Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Writer Will Take Your Questions Now (#39) -- Plotting by Questions

You've said that you ask questions to help you plot? Can you elaborate on that?

Sure. To answer that, let me republished this tutorial I wrote for Cyber Age Adventures back in the late 1990s. I still use this method today, though obviously adapting it for writing stories that don't necessarily feature super heroes.

The core principles still apply.


Asking the Right Questions

Okay, so you've got this great new character, and you just can't wait to write a story about him and submit it to Cyber Age Adventures. So the first thing you do is come up with a good villain, plan a battle, and -- voila! -- you've got a Cyber Age story, right?

Well, no.

That type of plotting may work for the latest spandex-cutie-of-the-month or bulked-up-cape-guy-with-a-22-page-monthly-book, but not for Cyber Age. It's uncanny (yes, ironic and well-targeted pun intended) how many comic book stories start with the idea of "How cool would it be if __fill in the blank__ fought __fill in the blank__? Wouldn't that be awesome?" With a market driven by fans who demand "dream battles" between immensely popular characters, that kind of story sells books and keeps fans happy -- but it doesn't necessarily make for a fulfilling reading experience. (If I had a FREE 300 TRIAL HOURS OF AOL disk for every time the words "Because you demanded it!" have appeared on the cover of a comic, I could wallpaper my neighborhood in shiny CDs. . .).

[NOTE TO THOSE READY TO FLAME ME FOR BASHING COMICS: Of course not all comics storytelling begins this way, but it's scary how much of it comes off like it with recycled plots and improbable battles. And yes, I know that there are bastions of greatness in comics writing in the superhero genre -- I HAVE read Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, Starman, and The Golden Age.]

Interrogate your creations

Well, since Cyber Age Adventures has more in common with pulp magazines than comics, we operate under the rules of short stories more than the rules of comic books. We want to provide not fanboy-led entertainment for a broad sprectrum of general consumers, but literary satisfaction for a more mature reader instead. As such, we hope that our writers begin the plotting process by doing what any good short story writer would: asking effective questions.

Effective questions will:

  •     get to the heart of your character's drives, fears, concerns, illusions, and core beliefs
  •     threaten to reveal some misbelief that your character has
  •     cause your character question himself/herself
  •     are not easy to answer, and may not be easily resolved in 3,000 words
  •     help to create a plot that is character-based and consistent with the "nature" of your character

Notice that in this system, character becomes more important that the mere action of the plot. Many beginning writers, when creating short stories, begin by mapping out a sequence of events and call that the plot. Experienced writers tend to tell us that plotting is much more than a road map of events, that it involves motivations and inner quests, and that events and character can only be separated at the expense of a good story.

It's all in the pre-writing. Before you ever start to write, take a few moments (or a few days or weeks even) and just think about your story. Sure, it's okay to let the story gel while you write it, but even then pre-writing is essential. If you don't know the characters you're writing, how can you ever expect your readers to know them or care about them?

Okay, enough theoretical pep talk. Let's get down to brass tacks. What are some good opening questions to help you plot an award-winning Cyber Age story? (Bear in mind these are only suggestions. These are questions I use. You can come up with others that may work better for you.)

The big bang and the aftermath

First, examine how the "superhuman" interacts or interferes with the "human":

What was my character's life like before getting superpowers or becoming a vigilante? Was she a top-rated physicist? A housewife? A construction worker? Did she enjoy children? Have a husband? Go out to eat often? Prefer to stay home and watch movies? Was her life boring? Exciting? Average?

What is it like now? Does he has to maintain a secret identity? Has he gone public with his identity? Does he have a day job still? Did he drop out of life and keep to himself? Does he still live with the family he had before the powers or costume? Has he become a drifter, avoiding long-term relationships?

How does she feel about those changes? Does she embrace them? Hate them? Think they're helpful but in the way? Does she try to ignore them? Does she complain about them? Brag about them? Show them off? Does she wish everything could be back to the way it was?

How have those changes made life easier? Have the changes made him more confident? Do they enable him to be more secure around women? Does he find it unnecessary to still have a day job? Does he abuse the power for money? Is he happier with fewer people to muddle up his life?

How have they made it more difficult? Is she even human anymore? Do the demands of keeping a secret identity wear out her patience? Does she like to hang out with "normals" anymore? Can she hang out with them without feeling out of place? Are her relationships with family and friends strained because of the secret or the added responsibility of protecting others? Is she physically different from other people now (wings, height, bulk, etc.) and how does that affect her?

Be an evil godling

Next, determine the course of the action to put the character through (or be the manipulative, evil god of your own story universe, depending on how you look at it):

What's the worst thing physically that could happen to her? This may often be more than just being killed. You've no doubt heard the saying that there are fates worse than death. Well, this is the time to apply it. It may be that the worst thing could be the death of someone else. It could be the touch of another human being. Or being taken to court. Or breaking up with someone. Or losing a limb. Play dirty. Hit below the belt. It's okay. They're just ink and paper, after all. They won't hate you for it. Not if they know what's good for them anyway.

What's the biggest emotional crutch he relies on? Rip it out from under him and force him to confront life without it. Maybe it's a dependence on others for self-image. Great. Then force him to have an adventure all alone in which someone shreds his confidence into confetti. Or perhaps he's so powerful that he feels he's already "outgrown" the rest of humanity. Wonderful. Knock him down or peg or two and show him how much he still needs the interaction to avoid losing his sense of being.

What's are her spiritual/psychological fears or shortcomings that render her practically helpless? Is she concerned about losing her humanity? Is she religious and questioning her faith? Or perhaps, not religious and questioning whether she should believe in something supernatural? Does she fear isolation? Crowds? Being raped? Growing old without finding a mate? An incident from the past that still haunts her? Bring it on. Have her cowering like a newborn when she can't face the truth.

If you want to make a good story even better, try to combine two or more of these "worsts" in one story. For example, a character who was abandoned as a child and still has issues with self-worth could be forced to enter a battle he knows he can't win. Even a painful, crippling, embarrassing loss in the sight of onlookers could be a win personally just because he faced up to it and held the crook at bay until more powerful heroes arrived.

Resolution time

The last set of questions then deals with resolving the "worst things":

What event could cause him to face those issues? Would the arrival of a relative he hasn't seen in years cause him to reexamine things he thought were settled? Perhaps a trip out of town would allow him time to dwell on things he wouldn't have time for at home? Perhaps he's forced by law into defending the kind of person he tries to rid the world of. Maybe he meets an ex-girlfriend who still has the hots for him, and he can't tell her he's changed. Perhaps he's asked to join a team of vigilantes when he's not good around people. Or maybe in a moment of anger, he goes too far and must live with the results.

How will she react when faced with those issues? Will she fight for what she believes readily, even too readily? Will she shy away from the responsibility until she's forced (physically, emotionally, or spiritually/psychologically) to act? Will she ignore it completely? Will she do the "right thing" but hate that she has to?

Is he strong enough or ready to grow (even a "baby step") when confronting those issues? This is the big one. This is your ultimate resolution. A story isn't a story until the opportunity for growth or change is presented and either accepted or rejected. Up to that point, you don't have a story -- you have an unresolved scene. Is he ready to grow? Or will he reject the chance and sprint in the other direction? Or, even better, will he want to accept the opportunity but not be able to because the situation won't allow it?

Okay. Phew. Now that's over, right? Let's get started.

Well, not yet.

Now it's time to do it all over again with the other key characters in the story and let their answers to the questions change the story as needed.

Getting the picture? Good.

Okay. Class is over. Now it's your turn.

Dazzle us.