It’s been called “the hardest job a writer ever does.” Is it coming up with the initial idea? Developing characters? Or is it getting the first draft written? Revising and editing? What about simply overcoming writer’s block?
No, no, no, no, and no.
According to John Gardner, it’s none of those things. According to him—and he knows a thing or two about writing—it’s plotting. That’s right, designing the plot. Making all of the ins and outs of the action, the causes and effects, the scenes and their sequels drive the story to its ultimate conclusion.
It sounds simple enough. And reading well-written books, it might even seem easy enough. Frodo sets out from the Shire, chats with the elves in Rivendell, travels through Moria, Lorien, and the Dead Marshes, sneaks into Mordor, and tosses the One Ring to Rule Them All into Mount Doom. Lo and behold, the Dark Lord Sauron is defeated. Bing, Bang, Boom. Time to head home.
Except that a lot more happens along the way, what with various characters meeting tree-like ents, eluding dark riders, or falling in with a ghost army, etc. etc. etc. The more you think about all of it, the more complicated it all gets.
This week has been all about plot for me. Methodically working through every scene, following every thread, and shining a light on where each character is at any given point in time. Over the course of months of major revisions, I’ve tweaked, altered, shaken up, and utterly redesigned almost every story point from beginning to end. More than once. Even two or three (or nine) times. And at long last, things are starting to settle into place. At least for this draft.
Plotting is hard work. Every change to the plot ripples both forward and back through the story. In this latest round of revisions I moved a major incident to later in the book and the next thing I knew, the incident was occurring in a new setting with different characters and different results. Which means everything has changed: location, actors, point of view, outcome—everything. Which means a complete rewrite.
Coming into this week, I felt like I had a pretty good handle on how the plot was working, but it was time to nail down the chronology of each scene. I quickly found I can only focus on about a quarter of the plot on a given day; much more than that and I start to get loopy.
Next up: the dreaded middle section before the final act. Lots of threads that have to come together. Time to buckle up.
Next week, I’ll have more to say about John Gardner’s fantastic book, The Art of Fiction. Tomorrow: a look at my favorite book on the craft of writing.