It's what's for dinner.
On its surface, this seems to be the easiest, most self-evident subject to teach. On its surface, plot is elementary: tell the reader what happened.
Beneath its surface, plot is a slippery, ethereal chameleon that resists taming, even when caged by an outline. It struggles to do its own thing; released from its confines, it will run like quicksilver, twist, spin, find its own shape and elude all your attempts at control.
Having tried to manipulate it in every way imaginable, my final verdict on the subject is also the title of one of my favorite Beatles songs: Let it Be. (My favorite Beatles song is A Day in the Life, and that sort of works too, but let's stay on track, shall we?)
Yes, plot is what happens. But since plot is invariably about what happens to several characters, you get more than one thing happening at once. So one plot becomes several plots that intertwine, move together, separate and then join again, all to resolve (some nearer the end of the story than others) before the final curtain falls.
The popular metaphor is the plot line as a thread in a loom. Plot threads, woven together to create a whole. Clive Barker's novel Weaveworld translates this idea almost literally, and it's not difficult to imagine him inspired by an examination of his own habits and methods.
The image is popular because it's good. It's about as right as you can get. Threads in a loom are woven together in patterns. There is order. Plan. An attempt to create something which is greater than the sum of its threads, something which stands on its own.
But that's where the image breaks down. Because the threads that make up the fabric of a tapestry, while brightly colored, perhaps silken and fanciful, are just cloth. They lie where they are woven. They lie still.
Plot threads are alive. They move. They change directions, unbidden by the author. They defy attempts to make this character go here because if he doesn't the whole middle section of chapter 36 doesn't work. They are like tightropes on which the characters walk, suddenly turned whips they use to lash enemies, abruptly knitted into a hammock they sleep in when the enemy is at bay.
Yeah, I hear you saying. That's right. So – how the hell am I supposed to manage the damned thing?
And my answer: the second draft.
Frustrating? Sorry. I used to hate it too. The A-type, controlling aspect of my personality kept trying to step in there. I tried writing a novel from a detailed outline. The first chapter followed my outline. In the second chapter, one of my characters decided to steal a car. Just like that, the rest of the outline was useless.
The book still got written. Was it the book I outlined? Not even close. But it was a book, it was its own thing with its own life and personality, and it was finished.
If you're one of those people who has a hard time dealing with “going with the flow,” or “letting things happen,” or “rolling with it,” then do yourself a huge favor and go to plumbing school. Couplings, flanges and trap primers don't suddenly alter their positions seemingly at random, voiding your schematic. Caps don't turn into joins for reasons you'll never understand. Pipes stay pipes, earthquakes notwithstanding.
Plus, the money is way better.
Some writing books say the characters actually tell the story. You create them, wind them up, let them go do what they're going to do and that's your story. Not true for me. Story comes from somewhere. Usually the idea comes before the characters, so the first few incidents of plot are the inspiration for my characters rather than the other way around.
Lots of writing guides damn this approach as mechanical, arbitrary and uninspired. Again, that is not my experience. The story idea is pure inspiration. It claws its way out of my head – in some cases, quite literally, as in my short story Private Land – while I'm in the shower, or driving someplace I've been a hundred times, any of a dozen things I do automatically and absently throughout my day.
Absent is the key word there. If I am absent, then something else is present. Whatever that is – God, Buddah, The Force – hands me the story idea and says, “go, boy,” leaving me to do all the work.
It's not fair. Neither is life, but it beats the hell out of the alternative.
So what can you do? Relax. Let the first draft happen. It isn't going to do what you want it to do, so let it do what it wants to do. Learn to love that apparent aimlessness that eventually resolves itself into order. From this rough beast is born originality that thing we all fret and fume about. Stop trying so hard to be original. If you just let it happen, what you have when you finally type “the end” will be original. If it isn't, you're still trying to hard. Go back. Start over.
When the first draft is finished, there will be stuff that doesn't work. There may be a lot of stuff that doesn't work. That's the nature of the first draft. It's a search for your true subject. Don't try to impose order on that.
When it's done, wait a month. Work on other projects. Trust me and do this. If you try molding and shaping right away, you will destroy it, and thereby yourself. Leave it alone, do something else, and let it season. Let it settle. Then, come back.
When you come back, you won't be singing a Beatles song. You'll be singing an Aerosmith song: Chip Away the Stone.
Then, another outline. Then, a detached, objective look at plot. Then, removing scenes, writing new scenes from craft instead of blind freewriting, chip away, sculpt and shape. Let the steam hammers thunder.
Second draft. And not before.
Trust me and do this.