Saturday, November 12, 2005

Day 12: Plot vs. character

As I've mentioned before, I began this year's round of NaNoWriMo with a basic premise: not exactly a plot, but an image of a painted woman looking out an attic window, like this picture I blogged back in March.

For last year's So-Called Novel, I didn't have a central image or idea; instead, I wrote a collection of short stories, each taken from a picture, name, or story I gleaned from the newspaper. Since I could start over with new characters and a new story with every chapter, last year's So-Called Novel was largely character-driven. If I went to the drugstore and was waited upon by an intriguing clerk, she'd become the basis of a character in the next story. If the guy behind me in the supermarket checkout line seemed interesting, I'd borrow something he said into his cell phone for a bit of improvised dialogue.

This year, though, I've been trying (slavishly, at times) to stick to the basic premise I began with: there's this creepy old painting and some mysterious unopened letters that lead a character called Alexa to start snooping through her town to figure out their story. The problem is, though, I'm not sure what the rest of the story is. I know Alexa is trying to sniff down a mystery, but I don't know what it is that she's supposed to find, nor do I know exactly how she's supposed to find it.

In a word, I've created an almost impossible situation for myself: I'm basically writing a mystery in which there is no crime, no culprit, and no clues. And with each step of the way, I'm wondering where the next step is leading and wondering why there isn't a logical "thread" connecting one element of the story to the next.

I've always mantained that NaNoWriMo is a great way to learn about yourself as a writer, and one thing is becoming clear to me: I don't seem to be a plot-driven writer. Some folks, I gather, start with a story idea (or just the "seed" of a narrative) and then flesh that out on paper; I, on the other hand, seem to be beholden to characters, not narrative.

So far, I seem to be holding myself back from "really" getting to know my characters...or so it feels. It feels as if I'm holding myself back waiting for the plot to take off, take shape, or take something that would make it both easier to write and easier to read: here's the storyline (A, B, C) that makes all the random bits fall into place. But now that I'm creeping up on the halfway point of my So-Called Novel, I'm beginning to wonder whether the plot I'd envisioned is going to show up: I'm nearly at the halfway point, after all, and the Painted Lady of the work's title has been mentioned only once. What the heck is up with that?

Wherever my So-Called Novel's plot (or lack thereof) is or isn't going, it occurred to me yesterday that I should let myself go with my characters, letting them lead me wherever they'd like, even if that has nothing to do with the plot I'd envisioned. If this indeed is a "zero draft" that I'm writing (and all things point to yes, it is), then I needn't worry now if I've left the right clues in the right places to set the scene for what I think might happen later. Instead of holding back in deference to some loosely scribbled, barely thought-out chapter outline, I should sit back and let Alexa do the talking.

And as luck would have it, as soon as I shut up and let Alexa do her thing, she suddenly stopped being a stiff and boring college prof, finding herself instead in bed with "Paul," that Mysterious Library Guy she met back on Day 7 after I decided she needed to get out of the house more. I don't know what bedding a random grad student has to do with the plot I'd originally envisioned...but as I learned last year, the word-count flows fast and furious as soon as I let my imagination wander into the realm of naked, quivering flesh. Maybe next year I should let myself really go and write a romance novel?

So, what sort of writer are you? Are you driven by plot, character, setting, or some other literary device? Do you need to have a full-fledged story from the start, or do you prefer for your characters to show you where your narrative is headed?
Word-count: 20,027

Last line: In her dream, Alexa called for a dog who never came, except instead of calling for Patches, she called for Paul over and again while copper leaves fell around her.


At 11/13/2005 12:27 PM, Blogger Devon Ellington said...

I work first from character. The character bugs me and bugs me and bugs me until I sit down and take dictation.

Later on I go back and research or do necessary smoothing out. I start putting structure and plot onto the framework of the charcters' meanderings.

It takes a few drafts, but I find the end result is better than if I push plot first.

Mysteries need a bit more structure, but as long as I have a strong beginning and know the ending, I can keep my eye on that horizon and eventually get there.

At 11/13/2005 4:52 PM, Blogger Lorianne said...

In retrospect, Devon, I think I work best when I follow your model: find some characters, and see what they do.

I feel like I still haven't entirely "warmed" to my protagonist...but she's running around doing things to generate word-count, so I suppose that's all I can ask for, really. :-)

If I were taking this exercise more seriously, I guess I'd want to have a clearer sense of both character and plot instead of making both up as they go along. But since no characters (or plots, for that matter) were harmed in the making of this So-Called Novel, I guess things aren't too terribly bad. :-)


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