If You Struggle With Plot, Here’s How to Think About It Differently

Flickr / Eole

Flickr / Eole

Today’s guest post is by Stuart Horwitz, author of Blueprint Your Bestseller. Find him on Twitter at @Book _Arch.


One thing I hear from writers a lot is, “My work has always been more character-driven, which I think is why I struggle with plot.”

I’m not sure what character-driven means in this context. Does it mean that their work is more about what people think and feel than about the things that happen? Maybe. But it may also simply mean, “I like to write really messy first drafts, and the only way I can find my way through the material at all is by identifying with a character or two.”

But guess what: First drafts are supposed to be a mess! And the notion of “plot” is a misconception that leads too many writers to get confused and focus on all the wrong things. In fact, the best way to produce a first draft is to produce a large pile of pages and avoid trying to organize anything at all. At first.

Upon hearing this, writers may ask, “How do I know when I’ve finished my first draft?” In a sense, first drafts are never finished; where you stopped writing is the end of the first draft. Then it’s time to step back and see what you’ve got. And the way I recommend doing this is by using the unfamiliar, plot-free concept of series.

What is this series I speak of?

A series is the repetition and variation of a narrative element within a story, the process of improvement or deterioration which creates the narrative arc.

The repetitions and variations of an object, for example, is what creates a symbol. A series can also be seen in the repetitions and variations of a person (or if you prefer, their identity and change), which is what creates a character.

Series is how a repeated phrase becomes the work’s philosophy and how a particular setting takes on significance. In short, everything that repeats and varies in your work is a series. But unlike the word “plot”—which basically means everything that seems to be important, all at once—you can work with a series. Once you begin looking, you’ll probably find that there are 10-15 series in your work if you are writing a book-length piece of fiction or nonfiction. When you find them, you can work with them individually first, which makes life much simpler.

Imagine just working with one series at a time. Let’s say you want to introduce 9/11 into your narrative. “Tricky! Overdone!” shouts the voice of the critic. “That must have been so awful for you,” says the voice of a sympathetic cheerleader. But neither of these approaches are particularly helpful. “Let’s wait and see,” says a neutral audience member. “Let’s see how 9/11 is used before we pass any judgment.” And that’s the real key, how something is used, not what it is in the abstract.

The first time you introduce 9/11 is the first iteration in that series. Your readers won’t even really notice it. The first iteration is like planting a seed. You’ve probably heard of the Chekhov saying, “A gun in the first act must go off in the third.” Well, this is the first act.

The second time you mention 9/11 your readers will be more keyed in. They will want to see what is different about the reference to 9/11 this time. That is the second iteration. In this and all following iterations you will want to either change the context and/or the content of how and when you bring up 9/11; that change is how emotion is generated in a narrative.

Thinking about one series at a time can be very helpful when you want to time your iterations as well. If, for example, you mention 9/11 on page 7 and on page 17, and then not again until page 297, you will have created a certain suspense by its absence. Was that your intent or did you just miss an iteration?

Series can also help with beginnings, middles, and ends. My guess is that this series we are discussing (9/11: present on pages 7, 17, and 297) is missing a middle. The “suspense” that has been created is probably because we forgot to fill in several blanks.

Now comes the best part. When you have a bunch of your series relatively clear in your mind, you can lay them out like individual strands of rope. You can entwine them in development, knot them together in conflict, thereby creating a net which ensures the overall work has unity. If you want to call that a plot, go ahead. But plots are awful to write. Like in the human body, the blood, muscle, and tissue all develop before the bone.


If you enjoyed this post, then I encourage you to check out Stuart Horwitz’s newest release, Blueprint Your Bestseller. Click here to view it on Amazon or download a sample to your Kindle.

Blueprint Your Bestseller

Posted in Creativity + Inspiration, Writing Advice and tagged .

As founder and principal of Book Architecture, Stuart has spent over fifteen years helping writers become authors. Book Architecture’s clients have reached the bestseller list in both fiction and nonfiction, and have appeared on Oprah!, The Today Show, The Tonight Show, and in the most prestigious journals in their respective fields.

Stuart is an award-winning essayist and poet, who has taught writing at Grub Street of Boston and Brown University. He holds two masters degrees—one in Literary Aesthetics from NYU, which helps him a lot with this work—and one in East Asian Studies from Harvard with a concentration in Medieval Japanese Buddhism, which helps him get out of bed in the morning. He lives in Rhode Island with his wife and two daughters.

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Sadie
Sadie

Stuart, I’ve read a few of your other blog posts and picked up a copy of your book, and I have to admit, I was skeptical of this whole “series” concept. I thought it was forced and contrived to think about “planting seeds” like that unless you’re writing for 8 year olds. But now that I’ve got it in my mind– I keep seeing it everywhere. Everywhere. “Acknowledge” in a Saunders short story… the jogging in Silver Linings Playbook. I’m like THAT’S A SERIES! It’s like one of those “Magic Eye” images– once you see it, you can’t un-see it.

Kilburn Hall

Stuart- I have always thought of plot like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. I do tons of research, come up with all these interesting pieces and then the real hard work begins. Arranging the pieces in such a way that when you are finished, you can see the entire picture. That’s if you’ve put the puzzle together correctly. If not it’s back to rearranging the pieces or as writer’s call it, “editing.”

kathryn magendie
kathryn magendie

I do love this post. I’ve always said that “character-driven” thing, until this lastest book, and suddenly, I realized I had to write something that was more plotty, different, not my usual meandering “literary” novel. But, I still wrote it the same way! Just as with m other novels – I spit it out, all out, a full-blown draft, before began to go through it and see those patterns, and plotty stuff, etc. Now, whether it worked or not, I guess soon my editor will tell me *laugh* great post — I read all the posts here, Jane, just don’t… Read more »

Tara
Tara

I have been struggling with the first draft of my current book, and I realized that I am simply overthinking everything. “This must be used because I just foreshadowed it, I can’t leave this door open, I need a good reason for this character to change like this.” Reading this article just reminded me to take a step back and take a deep breath. It doesn’t have to be perfect the first time around! Now that you mention the idea of the series, it totally makes sense to me. I add them all the time without even thinking about it!… Read more »

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[…] Horwitz (@Book_Arch) guest posts on Jane Friedman’s blog with If You Struggle With Plot, Here’s How to Think About It Differently. His idea is to initially ignore plot altogether, no matter whether you write work that is more […]

Linda Fiorenzano Carvelli

I’m a new writer and I always thought if I repeated myself it only meant I didn’t say or write it effectively the first time. Using “the book architecture method” to write (generate material) for the first draft of my first book helped me learn that it’s really the iterations (repeats) within the series that tell my story – the progression and development of a concept or a character. Then, in the second draft, I could pick and choose (revise) the iterations that best supported my theme (because my book can only be about ONE thing). Thanks Stuart!

Dean Kutzler
Dean Kutzler

I hate to say it, but I don’t get it. Is the idea to produce a reoccurring topic throughout the body of work, slowly showing more detail of understanding each time? Sometimes leaving a little out to create intrigue?

MoloneyKing

The body forms before the skeleton…fantastic description. I’ve been struggling with a plot, but the way you explained the plotting structure here is fantastic.

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[…] you struggle with plot? Stuart Horwitz has a method of thinking about plot differently. You could also ask C.S. Lakin’s 5 key questions to ask as you write your […]

Rob Degnan

So how do I teach fifth graders “series”, while giving them the knowledge of “plot” since it is required for them to know “plot”. I could just use the alternate meaning of the word and plan to overthrow the concept of “plot” and usurp their knowledge with “series, series, series”; which would be really cool and oh so dangerous. But then again can this be done hand-in-hand with :”theme” and help them see the connection between the two? Like you have said before, “…everything needs rules…that way you know when to break them.” Brillant as always, my brother.

Shari Green

Really interesting post…thanks! That last line in particular resonated with me. I have a lot of blood and tissue scattered about right now, but I believe as I work to draw that mess together, the bones will emerge. 🙂

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[…] If You Struggle With Plot, Here’s How to Think About It :: Jane Friedman […]

jackielayton
jackielayton

Love this and I just bought your book on Amazon. Thanks for sharing!

Jane Friedman

Thank you!

jawohl
jawohl

A good plot is like a good melody — it either presents itself or it doesn’t. You can’t fake it.

Vandini

I loved it! It solved the problem I’ve been struggling with for months:)

Zara
Zara

This is a great post! I’ve been trapped in a horrible writer’s block for years now, schoolwork aside. But this fresh new angle is just brilliant. Liberating.