Action Force Mailbag: Plot vs Everything Else

Been a while since we’ve dipped into the ol’ A. Lee Martinez Action Force mailbag.  I don’t actually get much fanmail.  You can reach me on Twitter (@aleemartinez), Facebook (A. Lee Martinez), or even via e-mail (hipstercthulhu@hotmail.com).  Drop a line, if you have a few minutes to kill.  Or don’t.  We’ve all got lives to live.

Today’s letter comes from Tibor Kovac:

Do you care about story structure? Do your first start with character development and then head on to creating the storyline? Or do you just sit down with an idea and start writing without worrying too much? In fact I noticed that Lucky’s intervention with all the gods in the end is indeed a ‘deus ex machina’, although you charmingly covered it as a normal event in regard to the context of your story, which is about gods dealing with humans and vice versa. I myself have plenty of crazy ideas (mostly stupid, but maybe also brilliant ones) but I think I’m just too jaundiced with all the formal writing stuff they teach me at university.

 

First of all, thanks for the letter, Tibor, and thanks for the question.  This is a complicated one.  Let’s get to it.

My creative process varies by story, so there’s no default way I start a story.  Sometimes, I have a character or a setting in mind and not much else.  Other times, I have the bones of a story in mind, although in the end, that rarely winds up being the story I tell.  Plotting is a complex issue, and whenever I talk about it, I accept that I’m flirting with controversy.  I have a nuanced relationship with plotting, believe it or not, but in the broadest stroke, I think it’s safe to say that plotting just isn’t that important.

And there arises a collective gasp from everybody who takes writing Seriously!  Capital S!  Flowcharts and graphs and index cards pinned to the wall scribbled with notes types faint.  Somewhere, an innocent baby cries out in shock.

Note that I qualified that with the phrase “Broad Strokes”.  It means that while I don’t think plotting is the most important element to writing a story (or even the fourth or fifth most important thing), it is still pretty damned important.  Most good stories must have some sort of plot, and that plot should be tied to the characters and themes within the story.  Plot is a series of events that must connect, that should make sense when tied together, and should lead the characters and the audience toward a meaningful resolution.

So plot is important.  I will repeat that several more times so that people don’t make the mistake of thinking I don’t believe that.

Plot is important.

PLOT is important.

Plot IS important.

Plot is IMPORTANT.

PLOT IS IMPORTANT.

There.  Don’t come charging at me with rebuttals saying that I’m a fool and a hack for dismissing the importance of plot because, one more time, PLOT IS IMPORTANT.

But on the spectrum of important elements, it’s probably the lowest.  I’m sure there are many successful writers who would disagree with me, and they can all make good cases.  But for me, I’d much rather focus on character, setting, conflict, and character arcs, and when you get right down to it, all those things are what make up the plot, so it’s perhaps a paradox to think of them as separate from plotting.  So why do I consider them more important than plot?

It’s all about emotional investment.  When you boil down plot, it is little more than a series of events.  Plotting is the most mechanical aspect of telling a story, and while it still takes time and skill to write a good plot, imbuing your characters, setting, and conflict with emotional heft is usually a hell of a lot harder.

In the end, every story has been told before.  Millions of times.  The human race could stop writing fiction today, and there would be no shortage of stories to tell and share until we’re finally enslaved by benevolent dinobot overlords.  Every story I’ve ever written, every story you’ve ever read, is merely a retelling of an older one.  Yes, even the classics are simply reruns of older tales.

It’s the emotional weight that makes stories worth telling, and it’s that same emotional weight that compels us to recreate those stories again for ourselves.  And emotional resonance almost NEVER comes from plotting.  It comes from compelling characters, interesting settings, intriguing character arcs, and memorable moments.  You could argue that this is good plotting, but I’d argue that, of all the elements new writers screw up, it isn’t plotting.  It’s emotional resonance.

Or maybe it’s all semantics.  Maybe all this dissection of storytelling is pointless and silly.  What matters is if a story speaks to the audience, and how it manages to do that is a mystery that no one can truly claim to have solved.

What’s interesting to me is that when people do talk about plotting, they tend to talk about it in terms of story expectations, not the actual plot itself.  A lot of the complaints about my own plotting often stem from a dislike of straying from the expected formula, as if by choosing to swerve from the expected ending is an unintentional, amateurish mistake.  Divine Misfortune does indeed have a deus ex machina ending (of a sort), and part of that is because it is a story about gods.  But the other part is the recurring theme, mentioned over and over again, that the old school gods like Gorgoz are basically criminals who only continue to exist because they hide from the other gods.  Gorgoz’s downfall comes because he forgets that, and because Lucky is smart enough to call the proper authorities.

It’s weird because we’re so used to our heroes being cut off from proper help that they can’t simply ring up the cops, but this is an intentional subversion.  The subversion of Divine Misfortune is that it isn’t really an adventure story.  It is the least like an adventure story of all the books I’ve written.  So our protagonist calls the cops, and that solves the problem.  This is only strange if you assume the plot of the story is centered on Lucky beating Gorgoz.

And this is where plotting gets tricky because that’s not the story of Divine Misfortune at all.  It’s not about heroism, adventure, or even magic.  It’s about personal responsibility.  And so, when Lucky steps up and calls the god cops (for lack of a better term) when he could just as easily walk away, he’s showing real personal growth.  Gorgoz might be flashy.  He might be the bad guy.  But he is not the foe Lucky must slay.  He’s an obstacle, but he is not the center of Lucky’s character arc.

Whether this works for you depends a lot on whether you can see past the expected plot to the central theme of the novel.  Theme is also another stumbling block because people do the same thing with theme as plot.  They create expectations before reading a word, and when those expectations are not met, they are often displeased with the results.  Divine Misfortune, my story of gods, isn’t about many of the things people expect stories about gods to be about.  It’s not about faith or power or mysticism.  It’s about being a good person, even when you don’t have to be a good person.  It’s about being better than you need to be.  That’s built into the setting, the characters, and nearly ever scene in the book.  If you want to get technical about it, that’s the plot.

But when I sat down to write the book, I didn’t think of it in those terms.  I instead thought of the characters and how they related to each other, how they would change during the story, and why anyone should invest in their story at all.  And I can honestly say, it never occurred to me that it would be because “On Page 14, Lucky goes to a Chuck E. Cheese.”

As for the “crazy ideas”, I have some mixed feelings about that as well.  I don’t write anything to be weird.  I write fantasy.  Unapologetic, unafraid fantasy.  I’ve little interest in convincing anyone that robot detectives or minotaur women are cool, and I believe that, in a more perfect universe, we’d be less concerned with putting things in nice little boxes and instead, use our fiction to explore the many facets of our emotional existence.  I tend to do that with space squids and vampires, but whatever works.

My advice (if you were wondering when I’d get to it) is that you aren’t going to learn a heck of a lot about writing in a university environment.  I am not against further education, and I’m sure there are many good writing classes and teachers out there.  But I also know that writing fiction is a creative process, and it’s less about following a formula than creating a story that works.  Not everyone understands that.  Many people have defined a rather narrow definition of what makes fiction work, and a lot of those people are teachers sadly.

DISCLAIMER:  Keep in mind that I have no formal education in writing, so my thoughts on this are probably skewed from the amount of horror stories I’ve heard.  Nobody tells you about all the good stuff they learned in writing class, but everyone can’t wait to tell you about that one writing teacher who made their life miserable.

I’m a big believer in doing what works.  Some writers swear by plotting, and they write perfectly good stories.  Many of those writers are much more successful than I am too, which is worth noting.  So you have to find what works for you.  That’s what makes creativity so difficult because for ever rule, there’s an exception, but those rules are there for a reason too.  Knowing when to follow them and when to break them is the tricky part.

If I can get right down to my point, I think it’s almost all splitting hairs.  If a story is good, if it has emotional weight, then people will give credit to whatever element they liked most.  For some, that’ll be the plotting.  For others, the characters or the dialogue.  My true advice is not to focus on those labels but concentrate on making something worth reading.  Learn from those who have something to offer.  Worry less about any particular aspect.  Concern yourself with the overall picture.  Do your best to assess your strengths and weaknesses as a storyteller, and always strive to improve.  Be strong in your convictions, but be open to criticism.

But, above all, write if you want to write, and do your best to become better in every way.

Good luck.  I’m rooting for you.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,

LEE

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