Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Just Put a Monkey In It

Scott recently suggested that I put a monkey in my story. This was actually much deserved revenge for some suggestions I’ve made to him in the past with regard to his art. Although he certainly doesn’t need my advice, now and then Scott will be working on a painting and something about it is bothering him. It’s usually something that he feels he’s too close to and can’t see so once in a while he’ll ask me what I think is going on with the painting. Most of the time, I suspect he’s bored and just making conversation, but I’m always flattered to be asked and will do my best to help. If I’m not seeing it either, I usually suggest he put a monkey in the painting.

This got me thinking about plotting. It got me thinking about where the inspiration for raising the stakes, or introducing subplots, or deciding what to have our characters do next comes from. Authors are all over the map on this. Stephen King, in On Writing says that he absolutely doesn’t believe in plotting. He believes that stories and novels are made up of narration, description and dialogue. In his process, the germ of the story comes from a premise or situation and he is like an archeologist, who must discover what the story is.

On the other end of the spectrum are the more regimented writers who feel they must outline and tightly plot in order to complete a good story. In fact, King cites the English mystery writer, Edgar Wallace, who actually invented and patented the Edgar Wallace Plot Wheel. Not sure what happens next? Spin the wheel and see what comes up! Perhaps a surprise visitor or a declaration of love or a murder or a long lost relative will appear.

I like the idea of discovering story and of letting inspiration come from the subconscious, but I also believe that sometimes the subconscious needs a kick in the pants to get moving. A plot wheel, a magic eight ball, a maniacal ranting solo brainstorming session (my personal favorite), a long walk, inducing a trance-like state or creating a long list of “what if” candidates can all prove useful under certain circumstances.

Ultimately, whether we’re establishing these things up front, or discovering them along the way, we all need to come up with plot points. I’m still muddling my way through and trying to discover my own process, so I’ve tried a number of these methods with varying success.

Of course, if all else fails, I can always add a monkey.

What process do you use to come up with plot points or ways to raise the stakes and heighten the conflict in your stories?


reality said...

I am with King. I am now so tired hearing about a hook on the first page/chapter; the way a novel must be organized; conflict upfront etc etc etc
perhaps it is because that is not the way I write.
I have looked at opening chapters of books acclaimed as great by critics and that were commercially successful. There is no formula there. No great hook. Just a great story, told well.

Yogamum said...

Plotting is the hardest thing for me! I try to make some notes about what happens along the way, but mostly I have an idea of the characters, their personalities, and where the story begins and ends. I just sort of muddle through the middle.

I know someone who always had to put a dog in his stories. A monkey would be more unpredictable, though.

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

I'm big on hoping I'll have those "AHA" moments. You know, when the next twist or plot point or information suddenly become clear to me. The character clues me in. It often involves me letting go--putting the pen and paper down and going for a walk or throwing in a load of laundry or taking a shower. One day last week had me refilling all the hand soap dispensers in the house. But, it got me where I needed to be (and we all have clean hands to boot!).

But, I'll keep the monkey in mind.

Rebecca Burgess said...

Okay, I'll be honest here. I don't really understand plotting out a novel. Probably because I don't write this way. My characters and their personal idiosyncrasies come first and what happens throughout the novel is a natural progression stemming from their thoughts, feelings and actions coupled with their circumstances.

Reality, I'm with you. If I hear the word hook one more time I'm going to scream. If you write well, I know you can carry a reader past that first line. Hell, they'll probably even give you a couple pages to "Hook" them. But those pages must be interesting to read.

I have to think all this first sentence, first paragraph intensity must come largely from writers taking writing advice from agents more than from writers or even readers. Agents probably are only ever going to read that first line because they have two hundred other first lines to read that afternoon. Agents, for the most part, aren't writers and they are just as subjective when it comes to liking or disliking a piece of work as any other reader. This is evidenced in their own admission that what makes one agent swoon doesn't even create a blip on the radar of another.

They do however have a thumbs pulse on what the editors they work with are looking for.

Rebecca Burgess said...


Forget adding a monkey; it should be about a monkey.

Carleen Brice said...

My husband always tells me to add blind albino snails who live at the bottom of the sea and communicate with humans telepathically. Helpful.

Patti said...

the thought of a putting a monkey in it is genius. well, not actually a monkey, but it gets the creative juices flowing.

i am a go with the characters kinda writer. never a kills the story for me. i feel if i plot it then i've told it...the end. done. why continue? i gotta let my characters lead me to what they need to say.

even if they need a monkey...

Melissa Marsh said...

I've been dealing with this same issue for the past few weeks. How much to plot? And I've discovered that I need a roadmap for myself, otherwise I'll run into a swamp and get bogged down for days on end. I have to know my major plot points before I start writing - this is a must. I don't want to plot every single detail out or every scene, like some people do, because that will take all the fun out of writing for me.

I also have to know my characters' GMC's, otherwise I'll hit a brick wall halfway through the book.

This is my third novel, so my process is evolving.

Charles Gramlich said...

I find that taking long walks while I think about the story really helps me start generating potential ideas. Then when I get an idea I interrogate it, asking questions, of "well what then," and "why?" A lot of ideas fail at that point. I keep the ones that don't.

Shauna Roberts said...

This is an issue I still struggle with.

One technique I use for both my fiction and nonfiction is the List of Twenty. You set a timer for 10 or 15 minutes and then jot down as fast as you can at least 20 things that could happen next (or 20 titles or 20 mishaps that could befall someone on a pilgrimage or whatever your sticking point is). The time limit forces you to write, not think.

The first few items on the List of Twenty are always predictable and boring. Then you get desperate and start putting down surprising things. Most are junk, as you'd expect, but usually your subconscious dredges up something interesting.

Personally, I think every story could benefit from a monkey.

Ello said...

I haven't worried about plotting ever since the voices in my head took over...

liz fenwick said...

Shauana, I like that..... a list of 20

I have to know my beginning and end and the let the rest develop in the first draft as I write and live with the characters......then once that's finished I can tinker with it add more of whatever is needed.......

Lisa said...

Usman, I'm with you. I think I'm getting close to the end of my tolerance for craft study at the moment and want to be immersed in the creative process, without regard for formula for a while.

Kristi, your writing is so beautiful and so polished and from the prologue and first chapter I've read, I have a feeling that you will easily conquer any real or perceived problems with plotting you have. (FYI everybody else, Kristi and I are in the same novel writing workshop at Lighthouse and she is a fabulous writer!)

Judy, Carleen mentioned going on a writer's walk in one of her posts one day and I thought, I really need to just carve out time to do that myself every day. That's exactly when I get the greatest inspiration and the trick for me is to create those opportunities. Oh, and the shower -- me too. It's where all my best ideas come from!

Rebecca, you're expressing a frustration I've had for a while. I don't know if I get annoyed more at the idea that all of this "formula" seems like it would suck the life out of writing or I'm annoyed because that's just the way it is. A story about a monkey. Now there's an idea. Look out Curious George and King Kong!

Carleen, Sounds like your husband does to you what I do to Scott! Oh and thanks for the writer's walk idea -- I have not forgotten.

Melissa, you write historical fiction right? If that's the case, I'm thinking that more pre-writing is probably more necessary. But I also think this is a question of personality and what process helps the creative process and the work balance out. I'd love to understand the evolutionary process of writers with multiple manuscripts.

Charles, I love the idea of interrogating an idea! "But why? why would she have taken the letter off the kitchen table? Didn't she know he'd figure it out sooner or later? Oh so she didn't, she just read it while he was in the shower? OK, now you have my attention"

Shauna, I LOVE that idea -- especially that you put a time limit on it that forces the freewriting/subconscious experience. And I'm glad you agree. I think all art would benefit from a monkey.

Ello, you are so damn funny! All of you!

Liz, that seems to be the closest to a trend with writers that I've noted so far.

steve said...

I've never been an outliner, though I do have the problem of letting my characters lead me into a dead end. You might check out Peter at slow reads
who has a long piece on his teaching plan for his ninth-grade writing class. It reads like a graduate writing seminar. I hope his plan for treating his writing students like writers works.

And, just to be a Hermione, I have to point out that a chimpanzee is not a monkey, but an ape. Sorry, I just couldn't help it.

Mardougrrl said...

My people! Plotting is my part because my writing never seems to depend on the "wow, what happens next?" factor (not that things don't happen, just that I can't seem to make that type of story happen consciously). I like the "list 20 things" idea and plan to steal it.

I think my biggest problem with the plotting books is that they teach me how to recognize certain elements in other stories, but for some reason I cannot apply them to my own.

And I am SO going to find a way to add a monkey to my next story!

Sustenance Scout said...

Lost another comment to the blogger black hole, Lisa! I think what I wrote the other day went something like this: Carleeen cracked me up with her comment; I have a brother-in-law who would agree with Scott wholeheartedly (my girls used to call him Monkey Boy); and I plot the hell out of my novels but am enjoying letting the characters lead in my short stories. All of which is no help at all, is it?!

Melissa Marsh said...

Lisa, I'm actually working on a contemporary mainstream novel right now, but it's set in a foreign country and that is what is taking me so long. That, and I had some problems with plot in my last manuscript that chewed me up and spit me out. I swore I wouldn't make the same mistake with the next novel, so I'm trying to compensate, but I just don't want to go overboard, y'know?

Larramie said...

What I'd suggest is having the monkey spin the plot wheel! *G*

Lisa said...

Steve, Great recommendation and I wish I'd had a teacher like Peter when I was in high school (although he probably wasn't alive then). Don't apologize. I will be much more careful with the word "monkey" in the future. And if you must know, this is not my first warning :)

Mardougrrl, Me too, although I find that a good reader or critiquer really helps a lot with that. Those areas that I know in the back of my mind need help are the exact places that a good reader will zero in on. Once I get a good question or two, it seems to kickstart my imagination and then "the plot thickens" -- OK, I'm sorry, I'll never say that again! Maybe.

Karen, ha! Scott got me good this morning. I got out of the shower and the dog's stuffed monkey (chimpanzee?) with his face eaten off was sitting on my keyboard!

Melissa, you astound me. So much work goes into what you do. My hat is off!

Larramie, you always have the best answers -- every time!

Bernita said...

I'm with King and most of you.
After I have the basic premise, characters and an inciting incident, I tend to let logic and my subconscious drive the what-next.
If my character(s)are clearly conceived then my undermind usually comes through with a solution.

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf