Ages ago, I solicited topics to write about at Extribulum from my readers on Livejournal and Dreamwidth. One reader, Paxpinnae on DW, asked about getting from a concept to a plot:
I’ve run into a streak of novels lately that had really excellent concepts and so-so plots, and I’d appreciate someone else’s thoughts on how that happens and where it can go horribly wrong.
The short answer is that when you’re writing a novel it can go horribly wrong at any given moment. Writing a novel is often a series of minute decisions each of which could destroy you. That’s half the fun, sometimes.
In a less flippant sense…
The idea that concept and plot are separate is actually not one that many people are familiar with, outside of book critics and writers, and even most writers I think don’t often differentiate, which could be the reason for a lot of the bad-plot-good-premise work that one encounters in any given bookstore.
I have had a million ideas for books that are based not upon a plot but upon a situation, or a concept. I’ll read a newspaper article and decide it would be fun to write a story about someone who is in the predicament of someone in the news article. But that’s not a plot; that’s just a situation. And most of these ideas I eventually discard because there’s no story there, there’s just a cool gimmick.
Stories can be made from cool gimmicks, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that they don’t make a story. So I think a good test is to ask yourself, “What is the climax of this?”
(Mind you, not all forms of literature have a climax, but since those forms tend to be of the “do not attempt without experience” kind, I’m skimming over them here.)
I Love Lucy was, in its day, the funniest thing on television, and it was filmed in front of a live studio audience. The story goes that the laughter they recorded off the audience was of such great quality that it was used for decades, meaning that when you hear laughter after a punchline, you are hearing dead people laugh. The truth of this is a little indeterminate, but it’s a good example. Say you want to write a story involving this concept.
What’s the climax? What happens at the height of drama in your story about dead people laughing at living peoples’ comedy?
Harlan Ellison actually wrote this, ingeniously enough — it involves someone discovering a dead loved one’s laugh on a laugh track — so it can be done. But until I heard about his story I’d been gnawing the problem over, working on an idea about the guy who puts the laugh track in the tape, and getting nowhere. (This is why Harlan Ellison is famous and I languish in obscurity.) But the point was I never wrote the story because I didn’t have a climax. I didn’t have to plot out everything to the climax, but I had to at least have enough to start me on the road there. That’s okay — not writing a bad story freed me up to write better stories.
Technically you don’t have to have a climax. That’s what second drafts are for. But it helps a great deal to write an actual story, and not an idea-disguised-as-story, if you do.
Almost all writing is really just conscientiousness disguised as words — careful, self-aware choosing of what you write and how to write it. It requires a lot of honesty and frequently self-criticism, but it makes for better books. It can be an inhibiting force in the sense that caution and artistic expression rarely go hand-in-hand without a great deal of thumb-fighting, but a little restraint goes a long way in shaping a higher level of quality work.