The best example I can give is one year, I was three chapters into my NaNo before I realized my characters possessed supernatural powers. I figured this out shortly after one of the main characters blew up a car with his hand. I literally had the thought, "OH, he's a superhero!"
I can see all the plotters shaking their heads with confusion. How does that happen?
I’ll tell you.
Some point later when I was swimming in a sea of revisions—so much that I was dreaming about my WIP*— I had the revelation that I am a "Plot-First" writer who depends on layering.
This great post by Claire King titled Layers Not Lines is a prime example of how I plot. The only exception is that she still mentions the character first.
*(Not in the way Stephanie Meyer dreamt of Twilight and made a bazillion dollars. More in the way, I wake up feeling like I never slept and I still only have a twenty in my pocket.)
What does Plot-First mean?
When I first start playing with the idea of a story, I don't think like this:
"There is a woman, feeling heartbroken and lonely. She tries to hide this by acting strong-willed and aloof, but is truly afraid and insecure."
I think like this:
"There is a building that burns down. Okay, what kind of building? Oh, it's an art Museum. Yeah, like the Kimbell. Someone, hmm, maybe a woman named...whatever, I'll name her later. She burns it down to hide that she stole several pieces of art. But she had to steal them because the bad guy.... for now, we'll just call him BG. He made her steal them or he was going to...."
Why it works for me
The whole story-building process is my idea of a good time. I love puzzles. I love laying out the fifty different ways story can go, and l love the tying it all together.
I also write mystery/suspense. In that genre (along with thrillers and some fantasy), the path of the plot is usually what keeps the story moving. In contrast to a genre like women’s fiction or romance, where the characters and relationships are what draw the readers in. That’s probably why while I adore reading romance and have coached successful romance writers, I finally had to come to terms with the fact that my strength wasn’t in writing romance.
Why it doesn’t work for me
My poor characters become Barbie Dolls and G.I. Joes. Remember playing with action figures? Did you ever ponder what Barbie was thinking when she hopped in the pink Dream Car with Ken and drove off into the sunset (otherwise known as the closet)? Oh, you did? Huh. Well, I didn’t.
In my early writing, it’s clear that my characters suffered from action-figure syndrome. They moved from one scene to the next, running from the bad guys, toward each other, and gaining a happily ever after, but the lack of insight to their thoughts and emotions kept the reader at a distance.
Readers don’t like to be kept at a distance. They want to be right in the middle of the character’s mind and soul.
How layering helps
I heard Nora Roberts once refer to her first draft as “vomiting out words.” That’s exactly what my first drafts are like. I have to get the story out. I’m like a little kid who wants to tell you everything that happened at school in one breath. Just get it all out there.
Then I can start cleaning it up. That’s where layering works for me. After the first draft, I go back and add the emotions and thoughts. I take each scene and ask myself these kinds of questions:
What is the character thinking at this moment?
Is that something that would deepen the reader’s experience? *not every character thought is worth putting on the page.
What is the character feeling? Is that better expressed physically or emotionally?
What other details are important to this scene?
Honor your process
As always, this is just a summary of what works for me. Yes, sometimes it feels like an enormous amount of extra work. In the almost ten years since the superhero incident, I’ve worked to streamline this into my process. Sometimes I go back and layer each scene as I finish it rather than after I’ve completed the entire story, but I know that layer in some form is part of my process.
I work with clients every day who have a different process and would be bewildered by not creating a fully-developed character before diving in. That is perfectly okay. A huge part of finding your way as writer is discovering the path that works for you.
If you are struggling with plotting, characterization, or any other aspect of this process, check out my services and see how I can help!