My Plot Development Process
Part 1: Points of Inspiration
Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015
Once upon a time, I was asked how I create plots in my fiction. In fact this query is several years outstanding, but today I'm going to begin to answer it at last!
No bullshit, either. The reason this took me so long to write is that it's a very difficult question, and the reason it's a difficult question is that I don't have a straightforward, consistent, controllable process. Several times I'd sit down to write this piece, and try to write down my "recipe" for plotting, and run into a brick wall, because the fact is I haven't got a recipe.
For a plot-driven writer who feels rather strongly that plot-driven stories are given short shrift in this day and age, and as a writer who simply takes great pleasure and pride in his plots, that's not the kind of answer I want to give—not to other writers and certainly not to myself. I'm the sort of person who confronts a problem like not having a recipe for creating plots and says "Well then write one." And so each time, that's what I'd try. But I never got there. Not yet anyway.
This time I've decided to answer the question descriptively: I'm going to explain how I've plotted stories in my life thus far. Not how I'd ideally like to it—i.e., the recipe—but how I've actually done it.
There are several layers to my plotting process. I'll cover them in the order they occur. Today I'll be talking about points of inspiration.
Points of Inspiration
For me, plotting begins with a "point of inspiration." I rarely come up with a plot for the sake of coming up with a plot. Instead, I'll see something that inspires me, something that makes me rapturously exclaim—typically in the couth privacy of my own head—"I want to experience this story!"
"I want to experience this story" is a different mindset from "There's a story here" or "I want to tell this story." I'm a very selfish storyteller. I tell for myself. I love experiencing stories. I write the stories I want to read.
As a writer I get to experience stories more willfully than as a mere reader, because I'm the one who gets to decide what happens. The biggest risk of experiencing somebody else's story is that it might take a direction I don't like—which is a terrible fate to suffer if it happens after I've become invested. I'm still peeved about what happened to Star Trek after TNG, or what they did with Lanfear in The Wheel of Time. And of course other people's stories might have tones or prejudices or attitudes or styles that I disapprove of. When I'm the author, none of that is a problem.
I'm also a very imaginative person, and I daydream most days. My natural reaction to a point of inspiration is to want to do my own story out of it. I'm not the sort of person who sees something inspiring and says "Ooh, I wish Neil Gaiman would write about this." I just begin imagining the story myself, immediately and without prompting.
Sources of Inspiration
A point of inspiration can come from anywhere. It's even fair to say that a "point of inspiration" can simply be any inspiration. It's not some special class of inspiration, except in that it triggers me to imagine a story.
During the last two weeks of Curious Tale Saturdays I wrote about how this picture led me to create two ATH characters and an entire subplot around them:
© Michael Hayes for Wizards of the Coast
That picture was the point of inspiration, and within 24 hours I had a working subplot in After The Hero based upon it.
Another example, a classic example, one that I return to again and again, is the brief appearance—barely a minute long—of the space pirate captain Emeraldas in the motion picture version of Galaxy Express 999. Emeraldas boards the train, barges in, raises her sword at the main character…it's so wonderful. That minute was one of several key inspirations for the Curious Tale character Silence Terlais. It was just so cool.
A point of inspiration doesn't have to come from a fabricated story, though, or any kind of fabricated work at all. It can come from anywhere. The swirl of cream in coffee. The sight of city lights on the hills. A paragraph in a book. Seeing an interesting cloud can do it!
When I wrote the song "Into the Winds of Glarough," for Mate of Song, my point of inspiration was the world around me as I took a walk on a foggy, rainy, cloudy, windy day on the Mountain. The vast vistas, the mountains and valleys, were all faded out to gray, but they were still visible, just barely, like a veil through to another world. For years I'd had some kind of story in me about the feelings and thoughts that come from weather like that, and finally the experience of that day was enough of an inspiration to bear fruit: a song, which tells, in a sense, a complete story.
Actually, it was a "composite" point of inspiration, because as I took that walk I also had a melody in my head, the Corries' melody of "A Tiree Love Song," and that's why my ensuing story took the form of a song. As I walked, I could imagine Afiach riding her horse in such a fog, glimpsing through to the other world, and singing about it. Here's the chorus and one of the verses:
Along, along, my gentle brown dray
Into the Winds of Glarough.
Hear the words the storm will say:
The rain, the green tomorrow.
Wind in the trees, loping the plain,
Hair and my jacket aflutter;
Callous sting of springtime rain,
To each we are the other.
Notwithstanding that I wasn't riding a horse, much of the song consists of visceral descriptions of what I experienced, and imagined, on that walk.
Lastly, points of inspiration don't have to be external. Well-developed concepts in my mind, and sequences of unguided daydreaming, can also serve—and often do.
The Scope of an Inspiration
A point of inspiration can be impressively large, like an entire Metroid game or indeed my conception of the whole Metroid universe altogether, or it can be exquisitely small, like the five pentatonic notes that constitute the Metroid hatchling theme at the end of Metroid II. It can be noble and grand, like the tale of Númenor, or it can be intimate and devoid of obvious elegance, like the sight of an interesting person on the city bus. It can also be very particular to my psyche, like the emotional mood created by the style of lighting in a section of a certain grocery store near the back, away from any windows and natural sunlight. Or it can be a virtually universal experience, like the feeling of belonging and community that comes from attending something beautiful like PAX.
This scope includes a temporal dimension as well. A proverbial "moment" of inspiration can indeed be a split-second, or it can be hours long, or in some cases vastly longer still. Usually, the limiting factor is my conscious awareness. A point of inspiration usually has to come from what I consider to be a single experience. For me the scale of hours tends to mark the upper limit for single experiences. But occasionally a point of inspiration can transcend that limit by encompassing multiple experiences or occurring retrospectively. Much of the inspiration for the events in Section I of The Great Galavar draws upon events in my own high school years—as remembered by a Josh in his thirties.
The gestation period for a point of inspiration is another aspect of its scope. It can take any amount of time. As I mentioned with "Into the Winds of Glarough," it took me years of gradually building up a story impulse before one specific event—my walk on a stormy day—finally bore fruit. In that particular case, the walk itself and the song in my head weren't enough on their own to account for what happened. I also needed a pent-up desire.
A point of inspiration keeps well, too. I can bottle a complete point of inspiration for years before acting on it. My imagination of a story core occurs at the moment of inspiration, but once fashioned the story core is as durable as my memory of it.
A Magical Experience
Experiencing a point of inspiration is magical to me, in that it draws on mental processes outside my control and oftentimes my very awareness. And, unlike a plot itself, which has some kind of logical progression—typically a beginning, middle, and end—a point of inspiration is a simultaneous phenomenon: When I experience a point of inspiration, I will instantly develop the core details of a story, including relevant plot points.
What does that mean? What specifically happens to me during the moment of inspiration? Not usually anything particularly original. Rather, as I look upon what inspires me, I proverbially point and shout "THAT." What happens there is a transformative adaptation of the source material, mapped onto my own story canvas.
For instance, that Magic: The Gathering card, whose picture is shown up above, is called "Reckless Waif," and depicts a person who lives on the plane of Innistrad. The Reckless Waif of Innistrad is not Spatula Terlantar, the Sodish street urchin in The Curious Tale. And that's not just to avoid copyright infringement. The transformation really does supersede any and all details of the source material that don't fit in the new order.
This is more obvious with a more abstract example, such as the swirl of cream freshly poured into a cup of coffee. The unstirred, chilled cream falls into the hot coffee and makes elaborate patterns as the kinetic and thermodynamic turbulences play out. These swirls are reminiscent of things like galaxies or portals or vortices. I may be looking at coffee and cream, but that's not what I'm imagining.
In other cases the adaptation is quite literal, as with "Into the Winds of Glarough," where all I did was replace myself with Afiach and her horse Spinach. The only other major change is that I left room for the "other world" to actually be a real place.
The moment of inspiration itself, and the transformational story core which instantly follows, is in some ways my favorite part of the entire plot development process. It's the moment where nothing gives way to something, where the dull glare of infinitely infinite possibilities explodes into the vibrant rainbow of infinite possibilities within a finite context. Unlike many storytellers I don't find a blank canvas intimidating. I just find it uninteresting. But when that seed germinates in my mind—when a point of inspiration flashes into my existence—everything changes. It really is the closest thing to magic.
Tune in Next Week!
A point of inspiration, and the story core that develops from it, is the first layer in my plotting process, and almost no actual, deliberate plotting occurs here. Indeed, I have mostly spoken of "story," and story is not interchangeable with plot.
Yet as you can imagine the point of inspiration is vitally important to the end result of a fully formed plot, not only as the key source of story origins for me, but because those core story elements that develop instantly and simultaneously around the seed that is a point of inspiration become seeds themselves, around which more elaborate plots are subsequently built.
Next week I'm going to talk about something that probably sounds like it belongs in a graduate paper: the decompression of simultaneity.
O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!