Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Story Makes Sense Now!!! ....Goodbye Hot Gypsy Boy's Sister Who's a Half-Dragon Viking Princess in Love with a Fire-Breathing Pirate

Last week, Patricia told us the story of the time-traveling viking pirate and the last shape-shifting dragon's daughter. It started out as this simple idea: a young girl’s journey to discover the parents that abandoned her when she was a baby. And then it morphed and escalated into this mess of wibbly wobbly timey-wimey overplotting!  By the end of her story, the whole idea was overcrowded and lost in the unneeded subplots.

So what do you do when you are faced with wibbly wobbly overplotting? You have to unravel it. My plan in this post is to show you how to do that. Hopefully, by the end, you'll be able to tell when you've over-plotted and have an idea on how to figure out the important stuff. This will keep you from doing it again--or at least being aware of it. (Note: This is just my opinion and one approach so it may not work for everyone, but Patricia's one my CPs so we do this all the time!)


There are some tell-tale signs that you've over-plotted your WIP.  The biggest way you can tell if you've over plotted: start writing. If you find yourself frequently stuck, due to being overwhelmed by complexity, that's usually a good sign. I mean, if your story looks something like this in your head---How would you even know where to start? Over-plotting 101.

Ways to combat over-plotting:

Talk it out.

This is the most accurate way to tell:  Finding another real-life person to talk to about it is best--because they'll usually tell you when they're lost. Either it will be a glazed over look in their eye, a fidgeting, or a point-blank "I'm so confused" to let you know it's too much. If you don't have a real-life person, you could always record yourself talking about your story. I bet when you're listening to it, you'll be able to see a little more easily that there's too much going on.

Write it out.
Not in story form, just in notes. Grab a piece of notebook paper and write out the story from beginning to end, with a new thing on each line. This will allow you to see the whole story plan and avoid a mess like the one above. Plus, at later suggestions, you can refer to this plot list. You could also use index cards, if you'd rather have those than a single paper. In fact, if you wanna go really crazy---do both. Seeing everything laid out will allow you to re-group things as you start cutting subplot points.  

Draw it out. 
Some people are really artsy (or just like markers!) and if you're one of those people, you can draw out your story. Think flow charts or stick people or cut outs from magazines or lots of really colorful words. It doesn't matter what "draw" means to you. Just make your own chart. Get a really big piece of paper and go to town. if it starts looking like above, then it's too much.


What the character wants and what stands in the way of him/her getting it.
I once saw a tweet, way back when I first started reading agent blogs, that said: Every query would be more successful if it told me who the protagonist is, what she wants and what stands in the way of her getting it.

Since that day, I always think about this exact thing. Before any project is started--and especially when you're trying to figure out the plot of a novel--you must know these three things. Who is the MC? What does the MC want? What stands in her way?

In our example: MC is Girl (we'll call her Sam). Sam wants to find her birth parents and learn why they abandoned her as a baby. So far, so good. But then we get to question three: What stands in her way? Everything! Vikings, pirates, dragons, long-lost cousins five times removed who breath fire and have tea with pirates.

Ridiculous. That's the part you have to fix. Once you know these three basic elements of the story, you can move on to the next one. 

Elevator Pitch. (aka. one sentence)
Ah, this is a term we love to toss around in the publishing industry--and basically speaking (if you don't know) it's a sentence. It's a single sentence that encompasses your book. The theory is you meet someone in elevator and you have only the distance of a few floors to tell them about your book in an intriguing way. This is the elevator pitch--the one single line that is your story. I know, it seems ridiculous that this is an expectation, but the elevator pitch is very important for agents, readers and even, when you're an over-plotter, your story.

How so?

Well, this is the story at its most basic, most simple and intrinsic point in time. So, especially when you've identified the other two steps here, it will continue to give you focus. If the story trails away from this sentence as the "theme" of the story (meaning the overarching and unending motivation of the story) then you will know. But you have to know this sentence.

(Note: Motivation can change within a story. Example: Girl can now want more answers about hot boy's life, but they have to stem from her original motivation (finding her family) and/or add to her overarching story--otherwise, you are telling a different story. Each motivation presented must be supported and reached in some way before moving on to another. *Think of a series, where each motivation is a new book but there's something in common happening in each book. The Hunger Games is a great example of this idea*)

Query letter summary
Okay. This is my favorite. (I'm sick.) A query is basically a simplified version of a book jacket. There are usually no sub-plots mentioned--and if there is then it's only a hint. It's the three things we just talked about, only with more emphasis on the second and third part. it clearly sets the conflict, the goal and the obstacles in two or three paragraphs. Seriously. Go pick a couple of your favorite books and study the book jacket. I'll wait....

Now. Write your own.

This isn't something you'll query---do not do that! But it is something that can guide you. If you already know who the MC is, what she wants and what stands in her way, then it should be no problem to start developing a bigger story. The purpose of this early "query" is to create a structure that will keep you on track. Then, when you're writing later, you can make sure it's all still working together.

I know, this may seem confusing. Write three sentences and then one sentence and then a couple paragraphs? Maybe it's weird, but when you're so bogged down by too much plot you need to get it simple again before you can start to repair and rebuild a story. But you definitely shouldn't do the summary step until you've figured out the main plot, because when you start tossing subplot into the mix it can all get messy. It doesn't mean the salad will taste better just because there are more ingredients,


Ah....subplot. How do I guide in this? Well, I'll be honest. No one except you and your story can tell you what subplots to add/get rid of (aside from agent or an editor, but that's a different story.)
How do you choose when they're all so CUTE???
 The best help I can give here is a list of questions to ask yourself and your characters. Hopefully, they'll help eliminate some of the unneeded plot points. 
  • Which subplots are moving the story forward? 
    • Subplots run parallel to the story. You must be all be working together to get the same place or you'll never get anywhere.
  • Which subplots are most relevant to the MC and her goal? 
  • Which subplots are driven by internal conflict vs external? 
    • With my last WIP, I outlined this in blue vs pink index cards. It's good to know what conflicts/subplots are being done to your character and which are being done by your character. Its a random thing, but it's important to know where the story happens more--internal or external--and which element carries varying weights.
  • Can any of them be deleted/combined/substituted without losing an aspect of the story? 
    • Say you have a character who wants to win find a treasure and the MC is in the way. And you have a character who wants to steal the MC's magical aura. And a character who wants to save everyone. Why not combine all these into the same person? Deleting/combining/subsituting scenes or characters or subplots can be all you need to save a WIP. Of course, with something like the example Patricia gave us, it's only the start.
  • How many subplots do you need?
    • This varies with each author and each story. I have a rule of thumb that only lets me plan for three. Why? I'm a pantser (usually) and when I know I need to figure out three subplots, I do. But when you write more and more things can pop up. It's good to have less to start, so if you wanted to take on one or two of these other elements, then you could. But beware, because that's how we get to where we were in the beginning.

  1. Be aware it's a problem. Awareness is the first step to recovery. 
  2. Find people who will tell you the truth.
  3. Read A LOT of books. Craft books, fiction books--any and everything. Take notes. Mark the pages. Sticky note your problem areas. Use the experiences to learn.
  4. Don't be afraid to ask for help when you're stuck. People love sharing opinions.

Fixing a WIP that's been overplotted is not easy work. It requires sacrifice. But it means the difference between killing a WIP and saving one. Sometimes, like the heroine in our story will learn, it's better to say goodbye to the hot gypsy boy's sister who's a half-dragon Viking princess in love with a fire-breathing pirate...and just search for her parents who abandoned her with a ragtag team of friends on a summer vacation in Europe. Too bad for the hot boy....

Are you an over-plotter? How do you combat this? Have you lost stories to over-plotting?

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