Saturday, April 7, 2012

another writing course: Plotting

I've just come off a four-week course through Writer University, with Laurie Schnebly. Writer U always has a great selection of courses. My four-week course was $30, peeps, and Laurie knows her stuff. As of this writing, other classes are $50 and $75. It's pretty hard to find writing courses with knowledgeable instructors for prices that reasonable.

The particular course I took was "Plotting Via Motivation". It's just what you might think: your characters' motives drive the plot. Something happens at the start of your book, or your main character thinks something happens, his instincts take over, things get worse. The plot expands from there.

The perennial challenge for writers is to have characters who react in ways that make sense to readers yet are unique. Laurie encouraged us to delve into our characters using specific questions.

The idea is to figure out a character's long-term motive and what their goal is at the start of the story. Their motive (say, fear of change) is something that stays with them throughout the story, but their goal is something achievable. We might have a guy who wants everything to stay the same and hears that a a big developer wants to turn his country town into a huge resort. His neighbors seem to like the idea, but he stumbles on the real reason why the developers chose the town and it's some deep dark secret.

So he starts with the goal of wanting to keep the developers out of his town. There are a million things you could do with that. It could turn into a romance, an international spy thriller, a sort of "Cowboys and Aliens" tale, on and on. The possibilities ought to wake up anybody's muse.

We started with that basic, overarching idea and gradually narrowed our focus to various sections of the story. There were several homework assignments which actually functioned on two levels. We had to come up with answers to the character questions, keeping our answers within a set word count. For verbose people like me, that really helped with not wandering off on tangents or unncessary explanations. Plus, it was a great start toward an outline. Laurie is one smart cookie!

The thing I had the most trouble with was deciding what descriptors to use. Is his motive Validation, or Acceptance, or Belonging? That was the first place using existing characters made the process hard. I didn't know when I signed up for the course that Laurie wanted people to use new characters so I started with the most basic concept of my story and the two main characters, and wiped out all other previous info on them.

I got an interesting new take on Neal but I have to say, using the method this way is harder. I have to decide whether to use this somewhat different version of Neal or work the new aspects in to the existing character. That doesn't even address Sandy, because he started going in a really different direction. So if you don't mind extra work and sweating more bullets, you can adapt the method to existing characters but I agree that it works best for totally new concepts.

If you often have trouble seeing a project through to the end because of plot problems, a course like this might help. And don't forget: write, every day if at all possible. Doing it well takes practice.

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