The Craft is a column that explores the writing process, each month focusing on a different aspect of the craft. This month I asked Cat Rambo, the author of Near + Far, Eyes Like Sky And Coal And Moonlight, and Creating an Online Presence (Careerbuilding for Writers), about plot. Here’s what she had to say…
James Aquilone: What is a plot?
Cat Rambo: To me, it’s the way the story is structured. Not just the events that make up the story, but their arrangement as well: the pace and way in which information is parceled out to the reader.
JA: Are you an outliner or a pantser? (Briefly tell us about your process.)
CR: I’m always a little stymied by questions like that, because my process is somewhat erratic. Sometimes the story arrives complete and I just write it down (sadly, this is rarer than other methods), or it may start with a prompt. Often I’m doing what Samuel R. Delany calls “writing to discover.” Sometimes I may write the first few pages and then use what I’ve discovered in writing those in order to plot out the story. A piece upcoming in the March Asimov’s, “All the Pretty Little Mermaids,” is a good example of something developed that way. Other times — particularly if it’s something written to a theme, such as a story for an anthology call — I may do some brainstorming and mindmapping.
JA: How do you write a story without plot?
CR: By my definition, you can’t. Next question!
JA: What are some common plot mistakes and their fixes?
CR: Not making sure that the reader has enough information to understand what’s going on is a big one. It is (imo) much easier to be too subtle than too overt. Another is not giving events enough tension to make the reader want to know what happens next. If you want someone to be able to immerse themselves in the story, they have to care about what’s going on.
JA: Is it ever okay to have a plot hole?
CR: Sure. I think it’s okay to break just about every writing rule, as long as you’re doing it for a purpose. If that plot hole is achieving something, it’s perfectly fair game.
JA: Do you have any tricks/shortcuts when it comes to plotting?
CR: I don’t take the first thing that pops into my head or even the second, when I’m trying to plot things out. I go a little further and make my mind come up with something more interesting, because if something’s the first thing that comes to me, it’s probably the first thing that’s coming to a lot of people.
If I’m stuck, I think hard about what the various characters want. They all have to want something, and often the plot lies in the intersection and stymieing of such wants.
JA: What common plots would you like to see retired from genre fiction?
CR: I get tired of plots that overlook things like gender and class and race, because it seems to me we’ve got more than plenty of those already. We’re speculative fiction writers — we shouldn’t be taking anything for granted, even though it’s sometimes hard to figure out what our own filters are.
Beyond that — I don’t know. When I was getting my MFA, one instructor brought in a historical document, a lament that all the stories had been thought of already. That was written around 300 BC, so it’s not a new problem.
JA: What stories or novels would you recommend reading as examples of well-done plots?
CR: I’ll look outside the written word first and point at Breaking Bad, which I recently watched, and think is amazing in terms of how it ratchets up tension and keeps the watcher on the edge of their seat. Beyond that, some people who I think particularly adept in plotting: C.J. Cherryh, Nancy Kress, Scott Lynch, Elizabeth Moon, and George R.R. Martin are all favorites. I’m just rereading Lynch’s first book right now in order to savor the new one even more.
Connie Willis advised my Clarion West class to get a bunch of old Agatha Christie mysteries and read those with an eye to how they’re constructed, and that’s an illuminating experience, because Christie is a master at giving you information without tipping you off that it’s going to be important later on.
JA: What writing exercises would you recommend to help develop a writer’s skill at plotting?
CR: I always tell students that if they read a book they really love or really hate, they should go back, read it a second time, and figure out how the writer is achieving that effect. I also love collaborative story-telling games (Fiasco is a great example) and find them a useful exercise.
JA: Any other thoughts on plot?
CR: I’ve recently been working on a collaboration with Bud Sparhawk, and I’m fascinated by what Bud does — write the events in chronological order and then, once they’re all written, begin to figure out the order in which they appear. Don’t be afraid to mess around with chronology in order to slow down the rate at which a reader learns what they need to learn.