Retrograde Plotting

The Issue of Plot

Plotting. The word itself speaks of forethought. “I have a plan”, ” going to plot out some dastardly deed”. It’s not.. “Well, I’m sort of just making it up as I go along.”

I tend to just sort of make it up as I go along. So my plot, the bones of my story, tends to look like this:

Attributed to Travis S, taken from used under Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic

When it should look like this:

Photo Attributed to: Daniel Wabyick (dizznan), taken from, used under Creative Commons Licence Attribution 2.0 Generic

But even when you’re just making stuff up…there is a lot to be said for the subconscious plot. Cultures tend to tell stories in a certain way, and expect their stories told to them in a certain way. As such, when someone writes something down, I am a firm believer in the idea that they’ll stick loosely to that culturally established plot diagram, just because they’re going to bore themselves out of their own brains otherwise.

So if you like the freefall that comes from just writing, go ahead. If you’ve read enough books, watching enough movies, told enough tales in your time, you’ll come up with something that vaguely resembles a story. If you manage to hold your own interest for 80 thousand words, then you’ve got something workable. The question is always how much work you want to put into it.

Because most things are fixable. I don’t plot before I start my first draft. I just… write. I get character a, put them in situation b, and write until I have major major problems (normally about halfway). Then I stop, figure out what corner I’ve driven myself into, and use the tools of plot to… well, plot my way out of it.

How do you actually do this?

So, onto how to actually work you’re way out of the corner you’ve backed yourself into. Keep in mind, if you are the type of person who likes to know where they’re going before they start out, you can use some of  these tools to create your plot before you start. Or reign it in when you find it deviating from where you thought it would go. Or for figuring out why the hell it’s deviating in the first place.


  • Know where you’re coming from

This is by far the most important thing to do when you’re either trying to figure out where your plot jumped the rails or when you’ve got your first draft and you’re trying to figure out how to pull a plot to the forefront of the draft. As writers, we make promises to our readers. We present characters, and options, and voice in a way that says to the reader “this is going to be this kind of story.” Once you’ve figured out what sort of story you’re trying to write, you can figure out how to write it.

  • Character motivations

Know thy characters. Not just the main ones, although you should definitely know them. You first draft? Perfectly acceptable to write until you know your characters. Write yourself into your characters. Go ahead. Second draft? Know them already. Know what they want. Make them want different things. Make them interesting, but make sure they want something, and will suffer, either physically or emotionally if they don’t get it.

Because at the end of the day, while plot is stuff happening, it should be about characters going out to get something. In order to do that, they have to want. Figure out what they want, why they want it and their own moral compunctions to getting that. Where do they draw the line? Shove them over that line occasionally, and make them scrabble back to it.

  • Brackets

As you figure out what your story is actually about, you’ll find that there are things that don’t quite fit. You’ll find there are things you need to add. If you end up fixing that now, before you’ve actually figured out the overall look of your story, you’ll go mad. Stark raving bonkers. So go and delete the bits that don’t fit anymore, or save them to another document, or put them in another scrivener document, and forge on. Write (Insert conversation about x y and z here) and move on.

  • Extrapolate

This is by far the biggest step. You’ve laid the ground work – you have an idea of the type of story you’re telling, you know what your characters want. You’ve still got all these words, and scenes. So what do you do with it all?

  •  Beginning:

Firstly, figure out where you’re story begins. This is generally the point where the character is thrown into the story. Everything before that is lead up. Sometimes, that lead up is needed, especially in speculative fiction. The reader may need some grounding in the world before the story starts. That’s fine, just make it interesting.

So, your story begins when something changes in the characters life, and they’re forced to react to that. In a short story, this may be all the beginning you need. The character then reacts to that change, things get complicated, they either overcome these complications or they don’t – end of story.

In a novel, or a longer piece, the complication… well it complicates things. It forces the character to look at what they’re doing. It forces acceptance of their situation. It makes them stop just reacting, and make a decision. This decision will single to the reader that the character has come to terms with the change that started them down this path.

I think acceptance is by far the biggest part of the beginning. It’s the change from “this is happening to me” to “okay, this has happened, what do I do about it.”

“What do I do about it” is the middle of your story.

  • Middle

Now, there are many ways to forge through the middle. You can split to middle up into two separate acts. You can go round in circles. You can litter flashbacks everywhere. You can have the character battle their way to everything going right, right before everything goes horribly wrong (The Hunger Games, with Katniss defeating the Careers and then loosing Rue). You can have the smaller plots come to the fore (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s stone, with Quidditch, house points, trolls ect). There are many ways to do the middle.

How you figure out the middle is up to you. The only thing that you have to be aware of is that it will eventually lead to the end. And what your characters have to do in the end directs in some part the middle. If your characters have to threaten suicide, then show that living is an alternative not worth contemplating (I believe this is what the middle of The Hunger Games does). If your characters have to defeat an evil wizard – show them learning the skills to defeat an evil wizard (Harry potter).

There are two things the middle has to be – it has to lead to the end, and it has to be interesting.  Start with picking out the plot points which lead to the end, and those which show that the end is the only possible end that this story could lead to. Make sure the characters don’t have any other options by the time you get there. And then make that sequence of events interesting.

There’s a reason the middle is the hardest part of a book. It’s the longest, and the part of the book where you can have the most variation. As such it’s the hardest to bring to heel.

  • The end.

Again, there are many ways to end a book. You can have everything going well, but then it’s suddenly not, and then it suddenly is. You can end badly. You can end with the protagonists winning by chance. The most important thing to keep in mind regarding your ending though, is your beginning.

At the beginning, you have a certain character. That character will either grow, or change in some way over the course of the book. What’s the point otherwise? If the events have no effect on the character, why did the reader just spend 80 thousand words reading through all of it?

There are two types of change a character can go through. They can either change, completely. A-la Harry Potter – from orphan to young wizard able to defeat Voldermort. Or they can adapt. A-la The Hunger Games. Katniss is competent when she starts the book, she doesn’t have to unlearn her survival skills. She does have to adapt to the politics of the arena. She has to learn how to not only fight her way physically out of things, but how to make herself likeable, how to play up the romance between her and Peeta.

Harry starts as not much, and ends up comment enough to face what needs to be faced. Katniss is already competent. If she’d chosen to kill Peeta she still could have won the games. What she has to learn is how to evolve, how to be competent in another area.

However you finish your story, the ending has to reflect either a change or and evolution in character.

In Summation

So that’s it. Look at where you’ve come from, who your characters are, what they want, and using the very broad categories of beginning middle and end, figure out what scenes to keep, what scenes to dump, and what extra you need to write. And have fun. It’s a different mentality. Whereas the first draft is the freefall of discovery, the second draft is like taking a difficult equation and simplifying it into something more potent. It’s the boiling down of ingredients into something less resembling stuff thrown into a pot, into soup. It’s the work of the piece, but it’s also deeply satisfying.

Feature image attributed to Ant Smith, taken from Used under creative commons licence: Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic


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