Sunday, August 10, 2008

Overcoming the plot wall

Even though I am, by some accounts, a prolific short story writer, I'm not nearly as prolific as I could be if I didn't run into so many plot walls.

Plot walls vex me because of my approach to writing. I write opening scenes the same way I turn on the faucet for a glass of water, and they flow out of me with little effort. Because I rarely have a complete story in mind when I start, I often hit plot walls. What happens next? Where's this story going? What's the point? Opening scenes remain on my computer for days, weeks, months, even years before I ever write second scenes or draft rough plots.

I once wrote about my need for a "plot monkey" to get over these walls, comparing plot monkeys to the old adage that enough monkeys with enough typewriters and enough time could produce the complete works of Shakespeare. I don't need the complete works of Shakespeare; I just need basic plots.

A few years ago I learned the value of a good plot monkey. The editor of a magazine to which I regularly contributed started sending me one-paragraph story descriptions with word-counts and deadlines. Her paragraphs always included the story hook, basic plot, and ending. I wrote every story, met every deadline, and was soon receiving as many as three short story assignments a month.

Alas, that magazine ceased publication and that editor moved on.

I was on my own again until recently. Two weeks ago, over dinner with a non-writing friend, I mentioned one of my unfinished stories. Within a few minutes we had plotted the last half of the story. By the time we finished dessert we had plotted the last halves of two other unfinished stories. A little while later we plotted another story from scratch.

In the two weeks since that dinner I have completed and submitted the three unfinished stories we plotted and have written about a third of the new story.

I don't know if my friend's goal in life is to be a plot monkey, but we're having dinner again today and a few minutes from now I'm going to look through my unfinished stories so I have something to discuss over dinner.

No comments: