Friday, October 22, 2010

Writing With a Formula (even if you're not a plotter)

When I started writing, I didn’t do formulas or plotting. I’d get an idea. Something like…A woman, we’ll call her Veronica, discovers her grandfather buried treasure somewhere in the town she currently resides. Along comes Archie who knows about the treasure, too, and wants it for himself. But of course they fall in love and end up searching for the treasure together.

All right, that would be a plot—under loose guidelines, of course. But, the point is, I didn’t plot extensively and the vague idea I had could miraculously make an entire story but that didn’t mean it was a good one. A good one being, one that a) agents/editors would be interested in and b) readers would be interested in.

So I started plotting my stories. I’m talking about a 9-step process that includes everything from a character sketch to chapter by chapter outlines. I still plan my stories this way, but writing both by the seat-of-my-pants and as a plotter has revealed to me that neither is right or wrong. In fact, it’s shown me that whether or not you’re a plotter, there’s a simple formula you can use to get your story off on the right track.

There are four questions you need to ask yourself—sort of like determining GMC before you begin writing.

1) What does your hero/heroine want or not want? (i.e. a new career, love, to never see their mother again, etc)

2) Why does your hero/heroine want or not want this? (i.e. because they never got it as a child, because they never want to end up like their father, etc.)

3) What will he/she do to get this?

4) What’s going to stop your MC from accomplishing this? (i.e. a competitor, a villain, lack of courage, etc.)

Even if you only have a vague idea what your story is about, you can still ask yourself these questions. And even better, if you can, try to put them into this formula below:

(MC name) wants/doesn’t want _________ because __________ but when _________ he/she _________.

For example:

Veronica wants to find the family treasure because no one believes that it ever existed, but when Archie shows up to hunt for the treasure, too, she must decide if he’s the enemy or she can trust him and they can work together before someone else finds it.

Or another, with a little variation:

Archie grew up with an abusive father who always told him he did everything wrong, and he never wants to see the man again. But when he discovers a family secret, he must return to his childhood home to find out what his father knows.

Okay, so these are a bit vague and definitely won’t work as hooks but they answer the four questions above. They give your characters goals, why they have those goals, and what’s going to make it hard to achieve them.

It’s a good formula to keep in mind as you begin writing, to make sure you always know why your character is the way he is and what he’s striving for. It will help propel the plot—whether or not you’re a plotter.

So when you think of your novel, can you answer the four questions? If you’d like, put your formula, with the blanks filled in, in the comments below. And feel free to use different verbs or descriptive words. Here’s mine:

Adventure novelist Andrew Grey would rather live in his imagination than in the real world because caring about people is another reminder of how quickly he can lose what he loves, just like he lost his family in a car accident. So when Drew returns to his childhood town to focus on his writing and makes friends with a 9-year-old, the last thing he wants is the boy to set him up with his mother—and the last thing he plans on is falling in love.


Wendy Paine Miller said...

Great, Cindy. I've read somewhere to make sure we do this for each scene as well. Goal. What's stopping the MC from reaching that goal...tension in every scene.

I still find myself setting up what will happen in my novels, but then letting my characters have at it.

~ Wendy

Julia M. Reffner said...

Cindy, this is great! These are great beginning questions!

Rachel doesn't want to leave the fundamentalist cult she belongs to because it is all she's known and she knows both her life and eternal destination are at stake but when a relationship with a "forbidden" relative leads to unanswerable questions and increases the already tumultuous relationship with her husband...Rachel risks it all in a quest for freedom.

OK, that needs work...but I need to head out shopping. :) Thanks for a great post.

Terri Tiffany said...

Well you knew today I need this! I plan to copy this down and really really try to apply it.

Warren Baldwin said...

Very good.

Cindy R. Wilson said...

Wendy, that's a great point to apply this to each scene. And if you have that set up and then give your character free reign, it leaves you open for that extra bit of creativity. I like it :)

Good morning, Julia! I like the summary you put down. There's really strong motivation there for what your character is doing (and the goal they're striving for) and great conflict. Have fun shopping!

Terri, thanks for stopping by. I love posts on GMC because even though it seems so simple, sometimes it helps if it's explained in a different way. There are so many times that I've read something about goals or motivations and thought, "I guess I KNEW this, but I wasn't really getting it until now."

Hi Warren, it's great to see you here. I hope you have a wonderful weekend :)

Melanie N. Brasher said...

thanks for the tips, Cindy. I will keep them in mind.

Sarah Forgrave said...

I do a long plotting process too, but I've never heard the questions framed this way. Thanks for sharing, Cindy! :)

Tana said...

This is great Cindy! I often have to micro-plot as I go as well as macro-plot in the beginning.

Pepper said...

Love your blurb. Oh my what a great story idea :-) I love putting kids in my books. LOVE IT!!!
And wonderful post too. Great way to 'frame' those GMC questions. That is one part of plotting I DO try to do. Internal and external motivations. What do they want? What will stop them?
Hmm...let's see if I can use my wip

New college professor,Dr. Adelina Roseland has been placed in the tiny town of Wise, Va to start an undergraduate speech-pathology program as her first assignment. The only way to get out of hicksville is to fix Appalachian cattlefarmer, Reese Mitchell, up as a sophisticated and intelligible man within 6 weeks. But when her heart starts speaking the language of love, will she be forced to choose between a promise to her father and the promise of her heart?

Thanks for sharing, Cindy.

Cindy R. Wilson said...

You're welcome, Melanie :) It's good to see you here!

Sarah, I love when people frame things in a different way. Sometimes that's what it takes to help the concept sink in.

T. Anne, me too! It's so interesting all the different ways we approach our novels.

Hi, Pepper! Oooh, I like your blurb, too. Love those internal motivations--they're my favorite :) Great names for your characters, by the way.

Susan J. Reinhardt said...

Hi Cindy -

I think I'm asking these questions already. In the overall mystery/suspense area, there's a lot of conflict and action. Someone once said SOTP writers do their plotting in their heads. It's a good description of how I work.

Susan :)

Pepper said...

Just pulled a breakfast quiche out of the oven - YUM!!! Steamed veggies on the side.
Apple Crumble for dessert.
Any takers?

Cindy R. Wilson said...

Hi, Susan! It's great that you have a system that works for you. Even a lot of SOTP writers know the direction of their story even if they aren't writing out charts or outlining. And you make a great point that plotting isn't something that only happens on paper. Have a great weekend!

Pepper, send some this way! It's cold over here in Colorado and something warm sounds yummy and cozy :)

Robyn Campbell said...

Great tips, Cin. Bookmarking this post. I am DEFINITELY not a plotter. Now, I can at least act like I am. Thanks for sharing girlfriend. :)

Love your Veronica and Archie pic. :)

Keli Gwyn said...

Wonderful questions, Cindy. As a pantser turned plotter, I ask myself similar ones. I want to know where I'm heading before I begin my next story because spending two years in Revision Land while fixing a poorly plotted story proved my earlier method didn't work well for me.

PC Wheeler said...

Thank you! This is just what I needed. Even though I am 60% of the way through my WIP, I still don't have the motivations of my characters down correctly. This will certainly help me to untangle some stuff.