Tag Archives: creative writing

Plotting for Multiple Characters (part 1)

Seems my writing posts have been popular lately, so this will be another one of those and I hope you enjoy it and get something out of it.

I’m often asked how to plan out how to interweave storylines with multiple characters, or to create “B” and “C” stories. So this blog will walk you through my process and hopefully give you a new strategy for working multiple plots into episodic, short or long form narrative. It’ll be tough to cover them all effectively, so I hope what I do cover you’ll be able to translate to whatever format you’re personally working in. Keep in mind, too, that this is how “I” do it and it is certainly not the only way to effectively work with multiple characters. It’s worked for me, so I’m sticking with it.

So the first thing I do when I know I’m working with multiple characters is to create a grid chart. I use Microsoft Excel these days, but I still have—somewhere in a box—the hand written copies of the charts I used to plot out Cat & Mouse and some of my other early comics. I write my characters’ names across the top, generally the more prominent characters first. Like such:

Protag 1

Protag 2

Antag

Love interest

Support 1

Support 2

           

After I’ve got that figured out, I start dropping in the important events of the characters, usually leaving a few spaces between each entry because I know I’ll add stuff and move stuff around. I try to stick with things that are visual and have high conflict content or are major events in the life of the character. When I’m done entering stuff in, my chart looks something like this:

Protag 1

Protag 2

Antag

Love interest

Parents killed. Lost in woods. Discovered by Mountain Man

Wins award for science essay.

Comes in 2nd with science essay. Wins nothing.

Completes high school under care of single mom.

Lives with MM who teaches tracking, hunting and other survival skills.

Kicked out of college—accused of copying essay but did not. It was, however, based on research from Mom.

Father kicks out of house for losing. Immediately moves across country.

Graduates college with computer science degree. Hired by NSA to hack Chinese government computers.

Leaves MM to go to big city where he meets Protag 2 in an alley near death.

Begins job at high tech espionage firm.

Joins gang in Eastern coastal city. Quickly establishes reputation for brutality.

HOW DOES SHE MEET PROTAG 1?

 

While “espionaging” is captured and tortured and brainwashed.

Promoted in gang to a capo and given a territory. Moves (takes some of his underlings)

 
 

Dumped in an alley in the big city.

Catches Protag 2—remembers her. Attempts to kill—THINKS he has.

 

This is just for an example, so don’t get worked up about it. You’ll notice I’ve a little more about P2 than P1, but it’s usually not that way. Besides, I don’t ever worry about that at this stage because the characters are still being formed (you’ll also note that much of this reads like “backstory” and would likely be cut ANYWAY—just bear with me so you can get the idea). While I don’t do it in my sample here for you, I do try to take the entries to MAJOR conflicts because what I’m working to do is make sure the character intersect with one another at those points of conflict. After all, we know that’s where the heart of our stories are, right? CONFLICT?

Okay, I’m already at 600 words…so you’ll have to come back next week for the rest.

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My outlining process

My last blog on outlining vs letting it flow seemed to be a fun topic for many, so I thought I’d actually go through an “outlining lite” here. Keep in mind, this is the way that I try to do it, which is to say it isn’t the only way, just a way.

Stories can have multiple forms of origin (one of the most common questions asked of published writers is “where do you get your ideas?” The answer, of course, is EVERYWHERE!), but once the basic idea is there, the root story elements should be the same. Sometimes I start with what I think is an interesting character, an interesting situation, an interesting event…whatever. There’s no right or wrong. I’ll often scribble out some generics about the idea just to get them down on paper.

THEN, I start the outline process, I mean, there’s got to be a story, right? So what is that story to go along with the interesting character, etc? Based on the notes I have scribbled, I answer four basic questions: 1)whose story is it? 2)what is that person’s goal? (must be a TANGIBLE/ACHIEVABLE goal!); 3)what or who gets in the way of that happening? (whos are almost always better than whats) and then 4)does the person from #1 achieve the goal? They do not have to achieve it in order for the story to work—in fact, we’re often drawn to protagonists who fail, but we should have some resolution.

The first question may not be as easy as it initially looks, but it’s usually the one that I get answered first because I’m drawn to interesting characters more than anything. Once I answer that, I start working out what it is they want more than anything else. This is the thing that drives the character’s actions—all of them! Obviously, you can get into the wants vs. needs debate, but this is my blog, so we’re talking about what does the character want? What they want can definitely change, but you won’t know that until you start answering #3 and #4. That goal must be at the forefront of all the character’s actions or somehow related to it.

With #1 and #2 answered, I move on to #3. It is at this point that I generally have to come up with the antagonist (remember, I said whos are better than whats). I go through a mini-version of what I just did for the protagonist. The antagonist should be working to stop the protagonist from accomplishing their goal…and when you figure out the why, you suddenly find yourself answering a #1 and #2 for the antagonist.

With that answered, NOW you have conflict! And conflict is what readers/viewers want to read/see. We’re drawn to it and will keep coming back to see how it ends.

And once you’ve got that done…you have yourself a mini-outline that you can start fleshing out to a full-blown work!

So, I really will get back to normal posts here someday…for my own writing sake, I’m hoping that day is sooner rather than later. I do have a lot of exciting things beginning to happen with projects I’ll be pitching in the coming weeks and I’m excited to share those so you can see the cool art I’ve been seeing.

See you next week!

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Outline? Or let it flow?

One of my recent responsibilities for a class assignment was to respond to student essays about certain aspects of writing: influences, how to start a project, etc. One common comment about starting a writing project always makes me think, “hmm. Yes, you haven’t written very many things, have you?” That response always goes something like this:

When I start a new project, I just write. I don’t worry about the characters or the plot or the story, I just write and see where it all goes. I just let the character (or story) take me where he wants to take me. (This is not an exact quote, for those of you thinking such things!)

This line of thinking gets us to the debate of whether it is advisable for a writer to write as the muse strikes and just let it flow out of the brain and fingertips, or to compose an outline and then work from that.

When I sat down to write a novel the very first time (not Buying Time, a different, unfinished one), I wanted to just start writing and “let the character tell his story” and/or “let it flow as it hits me.” I’d heard a few writers talk about composing like that and I wanted to try it. I wrote forty-thousand words. I was well on my way. But when I hit that 40k mark, while I thought I had some nice scenes, I had no STORY. And you know, story is king!

When I sat down to write my next novel (finished, but unsold), I outlined extensively. I revised the outline quite a few times in order to work on pacing and conflict…y’know, story stuff. The writing went fast…and the characters STILL told their story, I just knew where it was going.

When I sat down to write my next novel (now we get to Buying Time), I did a combination of the two. I had a “concept” but not a story. So I thought I’d write 10-15,000 words and see how it felt, but I didn’t want to write 40k words that went nowhere again. Once I got to that stage (10k words), I stopped and examined the piece for what was there and pulled the story out of it…and then did a rough outline. Once again, I knew the story and the words came more quickly.

When I reached that 40k mark in my first book, I had no idea where the story was going. And if I—the writer—didn’t know where the story was going or what it was, how could I expect to sell it. Notice, I didn’t. Oh, sure, I may revisit it one day and see if I can find the story there…but for now, it’s simply 40k words of everyday scenes.

It’s a little easier to let it flow when writing a novel, though. There are no real “markers” you have to meet—it’s whatever floats your boat. With other kinds of writing (film, television, comics, etc), outlining is vital because you have limited “time” frame in which the story must fit. You can’t (normally) just write until the story plays out, you have to fit it into the chosen format. This requires good outlining or you’ll find yourself with a bunch of words that may sound good but mean nothing.

There are pros and cons to each, I guess, but ultimately, for most writers, outlining has to enter the process at some point. I guess that’s why I always suggest writers do it earlier rather than later. It’s a lot easier to revise in an outline stage than when you have seventy-five thousand words.

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