Monday, August 19, 2013

The Rummaging: when plot must be yanked by the hair

Over on Google+ (yeah, who uses that?), I often keep people updated with bits and pieces of things that never quite make it to the blog. After all, some things don't warrant an entire post of their own and are much better left to a short, snappy, 140-character status. But when I posted this photo (below) with a mention of character-profiling, Bree Holloway inquired further as to how this system works. What faith that child has: asking for instruction when I'd only posted the picture to show how few I'd got done, and how many more I had left.

However, there is a certain satisfaction in these closely-written sheets, and they have actually become life-savers for me so I will oblige Bree and the rest of you by explaining this method of Character Profiling. I like to call it "The Rummaging" and you may do the same. Surely another author-or-thousand has done this same method, but since as far as I'm concerned I made it up, I will take the time to post about it for your enlightenment.
Essentially, it all came down to this: my strengths are my character-interactions and their behavior on-page. My weakness is plot. I could banter and spar and cockawhoop all day long, but you might never get to that crucial scene that you're aching to read. And I go into my novels knowing that I will need to focus specifically on the plot. I've learned that and now it's not quite so much of a pain as it used to be - I'm growing used to having to drag plot from myself. Isn't that ridiculous? Some people have plots squirming out of their heads constantly; I have people. Que sera, sera. When I got temporarily out of temper with The Baby, I knew it was only because I had used up what plot details I'd thought up at the start of the project. I always have a beginning and an ending, but I seldom know the in-between. I had a handful of amazing characters but nothing for them to do.
That's when "The Rummaging" began. It started as a way for me to ask my own questions about Lord Darron Ap-Brainard, and to answer those questions in the best way I could. Questions like:
Who is he?
Where does he live?
Why not the House of Polaris?
What is he prepared to do in order to keep a member of the House of Rushes on the throne?
- Things like that; questions I didn't know the answers to myself, but that I knew would be vital to me understanding and portraying Ap-Brainard correctly. The funny thing is, in a way it's like a Beautiful People exercise, only...different. See, I Rummage: I ask myself sensible, pertinent questions and answer those questions with as much detail as I can, and the results are striking. I didn't stop at Ap-Brainard: I moved on to Smidgen and Starling and The Admiral and Leona and John Brady and Richmond, and there are still many more left to Rummage out. The best part of this exercise is that it builds plot on its own... I cannot set up a series of cause-and-effect and plug people into it. That does not work for me in the slightest; I have to dig and delve in my people and figure out what they do. That builds the plot quite apart from me. I found out certain characters have duplicity with which they certainly didn't start. Others have heroes who are part of Crissendumm's mythology that has a direct effect on their political tendencies in the current story. I don't use  completely the same questions for each character. Some are similar (i.e. I often note where they live) but others vary widely. Smidgen is one of the only characters who has a defined hero. Starling has a dream that is complicated and multiplied by a certain friendship. The Admiral has more responsibility and depth than many realize. But there was one question that helped with plotting more than any of the others:
How did they get involved with The Baby?
This question sets me up perfectly because I have to be able to provide an answer, and that links people to each other and then to events and all of a sudden, through this stack of question-and-answer sheets, I have the plot I was searching for. I spent most of yesterday afternoon finishing off most of the profiles, and my sense of direction with this story came back as I trusted it would. The only thing left to do is to go back through all the sheets and assemble the various details into one long timeline so I don't leave out any of the important details that have made "The Rummaging" a thing of beauty and a joy forever.

One of the best things you can do for your own writing is to know your strengths and weaknesses and watch those weaknesses with a close eye, doing things like "The Rummaging" when need be. I promise it is worth any of the extra work; I can't tell you enough how pleasant it is to sit down, pull Smidgen's sheet out of the stack and know exactly where he is supposed to be at what point in the plot. Bones, people. Bones. You've got to have a skeleton or all the skin in the world isn't going to bring the thing to life. Now that all its bones are in order, The Baby is back in business. I cannot wait to show you the thing in its entirety someday.


Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

My weakness is definitely plot too! I actually tried a similar exercise to this once upon a time—it was one of the steps in the Snowflake Method. I did not feel like going through the entire Method, but I pulled out a few of the steps that I figured would be most helpful. I think the main difference between that exercise and yours is that you've made up your own character-specific questions, while the Snowflake ones were all the same. That's kind of why I ground to a halt with it; I was frustrated because not every character could necessarily be defined and structured the same way. I will definitely have to keep the Rummage (sounds Dickensian—kind of like the Rampage!) in mind for future occasions.

Anne-girl said...

What a lovely idea! Similar in fact to what I do with plot bunnies. I never thought to gather up unstoried characters though. My dear you are a genius.

Carmel Elizabeth said...

Thank you, Rachel! I think my weakness is restraining my plot ideas. :P I 'll get a handful all at once (or none at all. There is no in-between) and then I want to pile them all in a teetering stack over my current WIP, instead of choosing the best or the most sensible.

All that being said, this was very helpful! I usually give my characters a questionaire to get to know them better, but I never thought to ask why/why not she does what she does, lives where she lives, etc. Thank you! :)

Rachel Heffington said...

@Elizabeth Grace: I am glad that I am not alone in this monster's task of Tacking Down Plot. And do you like the snowflake method? I received that chap's emails for a long while but couldn't stand the format so I finally unsubscribed. But I never did use any of his methods so I wouldn't really know.
Anne-Girl: You are the Paragon of Plot, and I envy you. But yes: do try Methodis Rummagius. It's a nice bloke.
Bree: You too? How jolly to have in your possession Too Much Plot!

Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

I haven't really tried it enough to be able to say. I was stuck with something and wanted a bit of outside help. Some of the questions I was able to answer gave me a little illumination, but since the project is still technically stuck, I can't judge by results yet! :)

Rachel Heffington said...

Ah! Well, do keep me updated!