Plot Structure 6 (Bonus): Discovery Writing with Basic Improv

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All month, I’ve promised 5 articles on Plot Structure… but here is a 6th. Enjoy!

I have a habit of planning a series, then thinking of another entry halfway through, after I’ve already committed to a certain number. Good things this is a personal blog and there are no rules! 

For five of the past several weeks, we have discussed plot structures: ways to organize your story or novel. In the beginning, I laid out that not all writers can plot before or while they’re writing, but that those who do not often find themselves looking to mold their raw creation into a structure through revision. We all revise…but the difference, I think, is how much and to what degree. 

So, for all those crazy discovery-writers out there, the gardeners, the improvisers, how do they do it? How can you create a reasonable, cohesive first draft with no plan? 

Let’s talk about one question, two variables, and four possible answers. 

The One Question: What happens Next? 

You’re writing along. Something happens. Your characters need to react. What do they do?

Common advice about creative brainstorming says to discard your first 1-3 ideas. The logic is that your first instincts are probably too obvious or cliched. For the raw response, however, I believe this is where you stick with the obvious action, and here’s why: plot holes. If your characters reacted to every situation with the 4th most logical response, many readers will understandably wonder whether they’re too stupid to notice the obvious solution. This question removes many readers from the story, inviting them to don their critic hat. Now, they’re not along for the ride; they’re poking holes. Have your characters make the best decision they can with the resources and information available to them (limit these for bad choices…). The time for the unexpected comes later, I promise. 

Consider Two Variables

You have two dials to turn when making choices for your characters. First, do they succeed? This is a black-and-white, yes-or-no question: the character’s plan either works, or it doesn’t. For most stories, the characters should fail for the first 75% of the narrative, but, if a feature of your story is a hyper-competent hero, you can and should play with that fuzzy guideline. 

Second, regardless of success or failure, do they progress towards the goal? 

You’ve got two factors to adjust. (photographer: Lindsey Dowell)

The Four Answers/Outcomes

In the results of your character’s decisions the author pulls out all the stops and plays with the most exciting, unexpected options available. 

No/And – No, the action fails, and, also, a setback pushes the characters away from their goal. This is particularly useful in the first half of your story, when your plot should continually beat the characters down. Complications, complications, complications. 

No/But – No, the action fails, but they fail forward, stumbling onto progress towards their goal. This can be an interesting way to introduce unexpected characters or worldbuilding elements. However, use with caution: too much failure leading to accidental success, and you’ll find yourself with an unsympathetic, passive protagonist waltzing through a series of unsatisfying deus ex machina. Many comedic writers lean heavily on this option.

Yes/But – Yes, the action succeeds, but a complication results in movement away from the goal. For the first 75% of the story, this should be your go-to result for any success: add a complication to keep the tension high. 

Yes/And – This is the most boring answer to the question if it occurs too early in the story. The action succeeds and results in progress towards the goal. Save this one for the end, when things are wrapping up nice and tidy (if you’re writing a happy ending, that is). 

Application

I’m sure you’ll be shocked to know this writer is not an actor, but, as I’ve mentioned a time or two, I love table-top RPGs, where the collaborative story is always discovery-written by 3-8 mad creators at the same time. As a Gm, every time your players make a choice, I process these options in my head. It becomes instinct. 

If you’re more of a discovery writer, aka a pantser, aka a gardener, and you don’t already have a paradigm in your head for deciding where to next take the story, you could do worse than asking yourself one question, with two parts, and four possible answers.

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