Starting with a Plot…

The toughest part of beginning with a story or game, I’ve found, is getting enough of a balance between beginning concepts to actually have a story rather than a set of fleeting ideas in nowhere-space. You have a plot, and a vague outline of what the setting might look like, and that’s it. Where to now?

The first place to look at is the plot. After all, you’ve got it, it’s acceptable, and it’s pretty rare to have a plot that doesn’t suggest something about the setting. My world-building/novel project (for concision, I’ll call it the Almagest project, after the name I gleefully borrowed for the viewpoint characters’ home city-state-thing), for instance, came from two of its characters, a political hostage and an apprentice calligrapher/illuminator trying to serve her interests back at home—so there had to be a tradition of illuminated manuscripts, and the culture had to be such that political hostage-taking made sense.

Then you start figuring out what’s necessary to make the factors that the plot requires work. In the case of the Almagest project, after some semi-related research convinced me that I wanted to set it in a sort of not!Classical Arabia, and from my own somewhat less apt but still relevant understanding of water politics, I realized that water was going to play a heavy role (though originally, it had been the object of the group’s plans and the reason for taking Natara as a political hostage, and now I use it as a second point of leverage), so I needed to figure out where the city’s water came from, and that led to some research that not only gave me the water source but also a plot point, a building, and a fun fact I still share pretty regularly.

A lot of the time, the facts you come up with are going to double back on the plot. Almagest again—when I realized that if taking political hostages was a common practice in my still-unnamed empire, it followed that there were going to need to be others, and thus other countries from which they must have come; this led to the idea of Khadijah’s side of the story being an attempt not only to learn what she could and stay out of trouble, but also to make friends with the other involuntary ambassadors. (Speaking of Khadijah, she sprang fully formed out of the idea of including a romantic subplot and providing my young calligrapher with a little extra motivation, promptly glommed onto Natara, and shifted the beginning of the story to when she and Natara were taken, which… got interesting.)

And when the plot’s been extended by the new setting detail, what else can you do but work with the extensions? Needing to figure out how exactly Khadijah and Natara had ended up being taken back to the yet-unnamed empire led to discovery of its monopoly over weather magic, for instance, and that’s been slowly adding layers upon layers, including reasons behind the cooperation of two of the other countries and one character’s still-to-be-understood comment, “Pray that we never learn to halt a sandstorm.”

Follow the circle as long as you like; it just keeps on growing.

1 comment

  1. UZ says:

    I’m not good for this… I usually start with a hopefully interesting metaphysical (or at least ontological) arrangement and develop a plot to exposit what I think would be the result.

    Then I create some characters who are largely intersections of narrative roles, argumentative concepts and visual images, whose initial purpose is to present a broader notion of the main concept while hopefully looking nice.

    Then I create a plot designed to wind around my concept like yarn around a diamond. This would be a harsh railroad in an RPG, but is perfectly excusable because it’s a novel…

    And finally I realize that the characters are ideologically incompatible and so they spend the entire story fighting.

    In short my writing process is devious, clumsy, dishonest and haphazard. Nearly every other writer I have ever talked to has at one point or another called me a monster. I would revel in this more if I had ever completed a novel, but I’m still working on my first one, so it’s difficult to get a really big head over it when it hasn’t actually worked yet.

    I sometimes envy the purity of other peoples’ vision, but only sometimes. :)

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