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...


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!