How do aspiring fiction writers get better at plots?
August 21, 2018 10:55 AM   Subscribe

I'm doing a little fiction writing. A very little. I've always been ok at some parts of writing (dialog, description) but find the generation of plot to be a mystery. Is this something one can learn?

I actually took a writing workshop and had fun with it and got something started that I might be able to run with (for my own edification...I'm not laboring under any illusions of being the next whoever) but it's partly drawn from my own life, which I'm good at talking about, and things need to happen for it to grow into a story..

At some point it makes sense to give up on this and say "I'm not a person who writes fiction" if this is an innate thing. Except I do have little fragmentary ideas of things that might happen. I'm just wondering if people find the basic act of story-telling to be learnable, practice-able, whatever--something you can build, and if so, how?
posted by Smearcase to Media & Arts (20 answers total) 71 users marked this as a favorite
At some point it makes sense to give up on this and say "I'm not a person who writes fiction" if this is an innate thing.

Don't!! I did this, and then later on I discovered that it wasn't true at all, and I regret the time I lost.

I think you are making a fundamental mistake here, which is to assume that authors come up with The Plot Of The Story and then write around it until it's finished. Some stories are written that way, I'm sure... but some are also written by taking "little fragmentary ideas of things that might happen" and then thinking about them and fleshing them out and following them through to some sort of logical next step and then going from there. You do not need to start with 'a plot.'
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:13 AM on August 21, 2018 [7 favorites]

Plotting is learnable; it's probably easier to learn to plot than it is to learn some of the more esoteric things about writing, like voice and style.

Tomi Adeyemi has a free webinar on plotting you might start with. There are tons of books on the subject; a lot of people like Blake Snyder's Save the Cat, even though that's designed for film and not books.

Shrunken Manuscript by Darcy Pattison is also super useful (but more useful after you have something written, and now you have to revise.)

One good way to learn plotting on your own is to take a book or movie that you like, and then write down what happens. Then cut out everything that doesn't move the story forward. You can dissect other works to find their plot, and that will teach you how to create your own. (You can use Shrunken Manuscript on other people's stuff!)

You can learn this. There are lots of resources. Only give up if writing isn't giving you joy anymore. There are always tools you can use, to better your craft!
posted by headspace at 11:19 AM on August 21, 2018 [6 favorites]

Structure is definitely learnable. I will say, you mention how things need to happen, and for sure, it can't be a story of someone staring at their phone for an hour and a half! But I will add one thing regarding the need for action that helped me tremendously when I first began learning how to "break" stories (it's a bit of a simplification but I found it helps me):

When you're plotting things out, every time you're tempted to link scenes (the "things" happening) with some variation of and then, instead link them with but. The "but" is a roadblock to be overcome, a surprising twist from what the audience was otherwise expecting. "But" puts the lead in a situation where they have to become active to solve the problem. "And then" makes the protagonist the passive recipient of a bunch of events that just happen with or without their input.

Like other "truisms" like "Always write in active voice" and "Avoid adverbs" and "don't use omniscient voiceover in screenplays" this rule is often broken and not always to detriment. But the cardinal sin of writing a story is boring the reader, and a story that is always "and then this happened" tends to feel list-y and makes people tune out. You always want the reader to wonder: how the heck are the chcracters gonna get out of this jam?

Best of luck!
posted by joechip at 11:20 AM on August 21, 2018 [10 favorites]

You might find Anne Lamott's book Bird by Bird to have some helpful things to say about this; it's an easy read, and IIRC there are a few chapters specifically about plot and how structure can develop organically.
posted by stellaluna at 11:26 AM on August 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

I get a lot from K.M. Weiland's books, the "structure" ones are at least partially pertinent to your question.

Don't believe any part of writing is truly innate. Every single aspect of writing is learned and practiced and worked on. Even great writers had to strengthen skills before they were great.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:30 AM on August 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

If you continue to find plot frustrating, using the plot structure of existing works is a time-honored practice (see Shakespeare, for example, whose works borrowed and have been borrowed from in turn).
posted by trig at 11:58 AM on August 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I was gonna say just steal 'em. If you can make something good and interesting, but need a plot to make it work, then there's no shame in taking/combining/modifying something from an existing piece. It's not like many plots are particularly original anyway.
posted by howfar at 12:04 PM on August 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

Mary Robinette Kowal occasionally blogs about plotting, and I find her approaches to story building, well, approachable. Here are two I have bookmarked: (the podcasts referenced here are good, too)
posted by slipthought at 12:19 PM on August 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

Echoing trig and howfar, plot and dramatic structure (especially in genre fiction) can be formulaic. You may find Booker's The Seven Basic Plots or Polti's The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations useful. Don't stress out trying to be too original in that regard.

You might also be interested in various episodes of the Writing Excuses podcast. Try "Where is My Story Coming From." If you like that, explore other eps tagged with plot or story structure.
posted by Boxenmacher at 12:24 PM on August 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

There's a whole book series someone recommended to me once - "Elements of Fiction Writing" - and they have a book that's simply called Plot. That actually was the specific volume recommended to me, and I did find it helpful.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:26 PM on August 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

The book Impro by Keith Johnstone particularly the "narrative skills" section might be helpful for you. If you can watch some (good) impro you you may also see how people can generate plot from fairly generic elements - partly because audiences will recognise and accept even quite absurd plots for the enjoyment of being told a story.
posted by crocomancer at 12:28 PM on August 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

Chuck Wendig: 25 Things You Should Know About Plot. Wendig has lots and lots of primo writing advice at his blog and also collected into books.
posted by bryon at 1:45 PM on August 21, 2018 [4 favorites]

Storytelling is absolutely a skill you can learn. This book, How to Tell a Story, by Peter Rubie and Gary Provost, was instrumental to my own understanding of how to create plot. A lot of it deals with how to create tension. My main takeaway from that book was don't be afraid to make the stakes really high. Not in an action-adventure sense (unless that's what you're writing), but a good plot tests the characters, makes you worry for them a little bit.

As Rian Johnson said he asked himself when creating character arcs for The Last Jedi: for every character, what is the most challenging thing they could be faced with? This is somewhat reductive, and it's not always possible to develop every character in a story to the same extent. But it's a good jumping-off point.
posted by coffeeand at 2:48 PM on August 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

Maybe working around the scaffolding of specific genres might help? I've found it comforting to use the structures of romance, for example, where the plot can just be the two leads getting closer together (flirt, reveal trauma, have conversation about trauma, kiss, reveal other person's trauma) or mysteries (crime, introduce suspects, reveal red herring 1's secrets, someone attacks protagonist, reveal red herring 2's secrets) or even heists (introduce stealable object, get the team together, begin preparation, minor setback, discover innovative stealing solution).

Not that those genres can't be more elaborate or interesting plot-wise, because many of them are, but there's a tradition that's established enjoyable ways and structures for those plots to follow. Maybe even look through some of your favorite books in the genre, outline the structure of their plots (when they reveal the big secret, etc.), and then follow that structure. Don't worry if you're a bit formulaic at the start, but let yourself change and mess around with the formula once you have better ideas.
posted by storytam at 7:40 PM on August 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

I firmly believe that every art is 90% craft -- and craft can be learned. Writing is no exception.

Something that helped me, many years ago, was a variation on a technique I read about in Ben Franklin's autobiography:
About this time I met with an odd volume of the Spectator. I had never before seen any of them. I bought it, read it over and over, and was much delighted with it. I thought the writing excellent, and wished, if possible, to imitate it. With that view, I took some of the papers, and making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence, laid them by for a few days, and then, without looking at the book, tried to complete the papers again, by expressing each hinted sentiment at length and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that should come to hand. I then compared my Spectator with the original, discovered some of my faults and corrected them.
I wanted to learn plotting, rather than style, so I sat down with the screenplay for Casablanca and reverse-engineered an outline. That is, I went through every scene and wrote a one- or two-sentence summary of that scene's crucial plot points.

There's nothing magical about Casablanca, of course. Choose any screenplay or novel or short story that you feel is well plotted. If you want to go full Ben Franklin, you can put your outline aside for a few days and then try to reconstruct it from memory, and compare it to the original.

I studied creative writing as an undergraduate, and went on to get a master's degree in screenwriting -- and, honestly, I learned more about plotting during the couple of days I spent with Casablanca than I did in my entire formal education.
posted by yankeefog at 7:45 AM on August 22, 2018 [3 favorites]

Okay, I have to think about how I actually do this, and it may not be applicable to everyone, and it should be noted that everything I write tends to be in the procedural mode with an emphasis on action-adventure, and also highly episodic because its comics and that's the way they work. I also am very much an outline first writer which not everybody is, some people just wend their way through the story and eventually get to the ned - I can't imagine doing that, it sounds like chaos.

So I tend to start less with a plot and more with a sense of theme and a few strong images I want to work into the story. Often I'll start with a "twist" and work backwards from that. Sometimes I'll decide the "twist" is more of a midpoint and work both back and forwards from it.

From that I'll get a set of plot beats I want to put into the story. Little moments I know have to happen, though not necessarily when and often not with who.

After that it's a lot like lego - I'm taking the pieces and I'm arranging them into shapes that are pleasing and logical to me. Usually there will be a few gaps where I don't know how X gets to Y, and thinking of how to fill that in can be a fun creative exercise.

I'm not really "character driven" but I don't really see plotting as separate from character because everything has to consistent with, and ideally driven by character. A plot moment that'd driven by two things that are intrinsic to two characters interacting with each other is going to be especially strong.

Generally everything should be escalating but you might want to build in some pauses in escalation rather than just relentlessly ratcheting up the action, which can be tiring.

A lot of this happens in my head - if I go for a lot of walks or spend a lot of time doing the dishes this is probably what I am up to - but frequent note taking is useful. Generally my notes look like a bunch of bullet points of nonsense words that even I would have trouble interpreting once the story is done but getting them down seems to help.

I'm generally against "how to write" books, especially prescriptive ones that present some kind of omni-plot as the one true plot, but the one that seems to match my thinking on this best is Beating the Story by Robin D Laws.

Truest but leasts useful thing I can say about it: It gets easier the more you do it.

Good luck!
posted by Artw at 7:56 AM on August 22, 2018 [3 favorites]

Oh, important thing, once you get to that "having an outline" stage of writing a story: Just because you have an outline doesn't mean you can't deviate from it once you've started writing.

(If there is an editor involved who has explicitly approved the story in the outline that may not be the case. Ehhhh... make sure you leave lots of hand waving room in the thing. A sale-able outline is a whole thing in itself and may not be the exact same thing as a working plot outline.)
posted by Artw at 8:32 AM on August 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

yankeefog > I wanted to learn plotting, rather than style, so I sat down with the screenplay for Casablanca and reverse-engineered an outline. That is, I went through every scene and wrote a one- or two-sentence summary of that scene's crucial plot points.

I did this with one-sentence-per-page summaries of a couple of short comics by people whose work I liked. Gave me a good sense of how much stuff I could get on a page, as well as some time really looking at the scaffolding. I've analyzed TV I liked and wanted to learn from by pausing every minute and writing one-sentence summaries of what just happened, too. You can learn a ton this way, both about building a story and about building a specific *kind* and *size* of story.

For me, it's mostly a matter of knowing roughly where I want the story to end up. If what the characters want wouldn't lead them there, then you start asking yourself what events can you drop onto them that would make them end up there? What can you take from them, give from them, or do to them or something they care about to make them get to the climax you have planned? Rough this out at a level of a sentence or two on what happens in each chapter on the way from the start to the finish; when it comes time to write a chapter, you can just start writing and aim for making everything you wrote down happen, or you can break it down further into the important scenes you need to happen to get from the beginning of the chapter to the end.

Be warned, though, a story that is all plot is going to feel a bit mechanical and hard to care about. Leave room to just sit around and let the characters bounce off of each other before slamming them with another Important Plot Point that you have carefully constructed such as to bounce them in the precise direction you want.

Read a bunch of books on scripts, story, and writing. Ignore specific formulae unless you are trying to write in the constraints that formula is designed to fill - the three-act minute-by-minute blockbuster framework found in some books on screenwriting is not something you need to give two shits about if you're aiming for a sprawling fantasy trilogy, and it's not something you need to give two shits about if you're writing a rambling art film, either. (You can have as many "acts" as you need.)
posted by egypturnash at 9:15 AM on August 22, 2018 [3 favorites]

"Plot" is pretty genre-specific. A sitcom will be written differently from a mystery will be written differently from a romance novel.

Some authors take their plots directly from their own lives or the lives of others, and let the actual series of events dictate the plot- I think a lot of 'realistic', narrative, 'literary' fiction is written that way.

For genre works, I recommend the books On Writing by Stephen King and, especially, On Film-Making by Alexander MacKendrick. The first half of the latter book is devoted to screenwriting; the second to directing. Some of the advice is film-specific, but a lot of it is generally applicable to anyone wanting to create plots that sustain the reader's interest. Martin Scorcese wrote the forward to MacKendrick's book, if you don't want to take my word for its quality.

Actually, I'd go ahead and recommend On Writing even if you aren't interested in genre work; the advice is pretty universally applicable to any style of imaginative plot. MacKendrick's advice, on the other hand, is more narrowly focused on entertaining, dramatic plots.

I also want to +1 the advice being given consistently in this thread: take your favorite plots and analyze the heck out of them. There's a reason 'deconstruct the plot beats of your favorite tv shows and movies' is a universal screenwriting class exercise.

And another +1 to joechip's advice on using "but" instead of "and." Here's a great video essay on that subject (despite the title, the information also applies to fiction).
posted by perplexion at 7:53 PM on August 23, 2018

N-thing that story structure can indeed be learned. I’m an aspiring picture book author/illustrator and know that my plots have gotten better after taking classes and getting useful critiques.

Even though I’m not a screenwriter, I found this video about movie endings to be an AMAZING help to understanding plot. It was made by Michael Arndt who did Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3.

Once you see the common patterns, I’ve found it useful to read a ton of examples in my genre through that lens. So, for example, I’ll read a ton of picture books and try to identify the “first act break”, to see what works and what doesn’t. Some writers get kinda snobby about “formulas”, but I think knowing the basics helps with idea generation. So for example, your story might have a great opening, but knowing that you need conflict can help you add ideas.
posted by tinymegalo at 9:04 AM on August 25, 2018 [2 favorites]

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