It’s been a while since I’ve been able to blog. Life, illness, and general circumstances led me to take an extended break. But, I’m back at it. After some pushing from writer friends, I’ve jumped into the freelance editing pool. In doing so, I’ve decided to focus my blog on writing and editing tips.
To start, in a writer’s group I belong to, we’ve been discussing how to plot and how to develop a story.
This is a complex subject because every writer eventually creates their own system that works for them. You can read all the craft books in the world and still struggle to turn out a good plot. Why? Because plotting takes practice, and not every plot is worth writing, and the plot is nothing without compelling characters.
In this four-part series of posts, we will explore how to start with a premise and work your way into an outline. Let’s start with some basics.
What is plot?
The Oxford Dictionary defines plot as “the main events of a play, novel, movie, or similar work, devised and presented by the writer as an interrelated sequence.”
A lot of new writers assume that plotting is stringing together a series of events. While that is technically correct, it doesn’t give you a story. It merely gives you a series of events that comes across as a laundry list of characters doing one action, then doing another action. There is no heart to it. There is no story.
What is story?
The dictionary defines story as “an account of past events in someone's life or in the evolution of something.” This definition fails to get at the heart of what story is. At its simplest, story is the change in a character over time. And this is where you want to start with your plotting. With a character and their need to change.
Premise, Design Principle, & Theme
I start with the premise and design principle. This is where I figure out what the main idea of the story will be, what sort of character(s) I will need, and where the main conflict exists.
For Moonlight & Jade, my premise started out as:
A goddess devours the souls of the damned and is accused of treason.
It's a start, but it doesn't tell us anything about the characters flaws or who or what the conflict is. So I expanded it.
An aloof goddess who devours the souls of the damned is accused of treason by her father’s mortal enemy and must clear her name before the souls of the dead overtake the world.
This premise tells us what kind of character we need (an aloof goddess), what her role is in the world (she devours the souls of the damned), where the conflict is (she is accused of treason by her father's mortal enemy), and what the stakes are (the souls of the dead overtaking the world.)
Once I have my premise, then I start working on my design principle. This is the underlying structure of the story. Basically, it's the trope or group of tropes that I'm going to use as the foundation of the story.
Design Principle for Moonlight & Jade:
A woman struggles with the mistakes of her father’s past while preventing a tragedy that could start a war.
This helps me uncover my theme by forcing me to ask questions about the how's and why's of this statement. Let me break down some of my thought process to digging the theme out of the design principle and the premise. (Breaking out the bullet points for this.)
What sort of mistakes did the MC's father make that would affect the MC and cause a war?
Since her father is a god, it's probably something to do with another god.
What if the MC's father rules over the underworld and he stole his brother's fiance?
What if the MC's uncle is a narcissistic jerk with daddy issues who even though he's the heir resents the fact that his brother got to choose his place in the pantheon?
What if the head god told everyone to keep quiet about the feud between the brothers and the MC is caught in the middle of it because she is the product of the affair between her father and his brother's fiance?
So this is a revenge scheme.
Hmmm, that’s close, but I the MC to overcome her own fear of relationships because of her daddy issues and I want her to forgive her father and her estranged lover.
So it's about revenge and love.
Ah, so the theme is (drumroll please) Love conquers all.
Cheesy, I know. But the idea is to break your design principle and premise down into basic components to get at what the underlying theme is. It can be tough to define a theme at this stage, and for me is probably the hardest part of the whole process. But don't worry. It's flexible. This isn't a rigid process. As you draft, you might find that your theme is actually something else. That's okay. This step is just to get you thinking about theme because if you know your theme upfront you can layer in subtext and foreshadowing.
Tune in for part 2 next week about conflict and character design.