Today I’m pleased to welcome a new guest to the blog!
Melanie R. Meadors is the author of fantasy and science fiction stories where heroes don’t always carry swords and knights in shining armor often lose to nerds who study their weaknesses. She’s been known to befriend wandering garden gnomes, do battle with metal-eating squirrels, and has been called a superhero on more than one occasion.
Her work has been published in Circle Magazine, The Wheel, and Prick of the Spindle, and she was a finalist in the 2014 Jim Baen Memorial Science Fiction Contest. Melanie is also a freelance author publicist and publicity/marketing coordinator for both Ragnarok Publications and Mechanical Muse. She blogs regularly for GeekMom and The Once and Future Podcast. Her short story “A Whole-Hearted Halfling” is in the anthology Champions of Aetaltis, available April 12, 2016.
You can also find Melanie online on Facebook and on Twitter – @MelanieRMeadors.
What Les Miserables Taught Me About Emotional Plotting
by Melanie R. Meadors
I’ve always considered myself to be a “pantser.” Every time I have plotted a story, I end up with a royal mess. I spend the time to create a plot, following various people’s plotting charts and methods, making colorful plot boards with Post It Notes, following all the steps to create a perfect outline. But then, when I go to write the story, nothing seems to come out right. Sure the plot of the story happens. But that’s it. It just…happens. When I compare scenes I’ve written by the seat of my pants to those I’ve planned out in advance, the pantsed ones inevitably have more emotion, more heart-pounding action, more tear-jerking, heart-wrenching moments.
Now, I know that this doesn’t happen to everyone. There are plenty of plotters out there who write riveting fiction after having planned every last scene out. It just wasn’t working for me for some reason. Yet, being a pantser most of the time, I am well aware of the downside of winging it: you tend to have a lot more revisions afterward, and even complete rewrites. Sometimes you can pants yourself right into a corner and have no way out. Or about three quarters of the way through a book, find that something is just irreversibly broken.
When I started thinking about my story for the Champions of Aetaltis anthology, I knew I wanted to plan things out a little at least. Short stories have to be confined a bit more, and I knew I didn’t want to get into the position of writing a twelve thousand word story and have to pare it down to five thousand. That never works out well. So I gave my idea some thought and came up with a beginning, a middle, and an end. But even this didn’t really work for me. For me, plotting a short story versus a novel is a different process. I went back and gave my character an origin, a goal, and then some try-fail cycles where she would try to get her goal, and with each attempt, the stakes got higher. Finally, I wrote the story.
Things went well. I fell within my word count goal and my plot was feasible and logical. A little too logical. So, I started again and wrote a second draft. And again, every i was dotted, every t crossed, but something was most definitely missing. Around this same time, I had started listening to show-tunes while I cooked dinner. One day when I was listening to Les Miserables, I said to myself, “You know, this song captures the exact emotions I want to have people feel at this scene in my story.” I went to my computer after dinner, listened to the song again with my document open, and rewrote the hell out of that scene with the music on. It felt perfect. I felt like I was conducting my story, more than writing it. I felt something i hadn’t felt in a while. I felt like I was in my story, living it through my characters, which was exactly how I wanted my readers to feel.
This got me thinking a little. Could I do this with other scenes? Sure enough, yes, as I considered each scene in my story, there was indeed a song in Les Mis that perfectly reflected the feelings I wanted to invoke in both my characters and my readers. Not only that, but when I looked at things as a whole, there was a pattern. When my scenes were in order, the songs I picked that reflected the emotions in that scene were in the same order. In other words, I had solidified something in my mind: the emotional arc of a story.
All stories should have an emotional arc. Writers know this. It has to do with tension and conflict and being able to reach the reader on a visceral level. We know this…on paper. But not everyone learns things the same way, and for me, being able to experience this via music really internalized it for me and it made sense in a way it never had before. Now I had a concrete example of how to plot in a way that worked for me, something way less clinical than previous methods I’d tried.
So what can a writer do with this nugget of wisdom? Well, If you really want to get clinical, you could map out the scenes in Les Mis (or another musical if it suits your tastes better) with the songs, and see where things line up as far as act structure and so forth. Then map out your own story. Do things line up a little? Do the really gut wrenching songs line up with similar parts in your story? How does your pacing match up? If you are more of an instinctual writer like I am, organize your book or story and then try to listen to the music that evokes the feelings that you want in that scene. Does the scene accomplish this? Make adjustments as necessary, and even try listening to the music as you write. For my final draft of my short story “A Whole-Hearted Halfling” I ended up listening to the music while I wrote, and it made a huge difference. And mind you, the plotline of your story doesn’t have to be anything like the musical. There are no revolutions in my story, no orphans or convicts. It’s all about the emotions and feelings.
Like any bit of writerly advice, this is something that worked for me. It might not work at all for you. Who knows, maybe I’m the only one crazy enough to think of life in terms of musicals. But why not try it and see? Let me know if it works!