My Plot Development Process
Part 4: Plot Conceptualization
Saturday, Dec. 26, 2015
Once upon a time I was asked how I create plots in my fiction. At last I am answering the question, in this miniseries about my plot development process.
Till now I've covered the preliminary stages that begin new threads of plot development: Points of inspiration are a rich, largely non-willful source of specific ideas; the decompression of simultaneity helps me to take those inspirations and interpret them into usable forms; and cold design and plot-stealing are willful alternatives to points of inspiration, entailing new plot ideas.
This week I'll move past the preliminaries and talk about the next major step in the process: plot conceptualization. This means getting a sense of the specific events in one's plot, with respect to the plot as a whole. But first let's talk about story.
Story vs. Plot
In my work I draw a distinction between story and plot. Story is the work taken as a whole: the complete product, the full objective sum of the experience. (Sometimes added to that is the audience's subjective experience of interpretation; I won't get into that debate here.) Story isn't something that can be directly worked on or manipulated, because it exists only as an abstraction that exceeds the sum of its parts.
(For logicians who dislike the concept of holism, let me rephrase myself to say that story exists as an unmanipulable abstraction in that it does not directly, exclusively, and immediately follow from its parts. This is by virtue of the fact that the brain—in this case the brain of the storyteller; I'm not talking about the audience—typically expands upon what it sees. The concept of "story" renders coherent only as a superstructure, not up close. The explicit structural components of a story, when considered alone, almost never fully contain the storyteller's intent. It is exceedingly difficult to convey the sense of a story by referring only to its specific parts, without invoking external information or externally imposed order. This is why stories and indeed all art forms can be so diverse and unpredictable, provoking many different reactions, yet can also be easily objectively analyzed by virtue of their conformance to known conventions and their representation of the elements and principles of their medium.)
Plot meanwhile is one of the fundamental structural components of a story and is very much directly manipulable. It will be an exercise of the next article in this miniseries to explain exactly what I think plot actually is, but for now let's use the placeholder definition: Plot is "important events that coherently propel a story from its beginning to its conclusion."
Much of what I've discussed in past weeks is concerned with story in general more so than with plot specifically—inclusive of plot but not limited to it. A point of inspiration, for example, often bombards me with imagery that goes beyond the domain of plot. Even deliberate plot sources like cold design and plot-stealing routinely spill outside the boundaries of plot and touch on other components of the story.
For an example, once again let's look back at the history of Spade. When I looked at the Magic card Reckless Waif, the inspiration that struck me was that of an entire story, not a plot specifically. I conceived of imagery, themes, and character traits that I wanted to implement but which didn't fall inside the jurisdiction of "plot." The plot that came from that point of inspiration was the notion that Spade would join Silence's Handsel Band, and, separately, that she would fall in love with Celithemis. That's a wonderful (albeit simple) plot, but it's only a portion of the inspiration that struck me. Spade's traits, and Celithemis', are at the heart of their story. Their importance to the broader Curious Tale is not so much learning what happens to them, but discovering who they are.
From now on I'm going to be talking heavily about plot in particular. It's important that you proceed with an acknowledgment of my distinction between plot and story, because I think part of the difficulty of plot development is simply identifying it in the first place, and isolating it as a specific component of a story's structure.
The Prelude's Degenerate Plot
What is the main plot in the Prelude to After The Hero? Not the story. Not the setup to the ATH plot. The internal, Prelude-specific, main plot. What is it?
This is a sneaky question, because the Prelude has very little main plot. It goes like this: In response to the Hero's invasion of Gala and the dubious intentions of the divine Galan patron Sourros, Galavar decides to mindwash the people of Davoranj and go to war against the nations for the sake of upholding the Galance Ideal.
(Arguably there is a parallel main plot of Galavar inducting Benzan into the Guard of Galavar, but we can also classify this as a subplot even though it occupies a significant part of the story. I'll talk more about "subplot" and other distinctions within the concept of plot another time.)
So, scrubbing out all the describe language and focusing just on events: Galavar decides on mindwashing and war. That's the whole main plot, and it's not much of a plot, because it's basically just one very gradual event.
If you look up plotting on the Internet, you'll find introductory lessons on the "parts of a plot," and the importance of arranging these parts in the proper order. That kind of information is almost useless, really—it's helpful for analyzing plots, not so much developing them—but at least it does a good job of implying that a plot does indeed have multiple parts, by which we can deduce that a main plot with just one part might come across as a little bit degenerate, which in fact I think the Prelude main plot does. It is simply not a plot-centric work. The importance of that one event is indisputable, but, inside the Prelude itself, the plot does not have a sense of progression to it. Yet a plot progresses.
What Is Plot Conceptualization?
Before you can develop a plot you must first conceptualize it. That means creating a conceptual space for your plot inside your head, so that you know what you're thinking about when you think about the "plot." In turn, that means making a rough identification of what the plot actually is—what its various parts are and what the plot as a whole looks like.
(This is not so different from how a "story" is an abstraction comprised of different parts. So too is a "plot" something of a generality, comprised of specific events arranged into an order. Unlike a story, however, a plot is not a true abstraction, because a plot does not exceed the sum of its parts.)
Early in the plot development process for a story, you probably won't have a good sense of what the plot is. What you probably will have is a couple or more key story event ideas, and some other ideas about non-plot elements you want to have in the story.
So that's where you begin your conceptualization. You take what you already have and you think about it more. You move from ambiguity toward specificity. You flesh event ideas out to get a better sense of what their action entails and what their broader plot significance will be.
It's certainly where I begin many a plot. I look at what I've got. And I usually find that as I go I come up with more and more ideas, more and more plot structure. Conceptualization is self-organizing.
Here's an excerpt from my first plot outline of Mate of Song. What you're about to read was written no later than November 3, 2012—when the very premise of Mate of Song was just a few days old. This is the entire plot outline for Section I:
A Song at Townfall
Afiach travels to Glasswork Town and ponders her obscurity as a bard.
Afiach sings to a mate in the jail, condemned to death for poaching, and witnesses his execution the next morning.
Afiach sings at the arrival of a large convey [sic], that will buy glass and take it to other climes. Afiach sings about starlight and nighttime.
Afiach comes to appreciate that obscurity in itself isn't all bad.
When Mate of Song was brand new, that's what I had conceptualized for Section I of the story. Almost none of this made it all the way to the current draft version, but that's a lesson for later in this miniseries. What's important now is that this document captured my attempt at the time to impose some explicitness of form upon my vague ideas about what the Section I plot would entail.
I also think it's interesting to note here that the plot outline document from Mate of Song that I just showed you was not where the conceptualization actually happened. It was simply a record. Its real value for me would come later on, as a reference. At that point the conceptualization was all in my head, but I was definitely thinking about it deliberately. You don't have to keep copious documents, although I recommend you do unless you have some specific reason that it doesn't work for you.
You don't have to write your conceptualization down explicitly, but you at least have to do it in your head. You really need to conceptualize your plot. It's a vital step in the plot development process, even if your story isn't plot-driven. Mate of Song is not a plot-driven work. The plot was always slow in coming to me (and continues to be). The value of conceptualizing the plot for Mate of Song lay in getting ideas about how the plot would service the story as a whole. I'm sure it's obvious that if you're doing plot-driven storytelling you have to conceptualize the plot. You have to do it early, and thoroughly. But even if the story is not so heavily plot-driven, or not plot-driven at all, it's still a good idea (speaking in general) to have some level of deliberate plot integration, which means that you usually shouldn't put the rest of a story together and then just tack a plot onto it at the end: You should conceptualize it earlier on, and make use of that plot concept. Make the plot serve the story, even when the story doesn't dwell on the plot.
(Stories don't strictly need plot, but eliminating that fundamental structure is advanced tech, and many authors have diminished the accessibility of their work by attempting to eschew plot on aesthetic grounds—or by ignoring plot out of ignorance or folly.)
Plot conceptualization is something you're going to do to some extent in writing your story even if you don't consciously think about it. My drawing attention to it as a formal stage in the plot development process is intended for you to recognize its importance and transfer it as fully as possible from the unconscious control of your intuition to the deliberate control of your cognitive intellect. Plot conceptualization benefits from deliberate, willful attention.
You can think of plot conceptualization as a preparatory step for plot development work on a specific part of the plot. By conceptualizing your story's plot (in pieces over a series of conceptualizations), you're setting up a workspace for more involved plot development work later.
Many Times Over
Plot conceptualization is a recurring process. It's not something you do once per story and then check it off the list. It's a sequence you'll have to revisit each time you add or revise a critical mass of significant material in the plot. The "critical mass" depends on you: When you notice that your plot ideas are getting a little too swirly and crowded in your head, such that you're losing track of things or forgetting ideas completely, it's time to conceptualize.
Even a single round of plot conceptualization can be a prolonged ordeal. It doesn't always come together quickly. Sometimes it takes days, or longer, to percolate properly. I've sometimes spent weeks on a single round, not pushing, not forcing, just gently prodding from time to time and let my creative mind find its way at its own pace.
Plot Conceptualization Pitfalls to Avoid
Don't get trapped in this stage. The main work of plot development comes later. The purpose of plot conceptualization is to "get a better look" at what you've already got, and, if feasible, to add some more flesh to the bones—or even whole new bones to the skeleton. But don't force it if it doesn't come naturally. If you try forcing it, you're likely to discourage yourself to the point of abandoning the whole story, or at least starting over completely.
Also, don't worry that anything you conceptualize here will have to make it through to the final product. The finished Section I of Mate of Song bears almost no resemblance to the plot outline I showed you. Plot development can be and often is a labyrinthine process. There are few true dead ends.
Tune in Next Week!
My plot miniseries will be taking another break next weekend, because next Saturday's article will be devoted to my New Year's Outlook for 2016, including a major announcement. Definitely tune in!
Then, in two weeks, this miniseries will return. In that article, I will talk about what plot actually is.
O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!