#6 0 TIPS ON HOW TO PLOT A GOOD STORY!
Just Some Real Life Experiences on the Subject
Bobbi JG Weiss 3/2/14
If you’re a beginning writer, don’t worry if you can’t think up twenty brilliant plot ideas before breakfast. Likewise, don’t fret if you can’t develop your ideas into stunning story plots quickly or easily. Developing an idea into a good solid plot is the core skill of all storytellers, and it takes most writers time to develop it.
Some people are born with the ability to think up plot ideas and develop them without tearing their hair out by the roots (Stephen King comes to mind). Most of us, however, have to learn the skill. I sure did. I was born with a talent for dialog and some talent for developing character, but my ability to plot any kind of story was so bad. Oh, so so bad.
As a kid, what I really did was rewrite my favorite books and TV shows with my own characters — sort of like fanfiction but without any real creativity. I mean, really — I read Bambi and leaped into a story about a young deer in the forest I named Gemmo. I saw Fantasia and wrote a story about a girl who discovers a tiny flying horse in her house named Pip. (That one was kind of cute, but there was no plot, just… well, a lot of cute.) I read The Black Stallion books and charged into several horse novels. I actually finished one. It was called The Phantom Mist and was about a ghost stallion that… oh, never mind. It was horrible. The only good thing about it was that I actually finished it. I was in the 4th grade at the time, and The Phantom Mist was 80 pages written in longhand. I even drew the cover. Isn’t it (ugly) lovely?
As I grew older, I wanted to write stories about Something Important. I wanted to say Something Important about life, the universe and everything. But again, I was plotless. I liked science fiction and fantasy best, and I wanted to write an SF or fantasy so bad that it literally gave me anxiety stomach aches. But I just couldn’t think of any decent stories. I could think of characters, but I had no clue what to do with them. Sure, I wrote the occasional alien invasion story, and I wrote a pretty cool dragon poem that was about 15 stanzas long, I kid you not (maybe I'll post it in the Current Features later). But I wasn’t saying anything.
I finally learned how to plot by TA-DAH! writing more. And more. And more. I’m talking hundreds of stories. I started by writing those stories for myself in grade school, then for my high school classes and newspaper and literary journal. In college, I wrote for the college newspaper. Once I graduated, I didn’t know how to go any further. That’s when I met my husband, David, in a comic book shop, of all places. He was a letterer — yup, a person who hand-lettered comic books. It was an incredible art form before computers took it over, but he was making a living doing it at the time. He knew lots of people in the comics industry. So when he was hired as an editor for Disney’s new comic book department, I ended up writing Disney comics.
Writing comics is like writing short stories, so I churned those suckers out for years until I had over 100 under my belt. It was fun, but it was not easy, because when you write for Disney, you have to say Something Important. I had to master plot development and fast.
I remember one time I had a script due for a Disney Adventures Magazine comic, and it was due in only a few days. I didn’t even have a plot yet! The editor was the incredibly talented Marv Wolfman (http://www.marvwolfman.com/marv/RESUME.html). He’s an amazing writer, and thank goodness he had faith in my abilities. So what did I do?
I went into his office and started crying.
Yeah. I know. Totally cringe-worthy. Absolutely pathetic. DO NOT EVER DO THIS. But that’s what I did. I actually sat down at my editor’s desk and blubbered at the man because I was stuck. Marv could have smacked me good and told me to get my dung together and be professional. Instead he gave me the sweetest pep talk you can imagine, and afterwards I slunk out of his office feeling like a donkey’s posterior. I was also terrified because I still had to deliver that story on time. A deadline is a deadline, period, and Marv needed that script.
Needless to say, I did get the job done on time. What puzzles me to this day is that I can't remember how. I think the sheer terror of screwing up made my brain kick into gear. Never underestimate the power of a deadline.
Another time I had to write a 24-page script for Disney’s Tale Spin monthly comic. This time I had a plot, but I had developed it badly, and I couldn’t figure out what had gone wrong. David, who is also an extremely good writer, sat me down and guided me from scene to scene, forcing me to explain my reasoning at every turn. I discovered that this was my mistake: the character Kit had a problem, and instead of solving it himself, I had him go to Baloo the Bear for help. I did this because I thought the star of the show, Baloo, should be more involved in the story. I should have known better. Good Disney stories involve characters solving their own problems, perhaps with help, but they face their problems head on. I was making Kit cheat, and so it didn’t ring true. David helped me see that.
Now, you might think I was incredibly lucky to have people like Marv and David teach me my chops. You’re right. I am gob-smackingly lucky. But all of you out there have one thing that I didn’t have — the internet.
Mentors are wonderful, but so are writing help blogs. If I had had access to those when I was younger, many of my questions would have been answered, and I wouldn't have wasted time worrying so much. I would have started off writing more meaningful stories, and I would have learned faster rather than grope my way along in the dark alone. Many of my fears of “not making it” as a writer might have been allayed.
If you can find a mentor, go for it. A live person is always the best. But live people are available over the internet, too, and many of them are talented writers who are eager to help. Here are a few writer-help blogs that I follow because they are very good. Some of them answer sent-in questions, some direct writers to reference, some provide links to articles on writing, and some offer challenging prompts. Some do all those things. The blogs listed below happen to be on tumblr, but I'm sure there are many more on tumblr and elsewhere that I don't know about yet:
• houseoffantasists (House of Fantasists)
• yeahwriters (Yeah Write!)
• thewritingcafe (The Writing Cafe)
• writing-questions-answered (Writing Questions Answered)
• writeworld (WriteWorld)
So what do I write now? I write what tickles my fancy. I no longer want to say Something Important. Well, of course I do, but my main focus these days is to entertain. No matter what the project is, I focus on its entertainment value first. I have found that a story can often convey more Important Ideas if those Important Ideas are carefully tucked in amongst the fun and excitement of a really good romp. I only learned this by writing so much. You might say that I am my own story, and I’ve finally learned how to plot myself.
Ooo, that’s cool! I should work that up into a novel....
Author C. S. Forester, creator of the famous Horatio Hornblower books, talked about ideas as if they were logs. He said to let the log sink into the depths of your mind, and every once in a while, dredge it up and see what new barnacles have grown on it. In other words, when you get a plot idea, let it simmer a bit in your creative subconscious. Don’t immediately start judging it, expanding it or modifying it. Give it time to grow. If you think of tidbits to add to the idea, jot them down but don’t spend a lot of energy on them. Let the stew simmer a bit. When the idea is ready for you to grab with both hands and wrestle into a real plot, you’ll know.