Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Quantum Plotting - and 784 words in outline

Supposedly writers are divided up into two groups - "Planners" who outline before they write, and "Pantsers" who make it up by the seat of their pants. I don't subscribe to this theory, because I don't really belong to either group. Besides, if you're going to be a pro, you've got to learn to outline whether you like it or not, and if you're going to be good, you've got to learn to throw the outline away sometimes.

Today I'm going to talk about splitting the difference - about the kind of story planning that works with a more 'seat of the pants' style.

When you're talking about mystery fiction, planning is important. All the clues, puzzles, twists and turns have to come out right. So this method works best with the more adventure or suspense end of the spectrum, but it also does work with twisty puzzles too. (Those tend to require more rewriting in my experience.)

There's a theory in quantum physics that if you knew the state of every atom in the universe at this moment, you could accurately predict the future of everything. This method is kinda like that. You don't plot out where you're going to go, you plot out where everything is at the start, and then just let the games begin.

So where do you start? With the characters. They are the forces in the universe of fiction and drama. If you thoroughly develop those characters and figure out what they want - especially the hidden characters and badguys - then as long as their motives are actually in conflict, you can often just sit down and set them loose.

Now, I believe you do have to have an idea of where you're going - because unlike quantum physics you get to choose. It doesn't have to be detailed, but you do have to decide what a satisfying ending will be:

A confrontation on a windswept mountain top, or a chase through dark alleys. Maybe you just have an image of the hero standing over the helpless villain, knife in hand and every reason to kill. You don't even know for sure what he'll choose - just that he will have to face that choice.

If you know that much, then you have a good shot at writing a story that goes somewhere. You still may get bogged down in the middle, but at that point you can step back and do a little more planning.

The story I'm calling The Serial is demanding a variation of this method, I think. It's going to have an episodic structure - where each unit of the story is a whole story arc of its own. This was common in old serials. For instance, read Dashiel Hammett's The Dain Curse sometime, and note how the story seems all wrapped up after the first section. The hero, the unnamed Continental Op, completely solves the diamond heist he's called in on, but he walks away already knowing that there is more to the story. Each stage of the story is a mystery unto itself, and each is resolved and reveals a deeper mystery behind it.

It's an interesting way to structure a story - because even though the overall story is complicated, each episode is relatively simple. I think the key to outlining such a story is to just know who each of the levels of villains are, and then take them on one at a time.

Of course, as I mentioned yesterday, I'm not actually writing this story yet, but I'm trying to use 'pantser' methods to write the outline as if it is a faster, wilder version of the story. I am working on those deeper layers but I also outlined Chapter 2 - another 784 words.


Anonymous said...

Camille - Quantam plotting - I like it very much. That's actually the way that I plan when I write, and it makes sense. And I agree that the characters are behind everything, so like you, I start with them...

Jemi Fraser said...

I mostly don't outline - but I also don't start writing until the idea has walked around in my head for a while. So, although the outline's not on paper, it's usually kind of there anyway :)

The Daring Novelist said...

It's true, I think we all plan more than it appears - it's just some put it on paper sooner than others.

Mary said...

I frequently set out to outline into a thick, dense mist of who knows what -- and I have a notes page that just contains a list of bright sparkly ideas that I think smell like they belong to this story.

Though I often set out to a scene that's clearly not the climax because it lacks the drama. But getting there will get me further into the story.

The Daring Novelist said...

Yeah I have bright sparkly ideas scattered everywhere. The cats play with them and sometimes I lose them. (I am not speaking metaphorically about the cats.)

And yeah, I think the concept of scenes we work toward - even before the climax - is a good one overall.