Mastering the Art of the Semi-Plot: A Tale of Plotting Gone Graveyard

Today my goal was to outline my entire story.  From beginning to end.  A bold task that required getting up early and focusing by planting my butt in a chair for the time it takes to drink a venti passion tea.  Three hours later (I savor my drink, ok?…I got lost in social media, ok?), I had at least figured out the “want, motivation, but” for my protagonist, that wasn’t difficult.  But I got stuck on my antagonist!  I know what he wants, but I have no motive, and without that motive I can’t outline major turning points!  Damn it all to hell!  Excuse me, I needed to get that off my chest.

If I lost some of you at “want, motivation, but” it’s a plotting tool I learned at the Writers Institute by the wonderful Lori Devoti.  Lori is a paranormal romance author and if you want a great deal on e-books, she’s running one on her blog right now.  What Lori showed us at the conference is a chart where you list what your character wants, which needs to be the goal of the story so it has to allow growth in your character.  For example, someone’s goal might be to save her marriage.  After you’ve named the goal, you have to know the motivation behind it.  What is it that drives the goal for the character?  What is the best thing that could be if they get their want?  And finally, you put the BUT in there.  The obstacle that prevents them from achieving their goal.  For example, if the goal was for the character to save her marriage, but her husband dies, her motivation and goal become something different, possibly about creating a better life for her child.  Lori’s advice was to draw up this chart with the protagonist and the antagonist side by side because as much as you can pit them against each other with conflicting wants, motives, buts, then the easier it will be to plot them against each other.

Today my problem is that I haven’t figured out my antagonist’s motive yet.  So I decided to stop staring at a blank piece of paper and definitely STOP getting lost in social media world, and do some research for the book to get my brain spinning again.  So, I spent the better part of an hour walking through a graveyard.

Part of my walk in the Oak Grove Cemetery

No, no, this wasn’t a suicide mission.  Not in the slightest.  It’s the main setting of my story, and I thought a stroll through my character’s world would help clear up the muddy bits.  Despite the fact I had to hide my camera from the protective groundskeeper who kept driving past me while I sauntered around, it was a productive visit.  I got several great shots that will help me create scenes in the graveyard.  And best of all were the names!  Many of the graves in this cemetery are from the 1800’s and the names and variety in the tombstones was something spectacular to see.  I also found the FREAKIEST tree that may or may not make its way into the story (I’m almost too creeped out to write about it).

I still haven’t quite nailed down a motive that doesn’t leap beyond the borders of “yaah, right, Witkins!” so I’ll keep working on that.  But I still consider this a productive day that will help me when I am scene building.  I mean, look where I was!

I like the way the different kinds of trees overlap here. Each a different color and texture.

What do you think?  Any advice for this stuck writer?  What helps you sculpt your characters and outline better?

Also, don’t miss out on a chance to win a free book!  Read my review of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, leave a comment, and you’re automatically entered to be a part of the World Book Night Giveaway!     

19 responses

  1. You can go ahead and start plotting turning points. If you do that, the antagonist’s motivation may come to you. Everyone has a different process.
    The thing I revise most in my revision pass is my characters. They are never quite right because it takes me writing them for a bit to really get them. Some people do interviews, etc. to get through the “knowing” but I prefer to just write the story and go back later to fix things.
    Sometimes the pre-writing work gets you going, but in the end it is for lack of a better word too cold. It’s what your logical brain came up with, but something better and more “true” will come out as you really let yourself go. And if it does–go with it! 🙂
    I’m writing a story right now and I know my hero isn’t right. How he should react to the heroine is still sorting its way out in my head. His goal/motivation/conflict won’t change in this case–but his reactions, which ARE character will.

    Good luck!!

    1. Thanks for the starter kit and the next steps, Lori! That’s actually really helpful advice. Considering all the photos I took, just sketching out a scene would be a great exercise for me to get the know character better. I tend to forget the book doesn’t have to be written chronologically. Imperfections of a perfectionist! lol. Thank you again immensely for the advice!

  2. I’ve always had the same problem in outlining either my protagonist or my antagonist (usually because I start out with a clear idea of one or the other and build around that person). Unfortunately, I have no idea what to give you for advice. My breakthroughs usually come in really random cathartic spurts (very often when I don’t have a pen and I wind up talking to myself and hashing the whole thing out with people staring).

    I think walking through the graveyard was a good idea. Also, for some weird reason, there’s usually a musical score (or random rock song) that goes with my characters (likely in the same way that I associate Danish butter cookies with playing Final Fantasy VIII), so listening to each character’s song will help me work through them better.

    Odds are, though, you’re probably thinking too hard on it and missing the obvious. Set it aside for a few days, and then come back to it. It might be just enough to ignite a fresh spark. =]

    Great exercise, though, with the “want, motivation,but”! I’m really excited to give that one a shot. =]

    1. Oh good, it’s not just me that talks to myself. When I’m writing I say the lines aloud in their character voices to hear how it sounds and whether it’s real or not. lol. And I’m always moving my lips to mouth words as I think aloud. I’m actually really grateful for cell phones because now no one will ever know I really am just talking to myself in the car. hahaha

  3. Unabridged Girl | Reply

    I love that you went on a walk through the place where your story takes place! That’s always inspiring, I think. 🙂 I know that when I first started my manuscript…rather, when the idea for the story came to me, it was extremely different from what the story is now. I didn’t completely understand my character’s motivations in the beginning, but as I continued to write, the clearer they began to be. That’s just me, though. I’m not one that can just sit and write out a characters wants and needs. They come alive the more I write them – like hands-on study.


    1. No, no, that’s very true. And I wasn’t planning to just sit and write it out. This is actually “start over #4” but hey, it just requalifies my title as a Perseverance Expert. Yah!

  4. First off, I love walking through graveyards. Cemeteries tell stories like no other place I know. It’s great to immerse yourself in this sort of research.

    As for my writing, I spend very little time on the “technical” aspects of it (outlines, plotting, figuring out character motivations, etc.). I’ve always just dived right in with a general idea in my head of where things were going, but kept an open mind for surprises and detours (which inevitably occur). A literary agent once told me this was a bad way to write, but I disagree…I think there is no “right” or “wrong,” it’s whatever works for you as a writer.

    1. Oh man, the names alone! I got a fleeting idea that I would pick a random grave and write a whole book about their life based on what I could find out about them. But by the time I got home, I forgot the name I chose! Elnora Strasberger? Herschberger? It’s gone. I’ve lost it.

  5. Hey, as you know, I’m out of town next week, but if you want to talk/brainstorm when I get back, let me know. This post brought up a bunch of memories for me. In fact, I have a future post in mind that covers some of the things you’re struggling with.

    My quick tip for the moment is to put the outline aside and just write. Don’t take it too seriously. Experiment with the story and you may find the answer you’re looking for while you play.

    In the spirit of full disclosure, I am a reformed over-outliner. I still work with a brief outline when I start, and I update it as I go, which helps when you have to submit a synopsis. However, as Lori says above, outlining is logical, and sometimes you need to just immerse yourself in the creative side—the actual writing. That’s when the muse shows up. My muse checks out and goes to a hockey game when I’m outlining. 😉

    When you’re experimenting with a scene or a character that you’re struggling with, follow the rules of brainstorming. Let yourself go; don’t judge what you’re about to write before you get it on the page. It might be total crap. But the crap could lead you to the lightbulb moment.

    Good luck.

    1. Thanks for the help, Margaret! I see now I was letting myself get so caught up in the structure and outline piece, I forgot to consider what I’d already developed for the character that could help decipher my problem. Sunday is my next day to sit down and write again and I’ll try to do some scene work to begin with, just to get the writing flow going again. Good recommendation. Have fun at your retreat, can’t wait to hear about it!

  6. Great blog! First, thanks for detailing Lori Devoti’s technique, that is awesome and I’ll be adding it to my design methods.

    Second, I don’t think you sound stuck. Perhaps expecting faster momentum, but definitely not stuck. If an object is making forward motion, even a picometer (ultra-small) it is still moving forward and therefore…not stuck. You are moving faster than that to be sure, by the way, taking the walk in the graveyard was also forward momentum since you added experiences into your story that will be useable…”work” as a writer is a strange, funny and wonderful thing like that.

    Third, well, my wife has gotten me to wander through graveyards with her. Taking pictures, hunting for interesting tombstones and stories. Wonderful place for finding the roots, so to speak.

    Thanks so much for sharing your experiences it makes me want to move forward faster as well 🙂

    1. Yah, I know what you mean by writers “work.” It does involve a variety of things, and honestly research and scene building excursions are great exercises. I’m glad Lori’s technique and my blog are pushing you to move farther ahead too and thanks for the shout out on twitter!

      P.S. My honey thanks you for voting his “superhero” comment as adorable too. lol.

  7. Looks like an inspirational place to walk. I kind of like going to cemeteries (during the day). It’s really interesting, especially the older they are. That picture is great! I hope you felt inspired and worked through some of the trickier parts of your story!

    1. Yah I got some great close up shots of crypts that I’d already been writing about, but now I have a better visualization for the scene. It was fun. I may do it again today in another graveyard! Now would be the time to admit, I love walking in cemeteries, oddly though I don’t think I want to be buried in one. Hmm…

  8. Beautiful photos! I read something this week that made me stop and think (I won’t tell you it was in a graphic novel…Oh, Damn!). It was the simple idea that villains (or antagonists, if you prefer) don’t think they’re the bad guys. They are the heroes of their own stories, so they’re not out to thwart the hero in the interest of evil, or because the hero is “good”. They ‘deserve’ their victory. I don’t know that that will help you, since you still have to divine what your character actually wants, but I thought it might add some perspective. Mind you, I’ve only just got up, so I may be talking drivel. The weasels certainly think so….

    1. That’s really great advice, Damian, especially since it didn’t come from a graphic novel…(oh damn). 😉

      You’re right about how important the villain is and they are the hero in their own story. I’m still working on mine’s motive, but I’ve been able to keep writing doing scene building which is good. It’ll come to me. I wrote the beginnings of a great scene yesterday based off of two of the photos I didn’t post. hehehe They’re all mine!

  9. […] I was so energized by the comments and support in my previous post depicting my struggle with outlining that I compiled a list of various ways writers can propel […]

  10. I have no advice, Jess, but I’m learning a lot from you. The best stories just seem to unfold, without effort. Obviously, though, those are the ones that involved the most effort, the greatest struggle for the author. I have no doubt your struggles will pay off, and I can’t wait to see the results. (But who are you kidding with that research excuse? You just love walking through cemeteries.)

    1. Jess Witkins | Reply

      Shh, it’s a secret that I like creepin’ in the crypts. 🙂

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