I am by nature a descriptive writer. I like to think about conversations between characters, world building exercises, moments of conflict and resolution, themes, and character design.
I hate thinking about plot.
Plot always seemed so forced to me. It was the tyrannical teleology that propelled characters forward against their will. It forced them into situations with which they hadn’t yet expressed connection. Plot also compelled me to create these interlocking planes of intrigue, political movement, and ulterior motive–things that I hate in reality and, therefore, suck at writing.
So, I tricked myself into devising a plot through the use of a storyboard.
I’ve used storyboards, of a sort, while writing papers. I’ll create enormous Excel charts that list the people I’m studying, their respective information profiles, and their importance to the paper. Then I print them out, tape them together, and lay them out on the floor. Looking at tangentially related profiles and people in this way tricks my brain into seeing the connections I couldn’t make when they were all existing as individuals. This method is a kind of informal prosopography–the creation of networks which you then describe with prose, rather than with statistics or graphs.
I thought to myself, well, if charts can make me write a paper that situates brilliantly individual people and their motives into a web of co-constitutive historical chronology, then maybe a chart could force me to fashion a plot, which basically does the same thing.
Of course, since this storyboard was to be for a novel and not a paper, I decided to be a bit more colorful and creative with it.
First, I created the board itself. I took a bunch of sheets of 8.5 X 11″ printer paper and taped them together. The board is six sheets high, and four sheets wide, with each paper aligned horizontally. It’s 44″ across the bottom and 51″ up the sides.
Then, I set about dividing the thing up into squares.
This took some doing…
See, already, I was forced to think about the structure of the book in a way I hadn’t before. I had sort of vaugely conceived of the novel as existing in three parts with ten chapters each, but I had no reason for conceptualizing things this way, other than that it seemed like a mathematically pleasing way of doing things. I decided to stick with it, and see what happened. So I divided the chart up into 30 rows, each about two inches tall.
Then, I went to put in the vertical rows, creating columns for characters, plots, dates, locations, and groups, and I quickly realized that there was no way I could include every character I had imagined on this sheet. Instead, I had to think about which characters were truly necessary to the plot of the first book, and which characters existed in subplots that would happen behind the scenes. I had to let go of Celeste, Vaughan, and Quill as columns, for instance, so I could include Arthur, Thom, and Wynter. And since I don’t even like Wynter, and I knew that Arthur would be important, but I hadn’t really thought about his “plot,” this was a bit of a trial.
I wavered. I thought, what if this won’t work after all, because I have no idea what the hell to put in some of these columns…
And then I decided to color code the top of the chart, rather than thinking about how daunting it was.
I forced myself to play with the width of columns based on the importance of the character. I forced myself to leave only a two inch wide column for “Others” to make sure I didn’t get sucked into the world of behind the scenes subplotting again. And, I made myself leave a four inch wide column for “PLOT.”
So, with the board created and beautified, I then taped it up to the wall in my dining room. Coincidentally, I had been staring at that blank wall since I moved in, unsure of what its purpose would be, and it felt really good to use it for something so creative.
Then…I had to start filling in the chart.
I have about the first ten chapters of the novel either written, or in loose outline form, on my computer. So I opened those files and started filling in squares.
And a couple of magical things happened.
First, as I blithely filled up these squares with things like “Spencer realizes X” or “John goes to Y” I began to see that I hadn’t really thought through why my characters were doing the things they were doing. Somewhere in the back of my mind I had thought, oh right, characters need to go do stuff. But with things up in the chart, I could start to see that, ohhh…maybe John actually goes over to this other place, because he would respond to Spencer’s realization in a totally different way than I had perceived.
That, in turn, gave me a much clearer picture of character motives, and I started to see a plot emerging without even looking for it.
THE TRICK WAS WORKING
Second, I noticed that I had made some serious leaps in logic, as I am wont to do. I had been so busy thinking about what Cecil might have been up to in Atlantis, because I enjoy thinking about Cecil, that I had failed to notice how I had skipped about two chapters worth of action down in Chicago. Dates shifted, focus shifted, and again, plot came climbing out of the chart. And since I still had a column for Cecil, I still got to write down what he was up to, which made me feel better about life in general.
THE TRICK WAS STILL WORKING
I turned on some music, grabbed a beer, and went to town on this chart. And about four hours in, I took a step back, looked down the PLOT column and blinked in disbelief.
I had filled it in. Completely. Thirty chapters worth.
I hadn’t even filled in all the character squares, or the thoughts of group movements, or the themes…but I had a plot.
I’m not entirely sure how to express the intoxication of this feeling. It’s the feeling you get when you accomplish something you thought you were terrible at, or you had convinced yourself you could never do. And then not only do you accomplish it, but you do so without pain and suffering, without once giving up on yourself. I just abandoned myself to the challenge, ran right through it, and emerged on the other side with a god. damn. plot.
I did do a crazy dance that involved karate chops and an attempt at the worm. That’s probably about the best explanation of how I felt.
And you might notice the sheets of paper off to the side there, or the post its up at the top?
Those are the subplots and themes. They’re important to the story, but they are not the story itself. And I finally figured that out when I made this chart and discovered I had no space for them.
The papers taped to the wall, for instance, remind me of my themes and set out a few guiding principles for the storyboard project, which I tended to forget when I was writing without a plot. Things like, “REMEMBER: Elise and Bethel are both the lead character,” because it was easy to get caught up in Elise’s magic and forget about Bethel’s job in Chicago. Or, “THEME: The Body Multiple,” which reminds me that characters are not static, and they’re not even forged through the perspectives of other characters, but, rather, they are processes, they emerge, they enact themselves. And I have to allow myself to be surprised by them, especially now that I have a plot I want them to follow.
And the post-its are color coded subplots. The blue corresponds to the things that happen before the novel even starts, but link up to the motives and intrigues that propel the Chicago story. The pink post its do the same thing for the Atlantis story. And the orange down the side helps me to reflect on which characters I need to follow when the stories collide.
So, in the end, the storyboard ended up being about the most useful project in the history of my projects.
It helped me to conceptualize (and learn to love) a plot, which had hardly existed prior this exercise. It made me figure out how to write behind the scenes intrigue, which I had never before successfully managed. It gave neglected characters a whole hell of a lot more to do, which brightened each story line. It allowed me to see the flow and the arc of the novel as a whole being, which did end up corresponding to the groups of ten chapters in three parts. And, it 100% (200%…578%) exploded the plots of the books that will follow, which was equally as intoxicating as this project ended up being.
In that explosion, I realized…I’m probably writing a six book series, rather than the original four books. And I’m also going to have to deal with WWI head on, rather than darting around it and hiding under a chair like a scared cat.
But, hey. Such are the things that confident writers can accomplish.
Which I’m slowly becoming.