Thursday, February 17, 2011

"Building Better Plots", by Robert Kernen, part 5

Exercise at the end of chapter one: “Write your story idea on a single 3 x 5 card, paring it down to its most basic elements. Write only the words or phrases that are absolutely critical to your story.”

Okay: Underprivileged Latino teenager leaves street gang and befriends white, over-privileged musicians.

Stripping the story down like this is supposed to help me find the fundamental bits, as well as make it easier to know what to tell, what to skip, and how to tell the story. It does make me focus on the underlying principle. That sentence my story is reduced to is the original, basic idea. Suppose somebody living in the streets--with all that implies--met somebody who’d never broken the law, who felt living a good life wasn’t all that hard but it sure was rewarding?

Actually, previous times when I have been less stuck, I’ve gone back to my original inspiration of “Baba O’Riley” by The Who. Those first lines gripped my muse a mighty long time ago, and it’s still strong. If I may quote without fear of copyright police knocking on my door:

“Out here in the fields / I fight for my meals / I get my back into my living”

There’s my gangbanger, no additional explanation needed.

“I don’t need to fight / To prove I’m right / I don’t need to be forgiven”

There’s the voice in the ivory tower, showing off what a good life he’s led. (Cool bits of lyric writing, I might add.) Everything else took off from there. What would happen if these two met? Not just met, lived in the same house? From there, I realized that the issues those characters deal with are real-life ones. I could shed some light on those issues by giving them faces.

I see Kerner’s point here. I may print out that sentence I came up in response to his exercise question, along with those few lyrics, and keep them on my laptop, affectionately known as Lance. Ooo! Lance has pre-loaded sticky notes! (Post-It used to have a free version of their downloadable sticky note program, but I don’t know if they still do.)

There. Now I have a purple sticky with my one-sentence basic plot, and the lyrics in two different fonts to simulate character voices. I think that’ll help.

Chapter two of Kerner’s book gets into plot structure, so I won’t tack comments about those sorts of details onto a post about generalities. I’ll ask readers to try to boil down your current WIP into one or two sentences. What is your story idea, in its most simple form?

If you’re having any plot issues, I think the exercise will help focus you. If you’re not having trouble, try it anyway. It’s good practice for learning how to say important things in as few words as possible, which is more or less how you should be writing your novel. Less experienced writers (and that includes me) always think that whenever we’re talking about our WIPs, we have to mention this, this, this, and that, because it’s all important. I still think there are important elements of my story that the single sentence doesn’t cover, but I’m comfortable with what it does say.

If you guys want to leave your reduced plot ideas as comments here, I’d love to see what you come up with. You can keep it to yourself, of course. How easy or hard was it? Maybe take some published stories, and try it with them. Happy trimming!

Next time, approaching the story arc.

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