The How-to Of Creative Writing - Plotting Is A Journey
This is the last Post in this Series. Over the past few weeks you’ve been learning how to Plot your Story. Complete the process of writing your book by subscribing FREE to the next series.
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PLOTTING IS A JOURNEY WITH A BEGINNING. . .
Remember I told you that plotting a story is like marking points on a map, before you undertake a journey. So what is that journey, and what route is it going to take?
We’ve already established that a story should begin at a point of conflict. The narrative below, about the widow in Old Testament times, is a good example. Her point of conflict is obvious.
THE WIFE OF a man from the company of the prophets cried out to Elisha, ‘Your servant my husband is dead, and you know that he revered the Lord. But now his creditor is coming to take my two boys as his slaves.’
. . .AND END
The Theme (Trust) in the beginning of this story is less obvious – more implied than stated. But it is developed as the plot progresses.
What we do have here in these two sentences is not only the beginning of the narrative, but also the end. The widow cries out to Elisha, a man she knows will help her – if anyone can. At this point, she has no idea how. Nor what he can do for her. She’s in despair. But the reader knows that her aim is to pay off her debt so that her sons won’t be taken from her.
This then is the end of the story. The reason for it to be told is to convey the journey this poor widow must undertake to see whether – or not! – she will achieve her aim. And this is true of all plots.
Pride and Prejudice begins with the immortal words: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a fortune, must be in want of a wife.
The Conflict is only alluded to. But clearly enough for the reader to pick up in the next sentence that whether the single man knows it or not, he is the target of all the surrounding families: considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.
So what is the end of the journey to be? Why, whether or not the gentleman in question will succumb to the matrimonial designs of Mrs Bennet – about which the reader is left in no doubt by the end of page one.
MOUNTAIN PEAKS & VALLEY FLOORS
We know the beginning of the journey, and we know the end. How, then, do we traverse the terrain in between the two?
One thing you can be certain of is that it will not resemble the flat timeline which I asked you to create a week or so ago. The journey will be one of mountain peaks and valley floors. There will, perhaps, be quiet streams running through at times; turbulent waterfalls at others. Plateaux are to be avoided or kept to a minimum.
In other words, what we’re aiming for when you plot your story, is a series of peaks and troughs. Each trough – even when not explicitly stated as here – will be seen as like that of the Bennet family, whose many unmarried daughters and dependence on the gratuity of the Collins family, make it imperative that they find rich husbands. And each peak will resemble that of Mrs Bennet’s joy when she tells Mr Bennet of the arrival of Mr Bingley at Netherfield. ‘Is he married or single,’ asks the longsuffering Bennet. ‘Oh! Single, my dear, to be sure!’ Mrs B responds. ‘What a fine thing for our girls.’
It is a cliché, of course, but the way of true love never runs smooth. And neither does the novel. It is as full of ups and downs as there are chapters in the book.
CREATING PEAKS AND TROUGHS
The widows story runs no less smoothly. From her despair (trough-moment) she achieves a little fillip of hope (peak-moment) in asking Elisha for his help. Only for it to be crushed as Elisha throws her reliance on him back onto herself.
Elisha replied to her, ‘How can I help you? Tell me, what do you have in your house?’
Cast back into despair (trough-moment) she
‘Your servant has nothing there at all,’ she said, 'except a little oil.’
But Elisha doesn’t turn away, saying ‘Tough luck.’ Instead, he gives the widow another little boost (peak-moment) of hope.
Elisha said, ‘Go round and ask all your neighbours for empty jars. Don’t just ask for a few. Then go inside and shut the door behind you and your sons. Pour oil into all the jars, and as each is filled, put it to one side.’
A little trough-moment. Elisha is a man of God. Is this all he has to offer? Is this going to work? Can God be trusted to provide for a poor down-trodden woman? Doesn’t sound much like it to our widow. However . . .
She left him and afterwards shut the door behind her and her sons. They brought the jars to her and she kept pouring. When all the jars were full, she said to her son:
‘Bring me another one.’
Whoops! Another trough-moment coming up.
But he replied: ‘There is not a jar left.’
The widow is not sure. Is she going to be cast into despair again? Is this yet another deepening trough-moment?
Then the oil stopped flowing. She went and told the man of
God, and he said:
‘Go, sell the oil and pay your debts. You and your sons can live on what is left.’ NIV
Peak, peak, peak. Mountain-top-moment. She’s reached the point she was aiming for from the beginning of the story.
ACTION TRIGGERS PEAKS & TROUGHS
Can you see how plotting your story – marking on your timeline the peaks and the troughs – creates the suspense that makes a book a page-turner? Plotting the journey of your story requires you to construct these little peaks and troughs from beginning to end.
Each will be driven by the character taking action to get out of the trough-moment. Sometimes that will mean a deepening trough. Sometimes it will mean a mini-peak. At all times the character him/herself will be taking action which is character-led. This action will differ depending upon the personality of the character. Thus layer-upon-layer of conflict is built up.
At all times, Theme will put constraints on the storyline of each character. Thus we know nothing about the boys in the widow’s story, other than that they are obedient. Neither are we told any detail which is not relevant to the plot.
This, of course, is only the bare bones of plotting, and ends the Series. I have used this story again and again in Writers Workshops. It is thousands of years old, only two-hundred words in length, yet it contains all the elements necessary to demonstrate Plot, Theme, Character, Viewpoint, Setting, Character and Dialogue. I shall be using it again to highlight each of these topics in the next series. Thank you for faithfully completing this course. I hope to see you for the next one.
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This is the last Post in this Series. Over the past few weeks you’ve been learning how to Plot your Story. Complete the process of writing your book, by subscribing FREE to the next series.
SUBSCRIBE NOW *FREE* TO THE NEXT SERIES: CREATIVE WRITING
– CRAFTING THE STORY. Your contact details will be kept
secure at all times, and will NEVER be divulged to any third
© Mel Menzies, September 2008
The author of a number of books, one a Sunday Times No. 4
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