Plotlines – Mysteries and Miracles!

A Round Robin Post

For the second time, my patient readers, I am participating in a Round Robin blog post. The topic we have been asked to address this time is:

When you are stumped on moving a plot line forward, what do you do to reinvigorate your imagination and get your characters moving?

Now those who also vaguely follow my Twitter rantings will know that I have been laid low for the last few weeks with a horrible (and I mean HORRIBLE) virus type thing. This has involved recurrent fevers, feeling constantly sick and dizzy, a wracking cough and blood pressure descended so low that I blacked out and injured my pelvis in the resultant fall. One result of all this is that I have felt too ill to stand up, yet alone manage any kind of computer work or writing, and the second result is that I got so despondent and sorry for myself that I stopped believing I could write at all.

Thus, I have had a proper mega-crisis about whether I can write the book I am currently in the middle of, which has included me getting all negative about things like my plot and characters.

If I’m honest, I actually quite like my plot and characters. I feel I have a reasonable storyline and some themes that will be fascinating to explore in more detail. My characters wake me at night demanding I write that next scene, but I simply feel too ill to do so. The question I am asking myself, though, is ‘am I playing to my strengths with this book?’.

The trouble I am finding is that I have a wider plot and list of settings than I normally work with, some of which are not that familiar to me and will require a lot of research (which is very interesting so far) or some active visits. I’ve just got to that ‘loss of self-belief’ place about whether I can do this. I look at the book I am trying to find a home for currently (with the help of my wonderful agent) and it seems so simple by comparison – on mainly safe home ground, although clearly I do not have personal experience of being a serial killer!

So what do you do when you get stuck like this?

Well, firstly experience tells me to sit it out. I have written three novels so far and there have always been periods of diminishing self-belief to contend with, and when I simply persevered and put the time in I eventually wrote through the periods and came out feeling all fired up about my book and characters again. The other lesson I learned was that my writing did not differ hugely in quality depending on whether I was simply ‘plodding on’ or feeling all positive and engaged.

Secondly, experience tells me never to make decisions or big changes when you don’t feel well!

I think that my history of learning to deal with plotlines and characters is interesting, though. My first novel had a strongly linear theme (woman coming to terms with the loss of a baby by travelling round Scotland with a complete stranger) which seemed to appeal to the agents I sent it to, but they didn’t ‘engage’ enough with my characters to pick this up. I think this book was very much my learning piece. I plotted it out in such detail in advance that I didn’t give it, or the characters, enough room to breathe. When I started my second novel I probably over-compensated by giving my characters so many experiences and traumas that I lost some of the intensity and descriptive qualities that were good in the first book. Writing this in the first person didn’t help, although it was immensely enjoyable to do. In book three, the one that is being offered out at the moment, I feel that all my learning curves came together and at last I got it right.

So what made it work? Well, I had such a strong idea of the two main characters and what connected them that writing them and their story seemed to almost dictate the plotline and pace, even though I had quite a detailed plotline and overview drawn up in advance. I let the characters breathe.

When I got stuck with the storyline for the book I’m currently working on I went to one of the ‘Summer Taster’ workshops that Nottingham Writers’ Studio was running. The workshop looked at Plot. It seemed an odd thing to do when I already had a lot of ideas down, I just wasn’t sure how to structure them and drive them forward. Although the workshop used a very simple ‘tentpole’ method to look at plotting, it made me really see my story with fresh eyes. In the end I realized that to make it work I had to add a couple of extra ‘flashpoints’ in relation to one of my themes, and also that the character whose story I was most interested in was not the one I expected!

So: perseverance, being willing to revisit the plot and characters you have with fresh eyes, never being afraid to change focus if the characters seem to be demanding it.

Now I just have the less than simple task of finding that elusive ‘self-belief’…

Photograph: One of my many methods of working out a plotline! Flipchart, coloured pens, stick-on events/scenes that can be juggled, strands for each character. This plotline never actually made it into being, but maybe one day…

annedegruchy.co.uk image: flipchart with plot outline

Check here for other people’s takes on how to deal with getting stumped in the middle of your plot:

Diane Bator http://dbator.blogspot.ca/
A.J. Maguire http://ajmaguire.wordpress.com/
Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea
Victoria Chatham http://www.victoriachatham.com
Marie Laval http://marielaval.blogspot.co.uk/
Judith Copek http://lynx-sis.blogspot.com/
Dr. Bob Rich http://wp.me/p3Xihq-137
Helena Fairfax http://www.helenafairfax.com/blog
Fiona McGier http://www.fionamcgier.com/
Heather Haven http://heatherhavenstories.com/blog/
Beverley Bateman http://beverleybateman.blogspot.ca/
Rhobin Courtright http://www.rhobinleecourtright.com

© Anne de Gruchy

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4 thoughts on “Plotlines – Mysteries and Miracles!

  1. Hi Anne, I had to smile when you commented that you feared you might have too much going in your current WIP, because that has happened to me. Not the first book I wrote, but turns out, the first book published began as one man’s journey through a personal crisis while he was running for President. An editor liked the premise enough to ask for the manuscript but then she felt it didn’t have enough tension. For one reason or another, I don’t recall what, I’d written it in the first person so all we ever saw was the hero’s point of view. As I considered the problem I realized if I switched to 3rd person and visited more than one character’s head, that would automatically increase the tension. I was about halfway through that re-write when I felt like I had a six horse team all going in different directions. While I was dithering and trying to hold it all together, I went to a conference and heard T. Davis Bunn give a two-part workshop on story arc, vs character arc. One comment he made struck me – that at some point in the story all the character arcs will intersect and thereafter the other characters are either for or against your protagonist. I came home and diagrammed the arcs, noted the intersections and suddenly it all began to fall into place.

    P.S. Feel better soon…

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    • Thank you so much for your comments and insights! I feel very similarly to the way you did, and it was my agent who wanted the ‘extra’ layers rather than an editor, and then things felt like they were running away from me! Like you, a workshop helped me refocus the story. I think the problem with looking at it the way you describe is that I don’t really have a protagonist, or, if I do select the most obvious of the three central characters, the connections between her and the other characters are through social media rather than in person which is fascinating and challenging to write, but doesn’t give you some of the traditional options! Intersections are so important though. And I love the idea of checking out plot versus character arcs and how/where these intersect. I tend to be someone who begins with character arcs and has a strong sense of these before a plot fully works itself out!

      Lovely to share with other writers, and I am now beginning to feel better and am back at work (of the non-writing type!). Thank you.

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      • I hope you are finally feeling better. There is nothing worse than being laid low. I did appreciate your advice for looking at plots lines from different viewpoints in a visual way. I might try that!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. What a great post! I am so glad to hear you are getting better. You have a lot of coping mechanisms, and really had to use them all. Persistence always pays dividends. Of course another word for that is stubborn. We writers have to be. So many obstacles. Getting mired in one’s story is only one of them.

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