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Plotting: Connect the Dots

Originally published at Joely Sue Burkhart. You can comment here or there.

As I’ve blogged the last few days, I’ve really been wrestling with the Mayan fantasy. It’s high concept. Cool mythology. I’ve got lots of backstory, blah blah blah already figured out. But I could not find the STORY. You know, the one to WRITE. ;-)

I have snippets of backstory from 30 years ago. I have the whole history of how Jaid’s father found the very first clue and the sacrifice made to keep it. I went from a handful of characters in NSR to dozens more with several brand new subplots, bringing lots of action and conflict into the arena. But still, I couldn’t find the begin and end points for a story. I had all these episodes. Little cliffhanger ideas, you know, like a weekly TV show that keeps you coming back. But no STORY. I mean, even in Prison Break, a show I never thought would last past the first prison break, has an overall story arc. That’s what I was missing.

In frustration last night, I started tackling the story from a different angle. What I was missing before in NSR was complexity. I had characters that I liked, sure, and a cool plot, but there wasn’t a lot of interaction between the characters. Most of the time, it was only Jaid and Ruin on scene live, with very few other players. Pretty limited in scope. Now I have all these new characters, but no idea how they all relate to one another.

For whatever reason, I decided to start with Quin Salazar, an FBI agent in Dallas. I had an idea that someone was going to call him for a favor. Why would this guy call Quin? How did they know each other? What was their connection?

And that’s what really started to break the story apart for me. I had the theme and premise already figured out. This story is all about crossing lines. Characters being put in such stress and danger that they’d cross the one line they swore they’d never cross, or they’d risk losing everything they value. But I was missing the complexity and interaction BETWEEN characters.

I drew a bubble at the top of the page for Quin Salazar and another for Jackson Davis, the man who calls him for a favor. Then I started brainstorming their connections until I hit on a key commonality for them both. They both want something very very much, but will cross–or refuse to cross–very different lines to achieve their goals. Unbelievably–or maybe this is simply where the magic is–I found a similarity between them. A single theme I can play between them and show through character how one will cross the line and one won’t, no matter how much he needs to.

Amazed, I decided to try it again. I started a new page and drew Jaid at the top with her best friend Callie. I brainstormed a bit, and found again, a very common theme to the core question of who will cross the line and what that means to the story.

Encouraged, I then decided to try something that anyone staring at a tangled mess of expensive yarn would probably do to salvage it. I picked up a thread and started pulling it out of the tangles.

For whatever reason, this thread is green. I can’t explain why because I don’t know, other than my mind told me to pick up the green pen and not the red or black one when I started making notes. I started with Quin Salazar again. How would the FBI get involved when the dig that starts everything is in Guatemala? What does that have to do with Jackson Davis calling him? I opened a new pack of notecards and jotted 5 or 6 possible scenes, using only Quin as the reference, and only my green pen. I immediately got a few implications for the other threads.

Intrigued, I went back to Jaid’s father and what started it all 30 years ago. At the top of the paper (turned on its side landscape), I started with Charlie Merritt, Sam Gerard, Nicholas Linkyn, and Michael Ito. They met up 30 years ago and something very tragic happened. One woman has been missing ever since, and another woman dumped one guy and married another. They’ve all been polite enemies ever since.

That drawing with connections led to two more common themes, playing Charlie and Sam together vs. Nicholas and Michael. I’ve also got a page dedicated to Charlie and Nicholas. More dots. More connections. More lines to be drawn, literally and figuratively. What’s the line driving each character? What’s the last line left to cross? Will they or won’t they cross it?

I’ll continue doing this for all the new characters, drawing lines and connecting dots to get at the core themes for each set of characters. Next, I’ll be pulling a red thread as far as I can, and see how that affects the green. I’m hoping that as I do this, the pieces will finally fall into place and I’ll see the start and end of the story that I want to achieve.

What inspired all this character-connect-the-dots process? There was a new show last season called Life, about a cop who did some really hard time (10 years) for a crime he didn’t commit, and when he finally got out–his attorney got his case overturned and the city paid him several million dollars as a result–he immediately went back to his job as a cop to find who had set him up and solve the murder. At the end of the season, they showed this huge people “map” he had drawn in a secret study in his house. It showed all the connections between people, who was involved in his life, who might have been responsible. As he proved a person could not have set him up, he moved the picture around. That visual stuck with me and that’s sort of what I’m doing now, only on paper.

I suppose if I get desperate enough, I might print out the pictures for each character and stick them on the wall. :D

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