Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Plot Defense: Part I

Tuesday of this week, I mounted my first ever Plot Defense. 

The activity was inspired by a workshop led by Holly Black at the SCBWI Conference in Redmond, in which she described the advantages of speaking your novel's storyline aloud to a few trusted friends/colleagues. Afterward, the listeners ask questions to help flesh out the story. In theory, answering the questions (and hearing yourself talk through your plot) will help seal plot holes, eliminate inconsistencies, and improve world-building, magic systems, and the like.

So I gave it shot, but with a twist.

My experience with No Shame Eugene Theatre has made me a firm believer that creativity thrives in structured environments (all No Shame pieces must be five minutes or less) – so I borrowed the theatre's darkroom timer and laid out a few rules for the Plot Defense:

1. The panel of listeners will be comprised of three people. All panel members must be avid readers or writers themselves who produce work (or read books) I enjoy and respect.

2. The author will give panelists a simple handout delineating the story's major characters, chapter titles, and other necessary definitions.

3. The session will last no longer than 90 minutes, broken down as follows:

a. Minutes 0-45: Author goes through the novel start to finish, including all major plot points, twists, characters, and rules for the world or magic system. During this portion of the session, panelists are only permitted to ask clarifying questions (ie. Which character are you talking about? Where is this happening, and the like.)

b. Minutes 45-70: Having heard the story from start to finish, panelists ask substantive questions, centering on character motivations, apparent inconsistencies in the world-building/magic system, and points of confusion in the movement of the plot. This portion of the session is not specifically a critique – there is no judgment of "I did or didn't like this part of the story." This is a way for the author to defend parts of the story that may have been unclear, or to realize there are aspects of the story he doesn't yet understand.

c. Minutes 70-90: Author and panelists engage in a back and forth conversation about possible ideas/plot changes based upon ideas the author has had throughout the questioning process. Changes should be initiated by the author, not the panelists. Again, the purpose is to help the author gain a clarified view of the story he wants to tell.

4. The author will provide cookies for the panelists during the session, and beers afterward. This is the only rule which may not be bent:

For the Plot Defense test drive, I enlisted the help of Jacob Boyd, Tamathy Christensen, and Jerry Oltion – a dream team of writers with diverse strengths in character, plot, and all-around storytelling. So off we went. 

And it was good, exhausting fun -- an incredibly useful process in ways I did and didn't anticipate. Hats off to Holly Black for the suggestion and to Jacob, Tamathy, and Jerry for taking part. They even stayed beyond the 90 minutes I'd promised it would last. Having gone through it, I'm pleased to report there were no casualties. Aside from the cookies. 

And maybe my novel. More to follow. 


Amber said...

Awesome! Inspiring!

Kristi K. said...

Love the process! Don't know Jerry but having Jake, Tamathy, beer,cookies and a writing project all together sounds like a great afternoon!!

Nicole said...

This sounds SOOO much more interesting than researching the validity of the new NAGPRA regulations. Which is actually pretty sexy, as far as cultural property law goes. In short, I ENVY YOUR LIFE.