I’ve been thinking about putting together a post about plotting for a while. This is partly because I want to encourage folks who haven't yet given it a shot to try it, and partly because I’m curious if other people who write plotty stories, or who write character arcs within ficlets or porn, do it the same way I do.
I’ve written about the importance of story before – basically, I think a lot of fics are portraits rather than stories. A story is "beginning, middle, end;" a portrait is more along the lines of, “here’s an idea; the end.” The best “here’s an idea; the end” ever is Poe’s "The Cask of Amontillado." One guy hates another guy, so he leads him through some catacombs and walls him up alive. That’s it. It’s basically an image, stretched out, but *what a freaking image.* DCU fandom’s master of portrait-style ficlets is __marcelo. Nobody can touch him on it; he gets horrifying ideas and just throws them out there. He can write longer pieces very well, too -- my favorite of his in the DCU is "Needle and Chair," which is an extended portrait, and he's written longer stories on occasion. But he rocks like nobody else on the portrait.
(A lot of porn, incidentally, is portraitfic, "here's an idea -- isn't that hot? -- the end." Not to say you can't have story development in porn, but most of the time a blowjob does not actually resolve a character's internal conflict. This is one reason a lot of slash does not work for me: I kind of wind up going, "And then what?")
Stories are different. Briefly, the events of the story lead the main character to wind up in a different spot than you started in. This doesn't require action sequences -- see Betty's "Able to Succeed" for a wonderful example -- but there's a process at work. And when you're trying to do that kind of thing, some kind of action helps: as David Gerrold pointed out in the (excellent analysis) THE WORLDS OF STAR TREK, "the more varied actions a character has, the more depth he has dramatically."
So, how do you go about plotting? This is partially a rhetorical question, because I'd like this piece to help people who want to learn more about how to do it, but partially not. Because I'm curious to know if other people do it the same way I do. Here’s what it’s like for me.
My standard story generator looks something like this:
1. Find two characters who have something in common.
2. Put them in a situation suitable for exploring that commonality.
I'm going to use my story "When Harley Met Kory" as an example, and reconstruct the writing process I used for that one. (If you haven't read it yet, go here or here before going on.) Why Harley and Kory? Well, see #1, above: Starfire and Harley Quinn are both essentially optimistic and loving characters. In Harley’s case, that love is focused on the Joker and his aims, thus perverting any positive characteristics Harley has, but they are two of the most upbeat women in the DCU. That realization was the seed; the actual genesis went something like this:
HINES. *thinks* “Boy, Starfire and Harley would be really fun and cute playing off each other in a story.”
RUBY. “Hey people! Give me femslash prompts!”
RUBY. “Okay!” *writes*
RUBY. “Yeah, sorry about that.”
So I had to write cute and fluffy Harley/Kory to escape the trauma. The plot rose pretty organically, once I decided to write the thing, and was dictated almost entirely by two issues: 1) character motivation and 2) set-up and pay-off.
The initial brainstorming looked something like this:
Idea: I want to put Starfire and Harley together and see what happens.
Problem: Starfire takes Harley back to Arkham. The end.
Solution: Starfire needs a motivation to not take Harley back to Arkham.
Story Point: Starfire needs Harley’s help to fight crime.
Problem: If Starfire asks Harley for help, she’ll say no. The end.
Answer: Because Starfire and Harley want different things.
Starfire: is a good guy and wants to fight crime.
Harley: is a bad guy and is selfishly motivated. Starfire can be motivated to act on another’s interest, especially if crimefighting is involved, but Harley cannot.
Ergo: it is easier for Harley to convince Starfire they should fight crime together than it would be for Starfire to convince Harley of the same thing.
Solution/Story Point: Fighting crime has to be Harley’s idea.
Problem: Harley needs a plausibly selfish reason to fight crime.
Solution: Harley wants to confound another supervillain.
Story Point: The story begins with Harley having a conflict with another supervillain.
You’ll realize that at this point, the beginning of the story is mapped out. Harley Quinn has a conflict with a supervillain. This conflict does not produce the result desired by Harley. Following this conflict, she meets Starfire, who wants to take Harley back to Arkham Asylum. Harley, steaming from her defeat, won’t go back until the other supervillain is taken down. Starfire wants to stop supervillains as a general principle, so she’s in, even if she knows Harley can’t completely be trusted. All of these events are dictated by who the characters are, and what chain of events would plausibly make them work together. If you know what would motivate your characters to take an action they might not normally be inclined to take, you have a gimmick around which you can build a plot.
The next step in breaking the story is choosing a supervillain. Let’s list the criteria. The supervillain should be Gotham-based and on Harley’s level. He should contrast with Harley, but not so much that he feels out of place in a funny story. We need a bad guy who’s reasonably tough without being top tier, who’s malevolent but whose villainy has a slightly incongruous air – a silly costume for a nasty guy. Killer Moth is the obvious choice.
So Harley and Kory team up to take on Killer Moth, and play off of each other along the way. This, for me, was where the writing got really interesting. Harley is so endearing that it is easy to go overboard on making her sympathetic, especially in a story where she’s the main character. My solution was to be sure that every single action Harley took during the story – even the heroic ones – had to be taken for selfish reasons. Even at the end, when she pushes the little girl out of Killer Moth’s line of fire, Harley is acting because she wants to attack Killer Moth and the girl is in her way. She *agrees* to go down to the bank because Starfire gives her The Look, but she actually *goes* after she realizes that Killer Moth cracked the vault, so maybe there’s something good left to steal. You can usually figure out what Harley is likely to do in any given situation if you just remember that she has all the keen moral sense of a basketful of heavily armed kittens.
This decision on my part made writing Harley fairly easy. It also made writing Starfire harder. Starfire is naive and earthy, fierce and gentle, a mighty warrior with an innocent heart. Her naivety and penchant for walking through earthly conventions as if they aren’t there often makes her a slightly comic character, with the other characters serving as her straight men. But in this story, *Starfire is the straight man.* That was a real change in her character dynamic, and at times I wasn’t sure how well it was working. I didn’t want my Starfire to be too heavy on the warrior!Kory; I wanted her to be a powerful hero, but approachable. But that's all character. I'm focusing on plot in this post.
So, now I've got Harley and Kory put together. What do they do?
The obvious answer is "pummel Killer Moth." The problem is that if they just pummel him right away, the story's over before they get to know each other -- and that process is a big part of why I want to write the story. So I'll have to throw obstacles in the way. They go after Killer Moth, other stuff happens, yadda yadda yadda, they go after him again, big showdown. A lot of my writing is based -- this sounds a little weird -- on rhythm and on feel. If Harley and Kory meet up and pummel Killer Moth right away, it doesn't feel right, or earned; it feels like a let-down. That's why I need the "yadda yadda yadda" stuff. The problem is that I don't know what it is yet.
Back to the drawing board for a minute. You don't always have to work in a straight line; you can figure out where you want to go, and work backwards from there. I do that a lot. This is because I like to cheat. There is a particular tool I use a lot in my stories, and it enables me (usually) to dope out the bits I don't know from the bits that I do. This tool is set-up and payoff, and it works great. Let's see how this works, in practice.
Right now, I am a little stuck. I don't know what else happens to Harley and Kory yet, so let's skip toward the end. What else do I want to happen in the story?
Item: This story needs a hint of femslash somewhere. It’s for Ruby, after all!
Problem: Harley is Jokersexual.
Solution: Starfire learns languages telepathically while kissing people. So, Harley says a few words in another language for some reason, and Starfire kisses her, ostensibly to learn it, but really to make Ruby smile.
Problem: …does Harley speak any other languages?
Solution: Harley is canonically Jewish. Harley is funny. Yiddish is also Jewish and funny. Therefore, Harley knows a little Yiddish. …look, I *know* it’s thin; I’m trying to get Harley Quinn to make out with Starfire here. This is a noble cause. WORK WITH ME, PEOPLE.
Problem: there is not a huge amount of Starfire fic, and some people may not know about the whole “language through kissing” thing.
Solution: Set it up, then pay it off.
Set-up: At some point during the adventure, they encounter a witness who can’t speak English. Starfire smooches him and translates. This explains her powers to anyone in the audience who may not be all that familiar with Starfire.
Pay-off: At the end of the adventure, Harley drops a couple of words in Yiddish. Starfire, intrigued, smooches her.
Ka-ching. You see what happened there? The end of my story just gave me my middle. I didn't know what was going to come between Harley and Kory meeting up and their pummelling Killer Moth. Now I do: they rescue somebody, a witness, who does not speak English. Why don't they just leave him and go after Killer Moth? Because he is desperate to tell them something, and Kory wants to help. So Kory kisses him. And this sets up the payoff where Kory smooches Harley, which I want to have in the story because I'm writing this for Ruby and she enjoys that sort of thing.
I'm going to do another post at some point about set-up and pay-off, because I think that combination is one of the seriously underappreciated tricks in the writer's arsenal. Set-up and pay-off are a great way to establish symmetry, which is a) innately pleasing to the human brain and b) a great way to make you, the writer, look like you know what you're doing. Symmetry is also tremendously useful for writing your way around problems. If you don't know a stage in the middle, but you know kind of where you want to end up, then make your middle the set-up for the later pay-off. If you are having trouble with a part of your story, this is an *awesome* way to cheat.
Now I can go on ahead. For those playing along at home:
1. Harley is foiled by Killer Moth.
2. Harley is captured/rescued by Starfire.
3. Harley convinces Starfire that they should team up.
4. Harley and Starfire rescue a guy who ran afoul of Killer Moth. Smoochies!
5. They find Killer Moth and have a big showdown. Harley has her Heroic Moment.
6. They say goodnight. Smoochies!
But: Harley’s not going to run away with Starfire. Kissing Starfire isn’t going to be Harley’s happy ending.
Therefore: Harley needs a happy ending.
So: 7. Harley gets to kiss the Joker at the end. Jokersmoochies, for Harley, is a happy ending.
Pretty much the only major thing remaining is the MacGuffin. What is it that Harley wants to do that Killer Moth foils? What is it Killer Moth wants to do that Harley foils? Well, a bank robbery is classic. Maybe Killer Moth's looking for something specific, but gets the wrong bank. This means that Harley knows where to go to find him: one of the other branches. Works for me.
And that's my plot. Ta-dah.
And that is pretty much that, except for the googling for a Latvian phrasebook. That's how I do it. I don't know if anybody else does it quite this way when they write plotty stuff; writers, feel free to chime in.