Plotting: how everything comes back to story

A couple of weeks into my creative writing night class and I knew the session on ‘plotting’ was coming up.

Plotting – a topic that’s given me anxiety since back in 2013 when I first had to pull info on story-structure into a format for teaching to others.  A task I was convinced I was poorly equipped for, having got it into my head that I couldn’t plot a decent story.

My inner critic’s a mean-spirited, negative thing, and though earning a degree in writing quietened it a bit, a lifetime of negative self-belief is a big boulder to remove altogether.[1]  The ‘give up, you’re rubbish’ message had once again grown strong, fed by rejection letters and ‘this story’s not working’ comments in critiquing groups – comments which were valid, but which I heard as proof of incompetence rather than advice.

It doesn’t help that much of what makes a story work isn’t clear to us consciously but taken in by osmosis in a lifetime of listening to stories and reading books, watching films, tv dramas and talent shows, and even the ads in commercial breaks.  We know when we’ve enjoyed a story but not necessarily why, know when we haven’t enjoyed a story but might not be able to pinpoint what would’ve made it better. But a writer of stories needs to know exactly that, to work out the pattern that exists (it turns out) behind pretty much every story, and then make sure that they’ve applied it.

And I’ve never been one to naturally spot patterns in anything. Learning story structure was literally fifth form volume and equations all over again.

As it happens, what worked best for understanding story arcs in my case ended up being pretty much how I conquered fifth form volume and equations, too.  Namely, I rolled up my sleeves and looked at the problem again alongside someone willing to spend time talking me through it. 

For maths, that was Mr Gordon the maths teacher, who reworded sums as real-world problems involving rolls of wallpaper and tins of paint and asked questions to prompt me to problem solve as I worked my way through them.

For my stories, it was writerly friends and paid coaches whose questions helped me understand whatever was missing that a reader would be looking for and prompted me to think of ways I might add them in. 

My biggest take-away in both scenarios was that initial ‘calm down and try again – you’ve got this.’ The antithesis of my inner critic, in fact.  I replaced the ‘misbelief story’ it was telling me with the better ‘you can do it,’ which proved to be true.

Which brings me back to the night class.  I’ve overcome my ‘can’t plot a story’ demons now, but how to replicate ten years of trial and error in a two-hour session delivered through the medium of zoom? 

The answer is that you can’t.  There’s no avoiding the trial and error of writing, the ‘not quite getting it right’ and having to dive back in and investigate why.  All writers do it, whatever point on the publishing hierarchy they’re at. 

What I could do was make explicit some of the patterns that exist in storytelling and model a few plot-generating techniques I’ve found useful myself.  All story structures are facets of the same pattern, really, but with analysts over the centuries breaking them up in different ways.  If you find one pattern doesn’t work for you, there may well be another which will.

I came across a great quote yesterday, by American writer and social commentator Roxane Gay, which resonates with the point I was aiming for in my night class. In a personal essay on the Scribd platform, she states that teaching writing is …

‘… offering best practices and best guesses. What works for one writer may not work for another. There are, perhaps, rules for writing, but the rules are only as applicable as a writer wants them to be. For every rule, there are several good reasons to break that rule.’

To my mind, the trick is not to give up when one rule doesn’t work, but to keep trying out every useful-looking technique you come across until you find whatever works for you.


[1] Still a work in progress! I’m reliably informed by even well-established authors that it never truly goes away.

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