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The Gearbox: Organic Plot Generation

by on Mar.12, 2009, under The Gearbox

Hello, and welcome back to The Gearbox, my weekly discussion on writing theory! Be warned, everyone: I am not an expert. I’m a guy who likes to write. Because of my very nature as an untrained amateur, nothing I say should be taken too seriously, okay? If you disagree, please weigh in at the comments section!

Disclaimer #2: For the purposes of this essay, let us put aside existentialist writings, or any stories where the characters are too impotent to affect their surroundings. Those stories will always have a place in my heart.

What is the difference between inorganic and organic plot generation? Why should writers care? Well, I’ll tell you.

Let’s start with a comparison of organic and preserved cookies. Organic cookies are made naturally. They come from a series of unpreserved, un-bug-sprayed ingredients, and they spoil really quickly. They taste good, but they’re gone so soon, and certain bad tastes cannot be masked. Preserved cookies have things added to them to make them predictable, to add life and lastly, to add value to the retail overlords that sell them. They are unchanging, with each one as mediocre as the next.

Now let’s move on to the point, since I’ve made such a loaded analogy.

Inorganic plot generation- sometimes I call it a static plot- is a method wherein you as a writer say, “This is what will happen. I will make this so.” You have a plot twist so cool, a backstory so unbelievably great or some other motivation so compelling that you bend the events of the story to your will. These sorts of plots make for high-concept books when executed well, but more often than not, they turn into disaster movies or twist-ending flicks… or stalker movies. These books and movies are easy to turn into 90 minute movies or 90,000 word novels. Inorganic plots are the tripe of Hollywood and the bread and butter of executives and accountants alike.

Organic plot generation occurs when you start with a very loose timeline, and you let the characters do whatever it is they want to do. No one is un-killable. No plot point is set in stone. Sometimes, what would have been a novel is a short story. Sometimes, what would have been a short story becomes a trilogy. You literally have no clue with what you are dealing until the story is done. You, as the novelist, set the parameters, run the program and wait on the other side to see what comes out.

Well, I have painted a very flattering picture of organic plot generation, haven’t I? It would almost seem like organic plot generation has no flaws, from what I’ve said.

The flaw is gigantic. There is no built-in “zing” to a scene. There is no predictably unpredictable outcome! Where is the action? Where are the twists? What if the hero would rather go home and microwave a burrito, when all you want is for a huge gunfight? I’ve never been in a gunfight, but my bet is that a microwave burrito is better than getting shot… depending on the brand. When the hero wants to leave, how do you make him stay? How do you make him stand up for himself?

The way I see it, you have two choices at this point:

1) The hero goes home. You are making a Coen Brothers movie. It will probably win an award for best screenplay, but you will be left alone with your unspent bullets and a raging need to see something get shot. This is an example of organic plot generation in action.

2) You introduce a new element and run the program again. Give the hero a gun. Give him an opening. Make it more exciting/honor-binding/profitable for him to stay and shoot than to go home. This may literally mean hundreds of rewrites, but you have to keep going until that hero pulls the trigger willingly.

Here’s what you DON’T do: Don’t EVER use inorganic plot generation. There is no good reason.

Is there?

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11 Comments for this entry

  • Chris

    That’s a very good insight into the making of a story. Following this idea would create a very cohesive story that doesn’t require the audience to have to follow giant leaps in story line.

    After reading, (implying hindsight of course), this seems very much common sense. But I doubt I would have followed these guidelines if I were to have written a story before hand.

  • Alex White

    It SOUNDS like common sense, and yet certain action directors continue to work. I mean, take Star Wars Episodes 1-3. The characters make no decisions based upon their own volition. We’re presented with one jarring scene after another as they follow the will of the writer/director.

    What I’m saying is that characters have a heart and soul, and you have to listen to them and do what they want to do. Allowing your book to write itself is not as conventional an approach as you might think.

  • Ashley

    In Defense of Inorganic Plots:
    I think that inorganic plots have a place. They’re stereotypes for a reason, and even if we’ve seen it a hundred times, on some level it “works.” This is why popcorn movies suck on one level, but rock on another. Take The Mummy series. I mean, those movies are about as cheesy as you can get, but they’re entertaining as long as you don’t expect too much from them. They’re the junk food of the genre, and I for one, am not on any literary diet. Sometimes, especially after a particularly dark or heavy book, I just want to reach for something with cheap, comfortable thrills.

    Plus, there are the few stories that take on inorganic plots intentionally, either for the sake of parody (I’m reading Mark Helprin’s Freddy and Fredericka right now, which does a great job at this) or to lull you into a comfortable sense of prediction and then shatter it all with some new twist. I admit these are rare, but they wouldn’t be able to exist without a vast number of inorganic plots. You can’t bust stereotypical plots without any stereotypical plots to bust.

  • Alex White

    I don’t think that popcorn flicks are any better than pornography. It’s dumb, and it fulfills a need for simplicity. However, I can’t imagine spending personal time making either of those two things.

    Genre subversion is the ultimate sarcastic burn on inorganic plots. However, by its very nature, genre subversion IS an organic construct. A scene should have gone a certain way, but it didn’t, thanks to the decisions made by characters. In some instances, reality seems to be a character, who decides that the farce has gone on long enough.

  • Ashley

    Is it really a character who is driving a parody/genre subversion? I think not. I think in that case the author constructs a particular character–say, the rough-around-the-edges, hulking brute type–and then intentionally puts them in a situation where one would expect him to act a certain way…but forces something else to happen plausibly. Thus humor is born. If the character was left to its own devices, it would act in the stereotypical way, because it’s compiled of stereotypes.

    As for “spending personal time making either of them,” well, I totally agree. If I’m going to write something, I want it to be awesome. HOWEVER, I’m just saying inorganic plots have a place, even if it’s not on my keyboard.

  • Alex White

    Well defended. I see your points, and I believe you have found a pretty big gray area. My binary logic won’t work on what you brought up, so I’ll have to concede this one.

  • Nate

    Writing “inorganically” is neither better nor worse, really. Yes, your characters should be true to themselves, but that’s not really a case for or against a particular writing methodology. You could simply set up a scenario and let it go, or you could have a planned plot. Either way, you need to have interesting plot developments and realistic characters. The weakness of the one method is a strength of the other, and vice versa. Both have strengths and weaknesses, so both have a place.

    A story should be thought-provoking. (and those thoughts shouldn’t be “How can this author have published drek like this?”) It should convey some message, or there was no point, really.
    It should provide a series of events that flow naturally, whether expected or not. (Real life throws wrenches at our heads. Our fiction authors can do the same to their creations.)
    It should have events and/or characters that the reader cares about, whether wishing them to occur/succeed, or to be stopped.
    It should end when it has shared the message or messages it was meant to convey. Trilogy disease infects far too many these days.

    It’s possible to achieve these ends with either method. Pick some good characters, figure out what they would do in various situations, and make stories that challenge them to act. You can feel free to let some wander off the stage, too, when they stop doing something interesting.

    If the plot you wish would be avoided by the characters you chose, you can tweak the “souls” of the characters so they naturally do what it is that you want, or even focus on a completely different set of characters.

    Too often, authors blow through the character selection/definition process with insufficient care. (Regardless of method, this can kill a story.) A message of hope and peace that focuses on a murderous drunk would be tricky without some other characters used to contrast. If you want to play with the idea of technology as good or evil, it would probably behoove you to at least address characters from either side of the debate. (and so on)

  • Johnnie A

    I’m all for organic plots because I tend to spot structured plots easily (in a lot of Hollywood movies these days I can actually see crazy twists coming simply because they’re crazy and subsequently, supposedly, unpredictable, or because they follow Roger Ebert’s Rule of Character Economy) and get annoyed it’s too formulaic. In books they’re sometimes harder to spot but still there, particularly in the sloppy third-rate eucatastrophe department.

    As much as I like organic plots, I think my current writing project’s plot (particularly in the first half) is inorganic cookie cutter plot driven, while the latter half tends towards the exact opposite at times. It’s not deliberate and I’m not sure this uneasy union is a good idea, but if the imbalance ends up being a problem then I’ll have to work hard to fix it.

  • Elizabeth Reisine

    I think there’s certain bias here. This spring I had to throw out 50,000 words of a story (a very painful experience, trust me) because I had relied entirely on an organic plot structure. I made up five characters, introduced them, gave them an initial conflict, and then…I realized that nothing much was happening. The characters were just moving along. There were no “wrenches thrown at heads”, to quote an earlier comment,not even ones that would be reasonable given the characters and situations. I sat down and decided how I wanted my plot to go. It’s not a stereotypical plot, it’s complex, allows for character growth, and has room for adjustment if I deem it necessary later. But that’s still an inorganic method of developing plot. Many successful writers, with more talent and ability that I’ll ever have, use outlines and predetermined plots to build interesting stories true to their characters.
    Perhaps I am misinterpreting ‘inorganic’ plots as you define them, but I wanted to state that winging it is not the best strategy for everyone.

  • Alex White

    @Elizabeth But I don’t think you can force it. When your character wants to do something, I think you have to let them do it unless you have created another character or event that can stop them. There is nothing wrong with formulating an outline, and then creating the characters that have the proper motivations to make it happen. However, this is still a character-driven method of thinking, because in the end, if it makes sense for the character to deviate, you should deviate.

    You can start with the plot and create the characters to fulfill it, but you can’t force your will upon the story without a certain amount of dismay in the reader’s subconscious. They can tell the difference between the characters talking and the writer talking.

    In your particular case, I would create an organization, character or event that has far-reaching and highly unpredictable effects and throw that into the mix. Run your program again after that, and I think you’ll like what comes out.

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