Several readers who are new to fiction writing asked whether can you use plotting formulas, like Polti’s Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations, when writing commercial fiction.
My response: whatever gets you through the day. I’ve never found any canned plotting formulas helpful. They’re distracting, and can be boring. Your mileage may vary, of course.
Which brings us to the ever-popular question: what comes first, character, or plot?
Character or plot, when you’re writing fiction? (Start with genre)
For commercial fiction, start with genre.
Over the years, I’ve found that students often try writing first, and want to decide on a genre later.
Tip: please don’t do this. The results aren’t pretty. Choose genre FIRST. It’s almost impossible to try and shoehorn fiction into a genre after you’ve written it. Readers come first, and they want what they want. To sell your fiction, give it to them.
Let’s say that you’ve written a novel which has a little bit of mystery, a little bit of suspense, and a little romance. You could slot your novel into any of those genres. However, it’s unlikely to appeal to masses of readers in those genres because it doesn’t have enough of what they want.
The suspense readers complain that there’s not enough suspense. The mystery people whine because there’s little mystery. And the romance folk are annoyed because you haven’t developed the romance between the characters.
Once you’ve chosen your genre, try to stick to the conventions in that genre. Otherwise — yes, you guessed it — your readers will complain.
Here’s an example. In romance fiction, it’s accepted that your lead characters don’t cheat. That’s the convention, and here’s why: there’s enough nastiness in real life. Romance readers read to escape. Cheating in a hero or heroine is unacceptable. Even if your heroine is separated from her wife-beating spouse, it’s unacceptable for her to begin a romance with your tall dark and handsome hero until the divorce.
If you’ve just got to have a cheating lead, you’re writing women’s fiction, not romance. This means that you can’t focus solely on the romance, because if you do, you won’t be satisfying the readers who read women’s fiction.
(If you’re new to writing fiction, press on. Keep writing. In your first draft, just keep moving forward. Don’t worry about anything other than writing — that always comes first. You can sort out any challenges in your final draft.)
Once you’ve chosen your genre, decide on your lead character — your primary point of view (POV) character.
Choose your genre POV character
Starting with a genre, and then developing a character, works for me, because I’m lazy. I just want to get on with the writing. This means that once I have a character, I know that all I need to do is to kick the character into action, and hey presto — the plot sorts itself out. Moreover, that plot takes into account the genre conventions, because I’ve chosen the genre first.
But what if you’ve already done some plotting?
“I want to start with the plot…”
That’s fine. Whatever works. If you’ve got a great idea, and you’ve worked out the plot, that’s wonderful. Sometimes a plot just pops into your mind, like a gift from the gods, and you run with it.
You’ll find that each and every novel and short story is different. It doesn’t matter how you start, as long as you keep the genre in mind, and write entertaining material that engrosses you, and then, your readers.
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Updated: May 1, 2017
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