Perils of the Writer: Composing the Symphony vs. Plot Jazz

In any long term creative endeavor, there is a limit to how much you can really plan out ahead of time.  Of course, you can always make detailed outlines, but the reaches a point of diminishing returns– where what you’re writing is more rough-draft than outline.*

And I’m a big planner, both in terms of individual novels and long-term series plans.  I’m a get-out-the-map-and-figure-out-where-I’m-going guy.  I’ve got outlines for novels I’m still going to write: specifically Books Three for both The Thorn of Dentonhill and A Murder of Mages, as well as Books Two and Three for Holver Alley Crew and Way of the Shield, books themselves that are still waiting in the wings for their time to shine.  And past that, well… let’s just say that as far as I’m concerned, none of those series are intended to end with Book Three.

But outlining is going to have its limits.  For me, a typical outline of a 100k-ish novel is somewhere between 1000 and 1500 words.  That hits the key plot points, but clearly lacks details of character interaction and transitions.  I find that there’s plenty of “Here is Point A” and “There is Point B”, but I still have plenty of chess pieces to move around to have things in place for Point B.

And that’s where the Plot Jazz comes in.

“Plot Jazz” is a term coined by some fans of Deep Space Nine and Farscape to talk about how those shows– shows which never really had a “plan” more than a few episodes ahead– had a great tendency to build off of things set up by throwaway lines or the possibilities a random idea offered up.  An excellent example is in Farscape, where John having hallucinations of Scorpius in “Crackers Don’t Matter”– an episode where everyone is going crazy for spacy-sci-fi-reasons–  triggered the idea that “Hey, maybe Scorpius put a chip in John’s head!”.  That concept ended up being a key factor that shaped the rest of the season, and the series as a whole beyond it.

Plot Jazz, where you play it where it takes you, and hope it sounds good.

Now, what Plot Jazz means to a dyed-in-the-wool outliner like me is that secondary and tertiary characters often become more than they were in the outline.  Not taking over the story, but having more consequence that the outline would have indicated.  And that’s usually because in writing the outline, I don’t necessarily know what I’ll need those characters to do in the specific.  The “what” is in the outline, but not the “why” and “how”, and there is a fair amount of discovery in working that stuff out.

There’s a fair amount of that in Thorn of Dentonhill, where while I was writing I’d realize something like, “Colin needs a friend he can talk to in this scene” or “I need a Constabulary officer to show up here”, and then the character that comes out of that expands into a life of its own.  That’s where, for example, Colin’s crew of Jutie, Hetzer and Tooser or Lt. Benvin came from in Thorn, and those roles ended up being more than could have been predicted in the outline.  Jutie and Lt. Benvin both get mention in the outline for Thorn II, but the details of the how and why with what they do ended up giving them both a crucial role in that book, including realizing I needed to give Lt. Benvin a whole group of constabulary officers under him.

So while I love my outlines and will never, ever let them go… that doesn’t mean I can’t embrace the Plot Jazz when I need it.

*- I do know of one writer who does write very detailed outlines for his novels, that the outline is around 40K for a 100K novel. He said the main difference between his outline and the novel is dialogue.

One comment

  1. Nice, Marshall, I like the image of jazz to explain the process, and indeed there are real parallels–including getting into a groove and (probably, at least in television writing) reacting to others whoa re reacting to what you’ve done and therefore the thing is evolving at such a rate that effectively no one is in ‘control’ and it is creating itself from a sort of mixed energy of everyone in the endeavour, plus– and this is the magic thing– the characters themselves coming to life and beginning to act independently of any rational, intellectual plan…

    I don’t know if you are actually a musician, but the whole ‘groove’ thing, whilst widely and understandably mocked (almost exclusively by non-musicians) is very real. It is like good sex where there is suddenly a higher level of communication and you know what to do and so does your partner with no words needing to be exchanged, and each movement, caress or noise is just pushing it higher..
    Except, here it is several people, all working together and each one adding exponentially to the whole. Then, on top of that the audience, giving you immediate feedback–

    And this is where the analogy breaks down a bit for me– When I was playing music, the reason I did so was that got a different kind of creative satisfaction from it than film making, where you sit down with an idea, write it, revise it, use it to go out and start fundraising, adapting it here and there to get backer sn board, then actors, and then there is the whole production process, changing locations, characters, trying to preserve the essential, then the shoot, etc, though editing,and it can easily be months or even years before you see it with an audience and find out if your initial instinct as correct…

    Whe youplay music, either as a jm or inforntof an audience, youknow instantly if you’re off abse, if oyu’r enot reachign them, or if youa nd your bandmates aren’t onthe same wavelength..

    I miss playing music for this reason…OH well, there’s stills ex, right?

    Congrats on the book. I hope it is selling well and you are building on your success.


    “Outside of dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”
    Groucho Marx

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