This is practically getting to be a series by now.
I’ve written before about characterization and how to make your people realistic: today I’m going to write about how to craft a realistic plot. I mean, we’ve all read stories that rely far too much on coincidence. We’ve all seen plots that hinge entirely on a character doing a 180-degree personality turn. We are all highly familiar with the deus ex machina.
When you write real people, characters have this super annoying habit of not doing what you need them to do, so dei ex machina are pretty commonplace. Ship plunging helplessly into a black hole? Random future-people aliens will save your ass. Death Star bearing down on your planet? Hey, some genius built an exhaust shaft that leads straight to the core engine and rendered all those expensive shields worthless. Good job.
It is so much more satisfying to have a character figure it out realistically. So how do you write an organic ending?
Problem: My characters aren’t doing what I need them to!
Solution: If the solution is something within the main characters’ control, don’t start out with a solution in mind.
Real people don’t often get solutions dropped into their lap. If you’ve spent your whole life looking for a young girl with one red eye and one blue who holds the key to your true love’s heart… It feels like lazy writing if you bump into her in a market two days before he’s set to die of cardiac arrest. Sure, Miss 3D Glasses probably has a legitimate reason to be there (she got there somehow), but if it’s anything less than “she is actively looking for the main character”, it’s just not going to fly.
Don’t get me wrong, coincidence happens. When I went to Greece, one of the girls in my group saw a childhood friend in the crowd in the marketplace– they were both born and raised in Iowa and neither had any idea the other was going to be in the area. The odds of something like that happening are crazy small.
The odds of something like that happening and solving a huge problem would be like Superman going to the beach and getting a grain of sand in his eye that just happened to be made of Kryptonite.
So don’t start out with a solution that’s going to drop into the character’s lap. Instead, present your realistically-written people with the problem, and let them figure it out. Trapped in an airlock that’s counting down to an unshielded spacewalk? Some people would fiddle with the controls, some would pound on the door, some would take a deep breath and close their eyes.
Don’t do the hard work for them.
Problem: I’m having a hard time thinking of a plot to start out with!
Solution: Be a bull in a china shop. Break everything.
I don’t blame you. I can sit and write scenes about a fun world for hours and hours on end, and have it go absolutely nowhere when it comes to plot. If you’re a big fan of character- and world-building, sometimes the plot itself can be kind of difficult to wring out.
So do the fun stuff. Make your awesome world full of awesome people. Give them histories and relationships and skills and lives. Flesh everything out. Get comfortable. Enjoy.
Then don’t put any of that in your book, break everything that makes it run. Write down what happens as your characters scramble to fix their world. The best example of this is A Song of Ice and Fire (spoiler warning ahead): the first book is a mystery, entirely there just to establish the world. At the end of the book, when Robert dies, the world shatters. The rest of the series is nothing more than the characters doing their best to return to normal– mostly dying in the process. Martin didn’t have to do a whole lot. He didn’t even show Robert’s final fight with the boar, just brought him back mortally wounded.
Problem: That sounds like hard work.
Solution: Work hard.
I was having a conversation with a friend today that inspired this blog post. We were reminiscing about how easy it used to be to write– it was like breathing, you just put the words down on paper. Nowadays writing takes energy. It’s hard. Why is that?
We got better at it.
As kids, it didn’t matter if my dialogue was wooden or my main character was an unabashed Mary Sue. I didn’t care about moving the plot forward or if the story was at all hard to follow. Sure, the core ideas were really fun– some I’m even planning on reviving someday. It didn’t matter if I was using a weird mesh between British and American spelling.
And some of it wasn’t bad. But it wasn’t good. And it got hard when I realized how much better my work could be.
I want writing to be my job, so a job it’s going to become. I can’t just put it aside when I get tired of it, I can’t stop editing after a few chapters because I don’t feel like it any more. That’s what happens when you try to live off a hobby.
I think it’s worth it. At least, it’s worth it for me.
We’ll see how far it takes me.