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Before Character and Plot Comes THE AWESOME

Before Character and Plot Comes THE AWESOME

By Dr. Derek Nikitas, Director, Bluegrass Writers Studio

Even the program director is sometimes blindsided by how awesome the Bluegrass Writers Studio low-residency MFA program can be. It’s a living, breathing, evolving thing with, surprising twists.

Case in point: this semester, we’ve got a genre-writing workshop with science fiction writer Maureen McHugh (China Mountain Zhang, After the Apocalypse). That’s awesome enough. But last week, Maureen rather casually brought along fellow science fiction writer(s) “James S.A. Corey” to have an online audio chat with the students about novel writing.

Corey is the author of The Expanse series, including Leviathan Wakes, and is a huge deal in the fantasy and science fiction community. Corey is actually two guys: Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. Abraham is a celebrated name in fantasy and science fiction in his own right, and both authors have collaborated closely with the household name of fantasy fiction, George R.R. Martin.

This is to say our virtual classroom was decked with Hugo, Nebula and Locus Award nominees, who enlightened our students for over an hour. I crashed the party as a lurker, knowing I’d have something to learn from “Corey,” too. I’ll paraphrase and refer to them in the singular, partly because I couldn’t really tell their voices apart.

I’ll settle for one highlight on plot. Corey first acknowledged that he started from plot and then weaved in characters he thought “would be most profoundly affected” by the plot. This strategy isn’t uncommon, though it’s refreshing to hear a pro writer say it. So much writing advice is angled against starting from plot, as if we’re guaranteed to invent characters whose stories will turn out interesting.

More interestingly, Corey soon admitted that plot itself doesn’t really come first for him; that’s just a thing you say in theory. Instead, Corey’s initial concern is what could be in this novel that would be awesome?

Can I say how much I love that sentiment? It’ refreshing and important to hear.

At Square One, you’ve got just about every option available to you. You pick a premise, and that premise suggests half a dozen or a dozen awesome possibilities. I think of “awesome possibilities” as closely aligned with set pieces, a term used to describe those big, memorable moments in a book or movie that fulfill the “promise of the premise” (that latter term is borrowed from screenwriting guru Blake Snyder).

It seems so simple, so obvious. You come up with a premise and you imagine all the cool possibilities of that premise. George the alcoholic inherits a winery—what could happen? You can do this with a high-concept space opera extravaganza like Leviathan Wakes, but you can also do it with a quiet novel of domestic realism—it’s just the public/private scale that changes.

Brainstorming amazing, cool-ass possibilities first is a great strategy because as soon as you start locking yourself into a certain plot logic, or confining yourself to consistent characters, possibilities become limits. That big fistfight scene at the daycare center just isn’t going to work anymore. You have to settle for less than.

Sure, you’re going to have to reconcile your “cool stuff” with plot and character logic eventually. Otherwise, you’ve got an unbelievable, nonsensical, disjointed story. You’re also not going to be able to throw in every cool set piece you can think of, either. Finally, you may come up with killer ideas fairly late into the writing process, and there’s no need to resist them.

Yeah, you’re going to have to pare down and make choices eventually—but what a thrill to know you get to choose your major landmarks. Not a bad place to start.

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Kristen Thompson

Published on March 06, 2014

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