Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Master of Plot

link to original here
On paper, Brandon Sanderson looks formidable. He’s the bestselling author of multiple books (an easy to digest list can be found here), as well as the writer chosen by Robert Jordan’s  widow to finish the Wheel of Time series. 

In person he is just as daunting. 

There was so much information he jam-packed into his 45-minute workshop titled, "Advanced Plot Structure" at the writing conference I went to a couple of weekends ago, my notes don’t do justice. There was no way I could keep up. My blog post will do even less justice, so bear with me please, but there were a few things that really hit home with me from this workshop. Maybe they’ll be useful to you too.

First, he says that when it comes to plot there are two basic types of writers:

link to original here
Those that are all about the Discovery as they go (Stephen King would be a great example) – in essence, for this type of writer the characters create the plot, and the story develops from who they are and what they do with the circumstances they've been dumped into.

If you are this kind of writer, here are some things to be aware of:
  • Your stories may have fizzled endings, because there's so much excitement and adventure as you're going, and then huh. The story just seems to...end? Watch out for this.
  • Many of these types of writers tend toward getting bogged down with too much revising as they go, so you may have a hard time even getting to the end.

And then there are those that first create an Outline (Orson Scott Card is this type of writer) – the outline provides a place for the characters to inhabit and act out what's been already planned for them…

If you're this kind of writer, keep these things in mind:

  • Your stories may have wooden characters, because the plot takes precedence over what a character may or may not do due to their personality traits, etc. Watch out for this too.
  • Many of these writers never want to revise while they're going, so do whatever you need to do to make yourself go back and polish.

Second, readers need to have a sense of progressing. Understanding types of plots/subplots is essential, four main types being:

·       Mystery – readers feel progression through this type of plot by slowly giving out info throughout story.

·       Relationship – readers progress through the story as characters develop relationships with each other.

·       Big Problem – this is a big thing we can break up into smaller steps for characters to accomplish, and readers have a sense of progression through the story as each accomplishment is made.

·       Character Arch – progression is felt as the character grows through dealing with their various issues.

Then he says to cross-pollinate plots to get your wild and crazy stories, if that's what you're going for, but don’t worry about being too original with the plots themselves. This is not the place to be original, which leads me into…

Third, writing is about making promises to readers. 

link to original here

So this was a light-bulb-moment for me. Ever since last summer, when I seriously sat down to plan and plot and prepare to write something bigger than a 5-page essay, I've been wondering whether to write for myself or write for my readers. 

The answer if you want to be a published author, is of course, both. But this approached the problem from an angle I hadn't looked at before. For example, if I'm setting up a story that uses relationships do drive the plot forward, then I better resolve problems with the relationships in the end, because I've made that promise to my readers.  

And that doesn't even skim the surface of what he had to say. It was awesome. I've heard lots of people give the advice of going to conferences and workshops, and now I'll add my affirmation too. If you can go, do go, especially if Brandon Sanderson is giving out his two (times infinity) cents.

Oh, and, if' you're up for a writing challenge, don't forget to do this.

**Update: Brandon Sanderson had the following to contribute about this post over at reddit.com --

"One thing I've found is that writers really like to talk about writing, and I'm no exception. The problem is, the longer we write, the more most of us seem to move by instinct rather than intention. Perhaps that is a result of becoming increasingly comfortable with our own process.

Regardless, it can sometimes become difficult to describe what we do and why. I sometimes feel like I act more like an expert than I truly am. I'm mostly trying to describe my process after-the-fact, and my analysis may or may not have any validity.

For what it's worth, however, here is a video of me talking about some of these same concepts at JordanCon a few years back."

Many thanks to him for his thoughts, and especially for his link. The video helps me breathe a little easier because he says it much better than I, and you can watch him there saying all the things I couldn't get down fast enough. So you can sit back, relax, take notes, and go back to parts you want to hear again.

Total pages logged as of today: 183 but visit my Deadline Updates page for more info

Moment of Magic today:

Sitting in a secluded isle at the library, leaning back into shelves of books, reading the first few pages of a book I was thinking about getting. I love that subtle first taste, first glance. And then I had to sneak a wicked glance at the last page... heh. Anyone else out there do that?


  1. Great tips, thanks as always!

    I love reading the first couple of pages just to see if a book gets me hooked, although I rarely get to do this at the library or in a book store with out two kids pestering me to do the same for them. I am fast coming to love the previews available for my Kobo!

    As for last page jumping...only when a story is driving me mad and I have to know what happens in the end, just so that I can put the book down and actually sleep. Speaking of which ;-)

    1. I usually have two little people hanging out with me too, so this made the moment even more magical. Not so much the absence of them, because generally things are more magical when they're are around, but because I had a precious moment of time where my thoughts were only my own, rather bouncing around what others were doing.

    2. Always good to strike a balance. Had a great time with bedtime stories tonight and now carving out some me time having a bash at this here challenge...although I am not sure I am doin it right, but hey I'm writing ;-)

      Score one for 'me' time!

    3. *gasp* You're going to do it? I was getting all ready to beg...you saw it coming and saved me ;)


  2. Great advice and important info to keep in mind for what kind of writer you are. I expect that information may even be more important than the story itself. I will definitely be participating in your writing challenge.

    I've flipped to the last page of a book only to find out how long it is. I don't even read the back of a book or dust-jacket for the fear that I will ruin something for myself. A big part of my love of reading is to sometimes guess where the story is going if I can. I think one of the many reasons I was disappointed by Wuthering Heights was because I had the impression that it was some sweeping love story. It was not.

    1. Great point about the importance of knowing what kind of writer you are. Knowing definitely helps you put the story together a little bit easier, regardless of what the story is. You're right.

      And I'm so excited you're doing the writing challenge. Dancing in my chair, really, if you can imagine such a scene :)

  3. Oh this is too perfect - you just described the different between my short stories and my fantasy novel. I outlined my fantasy novel and I struggle with the character development a bit. It's thick with plot, but I need to focus on the main character because her "crumbling" self is a major focus on the story...but on the other hand, with my short stories they TOTALLY just end. I'm big on ambiguous endings. Sometimes its good, but right now I'm working one and I cannot figure out how I want it to end. At one point my main character was the person who did it, the other ending she didn't do it. It's vague. So, you were totally right on. I like what the other person from Reddit said, though, because it is very intuitive sometimes.

    1. Hey, thanks for coming by and following, Nicole. I love it, appreciate it.

      I like ambiguous endings too, because I think it shows a sense of trust in your reader -- you've given them the story, and now you trust them to keep going with it in their heads (or not, which is sometimes what the story needs more than anything).

      You're right, though, that doesn't always work, maybe never works?, in longer stories. You seem to know exactly what you're doing -- you're aware of your weaknesses and strengths, and you're working on them.

  4. Hey Deb, I wasn't sure where you wanted us to put the link to our writing challenge responses. So I will post it here. I hope you and anyone who reads it enjoys it aplenty.


    1. I loved it. Thanks for letting me know, and I'm definitely going to link it up on Friday. Thanks for participating too, it's really fun when people are willing to play with me :)

  5. I've not tried anything fiction-wise in decades (since my late teens/early twenties), but I am fascinated by how the "mechanics" of writing varies for different people so thanks for sharing this. Hubby is a rabid Sanderson fan, so that was an added bonus. ;)

    1. Rabid...fan...invokes some awesome mental images, I must say.


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