Devious plots, part 3: Don't put the toilet in the living room

 This is part of a six-part series on plot. You can find the other parts here:
~Devious Plots, part 1: If Stephan King doesn't do it, why should I?
~Devious Plots, part 2: What is this "plot" you speak of?
~Devious Plots, part 4: Plot store!
~Devious Plots, part 5: More plot store!
~Devious Plots, part 6: Plot store, final sale!
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In my last post, I pointed out that plotting, outlining, etc, are all tools for organization. Whether you do the work before the first draft or after it, the goal is to make your story an organic, coherent, functioning whole.

Some of you might be wondering what the heck I meant by that. 

In fact my husband read the post and asked "Are you in favor of outlining or against it? I can't tell." (This is the sort of thing that happens when you write a blog post late at night, I'm afraid.)

For the record, I am in favor of organizing. I spend a lot of time outlining my ideas before I start a first draft. I write down key scenes. I figure out where my story arc is going to go beforehand.

Why do I do it? Because I believe in the power of patterns.

Here is the great secret about people. People love patterns. They love the familiar, the constant, the recognizable. They like to be surprised but not too much, challenged but not too far.

"But what about creativity?" you ask. "What about the power of art?"

Allow me to illustrate.
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Suppose you are an architect. But not just any architect. You're a great architect, a genius. Your designs are cutting edge, unusual.

pictures found at roxanneardary.com

But no matter how creative you are, as an architect you are going to follow certain patterns.

For instance, these houses look almost nothing alike. Yet without knowing anything about them, without even stepping inside, I can tell you some things that are almost certainly true.

1. All the toilets are in bathrooms.
2. Each bedroom has at least one bathroom nearby
3. The kitchen is accessible from the dining area
4. The front door does not open into a bedroom, bathroom or closet.

How do I know these things?  I know them because those are the patterns that people like to live in. No one wants to live in a house where there is one bedroom and seven bathrooms, where the kitchen is in a shed out in the back yard, the toilet is in the middle of the living room, and the front door opens directly into the shower.

At least I wouldn't want to.
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Stories work the same way. If someone settles down to a murder mystery, they expect the murder to be solved at the end of the book. If you start with a murder and end with the sleuth having a mid-life crisis and abandoning the investigation to become a call girl in Vegas, your readers will be angry.

If you spend the first fifty pages making your reader care about a viewpoint character and then abruptly hop to another storyline and never mention that character again, your readers will be very angry.

And if you write a romance where the hero and heroine spend three-fourths of the book getting together and then you drop an asteroid on them for no good reason, your readers will most likely throw your book across the room and never read anything else you write. Ever.
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The MICE quotient I mentioned on Wednesday is a really good example of this.  Each kind of story is defined not so much by what happens in the story itself, but by where the story begins and ends.

1. Milieu stories are world-based. They start when the character enters the new world and ends when they either leave or decide to stay for good.

2. Idea stories are question-based. They start when a question is asked, and end when it is answered.

3. Character stories are change-based. They start when the character decides to take action to change something, and ends when they either succeed or fail.

(This one tripped me up when I was writing House of a Thousand Dolls. I was trying to write it as a character based story and couldn't figure out why the beginning wasn't' working, why my main character was coming across as passive. Then I  realized my character had been forced into the situation, she herself hadn't taken any action. I changed the beginning so that SHE made the decision to get involved, and it instantly made the story much stronger.)

4. Event stories are based on the idea of something-is-wrong. They start when some disorder enters the world, and ends when the disorder ends and the world either goes back to normal, or settles into a new order.
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This is what I meant by making your story a coherent whole. It's about delivering on your promises and making sure the story that you're telling is the one your readers think you're telling.

Delivering on your promises does NOT mean you should be afraid to be creative. Surprise your readers. Throw in a twist or two, keep them in suspense, don't let them guess the end. But make sure that the end you give them is the kind of end they're waiting for.

Don't put the toilet in the living room.

12 comments:

  1. This is good advice. It is a little difficult typing this comment on the toilet, but hey, I can read on the loo so why not write?

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  2. Great post, Miriam! I like that MICE quotient. Definitely something to think about for my story!

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  3. Simon- I would be afraid of dropping the laptop on the floor, but then I'm not very coordinated.

    Laura- I'm glad you liked it! Orson Scott Card has much awesome. :)

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  4. My fella is a builder and I spend a lot of time thinking about how building a novel is like building a house. I don't outline at the beginning but I do it after my first draft. It doesn't matter WHEN you do it just as long as your readers recognize a story, a plot and structure to help them navigate through. I love revision - it is like taking the chunk of dark bumpy lumpy rock and finding the amethyst within.
    Jan Morrison

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  5. I tend to outline before and after because once it's written, it has changed since I started.

    Like the MICE. Very helpful.

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  6. Jan- Excellent point. It doesn't matter so much WHEN you do the organizing, as long as you don't continually write first drafts that are unfixable. :) And I love revision too!

    Helen- Isn't it? I know what you mean about the story changing. No matter how many notes I take before I start, I always end up moving things around. *grin*

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  7. Good post. I don't write an outline at any point (shudders!), but what you said about organization and pattern makes perfect sense.

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  8. You have inspired me to write a short story involving a toilet in the living room. Thank you! Love,
    Rachel

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  9. Jan- Thank you! I know a lot of great writers who don't outline. But most of them are organized in some way. :)

    Rachel- See, now my mission in life is complete. *evil laugh*

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  10. I once had a dream about a living room bathroom. More serious, I love the pictures, they illustrate how different our visions of the final product will be.
    Nancy
    N. R. Williams, fantasy author

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  11. N.R.- Those pictures are pretty cool, aren't they? And I suppose a living room bathroom could be done in an awesome way too. It's all about the execution. :)

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  12. Simon, Ever since I started getting serious about this writing stuff, I have had to have a pad in the bathroom, plus the one I carry there as I write while crossing my legs.

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