How does a writer develop a plot?
On it’s most basic level, a story is a sequence of events. We call this a plot. And while much of literature focuses on interpreting this plot for the meaning the subtext provides, one cannot come to a metaphor before the plot itself. So, naturally, an outline of the plot must be the first thing a writer creates when writing a story, right?
For most writers, this is actually not the case. A good plot will develop organically from the moving parts within it. One needs to first create the atoms that will make up a molecule. Suzan Lori Parks puts it as so:
“Like I’m following something through the woods. Eyes open. Ears open. Heart open. And I’m following a path that is sometimes behind me,” (Parks).
She compares it to Michelangelo, who is attributed as saying something to the effect that to make a sculpture, simply take away everything that is not the sculpture from the marble. What is implied here is also that one can not know what the sculpture wants to be. The marble will tell you. So it is, too, with a plot.
The worst offenders of bad literature come down to bad characterization. The climax is near—tensions are high—and everyone wonders how the conflict will resolve, only for a character (who has been motivated only by noble pursuits) to suddenly decide now is the time to heel-turn into a villain to add more drama. Such bad characterization functions as a Deus Ex Machina whenever a writer knows their plot simply must get to a certain destination but did not provide the proper transportation to get there. This transportation is “character”.
One should write their characters before they write the plot. This is what Neil Gaiman, acclaimed comic and novelist author, does. He sketches a character first, and finds that a story he originally thought he might tell becomes something else entirely, as occurred in American Gods when the characters he’d fleshed out seemed inclined to wander a different path than he’d initially set (Gaiman). Just as Michelangelo had to allow the marble to become what it wanted, so to must an author yield some authority to their characters or else their story will become stilted and forced.
Gaiman’s Newest comic adapted into a TV show for Starz
This manner of allowing a piece to function on its own merits applies equally to music. Nick Reinhart, Songwriter for Sacremento mathrock band Tera Melos, admits that half the time, “[I] may not recognize that I am writing a song about a certain topic, I know that I am inspired by something, even if I don’t know what it is,” (Reinhart).
Many a good writer has set out to write a story and pounded their head in frustration because it is not coming out how they wanted it to; but that is precisely the problem: “Not coming out how they wanted it to.” Not to get metaphysical, but the stories have a certain will of their own. The Ancient Greeks talked of being inspired by Muses who whispered words to poets to write what they wanted. In a sense, this metaphor holds true for us: Create your characters and let then play in a sandbox of your design, and follow them, as Parks does, through the woods.
Even Disney enjoys an Ode on a Grecian Urn
This happened to me—not with the written word, but with written music. I set out to write a song for two basses: one from the violincello family, and one from the guitar family. I crumpled sheet after sheet of notes. I drank heavily in despair because I felt if I could not write this song, I had obviously lost the gift. The song, and the notes I was writing, simply were not fitting the format I’d devised. I finally looked at a portion of a melody and it seemed the notes were crying out to be a cello, and I, like a puritanical patriarch of a god-fearing family, was refusing to accept the notes for what they truly wanted to be. Once I changed the instrument—once I yielded to what the creation itself wanted to be—the song wrote itself in less than an hour. I held the pen, of course, but the motivation for its movement can not be claimed to be entirely my own.
We like to think of writers as creators of worlds, but it may be more apt to view ourselves as curators. Writers who try to control too much risk stilted prose and wooden characters, as if the author had placed sock puppets on his hands and tried to play off a Punch and Judy performance as Shakespeare.
We should revive the view of the Ancient Greeks and think of our work as being inspired by some otherworldly Muse, as we’re merely a vessel to help the story go where it wants, because (and not to get too Freudian about it) deep down in your subconscious, that is probably where you wanted the story to go all along.