Tag Archive | plot

Novel Writing: The Plot Thickens

One of the first questions you should ask when you’ve finished your book is “What is my book about?” Try to boil it down to a sentence or two. This is the basis of plot.
Plot is what your story is about. If you just string together a group of sentences that have no coherency, you don’t have a plot. You don’t have a story. You just have words. In order to have a plot – and, therefore, a story – you have to be writing about something, preferably something that is includes conflict. If you write romance – the basic plot is: boy gets girl; boy loses girl; boy gets girl back (usually with a bit more action thrown in for interest.) Or you can think of it this way: plot is two dogs with one bone.

It is important to have a plot that draws the reader in – and keeps him or her reading. Proposing hypothetical questions the reader may ask does this. Consider the following passage from my story, “Prime Time”:
Deena studied the newest crop of lunar tourists and transports milling around the huge domed reception area as her partner began his spiel for his audience. On the far side of the shuttles, she caught a quick glimpse of Security leading out a sorry-looking group in binding collars.

One of the prisoners broke from the line and dashed for the shuttle. He never had a chance. The guards triggered his collar and took him down before he got ten steps. Deena winced as they dragged the unconscious man to a cart and dumped him. She hoped for the prisoner’s sake he never woke up. He’d be much better off. The guard glared at her and she turned away. She was here to do a job and forget whatever she might see. She could do nothing for them. Nothing.

The questions that arise are: What is Deena doing there? Why can’t she help anyone? Why would it be better if the prisoner never woke up? Is Deena a prisoner? What is going on here? Each question leads to another – and thus, the beginning of a plot.

Plot can take two basic forms, or even a combination of the two. It will usually be either a three-act structure (beginning, middle, end), or, from Joseph Cambell’s writings, be a mythic journey. It can also be a combination of the mythic journey within the three act structure.

In the three act structure, you have the beginning (Act I) in which you introduce the character(s), set the tone, establish the setting, introduce the story problem, and urge the reader to move on to the next section.

Act II is where you expand on these issues and set up the final moment of the story.
Act III is the final battle, the tying up of loose ends, and leave the reader satisfied.
The Mythic Journey, as explained by Christopher Vogler in his book (which I urge you to get), consists of:

Hero in his ordinary world
The call to adventure
Answering the call
Tasks and challenges
Tutor
Allies and opponents
Talisman
Final test
The return

In addition to these structures, most plots can be boiled down to patterns:
The quest – Indiana Jones looking for the Ark of the Covenant
Revenge – Inigo Montoya in “The Princess Bride”
Love – choose any “chick flick”
Change – Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol”
Adventure – Dorothy in “Wizard of Oz” or Luke in “Star Wars”
The Chase – “The Fugitive”
One Against – Batman in “The Dark Knight” or Erin Brockovich
One Apart – Rick in “Casablanca” or Han in “Star Wars”
Power – Lord of the Rings
Death Overhanging – death can take three forms: physical, emotional, or professional. For physical, “Titanic”; emotional – “Inception”; professional – “Pretty Woman”

Sometimes it helps to have something in the ending reflect back to the beginning of the story. You can do this with an object or with a situation that mirrors one in the beginning. For instance, if you had a story about a blackout, you could have the hero flicking the light switch at the beginning and – nothing. He goes through the apartment searching for candles. The story continues and on the last page, he flicks on the light switch and gets light – then turns it off and lights a candle.

Or you could have the very nervous heroine entering a particular building and at the end, she enters that same building, but this time, everything has changed, especially her.

When checking on the plot line, ask yourself what is the hero/heroine’s goal? If he or she doesn’t reach the goal, so what? Why should the reader care? What makes the goal so important that we need to read? If the goal or conflict is too simple, you’ll end up with the reader saying “they could have done that on page one”, and if they could have, that’s not a good novel. If the goals aren’t important, neither is the story. Having your character take a shower merely because she wants to isn’t a compelling action. It only becomes important if she happens to be staying at a place called “The Bates Hotel”.

Once you’ve set the stakes, raise them. And raise them again. And again. Keep the story growing.

In a full length novel, you will probably have several sub-plots as well as the main plot. A sub-plot is similar to a plot, but may involve secondary characters. Even with other characters, they should have something to do with the plot, a link that ties them to the main story line. Like a plot, they must be tied up at the end.

Then go on to the following questions:
1. What is your story about?
2. Who are the main characters in your book? There should be one or two – three at the very most (hero, heroine, villain).
3. What do they want? What are their internal and external goals and are the goals important enough to carry the entire story?
4. Why does it matter if your characters do or don’t reach their goals? If it doesn’t matter, you don’t have a story.
5. When are the goals met? If too soon, you might have a short story, but not necessarily a novel.
6. How do they meet their goals? They should have to overcome obstacles that make it exceedingly difficult to reach their goals.
7. Do you have subplots? How do they relate to the main plot?
8. Is there enough of a story to fill an entire book?
9. What is the initiating event that sets off the rest of the action in the book?
10. Does the conflict escalate, with a major complication every few chapters, throughout the book? Is the conflict believable?
11. Do you use compelling hooks at the end of chapters to keep the reader interested?
12. Are there enough twists in the plot, especially towards the end, to keep the reader reading?
13. Do you have subplots? How do they relate to the main plot?
14. Are all conflicts, problems, loose ends solved at the end?
15. Do you have a compelling opening sentence? One that draws the reader in and makes him or her want to continue reading? If not, can you make it more compelling?
16. Where does the story start? Have you included too much backstory?
17. Do you have a catchy or unique title that is appropriate for the story?
18. What makes your story unique? What gives it an edge over other stories?

Write Your Novel – back to work

Okay, the break is over. Time to get back to work. By now, you should have an idea of what you’re going to write, the characters, and the setting. You have your writing area set up – or know where you’re going to go to write. So it’s time to get to work. Writing.

That’s something I can’t teach you to do. It’s just plain hard work and something you need to do every day. Writing is a mostly solitary activity and you have to have the discipline to actually sit down and do the work. Don’t think you’re going to push out a full length novel in a few days. It’s not going to happen. To use a cliche, you’re in this for the long haul so don’t let it get to you. Just keep plugging away.

So what’s next on my agenda here? The next few weeks are going to be dedicated to what you do after you finish the book. That’s when the real work starts – the editing. Ugh. It’s not fun. It’s hard work, but it’s also necessary. So, here are the first steps for you to consider. I’ll post more each week.

The End.

Excuse me? I can see the raised eyebrows and hear the questions now. What are those two words doing here. I told you I was going to give you tips. And I am. “The End” is what you write when you have written the final sentence, but it doesn’t mean you are done. In most cases, when you write “The End”, you are actually at the beginning of the hardest part of the writing process – the editing. Oh, you think your agent or editor will take care of all the problems when they accept the manuscript? Don’t count on it. They will correct minor problems, but if you are an unpublished author – or even one who has been published multiple times – most agents and editors won’t look at your manuscript unless it’s as close to perfect as you can get it. They don’t have the time to correct multiple misspellings, grammar faux pas, or other mechanical errors. It won’t matter if it’s a great story – if there is an abundance of errors, you’ll get it back, along with a rejection letter.

Okay, before you go off and decide to catch up on missed sleep, give this a chance. You’re here for one reason – you’re a writer, as am I. We love words – the way they sound, the way they go together to make us laugh, cry, hope, despair, love, hate, or think deep thoughts – or shallow ones. It all depends on the way they’re put together.

When we put a bunch of words together in a more or less coherent semblance, it makes a sentence. Put together a number of sentences and you have a paragraph. Build on that and you have a chapter or a short story. Add more and you have a book. It’s a little like building a tiered cake. You start with the raw ingredients, put them together in a particular way, bake it, and build it.

The raw ingredients consist of plot, style, pacing, dialogue, sensory details, voice, point of view, facts, spelling, grammar, punctuation and word use. How you blend them together into a coherent recipe determines whether you end up with an edible creation, or something better fit for the garbage disposal.

Can I guarantee you’ll get published after you do all this? No. Nobody can do that unless you’re talking about a vanity press – but that’s an entirely different issue. The publishing business is too subjective for guarantees. But when you’ve finished, your writing will be tighter and have more impact, and you may even learn a thing or two that you can apply to your next manuscript. So good luck and get ready to get to work.

Tip #1: Put the book you’ve just finished writing away for at least a week, more is better. Watch movies, read other books, take long walks, relax. Or, better yet, start your next book. Do anything other than look at your manuscript. That way, you can come back to it with a fresh eye.

Note: Although I “cite” rules and “you should…”, remember, the novel is yours. If you want to break a rule, and have a good reason for doing so, then break it.

Homework this week: get to work writing. Or, if you’re done, put that manuscript away and start the next one. Then come back next week and we’ll work on editing for plot.

Write the novel: Sequels

This lesson will concentrate on sequels, which is nothing more than a transition that links two scenes, like a hallway between two rooms. It can be long or short, but, like a scene, it consists of three elements: reaction, problem, decision. It is an area of the story where the reader finds out what the character is thinking and trying to decide. It can also be the place for flashbacks (areas where the reader is let in on something that happened in the past that has an impact on what is currently happening.).

Sequels provide reasoning to your story. They let readers know WHY a character is doing what he’s doing, as well as how s/he reaches his/her decision. Sometimes, a character will decide something in a sequel, then do exactly the opposite. This can only work if we find out in the next sequel why he did what he did. It is a part of human nature to do what is contrary to what we should do, but there should be a valid reason. This is what is shown in a sequel. This can be powerful and dramatic, but the reasoning – the logic – has to be there. Sequel is aftermath. The state of affairs and the state of mind that shapes your character’s behavior AFTER disaster has knocked him down.

With sequels you can also control the pacing of your novel. Dwight Swain, in TECHNIQUES OF A SELLING WRITER, tells us that long scenes equal big interest and long sequels indicate strong plausibility. He also emphasizes that if your story tends to drag, you should strengthen and enlarge the scenes, add and build up the conflict. On the other hand, if it is moving too quickly, you can use sequel to back things off, give the characters, and the reader, a chance to breathe.

Jack Bickham (who was a student of Swain’s) wrote in SCENE & STRUCTURE some tricks you can play with in your sequels which will add to the reader’s pleasant discomfort:

  1. Set a clock ticking so the character has only so many minutes to reach a decision. Some other character may set this time limit, or the viewpoint character may set it himself.
  2. In the thought segment of the sequel, have the character realize whole new dimensions of the previous disaster and his present plight that he hadn’t thought of before.
  3. Consider having the character’s emotional reaction overwhelm him, so that he plunges back into the story battle with insufficient thought.
  4. Devise a way to insert a “roadblock” scene in the early stages of the action segment so that the viewpoint character must, in effect, have a sidebar fight of some kind to find his way back to the next scene which he sees as relating directly to his long-term story goal.
  5. Hold out on the new decision. Write something like, “Then she knew what she had to do.” But don’t tell the reader.
  6. Stage an interruption – an outside stimulus – which forces the character to “stop sequelizing” and meet the new threat.

Bickham says that you will find as you work more with dramatic narrative structure that some of the devices mentioned here can often be spotted in published stories. You’ll also notice how some authors “mix and match” their techniques, using a hint of one trick and parts of one or more others.

Homework: Look at your scenes from last week. Where do you need sequels? Be sure to include the three parts of a sequel: reaction, problem, decision.

REFERENCES:

Swain, Dwight, TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER, University of Oklahoma Press: Norman, ISBN 0-8061-1191-7

Bickham, Jack M., SCENE & STRUCTURE, (Elements of Fiction Writing Series), Writer’s Digest Books, ISBN 978-0-89879-906-4