Article: Hold On to Your Plot Part 1

When we begin writing, we have this core idea, this main plot that keeps the story together. But as we get deeper into subplots and secondary/tertiary characters, sometimes we lose our main idea. We obsess over the little things. We forget the forest for the trees. We see the colors but not the rainbow. I could go on, but I won’t, for your sake. The following series of three entries will focus on Mike Phillips’s essay showing how he keeps his plot in line, with his hints on how to help you stay focused.

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Losing the Plot?
by Mike Phillips

New Ideas from Old
Plots are always based on a story of some kind, and there are only a limited number of basic stories in any culture. Boy meets girl, for instance, or the eternal love triangle. Look hard enough at any story and you will always find the fingerprints of an earlier one.

My own first novel, Blood Rights, was based on a reworking of the story of Oedipus – boy meets dad, kills him and marries mum. This is a fairly unusual family crisis but, in principle, most plots draw on stories which have universal and familiar themes, both within history and for our own times. Exploring and developing stories of this kind is a reliable and interesting way of starting to construct a plot.

Exactly how you go about doing this is a matter of individual temperament. I have sometimes found that it requires nothing more than the impulse to get something down on paper, rather than having planned it out meticulously before I pick up a pen.

In general though, getting a grip on the essence of the story that interests you is usually the real point of departure, whether it’s about love, betrayal or revenge. Your choice can even be determined by what you’re feeling that day. However you start, from that point on you will be looking for a deliberate strategy to develop your ideas.

As with all writers, your strategy will draw on a wide variety of sources – personal experience, sense impressions, ideas overheard or in the distant past, your reading tastes, newspaper headlines, and a countless number of other things besides.

But having made a decision about the story (or at least the kind of story), the next step is to begin jotting down any questions, facts or memories which seem relevant or useful. Doing this creates a focus and helps to shape the fragments swirling around in your mind.

For example, here are some notes with which Blood Rights might have begun:

  • The story is about a boy (lost/abandoned/adopted?) who sets out to contact his father – Oedipus?
  • Question – what is the boy after? Revenge or love? Or both? Does he want power? Do you have to defeat your father before you can grow up?
  • Fact – every child hankers after their natural parents, no matter how well they’ve been brought up.
  • Memory – remember staring out of the window thinking about my parents when we were separated and crying – did I really do that?

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