Friday, September 19, 2014

Nine Exercises #4: A Plot

Welcome to the fourth installment of Nine Exercises to Help You Draft a New Story.

Exercise #4: A Plot

Time: 30 minutes

Today's exercise is a bit longer and more involved than the previous ones, but bear with me. You'll be brainstorming, not writing prose, and it's good to get the whole plot sketched out in one sitting. If you find there's too much information here and your brain short-circuits, just skip to where it says "SUMMARY" at the bottom and do the exercise that way.

If you've done the first three exercises, you have a character, your character has a problem, and you have some rough ideas about how your story might end. Today you're going to sketch out a plot.

If you haven't done those exercises, you can click here and here to get a character and a problem. Or use any that come into your head. If you're stuck in the middle of writing a story or novel right now, try using elements from that. Take a minute to write the name of the character and his problem at the top of your page now.

Plot is a funny thing. When I was at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, which was a long time ago, in the early nineties, there was a general feeling that it wasn't a good idea to think too much about it. Bald discussion of plot mechanics smacked of gimmickry and manipulation. This quote from E.L. Doctorow was a popular way to describe how writers got from the beginning of their books to the end: "It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." *

I love that quote, and I think it's accurate. At the same time, there are such things as maps, and that's what I want to talk about today.

First let's talk about what maps (i.e., plot outlines) can't do. A map can't tell you what the experience of being at Niagara Falls will be like. As my friend Alex Chee says, when you're writing, you're taking a journey to a place you've never been before, so there's no way to know what it will be like when you get there. (Interestingly, he's the one who invented the Amtrak Writers' Residency.) So having a map is not the same as actually knowing how your story is going to end. But it does give you a direction to go in, and it gives you a bird's-eye perspective on your story and a way to track your progress on the journey.

You're trying to chart unvisited seas, and there will be monsters. You will have to revise your map as you go. If you stubbornly insist on sticking to your first version, in spite of its not turning out to match the reality of your story, you will run aground. But, bearing all that in mind, it's time to repair to your cabin, get the parchment and the compass and the ink out, and make the best map you can. You will learn a lot from doing this.

Screenwriters are the plot experts. If you want to learn about it, don't talk to writers of literary fiction, talk to them. (You might enjoy Save the Cat, a personal favorite that consistently makes the "best books" lists of actual screenwriters; or check out these "Screenwriting Tricks for Authors" articles by Alexandra Sokoloff.)

Billy Wilder, who knew a little something about screenwriting, is often quoted describing the three-act plot as: Get your character up a tree. Throw rocks at him. Then get him down.

(I'm not putting that in quotation marks as it may be apocryphal; you can find many versions online and I have yet to find an authoritative source. Apocryphal or not, it's popular because it's a useful, concise description of plot.)

Get your timer and your pen ready. Today you'll spend ten minutes brainstorming each act of your story. You're not writing prose now; you're just sketching the map.

Act I: Get your character up a tree

 1.   Ask yourself: What does your character want? This will, of course, have some connection to her problem. (E.g., she wants to solve her problem.) Write about it for five minutes.

2.  Now—after you've done that—pause and think about how, as screenwriters say, want is not the same as need. Here's an excellent short piece that illustrates the difference. Go read it.

3.   Did you read it? No? Read it. Here's the link again.

4.  Just let that ferment in your brain as you go through the rest of the exercise. Want vs. need.

5.  What is your character's plan to get what she wants? You now know on some level (if you didn't already) that it's not exactly the same as what she needs. But she probably doesn't know that. So kind of ignore that as you brainstorm about her plan. What is the plan, and how will she embark on it? Write for five minutes.

(Do you notice that your character is just like you—striking out into uncharted territory with a faulty, preliminary set of directions, not even really understanding where she's trying to go?)

Act II: Throw rocks at her

Now throw one or two rocks at her; put one or two wrenches in her plan.

1.  Something bad happens. Write for five minutes.

2. Then something worse happens. This could be what in screenwriting is called an "all is lost" moment. Write for five minutes.

Act III: Get her down from the tree

What happens in Act III is that your character finds her strength, and solves her problem. That's how she gets down from the tree. Or else maybe someone shoots her down. Or she finally lets go of that branch she's been clinging to and just falls. You can end your story however you want. (Of course!)

If you've already done Exercise #3, you've already come up with a few possible endings, so use your favorite of those.

One thing to consider: Her solution and her strength may come from accepting that the "problem" is part of who she is, for better and worse. And that the solution has been there all along, but she couldn't see it till she was ready. Kansas is home. She already has the ruby slippers.

1. Take five minutes to sketch  the ending.

2.  That five minutes wasn't enough, was it? You feel stuck. You still don't know how your story will end. Take a breath. Step back. Now spend five more minutes brainstorming about it.

3.  Now leave it. Everything will be different when you get there.

Great! Now you have a character, a problem, and a (monster-infested and imperfect) plot. Take a few minutes to feel good, because this is a big deal.

SUMMARY: Plot your story in three acts: I. Get your character up a tree. II. Throw rocks at her. III. Get her down. Spend ten minutes brainstorming each act.

Next: A Lump in the Throat

Minjeong An, detail of a 2007 work, via 50watts


  1. Loving these exercises! Thanks so much Kirsten. I can see myself revisiting again and again.

  2. Thank you! I'm so glad you like them!