Creative writing commentaries: don't know where to start?
Working hypothesis: write as if you're a writer

Don't plot, just play Fortunately-Unfortunately

I've been plotting a novel recently, and one of the things I've done to help myself see if my story really was embodied in my plot (click here for the difference between plot and story), was to write a long, blueprint-like synopsis. And about three-quarters of the sentences in it were two-parters, hinging on a "but". Whatever action or situation was set up in the first half of the sentence was confounded, confused, contradicted or compromised by what was in the second half. What's more, if you look at the blurb on just about any novel or life-writing, it's doing exactly that. Look for the "but"s, and if, instead, you see a "then" or an "and", there will still be clear friction between the two halves of the sentence. Either way, the blurb sets up an unstable situation, and so we know that something can't help but happen.

At which point I realised that plotting is, essentially, a game familiar to me from my Drama days: Fortunately-Unfortunately.

Fortunately, Friendly Bear was vegetarian. Unfortunately, Nervous Rabbit didn't know that.

Fortunately, Li-Chan won the lottery. Unfortunately, she was dying of cancer.

Fortunately, Yousuf was a skillful fisherman and an excellent cook. Unfortunately, he didn't know that squid sent Anna into anaphylactic shock.

Fortunately, Jane Bennet was invited to London. Unfortunately, it would have been improper for her to tell Charles Bingley that she was on her way. Fortunately, it was proper to tell his sister. Unfortunately, Caroline Bingley was a scheming bitch.

The thing is, change is the motor of storytelling: a story starts with a character, who lives in one way and trundling along one track, but is then (see what I did there?) given a strong enough reason to change tracks and do something else. So what keeps readers reading is realising that the track and the life can't stay the same - that they are about to change - that they are changing - but what into? - and where will the track lead? - and how will the person cope with their new kind of living? - and then what will they collide with ...

So a compelling story ("the journey you make") needs to be embodied in a plot ("the route you take") in which events keep on not letting the main character stay in the track they thought they were on: scene after scene, chapter after chapter, "this" is followed by "but". As the thriller writers says, jeopardy must increase - the stakes must be raised - so as the story builds, steadily bigger fortunatelies are followed by steadily more potentially disastrous unfortunatelies, until we reach the crisis point where the ultimate Unfortunately looks likely to win over the ultimate Fortunately.

Not, of course, that you have to plan all - or any - of your Fortunatelies and Unfortunatelies, from the start. If you're a writer who tends to pants forward, and then plan backwards - i.e. retrospectively - or not at all, you can just set up a Fortunately, and then think what Unfortunately it's open to, and get that rolling. Then, staring at that unfortunately, you think what Fortunately might grow out of it, or come along (convincingly, of course) from elsewhere.

In John Yorke's entirely brilliant book Into The Woods, about structure in storytelling, he has a fantastic example from Eastenders of how a scene is built from something trundling along in the expected way and then - bing! - the unexpected happens, and even though it must be retrospectively convincing, everything is now different. And he quotes one colleague saying that he couldn't work out how to write for Eastenders until he realised that he needed to write each scene as if the end-of-episode drums of the theme were going to come in at the end of that scene.

It sounds a bit crude - it IS a bit crude - but then storytelling is, at bottom, a crude business of stopping your readers getting bored, because if they do they might kick you out of your place by the fire, or even out of the lord's hall and into the dragon-haunted dark. And the EastEnders writer makes the point brilliantly because the drums say both "Wow! that was a surprise!" and then, crucially, "So NOW what's going to happen?"

In other words, the point about bodies on page one, hooks, inciting incidents, villains, conflicts, midpoints, cliffhangers, characters-in-interaction, crises, and all the other things that we talk about when we talk about how story structure works, isn't really that they contain surprises: surprise is just a fleeting jolt of emotion. What really matters is that when a surprise has jolted us, we no longer know what will happen next. We'd better keep reading...

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16th June 2018 Edited to add: I recently came across a similar, but different idea about plotting, which is to think in terms of "Therefore... But..." and I think this, too, is very useful. "X needed something, therefore they... but then... therefore they... but then... and so on." I shall blog properly about it soon, I promise!

Comments

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Sandra Davies

Excellent blog Emma - all the more so because I've just realised that the person who told me to add more jeopardy was right - I had the 'fortunately' applied to my MC but the 'unfortunately' was only true for several others. It came to me in a flash how to do it last night.
Pity is that it's taken me three years and four major re-writes to get to this point (to recognise this point) and no doubt the SE course had helped open my eyes.

Suzie Quint

I'm delighted to have discovered you blog. This is like a master's level course in writing. Still exploring all your great posts.

Emma Darwin

Yes, it's so easy to make that sort of thing happen (or, rather, to fail to make it not happen). And hard to see that you have; there seems to be plenty going on, so why does someone say that things aren't dramatic enough? Only the bastard is usually right!

And sometimes the writer's own overview of things is a drawback: we can solve their problems (or make them not get into them in the first place) too easily.

Moira

Thanks for this. I have just used the technique to plot out my next book! It was a great help!

Edith

Another excellent post! Thank you :) What's especially wonderful about this 'lesson' is that you have summarized your message into a simple mantra, a phrase easy to remember and hopefully therefore, easier to apply!

Lilian Butterwick

Thanks for this, Emma. I find this explanation much more helpful than 'crisis points', which somehow feel too technical and end up distancing me too far from what I'm writing. With the fortunately/unfortunately approach, I feel more able to go over my YA novel and see how it applies. :-)

Emma Darwin

Lovely to see you here, Suzie. Hope you enjoy the exploring!

Emma Darwin

You're welcome, Moira. Glad it's useful!

Emma Darwin

Edith, you're welcome. I'm sometimes a bit wary of simple mantras because they too easily become laws ("Sometimes you need Showing, sometimes you need Telling" too easily becomes Show Don't Tell, for instance).

But I agree - I found myself, doing this synopsis, thinking simply, "Okay, we need an Unfortunately", and with my imagination focussed like that, up it came!

Emma Darwin

Yes, I agree. I think "crisis" can - and probably should" be something which has a profound effect on the overall story, and it can be difficult to see how that would apply to each act, each scene; it feels too final. Whereas it's easy to see how - say - in the Jane Bennet example, you can just go on setting them up... Specially useful, perhaps, for the writers who don't really plan much ahead, so they certainly can't think in terms from the beginning of what the crisis might be at the end of the book. Whereas F-UnF can just get you onto the next page... Good luck with the novel!

Dee DeTarsio

Thanks so much, Emma! F-UnF is exactly the "fun" I am looking for. Great post, I'm so happy to have discovered you!

Phillipa Ashley

Line of Duty. Classic example... great post, Emma, almost makes plotting a novel seem simple, if you know what I mean but seriously, when broken down into Fortunately/Unfortunately, it's easier to see how conflicts work to drive the 'plot'. They are the plot.

Emma Darwin

Dee, you're welcome. Lovely to see you here! And yes, it can actually be fun...

Emma Darwin

Haven't seen the new one, but I thought the original was just brilliant.

And yes, the turn from Fortunately to Unfortunately is what makes a plot a plot, and actually what makes a story a story, because they shape the journey the character and reader take.

sophie

Love this! Thanks.

Emma Darwin

You're welcome, Sophie!

Deborah Makarios

One writing teacher I know describes this as 'writing with teeth' - up followed by down, followed by up, followed by down...

Thanks for the 'but' vs 'and/then' tip - I do catch myself verging on the episodic sometimes, with no 'narrative necessity' in sight.

Maria McCann

One of the things that made 'The Killing' such compulsive viewing was this element: in each episode, Sara Lund (fortunately) discovered something promising which (unfortunately) turned out to be unhelpful after all. What's more, the 'unfortunatelies' mounted and had a cumulative impact as colleagues and the public became increasingly suspicious of her methods. Then at the end of each episode, as the theme music began, there was a rapid glance at the lives of each group of characters, registering the impact of what had happened that week and where it had left them, so that the good or bad fortune was seen to radiate outwards into the wider community. Fantastic.

Alvar

Very useful way to see it. Can I throw you a question? How do you feel about writers writing stories where writers are the main character? It seems to happen a lot. I hate it, especially because it's happening to me.

Emma Darwin

I like "writing with teeth" - sometimes it's me who feels like the predator, stalking my characters till they've reached safety, and then pouncing again...

Emma Darwin

Maria, I haven't seen enough of hte Killing to have spotted that, but it makes lots of sense. It's a real challenge to keep the unfortunatelies both mounting and relevant. We all know the kind of run-of-the-mill story where stray Bad Stuff keeps happening, rather than each one being a surprise but once it's happened clearly being a natural and inevitable product of the overall situation.

And the music - interesting variant on the EastEnders' principle...

Emma Darwin

I think it was John Updike who said that having a writer as your MC was "an aesthetic crime" - I don't know if he was serious and/or having a dig at Philip Roth, say...

It's tempting, isn't it - and not just from our own writerly solipsism. It makes our job both easier and more interesting to have an MC who will by definition be observant and articulate and thoughtful... (well, I'd like to think that a writer would be). And, of course, it solves the problem of a first-person narrator, which is the question of WHY this person chooses to tell their story, and then where they're standing, relative to the story they're telling. (If anyone doesn't know what I'm on about, see my Seventeen Questions To Ask Your Novel, in the toolkit). Plus, if you're like me, you just love the layered-ness of having a narrative which plays with the fact of it been a created thing, IYSWIM. We've rather lost the sense of the storyteller, lately, and having a writer as an MC is perhaps a legitimising trick for a generation which is uneasy with external narrators.

One possibility is to think about WHY you keep having writers as MCs (and there's a long and honourable history of it - my first thought was Graham Greene's The End of the Affair), and see if there are other ways round it.

I haven't done it yet - although A Secret Alchemy is about historical fiction (as well as being partly historical fiction) but in a slightly displaced way: as my agent put it, "Not about writing a book, but about the birth of a novelist"...

Alvar

Thank you -- you are the best, Ms. Darwin. Should have thought of this before I wrote nearly 50,000 words of this thing. I'm rather with Updike on this, but somehow fell for having a main character who is a writer, even though I'm not using him as a narrator (this is third-person). I know this is my problem and I must deal with it on my own, either put this piece away and write something else or ignore the inner critic that's telling me to toss it, but I appreciate your feedback. I don't know how common this predicament is but I am really hating (yes, hate is a strong word, but it applies here) my own creation right now.

Rebecca

Interesting post. I like the idea of fortunately/unfortunately. Very pleased to have found your blog.

Emma Darwin

Alvar, you're welcome. Good luck with it - and I've made some notes for a blog about the MC-who's-a-writer thing some day, so thank you for that!.

Mind you, I think most of us have hated our characters every now and again.

Emma Darwin

Lovely to see you here, Rebecca!

Pam

Thank you Emma, I have read several of your posts, and found them interesting and useful, but this one really helped me to clarify the heart of my plot.

Emma Darwin

Lovely to see you here, Rebecca. Glad you found the blog interesting.

Cathleen Townsend

Hi there. I tried to reblog you using your button, but I'm not on typepad. So I did it manually. You'll get a pingback, because there's a link to your blog so they can finish the article (I just pasted the first few hundred words), but I wanted to tell you here as well.

Besides, this way I can give you belated thanks for a lovely article. :)

Cathleen

Emma Darwin

Hi Cathleen - thanks for the reblog, and I'm so glad you liked the article!

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