Tag Archives: plot

Brainstorming Your Plot

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A little backstory: I quit a good job as an academic to devote myself entirely to my fiction (and poetry and screenwriting). After cutting the cord, the first step I took towards building a literary career was deciding to take a visit to the Clarion Free Library in Clarion, Pennsylvania.

Once there, I pulled an assortment of books written by many of my favorite authors off the shelves. I brought these books over to a table and started analyzing how these authors constructed sentences and paragraphs, how they segmented their stories into chapters, how they wrote description, how they wrote dialogue, how they fleshed out character. I tried to understand the “bones” of quality writing.

After this exercise was complete, I penned my first short story in years. Rairigh Drum, my friend and editor, told me that this story was good enough to be in The New Yorker (not quite yet, I’m afraid). However, there was one problem that continued to come up as Rairigh edited my short stories. The plotting in my stories left something to be desired, necessitating numerous rewrites.

Rairigh shared this one secret with me that has made my job (and her own) quite a bit easier. When you’re plotting your story, always think of the possibilities of what could happen immediately after a major action.

For example, imagine that your story is about a firefighter in love with a plumber’s daughter. You might start the story with the plumber taking the firefighter aside and telling him in a cryptic fashion that marrying his daughter isn’t advisable. You want to end your story with the firefighter and the plumber’s daughter getting married with her father’s blessing. You know the beginning and you know the ending, but how do you fill in the middle?

Rairigh explained that for every starting point, you should brainstorm an assortment of possibilities of what could happen next. I would add that it helps if you put yourself in your character’s shoes. What are the possibilities of what you would do if you were the firefighter? List as many ways that the story can go as you can imagine (I hope you’re good at divergence tests), and then for each action brainstorm the many possibilities as to what would happen if you take that road and keep doing so until you reach the finish point.

You may have a great idea, but it can be hard to sustain it to the end without a strong outline. This fun exercise makes plotting easy, which in turns really speeds up and improves the writing process. I hope this practice helps you as much as it has helped me.

How about you? What fun strategies do you use to plot out your stories?

Writing Offensive Characters

There’s a fine line between being an edgy writer and being an offensive one. If your writing tends to be a bit raw, it’s important that you understand how to navigate this tightrope. The literary world does not take kindly to racists, misogynists, homophobes, or other individuals with an overtly offensive agenda masquerading as writers. However, writers most certainly CAN write about racist, misogynistic, homophobic, or other characters with less than desirable traits.

One of the greatest tools that any writer can do to learn how to write well is to examine the works of authors who have pulled off what you are attempting to do. One incredibly unsavory character in fiction is Patrick Bateman, the Wall Street yuppie serial killer in Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho. Bateman is a racist, sexist, homophobic, classist murderer; he’s clearly not a choirboy. However, Ellis’ work was published, became quite popular in literary circles, and even became a blockbuster Hollywood film. Why did it not meet the same fate as other writers who receive immediate rejections when writing similar material? The answer is simple—because Ellis handled his character quite skillfully.

Below are a number of tips that should help those who are attempting the sometimes difficult task of writing offensive characters:

1. Be incredibly careful about using insensitive language. Don’t overdo it (or use it at all) unless it’s absolutely demanded. Don’t use offensive language outside of dialogue unless the narrator is the individual with these tendencies or a similar individual.

2. Write well. It’s simple enough, but if your story is not up to snuff, it’s a lot easier to misconstrue the sentiments of a character for the sentiments of the author.

3. Ensure that the offensive character’s perspective is challenged in some way by reality.

4. Make sure that any other characters who would be subjects for your character’s biases do not fit your offensive characters’ stereotype, unless there is a specific reason necessary for them to do so to make your story work.

5. Don’t resort to cliched tropes. If your offensive character’s been done a million times before in literature and the popular imagination, not only is it unoriginal, but it has quite a higher likelihood of being construed as offensive.

Writers should have no limits. Writers should be free to depict anything. However, make sure that when you’re writing, your readers don’t get the wrong idea about who you are as a person by following these guidelines.