I have a terrible time plotting my books, answering the question “what happens next?” But I have a friend (a very knowledgeable plotter) who’s always told me that all the ingredients for a plot are in my head, and they eventually end up on the page, exactly in the order needed. I’m an organic plotter, a pantzer, or, as I like to refer to it, a serendipitous plotter.
It’s only when I’m halfway through my book that I realize what the theme is, and the theme is really the basis of any plot. It was there all along, I was just too mired in the minutiae to see it. But those unconscious thoughts kept writing themselves into the book as dialogue, setting, or those fleeting images that lend a sense of reality to the made-up world we invent.
Recently I was searching a stock image site for artwork to suggest for cover art for my upcoming release. The theme of the book is the Garden of Eden, so I put in those search terms. That’s when I realized I’d included a lot of Garden of Eden images in my book, completely unconsciously. There was actually a garden in the book, which I remember just seemed like a good idea as I was writing—city girl moves to the country, and decides to put in a garden to grow fancy heirloom vegetables. That gave me an ideal setting for several scenes, yet I never thought of it as a thematic image. There’s also a forbidden plum orchard, again, a serendipitous idea that appeared in a piece of dialogue my hero uttered.
A snake appeared in the garden one day, as I was writing a scene of my heroine in her garden. At the time, it seemed like a good way to show her character changing from a somewhat spoiled city girl to a nurturing woman whose first thought is of getting her precious kitty out of harm’s way. Only much later did I realize that the innocent garter snake was an allusion to the serpent in Eden.
There’s an apple too, a bag of Paula Reds my heroine buys at the farm stand, where she gets a lesson on pollination, and advice on life, from the apple grower. Again, a serendipitous image that just felt right at the time.
And all through the book is temptation, and the eventual realization that paradise isn’t worth having without human foibles. Somehow, without my realizing it, I’d manage to plot a book with a very strong theme running throughout, yet day by day I had no idea where I was heading. Three act structure? Goal, motivation, and conflict (or GMC, as it’s iconically referred to among writers)? I could no more have told you my character’s goal or motivation than I could sprout wings and fly to the Promised Land.
But it’s hard to rely on serendipity. It’s a frightening way to write. What if my muse doesn’t come up with the right plot twist, the right image, the perfect setting? Or what if my conscious mind interferes and inserts the theme with a heavy hand?
I’m working on another book now, and am just as mired in the plotting muck as always. But the knowledge that I’ve done it before, and come out on the other side with a plot and theme exactly where it was supposed to be, is comforting. Although it doesn’t hurt to know a little about goal, motivation, and conflict—at least enough so that you recognize a good idea when it comes—it’s even better to have the goddess of serendipity on your side.