Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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March 29, 2011

Plotting Method: The Blind Men and the Elephant


By Laura Drake

Have you ever heard this Indian Parable?  Six blind men try to determine what an elephant looks like by feeling different parts of its body. The one at the tail says an elephant is like a rope; the one at a leg says it’s like a pipe, the one at the ear, a fan, and so on.

This is how I plot, and it’s maddening.

I’m a character-driven writer.  I get the character first, and a theme.  The plot develops as a natural progression of my protagonist’s arc. “Natural progression” sounds so orderly and logical, but it’s not. I get illusive snippets, disjointed puzzle pieces seemingly cut by Dali on hallucinogens.

But the snippets are good – that’s the problem.  I know there’s a book in there if I can just pull it all together, but like the blind men, I have no clue how a rope fits with a fan, or a pipe. My mind won’t leave it alone.  It keeps coming back to worry at the puzzle. I dream about it, I bounce it off people, I despair.

Then I make a connection and a piece falls into place. Aha!  The impossible becomes logical. I’m now convinced this is going to be a stunning work of brilliance. I can see the cover, reclining in accolades amid the other best sellers in Costco.  I’m so proud. I start writing the acknowledgements page in my mind (okay, that was an embarrassing admission, but I’m among friends, right?)

Then I move on to the next issue. How the heck do a rope and a pipe co-exist? This is impossible. This plot is vomit, and my crit group is going to exchange sad head shakes behind my back. My brain goes back to worrying at the problem.

I’ve heard that when Michelangelo looked at a slab of marble, he saw in it the completed sculpture. Then all he had to do was chip away what didn’t belong there.  I want THAT!

These elephants are messy, take them away...

How do you plot? Is it easier?

0 comments on “Plotting Method: The Blind Men and the Elephant”

  1. I don't plot. Well, unless you count a random mind map plotting. I put two boxes in the middle of a sheet of paper. One for my hero, one for my heroine. Then, I let the thoughts come and I write those ideas around the characters connecting them by lines. Some I don't use...well, most, actually...but it's kind of free association, you know? Then I start writing.

    It's such a rush staring at a blank screen and typing CHAPTER ONE, isn't it? I LOVE it!

  2. Total pantser here. I keep trying to lay it out, make notes...actually *gulp* plot. I'm doing better. I did put a few notes down this time...let's see if I stick to them:)

  3. I think it's probably different for every novel, Laura. Some we will have that Michelangelo feeling and we'll only have to chip away what's not there. Others are more difficult. I've never been one for doing an outline though. It usually comes to me 'organically' as they say. 🙂

  4. Novels are unwieldy things, and I sometimes feel like I'm trying to grapple with cooked spaghetti when I'm dealing with the plot. What has helped me is to follow James Scott Bell's suggestion to make scene cards on 3x5s. Then I can capture the pieces and rearrange these scenes, still playing with the plot possibilities. When it's where I want it to be, I start the writing process, following the loose guide of the 3x5s. I keep in mind that the story is not set in stone, and I can make changes if I want to.

    : ) Beth

    1. So funny you should say that Beth - I haven't taken any classes from James Scott Bell, but that's how I've handled my last two novels. Wish I'd have known that for the first - would have saved me a TON of revision!

  5. Err... I've never plotted any of the manuscript I've finished so far (3). But for my next project I've decided to try and do a very extensive plot. It's going to be an interesting experience.
    I usually try not to fall for snippets, not matter how great they are. At the most I will make note of them and keep going until I reach the part where so and so snippet fits in. 🙂

  6. I guess the question is this: How do you eat an elephant? One chunk at a time, so let' reverse it. How do you build an elephant? You know the answer, so I guess as along as you've got all the chunks; character, plot, setting, and the rest, you did it. Hopefully, the trunk doesn't end up on the wrong end, and if it does, then we'll call it experimental.

  7. True, Laura. I think that ultimately, a writer has to do what she's most comfortable with, and that's okay. There is no right. There is only what works for you. ; )

  8. I'm just like you Laura. My initial inspiration can be a character, a dialogue snippet, a setting, a conflict between characters, or even the book title. Then I'll just plow in and write as many scenes and notes as I can think of, and it can get to 20,000 words before I'm able to stop and think about what the story actually is; what order everything should go in; what the main character's emotional journey should be, etc. I'll be closer to 70,000 before I run out of steam, and need to start filling in all the gaps. I need to finish off scenes or writing connecting ones. This is painful, but necessary if I'm going to finish the dang thing off!

    1. Wow, Charlotte, I like your way better than mine - I just sit here stuck in the beginning! Takes a long time to get started, but I guess I should be happy that when I do write, I write pretty clean. Happy writing!

  9. I am always "awed" when I read about authors who outline and make extensive notes prior to writing. I've written three novels and all of them were "sit my booty in the chair and start". I have an idea of what I want the book to be about and I begin. Granted, I do a lot of revising afterward, but it works for me. A complete and total "pantser" here! But, I agree with everyone who says that what works for you, well, that's what it is. I don't know if I have an aversion to "outlining" because it reminds me of my Catholic school/nun upbringing or what!

    1. I'm with you Patti. Funny thing is, I'm a very organized person in my day-to-day life (I'm an accountant for cripes sake!)
      but I've tried outlining, and it just makes me want to - not write. I finally figured out that's part of the draw for me with writing - it's the ONLY part of my life that I have no rules! Who knew?
      Thanks for stopping by!

  10. I used to really struggle with this, and sometimes still do, but I found something really helpful in a book called 'First Draft in 30 Days'.

    The author suggests that you have 3 separate pieces of paper or computer files where you write the opening scenes, middle scenes and end scenes. So you'd write down your 'fans' and 'pipes' and 'ropes' and things and could see what you've got. And then you string them together in an order that allows for the right pacing and logical development.

    When you've got your scenes written out, you can always rearrange them, add or delete scenes, etc. until it comes out right. You can do this on a computer or with index cards or whatever works.

    It's simple really, but I've found this method makes things SO much easier! Larry Brooks of storyfix.com also has a lot of useful stuff on plot structure. 🙂

  11. For what it's worth, I write tons of notes before I start. I like to get to know all the characters, find out what their ambitions are, what they order at the bar, and what guilty-pleasure CDs they hide under the seat of their car. It takes me lots of walking around with them before I feel like I can start out. Also I like to have a reasonable idea of the transformation the hero is going to undergo, so that I know where to start her story and what nastiness to throw at her. Without that I feel I'm too unconstrained -- there are too many options for me. Once I have that together, and once I feel like I'm at a place where I'm just excited to see it all happen, I sit down and go. I don't know if that's outlining, but it's not pantsing, I guess. Prepared Pantsing? I try not to stress about the "O word" -- what's a good outline and what isn't -- because really, who cares. Plus, just in practical terms, there's no way to have the whole elephant in your head (to stretch metaphors) at any one time. A novel is just too big and complex to worry about trying to capture it in a single, orderly piece of paper. I think if I had infinite time I might write every manuscript twice -- I'd pants it in the spirit of exploration, to see where it ended up, then start over completely and apply what I learned to take a more guided, well-equipped safari the next time.

  12. For my first novel, I'm doing the exact opposite: copious plot, world and character research and development. So far, I have 47 pages (37,000 words) of notes and I have yet to start writing the actual novel. Once I start actually writing the damn thing, I'll know whether this strategy was the right one. I take some solace from a (perhaps apocryphal) anecdote I read somewhere: that SF writer Orson Scott Card spent two years plotting his novel "Ender's Game" but wrote it in only two weeks.

  13. I'm an outliner. First I tack up bunches of 3 x 5 cards with loose ideas on them. Then I start typing a rough outline -- nothing very organized. No one will see it but me, so who cares what it looks like. As I go along, scenes pop into my head, demanding to get out. Right now! Thus, by the time I finish the outline it's riddled with little mini scenes. Connecting them is the challenge.

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