Friday, September 30, 2011

“Building Better Plots”, part 29 by Robert Kernen

In chapter 9, Kernen gets into the nitty gritty of using the 3 x 5 index cards to complete my plot outline. He seems to expect that once I write out all my plot points, major and minor, and include blank cards for spots that I know need tweaking, I’ll be able to see and solve plot problems. He talks about writing the plot as fully as I can in outline format on a bunch of index cards then laying them out to study how the plot threads interact.

Well, okay, but I am not going to be able to fine tune my plot at that stage. I consider the nature of an outline to be an abbreviated form; therefore, I’m not going to see everything that needs tweaking or tossing until I flesh out each scene.

But that doesn’t mean using index cards is nonproductive. I cobbled together an outline on the computer, including spots where I’m unsure how to handle a scene, and adjusted the margins so I could fit individual plot points onto 3 x 5 cards. I haven’t printed them onto the cards yet because as I continue to read the book, I get possible ideas for spots where I’m stuck.

I do think that even without fine tuning my plot in outline form, being able to physically see what I do have all laid out in front of me will be helpful. I’ll get a good sense of how the major points fit together, and where subplots would be effective. I have enough of the plot to know that some areas are still weak.

Kernen suggests something to help in finding hidden connections: once you have the index cards printed out and in the order you think they should go, number them, then shuffle them like a deck of cards. Lay them out one at a time and see if any adjacent cards trigger new themes or make connections clear.

Yeah, I’m gonna pass on that, at least for now. I’ve already moved stuff around to the point of knowing which major points need to stay together and which are subject to being moved again. But I’ll keep the technique in mind in case I get stymied along the way.

In chapter 10, Kernen talks about the movie Rain Man and how the physical road traveled by the brothers is a metaphor for several things, as well as a simple and effective way to physically move the characters. This is encouraging. In my own story, Neal travels roads of various lengths which mirror his personal development. He eventually journeys around the world and always comes home to the same city, but a different neighborhood than where he grew up. Psychologically, he becomes more of a well-rounded person though he still has tendencies that make him wonder how much he’s really changed.

Kernen’s certainly right that having unifying elements throughout a story help give it depth and power. He refers to how James Michener uses places essentially as characters in his novels, and how that enriches the entire tale. Okay, I don’t expect that I’m going to write something that will be compared to Michener, but it’s a good point.

In a more distant way, Los Angeles might be seen as a character in Street Glass, or maybe several characters. Some neighborhoods shape the lives of residents and hold them there, while other areas encourage freedom. Neal’s basic personality was formed in the barrio—once he gets out of that stagnant atmosphere, how much is he able to change himself, and change society?

This is fun! I like thinking about broad themes. It gives me a sense of direction not just for the characters, but the story as a whole.

Next post: breaking down the usual ways to work a plot. Part 30 is the penultimate segment in this series!

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