Tag Archives: plotting

Balancing Big Picture Brainstorming with Getting Down to Brass Tacks

Photo via ecooper99 Flickr

Some people can’t see the forest for the trees, but have you ever felt that you couldn’t see the individual trees because you were too occupied taking in the whole forest?

Sometimes, in the brainstorming phases of writing, the ideas are flowing, the big idea is clear in our mind’s eye, and we have no problem seeing the overall theme or message we want to convey. We might be going along with our day when we get a cool idea for a story; initially, everything seems to make sense, but when we sit down to really begin planning each scene, the going can get pretty tough.

It’s not often that I’ve liked getting into the details of any project, whether it’s planning a retreat, crunching the numbers on a new purchase, or even plotting a book. My high school English teacher once told me that I was a “big picture” person or an “ideas” person, which explains my aversion to doing math, and it’s true that I have always found mathematical concepts fascinating– whether I’m learning calculus or discussing quantum physics with my engineering friends– but I simply can’t be bothered to actually work out the details. This is hardly surprising, as I am an INTJ (Introverted, Intuitive, Thinking, Judgemental) personality type on the Myers-Briggs personality test, and my intuition and preference for holistic thinking lends itself to generating concepts rather than concrete details.

This way of thinking is necessary for most endeavors, especially writing; after all, you have to know what you want to say before you can properly say it.

However, there is a Japanese proverb which states,

“Vision without action is a fantasy… action without vision is a nightmare.”

There are a lot of would-be writers who seem to have no shortage of ideas for the next big thing but who never seem to act on that vision and write. On the other hand, a quick trip through Amazon’s indie published titles reveals that there are just as many people with the ability to hammer out a book but who seemingly have no vision directing their writing.

It would be too easy to say, “Well, I’m a visionary. I’m just no good at the nitty gritty.” And frankly, this seems rather lazy. Writing is a particular business, and it takes a rare breed of person– one who possesses both the free-spirited creativity necessary for generating ideas and the analytical, no-nonsense practicality of organisation and discipline– to do it well.

It’s true that we all have differing balances of right and left brain proclivities, but there are ways we can leverage our strengths to help shore up the areas where we’re weak and to trick our brains into thinking they’re playing when the task at hand would normally seem like work.

For example, yesterday, while I was feeling particularly stuck with plotting my current WIP, I did something I’ve never done before. Usually, I resort to mindmapping, but this time, I just began writing down impressions and words connected to the scene I had in mind without circling or drawing connections between them. In this way, I created a sort of “cloud” where I could see the overall “feel” of the scene I needed to write, but I didn’t bother trying to draw connections between them until my subconscious tired out and the flow of ideas dried up.

P1010089

In the past, at this point, I would have probably tried to jump into writing the scene, but the problem is that I still only have an impression: I can kind of see what the scene needs to be, but it remains shimmering, effervescent, and vague.

So instead, I then turned to a new page in my notebook and, still in that creative state of mind, began writing in linear fashion the progression of events in the scene. I was still pulling ideas from the air, but now that I had an impression of what the scene would be, it was easier to focus my creativity into coming up with individual events that would be plausible within the scene. Now, I have a list of targets to hit as I progress through writing the first draft.

P1010090

I like to think of this method of brainstorming as “telescoping,” much the same way you can go to Google Earth and look at a map of the whole United States to get the big picture, then you can zoom in to your particular city to see the roadmap of where you’re going, and finally, you can enter Street View to get an on-the-ground perspective.

Similarly, we can first come up with the big idea for what we want to write, then we can organise those ideas into something resembling a roadmap for the draft, and finally, when it comes time to write the prose, we put ourselves actively into the scene and fill in the details on the level of sentences and paragraphs.

I’m going to tweak this method and see how it works for other scenes, but for now, I feel much more prepared to write the first draft.

How do you go about planning a piece? How would your process differ for blog posts versus fiction? Do you prefer to work backwards, writing scenes from the ground up and later organising them into a big idea for a story?

George R.R. Martin: A Lesson and a Warning

English: George R.R. Martin signing books in a...

The other day when I was playing with my new Kindle, I was checking out George R.R. Martin’s latest book in the Song of Ice and Fire series, A Dance With Dragons. I’ve been reading the series for a couple years now, and I immensely enjoyed the first three. Lately, I have been plodding through the fourth volume, A Feast for Crows, wondering if I was just getting lazy or if something was truly wrong with the book. After reading the reviews of A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons, I realised that it wasn’t me; it was Martin.

According to the reviews, most people agree that the first three books are excellent, and I concur, but around the fourth installment, it appears that George began stalling. I have read countless tips on writing that speak of including conflict or tension or something that advances the plot in every scene, yet throughout A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons, we are treated to endless scenes where nothing happens.

People complained that Martin filled up hundreds of pages with descriptions of food and locales, letting his characters ruminate instead of take action to resolve their dilemmas, and maddening repetitions of certain phrases such as “You know nothing, Jon Snow” and “CORN! CORN! CORN!

This intrigued me because the contrast between the first three books and their successors is striking; I actually revisited my copy of A Game of Thrones just last night to study the first couple of scenes and to try to figure out why it worked so well.

I was surprised to find that Martin’s first scenes actually rely quite a bit on inserting backstory and references to the world of Westeros amidst the characters’ interactions. The key difference between these descirptive passages and the ones in later books is that they actually mattered: When Lady Catelyn visits Ned in the godswood, we get glimpses into her past in the Riverlands, and similarly, when King Robert and Ned go into the crypts of Winterfell to pay respects to Lyanna, we are fed bits of the backstory of the Battle of the Trident, vital to our understanding of future events and Robert and Ned’s characters.

As I have been working on my own opening scenes, I have been overly concerned with delving right into the action as so many writers suggest; but something still does not feel right about them. Although it should be remembered that they are only first drafts, after examining them a bit more, I realised that the reader does not have much reason to care about my characters yet. My scenes have felt a bit… sparse, and I can now see that they’re in need of some beefing up.

On the other hand, once you have established a certain amount of rapport between your reader and your world, there is no need to continue long-winded descriptions of every dress worn by your antagonist or every building in your hero’s town. I know that, when I saw the prolific output of writers like Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, and even Tolkien, I was impressed by the sheer volume of writing they produced. Yet bigger is most certainly not always better, and it is clear– through my own experience and the opinions of other readers– that it becomes burdensome and more work than leisure to wade through volume after volume with countless characters and little plot progression.

I consider myself a solid representative for fantasy fans, and as such, I ought to have more patience than the average reader to stick with epic-length series. But you know the author has done something wrong when even his most loyal fans lose interest in the story.

Achieving that balance between just enough detail and just enough plot progression is no easy task. On the one hand, we need enough description to allow the readers to immerse themselves in our world and empathise with our characters, but on the other hand, the reader also yearns for resolution, and if the plot does not maintain a steady pace, he can feel trapped in the details. A story does not have to be of epic length in order to be epic.

How do you balance interjecting worldbuilding and backstory while making sure your plot progresses in a logical and timely manner? Some people say that you shouldn’t do too much preparation beforehand, else the writing feels “canned” or goes stale for you, while others would advocate knowing as much as you can to ensure you have a steady supply of content to drip in to the narrative. What do you think?