Searching for the Key to Plotting

Plots are really just a series of problems and solutions. Almost no one seems to talk about them like that, and neither do I, but I am not sure why. A problem is the difference between the current state of affairs and a desired state of affairs. The solution eliminates this differential, but an easy solution would be a boring story.


I think stacking problems and solutions on top of each other would be a good way to build a story. Most of the time the solution creates a bigger problem until the climax, which is the biggest problem so far. Thinking about it in this way reminds me of Dan Brown's stories, and I don't particularly care for something about them, maybe the pacing.

There are situationist writers. I just made-up that term to describe someone that starts with a situation and starts writing from there, seeing what happens as they go. Stephen King does that a lot. It seems like a fun discovery process.

Another good way, I hear, of coming up with stories is to start with a theme and then build a plot based around that. That is how Ayn Rand did it. I like the idea, but I think a good story can have different themes for different readers. She is right though, what you write and what you read does reveal a lot about you and your values. It says a lot that Richard Branson's favorite book is "The Dice Man," Mark Cuban's favorite book is "The Fountainhead," Elon Musk's favorite book is "Ender's Game," and Jeff Bezo's favorite book is "The Remains of the Day."

You can also start building stories by picking or making a setting, by choosing or dreaming up a character, or choosing or inventing a plot. A lot of fantasy writers start with the plot. A lot of people that consider themselves above and beyond commercial fiction like to start with the character. To just start with the plot is what we are already looking at here. How do you do that? I am going to try something I have been thinking about more recently by building the character and the plot at the same time.

The framework I have started thinking about is that a character in a scene should be sensing, intending, and acting. Those are the three general categories of things that can occur from the character's viewpoint. There is definitely a place for narration, but that can pull us out of the story at times too, so I want to focus on sensation, intention, and action.

To start with sensation is basically to establish the setting. Some people open with mundane sensations and I think that has given sense openings a bit of a bad reputation, at least for me, but I think they can be good. I am not sure however that I can really build a plot around the framework of thinking about sensations. I want to try a few lines of a possible opening, then I will move on to developing a story idea.

Jack could feel the small stream of blood running down the inside of his nose. The smell reminded him of the taste of salt. Some people were disgusted by blood, why? Jack always liked it.

I don't know what that story is about, maybe a vampire, or a psychopath; maybe he's been punched in the nose. I don't know, but I think it's an interesting opening. I feel like I could build a story around that if I had a good framework for developing plots. Of course, maybe I should do the Stephen King like thing and just go with it, see how it comes out. That course makes me a little uneasy though, not knowing how it will end, if I can end it. Let's go back to plotting.

I think action could be the focus of plot. Obviously plot has to include action, but just action seems a little boring. This happened, then this happened, then this happened. Why? I think motivation is the most interesting part. That leads us to intention.

I think intention is the key to building a plot. I don't really know, but that is what I think right now. Intention has a lot of depth to it. We naturally ask these questions. Let's say I say that I know a guy that wants to break his brother out of prison. Okay, you will probably have some questions. We know what he intends, but there are probably two other things you want to know. I believe that certain people at certain times will be more interested in one than the other, but I would ask why first. Let's say that he is on death row and is going to be executed soon, and really he is innocent. Okay, and how does he plan to do this? Well, he is a structural engineer that has the blueprints for the prison because he was a contractor for a firm that recently did work on it, and he is going to fake rob a bank to get imprisoned with his brother. He had the blueprints tattooed on his body, and has arranged some other things for the escape. That sounds pretty crazy, and it makes "Prison Break" a great story. Those three questions can be reiterated for all of the characters for all of the situations they are in. What is the intention? Why? How do they plan to do it? This makes you develop the characters as much as they need to be for the story. You have to have the correct level of motivation and justification for their intentions and their actions for the present context from their past. I think these questions can help build a plot. Let's see if I can build a very general plot around this framework. I am going to do it in a conversational style.

What is the intention? There are a lot of options here, approximately infinite, but one major division is whether to go dramatic or not so dramatic, to go big or to go small. Let's go big for the person, but small for society.
Alrigh', so I know this guy that wantsta move to a different state. He wantsta leave California and move to Vermont.

Why? Why is huge in a story like this. If the what is breaking your brother out of prison you already have a pretty interesting story, but if it's just moving from one state to another we need to know why to be interested.
Well, this guy had a tech company ya see, and he was losing money, like most tech startups. He couldn't get financing, but he couldn't let his company die. He knew a guy who knew a guy that had some money. You can see where I'm goin' withis. The loan wasn't necessarily legal, the company went broke. Declaring bankruptcy doesn't square you with these guys, so . . . he either has to come up with 1.2 mil, or get outta Dodge.

How do they plan to do it? With this story maybe the question should be more like, "Do you think it will work?" but the how is important either way.
The real issue with these guys is how do ya go somewhere where they aren't gonna findja? He thought about moving to Brazil or somethin', but what is he goin' ta do there? Vermont is outta the way, he doesn't know anyone there, but there are these farms that you can work on in exchange for room and board. He's gonna fly to Vermont and do that.

That is an interesting start. It was fun writing in that conversational style. It might be useful to do this for the other characters at this point as well, at least the guy he owes money to, but let's just do it from this one character viewpoint for now and move kind of quick, without the colloquial phrasing.

This guy flys to Vermont and starts asking about these farms. The person he owes money to sends one of his enforcers with an outside contractor working on a ten percent commission to hunt him down. He just had a multi-million dollar company, he just had a fancy condo, he just had fancy cars, he should be able to come up with the money from this guys perspective. The guy that is running took a direct flight under he regular name so he is easy to track to Vermont, but he doesn't know that. They say they are detectives and start asking if anyone has seen him. Maybe there is some resistance in a small town, but they say he has broken laws when his company was going bankrupt, someone googles the guy, sees his picture, and believes them. They follow him to the farm. When someone tells him that people are there to see him he is suspicious. He sneaks a look at them and decides that it is not a good idea to meet them. He runs, but now he realizes that he probably shouldn't be using his normal credit card and stuff because maybe they can follow him that way.

I don't know, it seems okay, but I want something more to it. I am going to cut it there. I have kind of abandoned the method I originally started with though. The method could be correct and yet my deviation from it is my very downfall.

Anyway, I need to look at some of the stories that I really like and see what it is about them that I like. I especially want to look at the ones that have had a lot of resonance for me, and some of the ones that I enjoy repeating. If I am going to be studying them a lot the repeatability is important. I have been trying to work that list down and I think I have it down to one movie, one tv show, and one novel. "Passengers," "Poldark," and "Replay."

"Replay" by Ken Grimwood is my favorite novel. I have never re-read another novel in my life, although I have tried several times with several books that I really liked. But, "Replay," I have read that around a dozen times. It is great every time. I might enjoy re-reading some George R. R. Martin stuff too. "Poldark" is a great show. I looked at the books too, but the style wasn't something that pulled me in right away so I didn't read them. I enjoy the feeling of the show though. "Passengers" isn't necessarily the most liked movie by everyone. A lot of people didn't particularly care for the ending. I thought it was an alright ending, it might be interesting to write an alternate ending for fun, but either way I think it is a very rewatchable show. I like how it explores that relationship in a bubble. The feeling of being trapped in a situation where you won't reach your original dreams and yet you can make a life where you are. It is a feel-good show for me. I plan to explore those works more and discover more about why I like them.

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