For Emotion- and Character-Based Writers: How to Get to the Plot?
Updated: Oct 6
For a very long time, when someone asked me what my novel was about, I became really anxious. It didn’t matter if I had two-hundred or twenty-thousand words written; every time someone asked me what my work was “about,” I froze.
Here’s the thing: I’m an emotion- and character-based writer. That means that when I get an idea for a story or a novel, I start with a feeling. Maybe that feeling takes the form of an invasive species of beetle (like my current WIP) or maybe it takes the form of a girl with hair in her face and a sinking feeling in her chest. The writing I do after I get this first hazy spark is about defining and giving solidity to the vague emotion that drove me to the page.
In other words, I start really, really far away from the plot.
To be completely honest, there was even a time when I considered plot to be beneath me. It wasn’t the story that mattered so much as the way in which it was rendered. I read in order to feel something, and so I started writing with a similar intention. I wanted to connect to my readers, to make them feel. Action, in my eyes, was servant to emotion. In the words of Zadie Smith, “The story was the price you paid for the rhythm.”
The problem with this outlook is that I could never finish anything. I would start with a beautiful opening, a fully drawn character, maybe get to an inciting incident, and then I would run out of words.
Not every writer is like this, of course. I’ve talked to writers who write as if they’re watching a movie. The scenes and action come first. I imagine that some of these writers might have more difficulty when creating emotional arcs and emotional resonance, but at least they have a story. In fact, I find myself quite jealous of those for whom plot comes naturally because no matter how well you fling those words onto the page, you cannot write a novel without plot. A short story, maybe. But not a novel.
When I started writing a novel, I knew I had to find a way to trick my brain into writing plot. Writing, I find, often requires trickery. First, you figure out the way your brain works—its preferences and its aversions—and then you figure out a way to turn those aversions into preferences. Sometimes, it means leveraging what you’re best at. Sometimes, it means turning off (or at least dialing down) what you’re best at.
Plot and structure are different beasts than emotion, and I’d argue that they engage different parts of our brain. While writing emotion is right-brain oriented—it requires us to tap into our bodies, to sensations that exist prior to words—plot is left-brain oriented—it requires us to think linearly and translate those right-brain sensations into something someone else will be able to follow and understand.
Because of this difference, I find that I work best when I work on only one—either plot or emotion—at a time.
I start, as I’ve mentioned, with emotion. When I begin to work on a new story, I pay zero attention to POV, tense, and grammar. I write whatever comes to mind when it feels like it needs to be written. Sometimes, that takes the form of a scene. Sometimes, a diary. Sometimes, the words come out as something similar to a character sketch. Sometimes, something very visceral, seemingly unconnected to anything comes out.
I don’t force anything. I let the words bubble up, in their beautiful imperfection, and put them down. This took me a very long time to be able to do because I’m also a perfectionist and editor at heart. But with some practice, I’ve come to relish these messy drafts. However, when writing like this begins to feel like a chore, I stop. I put it away for a week or a month, and then, when I feel ready, I go back to it with a pen and underline anything that sounds promising.
I may do this three or four more times before I find my story. It may sound tedious, but, for me, it’s the best way to get to a plot that feels honest.
The next step, is to focus on just the action. When I was in graduate school, I had a couple of wonderful professors who gave me some great advice about plot. One suggested that I might try writing all the action, sans exposition. Another told me that I could outline with the same creativity as I did when writing prose.
With this advice in mind, after I’ve spewed out my emotion drafts, I put all the emotion away. I write a long (5,000 words or more) outline of the entire novel that is primarily action. I’ll admit that it’s not always so cut and dry; often, some emotion finds its way in, and I let it, but not for long because the purpose of this step is to get the story down.
Finally, I return to the action draft and write it as the characters live it, filled with emotion and memory, zooming in on things that the characters will notice, and backing away from things that are not important to them. With a solid outline, I am able to write slowly, indulging in each scene, because I know where I am headed. Inevitably, I will deviate from the outline as I learn more about my characters and their story. And that’s okay. It’s all a part of the process.
Currently, I’m on step three of my action plan. For the first time in years, I have a complete novel plot that I am truly in love with. It is wildly different than what I usually write. In the past, I have stuck to realism, and this one delves into urban fantasy. I am so excited.
If you’re a writer, like me, who struggles when tackling plot, what are some of the ways you’ve learned to overcome this? I’d love to hear from you, my emotion-based brethren.