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Help – plot on the rampage

June 21, 2013

Help - plot on the rampage

Do you ever feel like your plot is running wild, out of control?

Do you think it’s time to tame that plot?

Maybe you’ve planned your story to perfection, written it in a nice succinct manner, and then you come back to edit it and: Bam! You realise you’ve been unravelling it in great big clumsy chunks, cramming in those revelations, wedging a bit of character background into place, hurrying to tell one segment of the story so that the next makes sense.

Well, as far as I’m concerned: Guilty, Your Honour.

I had two or three plot elements to convey to the reader, and there we were – me, my readers, my protagonist and the villain, all in the same room at the same time, and what should transpire between us, but a firing off of plot developments like Arnie’s Uzi 9mm, and every bit as subtle. It was a crime scene, and I mean in the prose sense rather than the literary one…which it was too…oh never mind.

The point is, it was one of those moments where an author bangs his head against the desk and realises his whole plot has been delivered with the finesse of a drunken elephant. I feared reading on without a crash helmet. Or at least a pillow strapped to the desk.

So how do you bring your plot under control? Allow me to introduce Matt’s Plot Traffic Lights. Has a certain ring to it, right? No? Hm, oh well. Anyway it works like this:

Open up a fresh document. Type out an outline of your plot. Just the kind of thing you would keep to yourself, no fancy language, no frills, nothing punchy, just a basic summary of your story.

Next, turn it into bullet points. Don’t worry if they’re not in order from a timeline perspective, that doesn’t matter, just make sure you get every important development, revelation, etc. down.

Now, change them all to red. (You see where we’re going with the traffic lights now I reckon).

Next, go and remove all the clumsy bits of plot from your story, the ones you’ve forced into place against their will. (Yes I know this will take time but if it needs it, you have to do it, am I right?). That’s it, just cut them out – save them somewhere else, by all means – but get them out of your story.

Now, referring to your newly hacked up manuscript, change anything in your bullet point list to green if it’s happened in your plot, AND you’ve shown it to your readers.

The amber comes in for those pieces that have taken place BEFORE your story begins, and you haven’t yet mentioned them. So maybe an event that takes place in the past – a falling out between friends, a family feud, a lottery win, the contraction of an illness, whatever.

The red points are those that have NOT YET been written about in your story (these will be most of the developments that you have deleted).

Ultimately you will change everything to green, as you go back adding the bits and pieces of your plot back into your story.

So why do this?

Because it allows you to keep an easy track of your unravelling plot, to see clearly what your story is all about, what actually happens, and then monitor how much of it you’ve covered and what’s remaining. That way, you don’t panic into spilling all the beans at once. You can hold one or two surprises back, without the fear that you’ll forget them, because they’re right there on your traffic light board. Sorry, Traffic Light Board ©. Oh okay I’m getting ahead of myself, it’s not the greatest writing tool since the word processor, but it helped me. I didn’t once smack my head on the desk after creating it, and my plot is beginning to look like something elegant and…enticing. Yes, that’s the word, enticing. That’s what we’re all aiming for isn’t it?

Anyway that’s all for now. Try it out if you think you need it, and also if you think it needs modifying, or you can explain it better than I have, let me know, we can share the patent on it. Hm, maybe I’ll do a plot traffic lights for my plot traffic lights piece.

Next up, if I can bring myself: ‘How to deal with the emotional torment of a one star review that says something along the lines of ‘I couldn’t get past page two’’. Not that anyone would ever receive such a review. Can you imagine? Really…


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