My Plot Development Process
Part 2: The Decompression of Simultaneity
Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015
Once upon a time, I was asked how I create plots in my fiction. Now I'm answering it at last, in this miniseries about my plot development process.
There are several layers to my plotting process, and I'll be covering them in the order they occur. Last week I talked about points of inspiration. This week I'll be talking about the decompression of simultaneity.
Decompression of Simultaneity
A point of inspiration is a simultaneous phenomenon for me. Key parts of the story that I want to tell arise simultaneously, not only with respect to each other (as opposed to being in a linear order), but simultaneously with the inspiration itself. One moment there's nothing, and the next I possess all this stuff in a nonlinear jumble.
After the actual moment of inspiration, which is essentially a magical experience in that I have no conscious will going into it—and it feels magical, too—the next step is to decompress that point of inspiration into some kind of manipulable quantity. I have to make order of it. This is a straightforward, conscious creative process. It's just like interpreting a vision (into a coherent, meaningful narrative).
The overarching feel of decompressing a point of inspiration is one of taking a jumble of pieces—like building blocks—and constructing them into something that satisfies the inspiration. The process for this typically involves constructing a scene. A scene can usually contain the requisite dialogue, actions, images, or whatever else. (The major thing that a scene can't contain is a sense of belonging to the larger story; only the story as a whole can contain that.)
A point of inspiration tends to overshadow its ensuing decompression. More to the point, I tend not to remember the specifics of the decompression process—especially years after the fact. Nevertheless, in order for my article today to have more value to fellow writers, I've tried to reconstruct this process in my examples.
Causing a Scene
When it comes to The Curious Tale, I have an entire folder called "Rogue and Orphaned Scenes" dedicated to scenes that I wrote from points of inspiration. These scenes usually find their way into a proper work later on—sometimes much later on; I have scenes more than a decade old that haven't found placement yet but which, with appropriate revision, likely eventually will.
Scenes that come from points of inspiration are special. They possess greater power, color, and breadth of style and substance than I am generally able to write otherwise. My writing would be drier, less imaginative, and more homogeneous without them.
They're also quite fast to write, relatively speaking. When I was writing Mate of Song I wrote over half the story, plotwise, in the space of roughly a year (give or take), mainly from scenes driven by points of inspiration. Many of the key plot points in the story are there, spread out across all five sections of the story. My pace of writing slowed considerably once I began the next phase, which was to take all those scenes and sew them together—adding more scenes as needed (and there are many)—into a finalized whole.
Let's look at the process of decompression in a couple of examples.
The Example of Spade
Let's take the example of the story of the creation of my character Spade, a Sodish thief who ends up becoming a member of Silence's Handsel Band. Spade's point of inspiration came from a Magic: The Gathering card called Reckless Waif. The card art itself was the point of inspiration. I looked at that, became enthralled by it, and realized in short order that I had to tell that story, and that that story had to include a female street urchin, a depiction of said character doing her thing, a vaguely spooky atmosphere or an atmosphere of intangible dread, an interaction with my theme of nighttime and the empowerment against fear, a house or building of some kind, a depiction of the urchin's deprivation, and a few more things besides.
All of this happened simultaneously. I now possessed some core elements for a story, but they were all in a jumble. There was no linear logic; more like an achronal visual representation of the story. It was time to decompress.
I started daydreaming a scene. Who was this character? I didn't have the name Spade, yet. She was a "reckless waif." Okay. And she was out and about at night, and not at all afraid of the night. Okay!
As it so happens, early in After The Hero is an important sequence of events that takes place at night, in the desert metropolis of Soda Fountain. That dusty city of commerce seemed to me like a nice setting for a hardscrabble street urchin. She definitely couldn't be a Galan character.
A ferocious sandstorm occurs that night in the city too, so it made sense that I would plunk this reckless waif into it, in the midst of her daily ordeals of survival. Then I would imagine what she might be seeing. The sandstorm would cause it to be dark. Even darker than mere nighttime. Incredibly dark. She might not be able to see much farther than her own outstretched hand. And the wind would drown out virtually all sound. It would be very disorienting. As the storm intensified she would find a house and climb in through the window for safety.
This interpretative brainstorming process coincided with my writing the scene where these events occur. When Spade goes stumbling through the dark looking for a safe place amid the sandstorm, the Josh of that moment didn't know what she was going to find. When Spade finds a window on the side of a house, that Josh didn't know what was going to be on the other side of it any more than Spade did.
The order in which I decompress elements from a point of inspiration is arbitrary. It is established on a first-come, first-serve basis. The elements that compel me the most, or to which interpretations most readily occur, tend to get sorted out first. That doesn't necessarily mean they'll occur linearly first in a passage of text, because I can and often do write scenes out of sequence, but it does mean that they warp the rest of the scene around themselves by forcing subsequent events to accommodate their presence. (And they do sometimes warp the sequence of actions in a scene.)
For instance, the notion of intangible dread came to me very early on, because the story already calls for a sandstorm at that point in time. Thus, this scene had to accommodate a sandstorm almost from the beginning.
At the point in the scene where Spade reaches the window, the decompression process was complete. I had accounted for everything in my inspiration—except, of course, for the implicit desire that this character should be important to the story in some way, rather than as a passing bit of background scenery.
Scenewriting can trigger new points of inspiration, and can also lend themselves to something less grandiose, the mere suggestion of subsequent ideas. It wasn't hard for me to imagine what was on the other side of the window. I had two choices: Spade could sneak into this house and not have contact with anybody (at least for a while), that was one option—and the less satisfying of the two. The other option was that she would meet somebody, but this option had a major constraint: This person would have to accept Spade's presence for some reason. There couldn't be a fight or an expulsion, because otherwise I would have wasted the direction I had been building in. And so it was easy to conjure up the fat, friendly, and docile Celithemis, who welcomed Spade to her feast with open arms. Celithemis probably would never have existed were it not for the fact that Spade needed to find somebody on the other side of that window who wouldn't kick her out.
The Example of Silence and Galavar in The Great Galavar
In the prologue of The Great Galavar, Galavar descends to the Depths of Sourros to confront the God Sourros, but is intercepted by Silence, who opposes him unremittingly.
I don't think I've ever mentioned it before, but this scene can be traced back to a single major point of inspiration: The Attack on Rue Plumet from the Les Misérables 10th Anniversary Concert at Royal Albert Hall. This is an incredibly energetic scene, wound so tight it wants to snap, with multiple characters interacting in a non-centralized dialogue. Good acting and singing all around. Éponine is voiced by the incredibly talented and powerful Lea Salonga—my favorite Éponine by far—and when I heard that song it occurred to me how much her tone and style reminded me of Silence. Silence doesn't get outwardly angry very often, but when she does it's fierce and terrifying. Salonga's anger and defiance as Éponine is riveting, and indeed somewhat terrifying. Thanks to old conventions about female physical prowess, Éponine couldn't do anything more than scream (although it got her what she wanted), but Silence is hardly so constrained in her options.
I had already long known that there would be a confrontation between Silence and Galavar, but the song gave focus and detail, and it was from the energy and mood of the song, and Éponine's tone of voice, that I began to piece together the actual scene, which is partially depicted at the beginning of The Great Galavar. (The scene in its entirety you won't see until Book I of After The Hero.)
If you read the prologue, Silence even says Éponine's signature line, "There's nothing here for you," and in my imagination she sings it with comparable energy and urgency. (Singing is much more common on Relance than on Earth.)
To decompress from "The Attack on Rue Plumet" to the specifics of the altercation between Silence and Galavar in that prologue scene wasn't hard, because that particular point of inspiration was very narrow: I just wanted a super high-energy, fast, intense confrontation between the two of them. Everything else from that scene arose outside the point of inspiration / decompression of simultaneity process.
I knew there had to be other people present, so that it wouldn't be a two-way dialogue—as the energy of the scene in Les Mis depended heavily on the intercrossing dialogue. This lent itself to the inclusion of Arderesh and Gregor in the scene.
I knew there couldn't be a lull prior to the confrontation. It had to start off explosively. That's why the action begins as soon as Galavar opens the door. There's no time for an expository dialogue.
Likewise, I knew the escalation had to be rapid. In this scene Silence has already made her decision to confront Galavar. She's not interested in persuading him. She's prepared to kill him if he doesn't agree to her terms immediately, just as Éponine resorted to her own ultimate weapon as soon as it became clear that her father and his gang were not going to comply with her demand.
These details all fell into place easily, given that this scene had already existed in my mind in a vaguer form. (And to be clear, I need to state that even though this scene first appeared to the public in 2014, I created it all the way back in the previous decade.)
Ironically, due to the constraints of writing for a weekly serial, and not having formally written a draft of the scene in all that time prior, I wasn't able to polish the scene for The Great Galavar and it all comes off rather clunkily compared to my vision.
(Completely Off-Topic, Self-Indulgent Tangent: Every time I hear Colm Wilkinson sing Jean Valjean, I imagine him dangling a martini glass in one hand (complete with a dry martini and an olive) and a big, fat cigar in the other. Even scenes like where he's being released from prison or is trudging through the sewers carrying Marius.)
Tune in Next Week!
We're two layers in to my plotting process now, and still there's not much sight of any actual plotting. You can see how some aspects of plotting would occur within the decompression of simultaneity, but plotting doesn't necessarily occur at this layer, and when it does it is seldom of and for itself—more likely it occurs as an expedient to satisfying the inspiration. Also likely is that any plotting that does occur here will either be so small in scale (e.g., Spade needs to find shelter and meets Celithemis), or so grand in scale (e.g., Silence finally confronts Galavar), as to be of minimal immediate consequence for the purposes of plot construction itself.
Next week I'm going to talk about the other major sources of plot material for me, including cold design and plot-stealing.
O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!