Welcome back to The Gearbox, my weekly discussion of writing theory! I really wasn’t going to continue this when I started the blog, because I thought no one would care. However, over the course of this past month, I’ve gotten some amazing responses! All of the commenters (most recently Nate) have really given me cause for pause, and I greatly appreciate your help on my writing journey! I can’t believe that anyone actually reads what I have to say on this subject!
I want to start with my standard disclaimer: The Gearbox is the study of writing books I want to read. It’s not intended to be any sort of authority or anything like that. It’s kind of like a manual where I tell you how to get me to give you my money. What’s worse is that, like any good customer, I might not have any clue what I actually want. Please, feel free to chime in and smack me around as much as you please.
Here’s how I begin to craft a story, as might be evident from my previous posts:
1) I start with something I want to see. This is an event, and thereby, a plot point. It must be poetic and beautiful, cinematic and compelling- a visual. I’m well aware that not everybody thinks like me, so I am in no way endorsing this as a valid method. I do not bother with any of the rest of the plot at this point.
2) I ask myself what characters are participants in that visual. What do they look like? What brought them to this point? Why are they wearing what they’re wearing/doing what they’re doing?
3) I create a backstory support structure to get the character to an “alpha” state- their mindset when they begin the story. I try to really get to know the character, even going so far as to look at primary attributes of my friends’ personalities (but I’ll never tell those friends anything about that). I also look at animals and philosophies and try to imagine which ones for which my characters will have an affinity.
4) I throw all of that stuff out except the characters and the visual, and I evolve the backstory and plot as necessary to complete the story. It feels bad to just drop most of what I had created, but I think it has to be done. What’s worse? The visual, the thing I want to see the most, might not- probably won’t- even happen! Hopefully, something even better will happen.
I basically look at all backstory and plot as a way to fulfill and subvert the desires of the characters. It’s true (and I am a hypocrite for this) that I actually start with PLOT, then move on to BACKSTORY, but I do so in minuscule amounts. I just want to know why I saw what I saw in my head, and how I can repeat it. I still feel that true, logically-extrapolated character interaction is the king of any story, but I realize that I have sold short the other elements in my previous posts.
(By the way, when I say “character interaction,” that can mean gunfights and explosions. It doesn’t have to be Woody Allen talking to Diane Keaton.)
So that’s how I begin to craft a story. To all of you writers out there:
What’s your recipe?
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.
Welcome back to The Gearbox, my weekly discussion on writing theory! Today we’ll tackle a topic that should be a no-brainer. Why? Because I’m pretty much an amateur, myself, so I can pretend to be knowledgeable by writing well about this idea.
The question is simple, really: What is the difference between plot and backstory, and what are the uses of both?
I know that I said that it was a no-brainer, but the relationship between plot and backstory can be quite hairy, especially for writers of science fiction and fantasy. Have you ever spoken to an aspiring fantasy author and asked him or her what their book was about? How many times have you heard a response like this:
“Well, there was this war a loooooooong time ago, right? It divided the universal race into these three races: elves, men and dwarves. Anyway, so like, they’re all at war now because Misha the Red (she’s one of the Antediluvian Witches) decided that she wanted to take the Sickle of Life from the Cave of Peace. So now the elves are leading this blah blah blah blah blah…”
I hate to say this, because writing is supposed to be subjective, but WRONG. That is not what your book is about.
Your book is not about your caste system. Your book is not about the fancy name you came up with to call your giant mechs (I’m talking to you, anime!). Most of all, your book is not, and cannot be, about things that happened before your book takes place. And yet, so many authors focus almost the entirety of their attentions upon the backstory. Why? Is it because a bunch of us started our fantasy/sci-fi careers with Dungeons & Dragons campaign guides?
The plot of a book is the series of events that happens over the course of the story. I know that’s crazy talk, but there you have it. It starts on page one and it ends at the end. Also, I don’t believe that plot is something you can write, but that’s a discussion for next week.
I had a writing teacher tell me something once that absolutely changed the way that I looked at writing sci-fi and fantasy forever. I came into class with this mega-binder of backstory. It was the freaking Bible of that universe. It had historical details, timelines, races, magical abilities… even stats for D&D versions of a bunch of stuff. He took one look at it and asked, “Well, how does the book start?” I didn’t know, and that’s when he took me aside and told me, “Alex, I can tell you’ve worked really hard on this, but your story is like a stew. Right now, you have all of the spices in it that you could ever need, but you don’t have any meat or water or anything else. The backstory is just the flavor. You need to add in everything else.”
Simply put, a setting is not a novel. Don’t make the mistake of planning your story out that way.
Now, in order of importance for story planning:
BACKSTORY < PLOT < CHARACTER INTERACTION Of course, I could be totally wrong. If so, please- I urge you to step in and correct me!