Creative Writing Tip: DO be the master of your own plot

1338212_business_manWelcome to my series of more creative writing DO’s. Today’s tip for aspiring novelists and/or story-writers is a really valuable one I had to learn the hard way. While the experience wasn’t wasted–I don’t think writing a novel is ever a failure, even if you can’t do anything with it— I didn’t realize this when I first started writing, and because of that, my first novel is more or less unpublishable and unable to be salvaged. So, what is this gem?

DO be the master of your plot, instead of letting your plot master you and your characters.

What do I mean by this? Well, here’s my example of how I messed myself up letting my plot master me.

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Meet Danielle De l’Agravaine, or Danni. One of my favorite characters I’ve written about. She’s a seamstress with four brothers and she’s in love with one of their best friends, a knight named Michael. He’s taught her to fight with a sword, so when their kingdom goes to war, she follows him and saves his life in battle, though she is killed herself.

  • I was determined to have that last bit of plot in my novel. As soon as I envisioned Danni’s character, I knew this needed to happen. Well, I knew I desperately wanted it to happen (mainly because I love Eponine from Les Miserables a bit too much.)
  • I was so determined, I overlooked the fact that the actions that plot point entailed didn’t fit her character. Danni’s meek. She’s timid, and while she’s brave in a selfless kind of way, suffering in silence as Michael courts someone else whom she knows he adores and is meant to be with…. that doesn’t mean she’s the kind of girl who would disguise herself as a soldier and ride to war. It doesn’t mean she could get away with that successfully, even if she tried.
  • I forced the character to act in a way that wasn’t genuine for her, and it just didn’t work. I let plot master me. I let the fact that I wanted something to happen override what should have been an instinct that this plot point didn’t make a lot of sense and wouldn’t happen in the story I was writing.

Give up the control! You’ll write better.

From that experience, I learned I can’t let what I want to happen guide my writing. Good fiction is and should always be character-driven. Every good writer learns along the way that really wishing something could happen isn’t enough to justify to putting it on the page.

Maybe you think your story is going somewhere cool. And you’re really excited, because you have all these ideas for some awesome scenes coming up that would just be amazing. And then something happens, and now, what you’d envisioned isn’t quite as feasible as it used to be. Some roadblocks have arisen that make it less credible, less sensible. The characters would have reasons to do something other than the actions that would lead up to your stellar, epic, world-changing scenes.

Let the world-changing scenes go. I promise, where your characters end up leading you will be so much better than what you expected!!! And you can always come back to your favorite aspects of the plot points you had to abandon, using them in a future project. You liked those ideas for a reason; you can still take advantage of them.

Just not in the novel or the story you expected.

I’ve learned to let the characters guide me. As a result, I’ve killed characters I didn’t want to kill and had to forgo writing some things I’d have loved to write. And as hard as that is, my writing is better for it than it otherwise would be.

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5 responses to “Creative Writing Tip: DO be the master of your own plot

  1. I think your novel plot sounds wonderful. I don’t understand why you didn’t simply rewrite the character. All she needs is some spark, deep within her, perhaps something, or a series of things, that happened in her childhood that gave her strength—a strength that for other reasons was buried within her. And all she then needs in the present is an impetus to bring that back to the fore and cause her to act as a warrior hero.

    You are, after all, the master of the characters you create as well as the plot you envision.

    • thanks Dianna!!! That’s a really good idea. I guess I never reworked things because the book as whole is kind of weak. Also, at this point, I’ve kind of stolen from myself and used the stuff that did work as plot points and devices in other novels 🙂

  2. Hey, Victoria. I’ve got my share of unpublished novels and novel outlines. Some handwritten in spiral bound notebooks, some in electronic form on my computer. Some of these unpublished works are character driven while some (especially those in outline form) are plot driven. I’ve been writing for forty years and not a single novel published. But I have developed some opinions about writing novels over that time.

    On the novel I’m currently writing, which I intend to be the first one I publish, I started with an outline of about 20,000 words. I didn’t know exactly where I wanted to go with the story, so I threw everything in that I thought might work. I wrote out motivations of characters and personalities and dialogue as well as an initial plot. I had an ending that at the time I thought was genius.

    When I finished the outline, I read it over and identified the parts I didn’t like, with the characters and the plot–and the ending. The whole thing was pretty much rubbish. But there were some gems in there I thought worth extracting and polishing. They gave me a clear mental image of the story I wanted to tell. I didn’t rewrite the outline, but jumped right into the first draft of the novel, about 95,000 words, writing it based on the outline and the modifications I mentally made about it. It felt like a combination of plotting and pantsing.

    After finishing the first draft, I read it over and identified what I didn’t like about it. Some of the characters still weren’t right. Some of the plot points were unnecessary. So now I am writing a second draft, significantly rewriting some of the characters, completely chopping out certain characters and plot points, while adding in a few new characters and plot points, so that I end up with a story I want to share.

    My point is, the characters are not in charge and neither is the plot. I am the author and I am responsible for the story I share with those who choose to read it. If something doesn’t feel right about either the characters or the plot, I’m rewriting them, even if it means performing a personality transplant on one or more characters.

    I don’t know how long this second draft will be. I’m cutting a lot, but I’m adding a lot, so I’m guessing it will still be around 95,000 words, with about half of them (or less, but I’m not going to fret over word count) having been retained from the first draft. When I have finished the second draft, I will start the process again, rewriting anything that doesn’t work for me. I know one author who rewrote her novel five times, not just editing, but full rewrites.

    It’s a slow way to write a novel. One could let the characters be in control or the plot be in control and finish a novel in a lot less time. The finished product might be just as entertaining to readers whether the novel hits the desired plot points or not or contains the characters you want or not. If you are on a schedule, you might not have the luxury to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. But if you have a certain vision and want a certain story told, you can tell it, despite how your characters start out in your first version of your tale.

    So while I agree that authors must be the masters of their plots, I think the same extends to the characters, that authors must be their masters as well. If a character is unruly, you can let them take over and tell whatever story they choose for you, or you can perform some behavior modification, or you can even send them packing. If you retain control over all aspects of your writing, you can still end up with a story that appears to be character driven–and plot driven as well! No one will be the wiser, unless you tell them.

    Now if you’re writing a sequel to a story and there are certain characters you have to work with, you can still introduce behavior modifications brought about by new situations and new characters. Or you can do like I did with one of my as yet unpublished works, and plot out an entire trilogy before writing one word of the first draft of the first novel. I still want to revisit that trilogy some day and see if I can wrangle something publishable out of it. But that will be a lot of work if it needs many full rewrites. There’s got to be a happy medium.

    Thanks for indulging my rambling. 🙂 Happy writing!

    • thanks for sharing, Michael! I think your approach is genius. I too like to think I’m a combination planner/pantser (leaning toward pantser.) Like you say, it’s all about being flexible and willing to change something that doesn’t work. Whether it’s character or plot or both.

      Best of luck to you with you novel!!!! You definitely have put in the grunt work and have the experience to pull it off

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