Plotting with Stakes and Ribbons

Discovery writing and outlining are the ends of a spectrum rather than elements in a dichotomy. After all, I am neither, and yet I do both. It took me a while, however, to balance my creator and organizer. Counter-intuitively, it was improv that taught me to plan stories.

When I receive my scene suggestion or the first spark of inspiration for a new project, I let my creator take the material and run with it, as far and as fast as he can. I play word and conceptual association games, I let the inspiration drag memories or trivia to the surface of my consciousness and follow chains of cause and effect simply to see where they go. I sit back and watch as he scatters thoughts and ideas widely. Eventually, the landscape of my creative space becomes apparent and it’s time for my organizer to play his part.

I find the most exciting, tense or otherwise interesting element and focus on it. If this element is an event, I have a climax. If it is a character, I have a protagonist. If it is an idea, I have a conflict. I then move my focus to the next most interesting element and repeat the process until I have enough support for the intended scope of the piece. I take these elements and drive them like stakes into my creative landscape, creating a quasi-permanent pattern.

By this point, my creator has wandered back, so I point to the first stake and again sent him free. This time, the creator races to the landmark established by my organizer, trailing a ribbon of story behind him. My organizer follows in the creator’s wake, refocusing and pushing him towards the goal, the plot stake. In this way, the creator and organizer play off each other, granting my works the benefits of both and helping to mitigate the weaknesses of each.

The key to my particular balance was the realization of the semi-permanence of the stakes. If I am creating alone, I pause at each landmark and survey the ground between myself and the next stake. If I see a stronger decision, I unleash my organizer to relocate the stake before setting my creator free to string the narrative ribbon. When I’m performing, I am sharing my creative space with others. I’m still letting my creator race to the next goal, but instead of following behind, my organizer instead has the stake in hand. He is constantly re-positioning my goals in reaction to the gifts of establishment I am given. But always, I am working towards my own goal.

I am neither a discovery writer, nor an outliner. I am both and I do both, because both planning and discovery are essential to my process. I am goal oriented, and therefore enjoy reaching each landmark, but at the same time, without some element of discovery, my work is stale. The trick was finding how much of each I needed to be effective.


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