale Shadow is basically about someone coming to grips with the idea that he can’t and doesn’t want to be near his partner after they become disabled. A Pleasing Shape is a roman a’clef about easing into adulthood. A Sterling Wish started as plain smut, but that kinda backfired as the story got romantic and the characters did what they wanted and now I don’t have an ending.

Plot strategies, for all that, are still variants on the basic questions: "What does the character want?" "What does the character need, and how does this conflict with what she wants?" "How does their wants or needs conflict with the world?" "How does their wants or needs conflict with other characters?" "How far will the characters go to get their wants or needs met?" "How does the character change as a result of these conflicts?" "How does the character’s changes affect those around them?"

David Mamet was talking about screenwriting, but his rules for scenecraft are perfect for just about anyone:

The main character must have a simple, straightforward, pressing need which impels him or her to show up in the scene. This need is why they came. It is what the scene is about. their attempt to get this need met will lead, at the end of the scene,to failure – this is how the scene is over. It, this failure, will, then, of necessity, propel us into the next scene. All these attempts, taken together, will, over the course of the episode, constitute the plot. The job of the writer is to make the audience wonder what happens next.

Just remember that, and you’ll be fine.

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