Saturday, October 14, 2006

Plots and Plotting

Questions posed on a friend's LiveJournal inspired the following post:

"The other day, it occurred to me that plots are organized around problems or threats (and if there are subplots, there can be both.)

Problems are difficulties that complicate life. Sometimes they are solvable, sometimes not.

But threats can change "Life-as-We-Know-It."

Soap operas treat problems like threats.

Comic books treat threats like problems."

My comment:

I'd say comic books, at least a portion of them, especially when you include graphic novels that aren't collected comics editions, treat threats as threats. And over the past couple of years, DC has been very much doing threat as threat. By this time next year, DC Comics' main timeline and characters (there are some books and characters not in continuity) will be a very different place. First came Identity Crisis that shook up the superhero community. Now we have Countdown to Infinite Crisis and some other related plotlines that are continuing that theme, plus the upcoming Infinite Crisis to be followed by 52. In February, the entire main continuity will shift one year ahead and 52 will fill in the blanks. If that's not threat as threat, I don't know what is. The DC Universe as its readers know it will be different, or so they have promised as characters' lives will be irrevocably changed.

And in fact, Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1985 did the same (I boycotted comics for 10 years when Supergirl was killed in Crisis on Infinite Earths) and I understand there were some similar events in the 10 years I wasn't reading.

My point is that even in a genre or format where one thing might predominate, plot-wise, there is room for the other type of plot and that characters don't uniformly treat threats and problems the same way as the format does.

But then, I tend to look at characters more than at plots. To me, plots evolve from the situation the characters are in and the nature of those characters in how they react to the situation. The characters, for me, decide whether the plot is a threat or problem. If that makes any sense.
I got into a discussion with another blogger/writer re: myths, writing to discover yourself, and related philosophical issues re: writing. She's of the belief that myths form the underpinnings of plotting, and while I agree that many writers do this, sometimes it is coincidental. Instuitve writers, like me, don't think about mythology and archetypes at all when we write. I've never been good at analyzing fiction for theme, etc -- not for other people's writing and not for mine. If I do see any of that, it's rare enough to comment on.

So I suggest that since most people pretty much agree that there are no more than 3-7 (maybe up to 10) distinct plot types (the number varies depending on who you ask), it is possible that myths use these because that's what's available. (I won't go into her contention that mythology is built into us; that's more philosophical than I want to get here and I don't really believe it anyway, though I suppose our brains could be hardwired to be receptive to mythology; current research is looking for a neurological construct for religion, after all.)

The plots I feel are separate types, which can be used in combination, variation, or modification:

  1. Romance or Love Story (aka Boy meets Girl -- there are plenty of variations, and in a way, a human's love for a pet could be put here, your basic "Lassie" story, though I'm willing to be persuaded that this is a separate item.)
  2. Good vs. Evil (covers a lot of territory)
  3. Whodunit? (aka the mystery)
  4. Man (or Woman) vs Nature (Nothing like a good storm or earthquake story to get the juices flowing. A variation could be post-Apocalypse stories.)
  5. Revenge
  6. The Quest
  7. Coming of Age
Now, of course, that leaves us with the character archetypes, which I admittedly, don't really know because if we studied this in school, I either wasn't there, had fallen asleep, or have forgotten everything. But I think again, it's a chicken/egg kind of thing. Are they archetypes that we all or most of us are programmed genetically to recognize when we encounter them, are we trained to recognize them, or do they exist because that's what someone came up with in the days of cave writing and other early writers could recognize a good thing when their readers liked it? Do they endure because they're embedded in our minds physically or because they happen to be the only game in town, the basic underpinnings.

Now, we can suppose that those basic underpinnings represent some truth(s) we're programmed to recognize and relate to -- beauty, truth, good, evil, etc, going back to such texts as the Bible. And I do get symbolism. But I also know that symbols can vary culturally and that not everyone gets a symbol's (understood) meaning.

Sometimes, it's a matter of trying to tease out the potential, the ability to do or feel or sense something from the thing itself. Nature and nurture are, as we're learning, more complex than we ever thought, and until someone finds an actual physical, neurological or genetic mechanism for a behavior or ability or feeling or sensation, there's no way to know for sure where it comes from or how it works. And environment is more than just what your parents and teachers do to influence you; it includes the chemicals you're exposed to in the womb -- though some of this might be genetically determined. Complicated. And I believe every trait outside of the most simple, like how many fingers and toes (not counting environmentally influenced mutations) or hair color or an inherited disease, is a combination and figuring out what percentage of the trait is one vs the other is still to be determined.

And what does that do for the writer? I said I wasn't going to get philosophical but I guess I did, anyway. heh. If a writer wants to work with myth and archetype, does he or she need to know how the brain processes them, if it's innate or not? And if they form the basics of plotting and characters, do writers need to be aware of this?

As I see it, if you need to work that way, great. Plan it all out. But if you're like me, that will only muddy the water, complicate and confuse something that comes as naturally as breathing. All I care about is telling a good story. I don't seek to include inner truths, though if they're in there or if a reader finds them, that's really nice. But I also know that a writer can plan it all out, work consciously with myth and archetype and a reader like me will miss it entirely, and all we'll remember is whether or not we liked the story and characters. And if they made us feel something. Because to me, that's the bottom line -- did the reader enjoy my writing? Were they glad they read it? Would they want to read more? And it doesn't matter what process I used to get the writing done and the work to the reader.
More on comics and plotting:

I'm a comic book reader/fan. That's no secret. I've been reading the things since I was 7, which was 45 years ago. I stopped for a while because I got annoyed and was mostly boycotting DC Comics and since that was mostly what I was reading in 1985, that pretty much stopped my comic book reading for a few years in protest over the death of Supergirl. We kinda grew up together, Kara Supergirl and me, so that felt like they'd killed a member of my family.

So what does that have to do with writing? Right now, a lot. Comics -- along with TV, movies, and real life -- is a source of inspiration for me. And right now, the inspiring aspect of comics in general, and the DCU in particular, has my imagination in overdrive.

Supergirl was killed, as was the Barry Allen Flash, in a major DCU event called "Crisis on Infinite Earths" which collapsed the multiverse DC had created (a version of multiple universes that I loved) into one true universe. Essentially, they rebooted the line. I've been reading about this, how it was done, because DC is doing a major event again, only this time, it's bigger and better and the writer in me is incredibly envious of the toys the writers are getting to play with.

"Wizard" has had a number of articles on the current event, "Infinite Crisis," which was kicked off by Brad Meltzer's "Identity Crisis" mini-series. The details of the story and plot don't matter. What matters is that for the past couple of years and continuing over the next year, just about all comics in the DCU (Vertigo and Wildstorm are not included, nor are special titles like the All-Star titles) are participating in this event that will change the face of the universe.

I just read an interview with Marv Wolfman and George Perez who wrote and drew the original Crisis. Back then, in 1985, what they did ended up affecting all the books, but until things were pretty much set on course, the other books didn't show any involvement in the story. This time, the writers of the other books jumped in and pitched ideas when invited in. Last time, folks didn't know what to expect or even if such a big project would work. Then, in the '90s and early '00s (eek, that looks awful, let's go with early 2000s), a few crossover events were written as if rammed down the writers throats, which they probably were. Some did well with them, but others either barely mentioned the big event, or butchered their part. This time, it's different.

What really caught my eye in an interview with Geoff Johns and others involved with "Infinite Crisis" is how seemingly unrelated books from 2 years ago were actually plotted out to lead to the Crisis. That events and actions by bad guys that seemed unrelated or unusual, were connected and had a definite puppetmaster behind the scenes who has since been revealed. And they're pulling this off. For example, and unless you know the titles, this won't mean much, but humor me here, there was a mini-series and follow-ups called The Rann-Thanagar War, focusing on war between Rann, adopted homeworld of Adam Strange and Thanagar, the homeworld of Hawkman. We knew this was part of the Crisis, and it followed nicely from the Adam Strange mini-series that brought Adam back to the DCU after many years' absence. But until I read the articles, I had no idea the Adam Strange mini was planned as one of the Crisis lead-ins, that the ending which led into the war had been planned from the start. I'm impressed.

The relevance here is that I write collaboratively with some friends. We do a spy series based on my old Man from UNCLE fan fic. I'd changed the MFU universe so much, it seemed to make sense to change names, adjust personalities, and concentrate on my original characters with the altered versions of the show's characters moving to supporting roles. And one thing I've tried to do and have learned it's damned difficult to do, is coordinate a long, complex storyline.

My first inspiration in this was Hercules and Xena which also managed complex continuing storylines that crossed over from one show to the other. That had most of the same people working on both so it was likely easier to keep track of things than coordinating dozens of writers and artists who are working at DC now. But trying to coordinate the three of us (now 4) has proven almost impossible. It's difficult to get us all to agree. It's difficult to keep the egos to the side. It's hard to have to put my foot down as creator of the universe and therefore the last word on what can or can't be done. And it's hard to maintain this sort of thing over time. Folks keep writing things in that don't fit and the two times we've attempted such a complex storyline, we've ended up ending the thing prematurely, with a quick fix that fits but isn't what I'd hoped for.

DC is currently moving the DCU forward one year and will start, in May, a one-year long weekly series called 52 that will fill in the gaps between the end of Infinite Crisis and where the One Year Later books pick up. Again, I'm impressed, as they had to figure out that whole year and where all the books will start.

I write as I go and in working on the Mars books, I'm trying to keep to a general timeline Deb and I created for the universe. But the WIR is over a century before the first books we planned and I've already changed things at that time that will have repercussions for the not yet written "future" books. When we get to them, we'll need to adjust things, see where the dominoes ended up falling. I like that mystery element. I'd lose interest in writing the thing without it. But I also like, admire, and even envy the ability to plan it all out. I'd like to find a way to do both, work out something complex that's still loose enough to allow me wiggle room as needed. I think it's starting to gell that way in my reluctant brain, but it's not yet quite where I need it to be.

It's damn difficult, for me, and I'm just one writer, not the committee DC has, although one or two people are coordinating the project, making sure there are no contradictions. Just from my feeble attempts so far, I've come to really admire folks who can make something like this not only happen, but work and work well.

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