08 September 2008

Think Sideways: The Dot and The Line

I was supposed to write this last week, but I realised as I was looking at it that, in a way, the dot and the line is Holly's way of looking at significance. So I decided to write the article on significance first. If you haven't read it yet, it's here.

So, first of all, what is the dot and the line? What on earth am I talking about? :)

This principle comes from week five of the Think Sideways course. By this point, I have my basic idea, I have my Sentence (logline) with the MC and their major problem, in an interesting setting, with a twist - and I'm ready to continue. What do I do next? The dot. And the line.

The Dot

The basic principle of the dot is that it's small, defined, and contained. It's different (and in some ways opposite) to the blank space around it; it's special. Extraordinary. Stop, it says. Look. Something important happens here.

The most obvious application of this is in maps - you draw a rough sketch, and you let your subconscious pepper it with dots. Then you ask the questions - why there? What happened? What's extraordinary about that place?

Extraordinary is the key word here; an important principle of pre-planning that helps you avoid over-planning is to let the ordinary speak for itself. You only need to define the extraordinary. This is where the concept relates to what I said about significance: you only need to worry about things that are significant to your story. For now, nothing else matters.

This can apply equally well to characters as to settings: For Neighbourhood Watch I shoved a metaphorical dot on my MC and asked the question. Why him? What happened? What's extraordinary about this boy?

For this story, the MC's defining trait is his jealousy for his younger brother, who is cool, confident, and rules the neighbourhood. This is the trait that kicks the story into motion; this is the trait that provides the MC with all the motivation and tenacity he needs to get himself into Really Big Trouble - from whence he will have to find his way out.

Dots can also apply to conflicts: Why this conflict? What happens? What's so special about it? In my Evil Tree Story, the one I'm developing for the Think Sideways course, the major initial conflict is that my MC Jake has to decide between helping out his girlfriend, who gets into serious, life-threatening trouble, and preserving his reputation - no too-cool teenager wants his friends to know he's out hugging trees ;) Why this conflict? Because Jake has always struggled to fit in. Because it's something he's only acheived recently, and it's something he'll fight tooth and claw to hold onto.

Because he adores his girlfriend, and would sacrifice his life for her if he had to.

Thus the dot: Stop. Look. Something important happens here.

The Line

The line has a different power to the dot. The line shows not importance, but difference. Things on one side of the line are not the same as on the other. For me, this was an easier concept to grasp - lines, difference, makes sense :) And it applies to things other than setting much more intuitively, for me.

Setting is easy. Tomorrow, when I post my maps, I'll show you my primary setting 'lines', and give a quick explanation of them. Essentially, the world on one side of the line is different to things on the other side (big surprise there, huh).

So, characters. My MC in Neighbourhood Watch was easy: his line is the line that he draws between himself and his family. He is at once ashamed of them, their poverty and low-class mannerisms, and wishes nothing more than to be disassociated from them forever, and at the same time intensely jealous of his brother's ability to lead and blend in at will. But he would never, ever admit this - his line between his family and himself is (currently) absolute. They are not his, he is not theirs; they just happen to share a house because he has no other choice.

Applying the line to conflict is a bit different: rather than saying what is different on one side of the conflict to the other (although writing this I realise that that would be a perfectly valid approach, too; what is different before the conflict as opposed to after it? What changes?), I looked at what are the lines that cause conflict.

Lines between people are an easy place to start, because often it's the person's dot - the thing that makes them special is the thing that makes them different, which causes conflict, because difference = conflict...

Take Jake for example. On the one hand, he wants to rescue his girlfriend. On the other hand, his mates don't think he ought to have anything to do with tree-hugging hippies in the first place, let alone rescue them when they 'get themselves into trouble'.

Or Heather, my MC from The Project. On the left, we have Heather, who is going to do whatever it takes - whatEVER - to save that little girl, because of her own past. On the right, we have everyone else, who thinks she's getting way too involved, and ought to a) mind her own business, b) leave it to the police, or c) at the very least not make so much trouble over it.

Conflict. Differences. The line.

Remember, this is not the be-all and the end-all of planning. This is just a neat way to kick things off, to figure out what your focus should be, to understand what it is that makes this your story, an extraordinary story, something different and special and you. It's flexible, and I don't think there's any need to feel constrained by its boundaries: if one area isn't working for you, skip it. It's okay to not know every single detail going into a story :)

Tomorrow, when I figure out how to turn my PDF scans into postable images, I'll throw up my initial workings for the Evil Tree Story, and if you can decode my writing you'll see how a couple of sketchy maps sparked the entire conflict and gave me a name for my MC :)

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