A few weeks ago, I read Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell. Because I am Gail, I didn't get with the entire program. But there were any number of bits and pieces that grabbed me.
For instance, Bell talks about plots beginning with a disturbance to the world of the book, or the world of the character, however you want to think of it. There was something about that that I thought sounded far more useful than all this stuff about give your character something to want and then throw stumbling blocks in her way so she has to struggle to get it. For one thing, that seems like a formula to me, not a plot generating method. For another, being an organic writer, as I am, I always wonder, What character? What does she want? What stumbling blocks? Where am I supposed to get all that stuff? None of this material just comes to me. A disturbance to the world of the book, on the other hand, seemed far more useful. It could be a real jumping off point for coming up with a plot, I thought.
I'd been thinking about disturbances off and on ever since I finished Bell's book, particularly how they relate to my books. I'd been thinking that my books have all started with disturbances. The disturbance at the beginning of my very first book, My Life Among the Aliens, is the arrival of aliens. At the beginning of A Year with Butch and Spike it's the main character finding himself sitting between the bad boys of his class on the first day of school. With Club Earth another alien arrives with news. In The Hero of Ticonderoga, the main character is given the Ethan Allen research project. With Happy Kid! the main character is given a book that influences his life. Even the Hannah and Brandon Stories, which are collections of connected short stories, have a disturbance at the beginning of each book--a neighbor with a dog moves in with the first book and the wild kids next door start moving in on Hannah and Brandon's lives in the second. The two books I've written and haven't sold yet start off with disturbances. I can see it in some of my short stories.
I was aware of all that, but it wasn't until this morning while I was out working in my yard that I realized something. (Breakout experience!) When I was writing all those books, I didn't realize any of this disturbance at the beginning of the book thing. If I had known what I was doing, couldn't that have made my plot creation process dramatically easier? If I had realized that my characters' worlds were experiencing a disturbance, wouldn't that have helped me with plot points because I would have known that I was dealing with the impact of the disturbance, its consequences, how characters respond to it? It would have generated a lot of material for me, and for organic writers, generating material that we can work with is a big part of our work battle.
Over the last couple of years I've been doing what I call the Plot Project here at Original Content: When I do a reader response to something I've read, I speculate about whether the author developed the plot through the give-a-character-something-to-want formula or if it could have come about in some other way. Going forth, the Plot Project is going to be about looking for disturbances.