(To see all my posts on MisCon, including last year’s notes, go here.)
In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.
Panel title: Plot, Plot, Plot
Panel members: Carol Berg, Jim Butcher, J.A. Pitts, Patrick Swenson
Panel description: What is plot? How is it different from storyline? How do you keep your writing moving fast? Our experts will share what they know.
CB: What is the difference between plot and storyline? For example: “The king died and the queen died” is a storyline. “The king died because the queen died” is a plot.
JB: I buy that, but I don’t have a distinction because I just write a story. Everything happens for a reason.
JAP: Plot and theme go hand in hand. They have to work together for the story phase. Different things happen to different people.
PS: It’s wherever it takes me. Characters are reacting to push what they want. If there’s no plot, it’s just action. You need a character who wants something and can’t get it. At the end, the character gets it.
CB: You need a goal, motivation, and conflict. You can have a list of events but it’s not necessarily a plot if there’s no connective tissue. In action movie sequels, things just happen. In a plot, actions and events of a story happen because a person encounters a situation and they react. How do you decide what events happen in your plot?
JAP: I outline a lot. Then I check if the plot is covered. And then the continuity.
JB: I write what is fun to write about. The challenge is to bring those images in my brain to the story and how to get the awesome into the story.
CB: The connective tissue is the hard thing. We can think of cool things, but we have to figure out how to make it work logically. The plot is a road map–write with a destination in mind. How do you get them there? Ask why would he do that? What are the alternatives?
PS: I throw in a bunch of stuff and see if my detective character reacts to it.
CB: Sometimes we know where it ends and cool things happen in between. But the problem is, now we get into character. You cannot divorce plot from character. How can you get a character to do something really bad? Plot flows out of character and how to make them do it.
JB: How do you get a character in trouble? You don’t want to control the reader’s destiny. You can tinker with the character’s past to get them to do it, but it’s clunky. It’s better if you design in beforehand. Then it can happen no other way. You can’t separate plot from character.
JAP: Know your character. How will the character react to the MacGuffin?
PS: I once saw a movie where they asked some authors what they would do if a character does something that they didn’t want them to do. They answered, “Change their past” or “Kill them.”
CB: Connie Willis once said that you are the creator of the characters; they are not real. You are in control. You have to do the hard work of making it work. Plot, designing the right character, learning what they would do. Have you ever plotted yourself into a hole?
JAP: I outline, but then I get off the outline because I come across something cool. If I get into a plot hole, I get angry, do something else, and then go back to the original outline.
JB: There are no dead ends, only opportunities. You overcome it for something awesome. Don’t automatically assume it’s a wall.
CB: In one of my stories, I had a boy who was kidnapped. But I had two other narrators in first person. So who can tell his story? Finally, I had to have the child tell the story–and it was some of the best writing I’ve done. It can be an opportunity. Or go back to your last decision point and see if you made the wrong choice.
PS: I go on a chapter by chapter basis with cliffhangers. I use it as an opportunity. Look at it in a different angle. Reposition the character.
CB: Is there a difference if you’re in the middle of a series or a new book?
JB: In a series, you must balance if a character is needed and how much they appear on stage. Consider which side character is relevant or is the best person to approach the story. Also consider if a new character is needed–don’t double up on what an established character can already do. In a new series, you can drop in characters all the time. In an old series–I have to consider that a new character will be put on the wiki and I end up not doing it because it’s too much work.
JAP: If an ensemble gets too big, some of the characters have to go away. Everything has to be unique enough that it’s not like something that you wrote before.
CB: I don’t necessarily plan out a series ahead of time. Each book is a story, but it’s also part of a larger escalating story. How can you raise the stakes without being repetitive?
Q: Some disasters happen in your [Jim Butcher’s] latest book. How do you know if it’s too disastrous?
JB: I check how late it is in the outline. But you can’t have too much disasters. New writers tend to hold back. You need to make it more disastrous. More disasters are always good.
Q: Aristotle said that character is plot. What’s your take on that?
PS: A character is in charge of his own destination. Escalate the trials and failures.
CB: One drives the other.
JAP: There are lots of things without plot but have just character and they are successful.
JB: Also keep in mind the context that Aristotle was in. In the ancient world writing was different then–it was more about value.
Q: As a character grows, do you alter the plot for the character or try to squeeze the character into the plot?
CB: Never squeeze the character into the plot. Characters rule. If you’re altering the character to fit the story, you’re mutilating the character.
JAP: It depends on what you’re doing. In a short story, it’s a closed room. You don’t have to show who they are. In a novel, you do.
JB: In an expanded story world, you give more room for the character to grow.
CB: People change in response to traumatic events. If they stay static, they’re not human. We know what stress does to people. Adjust the plot as you go along. Characters have to change.
Q: People say that there are only a set number of plots. Do you think there are archetypal plots?
CB: No, not while writing.
JB: Joseph Campbell did not write stories. He wrote about them. He didn’t know the process. I’m too busy doing my stuff to think about that. It’s all about people and how they react. It’s human nature.
JAP: You learn the rules so you can break them. It’s only in the back of my head, but not while writing. The real issue about the set number of plots is that it’s a teaching tool. People don’t know there are other stories and variations.
CB: There are stories that satisfy us. Campbell was looking at why they satisfy us. These stories seem real and go beyond the book.
PS: It’s not so much plot as how people react and how they solve their problems.
Q: Do you think death is necessary and central to the plot? I’ve read books where there’s usually a death of a character that we can relate to.
CB: I hope not.
JB: Not essential, but it works.
JAP: Killing a character is part of the toolkit. If you always use it, it becomes predictable. But it’s a powerful tool.