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I confess: I love a good cliche or trope.
A cliche is a phrase or expression that has been used so often that it is no longer original or interesting.
A trope is a common or overused theme or device, as in the usual horror movie tropes.
I’m in the middle of plotting a massive 3-book story and I need all the help I can get. Here’s the problem: what happens next?
No, let me rephrase: what could possibly happen next?
Sometimes, I just need to know possibilities, or what a story typically does at a particular stage. What are the possibilities? Is this a place for a murder, a confession, a love scene, or a time to gather information?
Literary folk say that there are only a limited number of stories in the world. Depending on who you talk with, there might be just two stories: a character leaves town, or a stranger comes to town. Others say there are up to 32 plots. I’ve written about 29 plot templates before. And it helps immensely to narrow down the choices.
But that’s on the level of an outline. Now that I’m deep into deciding on scenes, my imagination comes up short.
Enter tropes. A trope is a common theme, something that’s been done before. That doesn’t scare me away, because it’s the same as the variety of themes. Every story is a cliche, trope or template in many ways. It’s all in how you TELL that story. The beauty is in the particulars.
My story needs a romantic subplot. I know the basics.
Act 1: Boy Meets Girl/Girl Meets Boy
Act 2: Boy and Girl Fight or are otherwise kept apart.
Act 3: Boy and Girl get together.
But what else? What is possible at each stage?
I turned to TVTROPES.org for help. Their site is a wiki that list all sorts of tropes. The Romantic Arc Tropes list was helpful because it listed typical things that happen at every stage of a romantic relationship.
For example, a story might start with this trope/subtropes:
Love Before First Sight
- Because Destiny Says So
- Childhood Marriage Promise
- Red String of Fate
- Girl of My Dreams
- New Old Flame
Each of the tropes listed has its own wiki page, which explains the trope in detail. Particularly valuable are the examples drawn from traditional literature, manga, comic books, fanfics, films, live-action TV, professional wrestling, table top games, theater, video games, webcomics, western animation, real life and more. It’s a treasure trove of examples of the POSSIBILITIES of a particular stage of a relationship.
In fact, I used this romance arc by choosing one trope from each stage of a relationship and slotting that into my story.
Are you afraid that my story will be trite and boring? I’m not. I know that this is a trope and therefore, I must transform it in the storytelling phase of the project. Right now, though, this trope acts as a place holder, something that indicates approximately what will happen in this spot of the story, but not exactly. The nuances that make it fresh await the actual writing.
Using tropes to hold a place with something reasonable makes the plotting easier. I’m loving this help in plotting.
Here are some Arcs to get you started. Be warned: this is a massive wiki and it’s easy to get lost in it. Know what you are looking for and get it/get out.
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Subplots are a connected sequence of events, just like any other plot; the difference is that this is a minor plot with fewer developments. It should affect the main plot in some important way–or else you should delete it–but it doesn’t need the same development of a main plot.
I am still plotting my trilogy, and I’m taking a different strategy this time. I am working on the plot line for the entire trilogy before I start writing. Each book focuses on a different aspect of the overall story problem, so in some respects, each book is a subplot. Yet, overall, the story needs a throughline, or a question that overshadows everything.
In my sff trilogy, the overriding question is will the Risonian planet blow up, killing all Risonians? Or, will they find a new home and refuge?
The subplots will focus on different characters in the story and how they answer different parts of the overall problem. There are three romance subplots, various political subplots, and a couple survival subplots. Characters are motivated by revenge, by a quest of power, or by a sense of desperation.
That’s all good! In a long story–such as a series or even just a trilogy–the story needs to have some depth and breadth, and subplots have the potential to help.
As I say in START YOUR NOVEL, it helps to look over 29 different plot templates and decide on the overall plot for your story. Clearly, my story is about survival, and I can echo that with other smaller stories or subplots of survival. I can also contrast with someone who is out for revenge and cares nothing for survival; revenge at all costs makes for desperate–and potentially compelling–drama. Romance plots: OK, these should be a given in most stories, even if it’s just a love story between a boy and his dog.
What Happens Next?
It often happens that I am trying to work out the main plot but get stumped. What happens next? I’ve no idea.
Then, it’s time to turn to the subplot that has been patiently awaiting notice. What happens next in the subplot? Part of getting stuck is the fear that if I make a major decision about the trajectory of the story, I’m stuck with it. If it’s wrong, it will mean a major revision. Subplots, though, are small and contain fewer scenes. Make a mistake there and it’s much easier to revise later. By focusing on a smaller problem, you put less at risk.
Sometimes I have to go down the list and answer the “What next?” question for each subplot before I get inspiration for a better setting, more compelling emotions, or a larger conflict.
Often, figuring out the next logical step for a minor plot shakes loose a detail that will make everything connect better. Oh! So, she’s the main character’ sister, and that’s why she wants revenge.
The new revelation sends me back to the main plot with a new twist on the action.
When I’m really stuck, I repeat this process with every subplot from action to romance. For example, a romance subplot implies that tension and conflict permeates the man-woman relationship. How does the betrayal, the attraction, the hate, the love, and the self-sacrifice relate to and affect the main plot?
Progress is slow on this huge plot. Thanks to subplots, though, it is progressing! What happens next? My story gets plotted!
By: LAURIE WALLMARK,
Blog: Just the Facts, Ma'am
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Whether you're writing picture books or novels, the three-act structure is a common way to plot your story.
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I’m warning you! Don’t plot like I do.
I’ve been working on the plot of a new novel for about six weeks and I’m still stumbling around. I’ll describe the messy process here and hope that you manage to shortcut your own process.
It started last year with an idea and a short story that gave backstory on the longer story. I’ve wanted to write a sf for a while and this idea has been germinating for a long time. Besides the problem of other projects, there’s the question of audience. I had to grapple with taking creative risks.
Take Creative Risks
One creative risk was the type of story I would tell. Would it be a character story or an action/adventure story?
I plotted out something, but my left brain kicked in and compared the plot to the 29 Plot Templates Regardless of which plot structure I looked at, there were so many holes in the story.
I got advice from Optimus Prime. Hey, I take help where I find it and Optimus was obviously handing out advice on plotting.
By now, though, I was getting bogged down. What was the purpose of all this plotting? I had to remind myself that I was telling a story.
The next disappointment was the worry about how slowly the work progressed.
Listen. I know a lot about novel structure, characterization, plotting, setting and many other topics about novels. I teach this stuff. But when I write, I struggle through the writing process. One of my strengths, though, is that I am open to switching strategies. It’s also my weakness, but while I’m in the throes of plotting, I feel like I am jumping from this method, to that paradigm, to yet another novel structure. In reality, I’m just checking out my story from multiple POVs.
A Sixth Grade Aside
When my daughter was in sixth grade, she wrote an essay. The teacher asked my daughter to write an evaluation essay about writing the essay. Write down the process you went through to write this essay, the teacher advised.
And I shook my head in despair.
No, there isn’t just ONE path through the writing process. It’s cyclical, curving back on itself to ask you to repeat this task or that task. Or perhaps describing it as a maze is a better metaphor. I follow false trails until they dead end. I get lost in the middle and can’t fight my way out. I start at the beginning one time and the next time, I start at the end. Somehow, though, the writing gets done. There are strategies, ways of approaching a draft, working habits, and so on. But for any given piece of writing, the process will vary and vary widely.
Messy Writing Process
This time, I’m doing well with trying to go from general to specific.
That got me to an eight-page outline. But the 29 Plot Templates revealed major holes. I realized that I needed to concentrate on sub-plots and figure those out before I returned to the main plot. I focused on the villain as the hero of his own story: why did he want revenge? I re-read articles about writing a revenge story and one comment struck me: “Killing him would be too easy.”
Of course! Revenge isn’t just about hurting or killing the person; it’s about making them suffer as the victim has suffered. I asked myself, “What would make my character hurt/suffer the most?” Of course, that is what I MUST make happen. Voila! A new plot twist grabbed me and I was off and running with the complications from that twist.
10 page outline. But still lots of plot holes.
Over the next few days, I’ll be looking at other subplots and milking them for all the conflict that I can. Will there be a romantic subplot? After an initial attraction, there needs to be deep reasons why they must stay apart. What reason is sitting there in my story already, just waiting for me to exploit it? It’s there. I just need an Aha! Moment to recognize it. I’m jumping all around, reading odd articles, re-reading the 10-page outline and looking for the right way to approach this.
I feel like I am being asked to carve a huge statue with a bobby pin.
I have at least three more subplots to work through and slot into the main plot. I’m sure there will still be plot holes then, but I expect there will be fewer.
Should I copy this process the next time I plot? No!
Each time, the writing process creates it’s own maze and demands a different path to story. I’m just trusting that the process will eventually spit out a viable story. I know that I’ll have to decide something about the audience and tone, and spend a while on characters and their back story. I know that some personal issues are likely to complicate the timing of the writing. I know I’ll make multiple starts before I really get going.
Don’t follow my writing process. It’s messy and ugly. Besides—it wouldn’t work for you. You must find your own way through the maze of words to find the story that only you can tell.
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So, I have a general outline of my story but the writing still isn’t flowing. I realized that I need to break down major events into smaller sections, so I will know what to write.
I’ve gone through two stages of plotting or outlining, each one getting more specific. Here’s an example:
1. First, I stared with major plot points:
A volcano threatens to blow up, so Jake gets alien Rison technology to make it stop.
2. Second, I start to layout possible scenes.
At one point, he realizes he needs the alien technology, so he makes arrangements to get it. I wrote this: Later, at home, Jake contacts Mom, who gives him a contact on Rison who can ship him some technology and he orders what he needs to counter-attack the technology Cy used. Keeping up his volunteer work, Jake goes kayaking with Bobbie Fleming.
At this level, a scene may be summarized in a single sentence. However, it’s more helpful to break down both sentences further.
3. On the third pass, I’m looking to split up the action into several scenes, or at least flesh out the one scene a bit better.
Later, at home, Jake contacts Mom, who gives him a contact on Rison who can ship him some technology and he orders what he needs to counter-attack the technology Cy used. Conflict with Mom because he really wants to try swim team and she’s distracted b/c negotiations going so badly.
Keeping up his volunteer work, Jake goes kayaking with Bobbie Fleming. Bobbie Fleming, a harbor seal upsets Jake’s kayak. Of course, he has no problem with righting the canoe and getting back in and getting back to shore. But something nags at him, the waters feel more like home than the Gulf waters did. Something about being IN Puget Sound—there was something THERE. He had to find out what?
Plot is a way of examining story to see its underlying structure. Starting with a general idea and subdividing toward a specific plot often gives a writer the direction needed for the story to work.
Snowflakes and Phases
Need a more structured approach to something similar? The Snowflake Method, by Randy Ingermanson is a very structured approach that starts with a single sentence, and then splits that into two sentences, the two into four sentences, etc. until the story takes shape. It’s a structured outlining process with built-in steps for developing characters. Randy has a Ph.D. in theoretical physics, and his structured thinking shows in this method, which he’s turned into a software program and various books. If you need a very structured program, you may like the help you’ll get from the Snowflake Method.
Another option for approaching plot in a structured way is Lazette Gifford’s Phases system. You should read her original article about Phases here. She suggests that you write a numbered list of “phases” or short summaries of action. These can be scenes, transitions, thinking about what just happened and so on.
What I like here is the reference to the overall novel. Gifford suggests that you use MSWord’s auto-numbering feature to write phases for your novel.
For example, if you want to write 50,000 words, Gifford, in her free ebook, Nano for the New and Insane, breaks the 50,000 word length into phases:
- 60 Phases in the outline — 834 words per phase — 2 phase sections per day
- 120 Phases in the outline — 417 words
per phase — 4 phase sections per day
- 150 Phases in the outline — 334 words per
phase — 5 phase sections per day
- 300 Phases in the outline — 167 words
per phase — 10 phase sections per day
In other words, I can start with 60 phases and in that space, I should have a synopsis of the the beginning, middle, and end of the story. Or, if you’d rather, think of it as Acts 1, 2, and 3. Act 1 and 3 get about 15 phases each, which leaves 30 for Act 2.
That is comforting to me. I ONLY have to decide on 15 scenes (or discrete units) for Act 1. Act 1 looms HUGE for me, but 15 scenes sounds easy.
Phases allows me to do an easy, early check on the plot, too. Each phases needs moments of high arousal: excitement, inspiration, awe, anger, humor, action, disgust or outrage. Across the phases, I can easily check on how a subplot fits into the overall structure and how the subplot progresses.
Sixty phases is something that’s easy to see and understand. Once those are set, I may try to increase to 120 words, breaking down the plot into more specific actions.
If you’re doing NaNoWriMo, this also makes the task of 50,000 words in one day much easier.
Another thing I like about the Phase method is that it’s easy to see progress. I’m all about numbers and keeping score. On 9/5, I started with 23 phases; today, I’m up to 49 phases. My goal is 60 phases by the end of the week. Then I’ll look at it further to see if I want to go for 120 or if the 60 will be good enough to write from.
Writing Instruction Video
Sometimes beginning writers struggle to engage and maintain the reader's interest in their stories. Sometimes this happens because the protagonist solves plot conflicts too easily or too early in the story. Sometimes it happens because the opposite occurs, that it seems to take forever for the hero to solve the problem. This video demonstrates a writing technique that helps writers strike just the right balance in order to raise plot tension, thereby engaging and maintaining the reader's interest.
For teachers interested in using this video as part of creative writing lessons, the instruction video along with slide handouts that can be used to review the raising tension technique can be found at www.kenbakerbooks.com/raising-plot-tension.html
If I had a series about, well, series, I’d make a few key points. Namely, there’s my old yarn about writing your story as having “series potential” instead of REQUIRING a three- or five- or nine-book contract to execute your idea properly. We’re not in the Harry Potter boom years anymore, nor are we deep in a recession, but the market is still risk-averse. And signing up a debut writer for one unknown book, let alone three unknown books, represents a potential opportunity, sure, but also a big potential loss for the house. Basically, you’re in a much stronger position if you write one amazing manuscript with “series potential” (a few threads left open and the suggestion of future adventures that could be exploited) and then have the publisher asking you for a sequel, than you would be if you were the one needing multiple books to get your story told.
Now, how do you leave those threads open in a way that keeps your sequel options open while letting your manuscript seem whole enough to stand alone? Ah, now this is a good question. First, I would recommend that no more than three threads be left open. And they should be subplot threads with maybe one main plot thread, not all main plot threads. Your job is to resolve most of those by the end of Book 1. If you’re ending on a cliff-hanger or you’re leaving the main plot undecided, you’re not paying attention to everything the current market is telling you about sequels.
If, however, you haven’t entirely resolved one character’s problem, and your protagonist is still wondering about a certain element of the subplot, and the ending feels buttoned-up but you’ve hinted at the potential that everything could go to hell in a handbasket at some point in the future, then you’re doing it right. Future threat that may or may not come to pass is compelling enough to use as a launching-off point for a sequel. Present threat that’s not resolved slaps your reader in the face after they’ve spent four hours reading your story with a, “Yeah, you’ll have to buy the next installment and find out.”
Another thing I’ve noticed in a few manuscript is that seemingly random details are planted that stick out like a sore thumb. They have little bearing on the story that we’ve been reading so far. What gives? Invariably, the writer admits that they are “seeds being planted for the sequel.” This balances on the razor’s edge between “smart” and “silly.”
Let’s say that you are definitely planning a sequel if only someone would give you one, so you’re sneaking things into the manuscript that will only make sense once you get to execute the second (third, fourth, fifth, etc.) parts of the story you’re envisioning. That’s fine. To a point. But if the last third of your book starts to read like the prologue to Book 2, you’re in trouble with the reader. “Why are we spending so much time talking about something that has no precedent in the entire story I’ve just read?” they’ll wonder.
Balance is key to most things, in life and in fiction. Plant some details, leave some threads. But stick to your principles and your duties to the reader. Finish up the story you’ve invited them to read. That is first and foremost. Once you have a really solid resolution, then you can plant a few seeds. If you never get to do that sequel, they will be nonsense at worst, and not many people will notice. But if you’ve gone overboard and every second page hints at something that has no bearing on the present denouement, you’ve overstepped your bounds.
Writing Instruction Video
As I have worked with various beginning picture book authors, a common problem that a lot of them run into is difficulty in conveying what their story is really about or going off in to many directions. Creative writing instructors in school may run into a similar problem when they assign students to write short stories. This writing instruction video on picture book plot addresses this issue.
If you enjoyed or found this writing instruction video useful, please share it with others. Thanks.
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Plotting is probably the hardest thing I do. I can explain to you 29 different plot templates. And I often write about plotting a novel. Theory, I know. And I know that I can plot a story pretty well. It’s just HARD.
The problem is that there are a series of inter-connected scenes which build to a climax. The structure of events, though, needs to progress from an introduction of a character goal, dramatizing problems and obstacles to getting that goal, and then, finally some resolution, either a happy or sad ending.
OK. I can slot events into a novel structure from a structural viewpoint. For example, at the mid-point of a story, the hero’s journey, the Snowflake method and other plot paradigms might ask you to provide a bleak moment for the main character. There should be a mini-death: the death of hope–the character will never reach your goal; the death of a feeling of safety, and so on.
Knowing that is easy. The exact type of mini-death that is best for the current WIP, and figuring out how to dramatize that event (Show, Don’t Tell), is hard.
Storytellers Statue on Buena Vista Street in Disney California Adventure Park. One of the most amazing American storytellers that ever lived.
We are in the Business of Storytelling
What’s my answer to this straight-laced method of working? Storytelling.
Several articles recently reminded me that I am not just a writer, but a writer of stories. I am getting way to hung up on the theory and I am forgetting that i can just tell the story and have fun with it. Sure–I know that certain plot elements will make the story stronger, but those things are killing my joy in writing. So, I started telling my story.
Once upon a time, there were two water worlds. One world—Rison by name—was dying, the result of misguided scientists trying to act as God and control the natural forces of the planet. The inhabitants knew their time was limited and sought a refuge, a new home. The other water world—called Earth—caught the Risonian’s attention because the inhabitants only lived on land. Surely, they could share their water, the only place the creatures from the dying world would ask for.
Ah, but therein lies the problem. Sharing.
How do creatures put aside their own fears and self-interest and share? And, how can creatures do so willingly? When would the long-term benefits outweigh the short-term problems.
This could cause a war: if you don’t give us room on your planet, maybe we’ll just take over your planet.
The voice isn’t right. There’s not an opening scene. But right now, none of that matters because I don’t know the story. The first draft is to tell you the story; every draft after that is the question of how to craft the story in the most dramatic and compelling way for your readers. Right now, I’m just trying to tell a story. Crafting that into a novel will come later. Come. Listen to my story. . .
A side note: Did you know that if you have an iPhone, you can ask Siri to tell you a bedtime story. She’s told me so many bedtime stories, that she refuses to do it again–unless I beg.
If you’ve read any of Donald Maass’ work, you may be familiar with the idea of “bridging conflict.” It’s a small bit of conflict before the inciting incident (the event that launches the plot) comes along. I want to talk about it in a little bit more detail.
But first, some empathizing. Writers are bombarded with advice (guilty as charged here, I know I’ve definitely contributed to this). Jump right into the action. Don’t just right in. Let’s have the inciting incident within the first 10 pages. You’re rushing into it! We need a physical description of your protagonist on the first page. You’re focusing on details that don’t matter! Don’t tell, show! Don’t show, tell! AAAH! It’s crazymaking.
And I’m seeing the effects of this confusion on writers who are trying to check all the boxes that they may have read about on well-meaning blogs and in helpful books. One symptom of this that I want to discuss today is starting too big. Yes. This is going to be one of those bits of advice that is controversial, because it seems contradictory.
Everywhere you look, you see blogs telling you to start with action, start big, and get readers hooked right away. And there’s a lot of good to this advice. It’s a great kick in the rear for writers who like to begin with twenty pages of chit-chat and backstory before anything actually happens. This is telling upon telling, and it’s likely your readers aren’t sticking around until your first plot point.
So is the natural antidote to this an explosion on page two? That might seem like a good idea. And I’m seeing it more and more. But let me tell you why it’s a well-meaning thought gone awry. I liken this situation to a first date. You meet a guy or gal at a restaurant after chatting online for a bit. In this situation, you’re very much like a fiction reader. You liked the cute cover, you liked the interesting blurb, you want to give this book a shot and devote a few hours of your time to it. You start some small talk, and, if you’re on a date with one of those slow-starting manuscripts, your date is likely to talk for the entire duration of dinner, filling you in on their entire life up until this point. That’s undesirable, right? Well, let’s talk about the flip side. What if your date suddenly has a massive episode and flops to the floor, seizing, before the first round of drinks arrives?
How do you feel (other than, you know, horrified because you’re a nice person)? It’s bizarre to imagine. Why? Because it’s too big. It’s an event but it’s too high stakes, too dangerous, too sudden. You don’t even know the guy. If he were to be hauled off in an ambulance, you wouldn’t know who to call because you just met him!
In opening a novel, it’s all about balance. You don’t want to blab for three hours, but you also don’t want to open with “Hey guess what, there’s a prophecy and you’re the chosen one to save the world. So, you know, get to it, kiddo.” One is too small on plot, one is too big. That’s why smart people like Donald Maass advocate for “bridging conflict” to start. You want to start with some action to get tension brewing. Maybe a conversation with one’s crush, or anxiety about an upcoming test, or a sibling getting in trouble and asking for help. Let that be the focus of the first chapter. And if this conflict is related to the main plot, even better. But it’s not the main plot, not yet. Because we have to care about the character before we’ll follow them through a really rigorous plot full of stakes, ups, and downs. Just like we should probably get to know our unlucky date a bit more before we’ll hop into the ambulance and follow him to the hospital.
Because before we have established a connection using some smaller, more manageable conflict, the protagonist is just a kid. The reader hasn’t bonded yet. The intricate relationship between the fictional entity and the audience is still too new, too tenuous. But once we get to know the hero a little bit, we start to invest. Just like if the date goes horribly wrong near the end of the night, it’s not just some guy who’s having an attack, it’s Pete! Who grew up three blocks away from you! And he’s allergic to peanuts! And why, oh why, did you order pad thai for the table?! And you’re that much more likely to care, to feel, to buy in. Keep it manageable at first, then ramp up the stakes and really get rolling on your main conflict.
I’ve said often that the character is one of the main elements of a story that guides reader reaction/involvement. We look to characters to assess how we should be reacting, what we should believe, whether or not we should get invested. That’s what makes unreliable narrators so tricky–by the very nature of fiction, we, as readers, rely on the characters for a lot of our cues.
Over the last few months, I’ve been working with quite a number of fantasy/sci-fi clients in my editorial business. And one of the biggest things I’ve been thinking about is “Character buy-in.” Before we’re ready to believe that dinosaurs roam the earth again (or whatever), the character has to believe it. Only then will the reader go along with the story and feel safe suspending disbelief. (We show up to the page with a certain willingness, but before we fully believe it, it has to be successfully sold to the protagonist or POV character.)
Let’s run with the dinosaur example, and I’m going to tell you a few issues that I’ve noticed when character buy-in isn’t accomplished as thoughtfully as it can be. The first issue is vacillation or flip-flopping. The second issue I’ll call “characterization friction.”
Flip-flopping. Let’s say we have a character who sees some dinosaurs running around à la Jurassic Park. It’s natural to question one’s eyesight and/or sanity if this happens, and your character can certainly do both of those things. But once that’s out of the way, it’s harmful to reader engagement to keep questioning whether they’re dreaming or not. Let’s say we see the dinosaurs on page 10 and have an immediate “Nuh-uh, this isn’t really happening” reaction. By page 11, once the dinosaurs have destroyed the school, the protagonist starts to buy in. “Maybe this is happening.” By page 12, they’re back in denial again. “This is all a dream and I’m going to wake up every second.” For the reader, who is waiting for the green light to buy into the story, this will get old very quickly. As long as the character keeps flip-flopping as to whether they’re going to play along with the plot, the reader subconsciously holds off going 100% into the story. You can do this once or twice, but there needs to be a moment that I can point to on the page where the protagonist decides, “This is real and I’m going to function as if it’s real from now on.” After that, no “I must be dreaming” business. You’ve devised the plot, now sell it and run with it.
Another issue here is that you’ve created a character who may clash with the overall plot, especially when it comes to buying in. If your super hippie-dippy out-there character refuses to believe that auras are taking over people’s bodies (the first example to come to mind, and it’s super lame, my apologies!), that strikes me as less likely. If that same character jumps into it and says, “This is super weird but I’m going along for the ride,” then I’m more likely to join her, because your characterization matches how she’s clicking into the story.
If you have an overly analytical, scientifically minded kid who is thrust into the dinosaur plot, and they jump into the deep end right away, there’s friction there for me. This character might need more proof, they might need to establish their own version of the truth before they can suspend disbelief. Long story short, characterization should be consistent with buy-in style, and without vacillating for too long.
This seems pretty self-explanatory, but I’m seeing some dissonance here as of late. What’s the moment your protagonist buys in? Is it decisive? Is their willingness to believe your story fast or slow? Is there flip-flopping? This moment is very important, because it’s guiding your reader, too.
Bruce Coville is the award-winning and beloved author of over a hundred books for children and young adults.
Bruce says plot and character are inextricably linked. You can't talk about plot without talking about character. You can't talk about character without talking about plot.
Bruce is a plot writer.
The best story telling energy has a bridge between male and female storytelling energy.
A great ending is both a surprise and inevitable. It is not a coincidence.
You can use a coincidence to start a story. The further along the coincidence occurs, the less believable it is.
What is a good story? Three thing Bruce loves to find in a story and also tries to put them in his own work. He likes to call them: Ha, Wah, and Yikes.
- A belly laugh
- A tear
- A gasp of surprise
If all three are in a story, the reader is bound to be satisfied.
Story recipe: Take somebody you like and get them in trouble.
By asking questions and inventing scenes that answer those questions you write a story.
Stories happen when characters have to choose. Make your character make a tough choice. Your character's need will drive the action.
Plot happens when desire meets obstacle.
If you've never heard Bruce Coville speak and you get the opportunity, don't hesitate for a second.
Jill Santopolo is an executive editor at Philomel Books, and is the author of book series for YA and MG readers, including the Alec Flint series, Sparkle Spa, and Follow Your Heart.
As an editor, she works with Jane Yolen, Andrea Cremer, T.A. Barron, and more wonderful authors. Her list includes picture books, middle grade, and young adult novels.
Jill was worried that no one would show up, but she ran out of handouts and several people were sitting on Dan Santat's
She talked to us about strategies for developing plots, which she considers to be the backbone of stories. Her goal was for us to leave the room with five potential stories we can tackle in the future.
In addition to sharing several plot types with us, she walked us through questions designed to help us build the scaffolding of our stories.
Among the plot types she described:
- The quest: Rick Riordan's THE LIGHTNING THIEF is a great example of this. Percy is at home, lacking an understanding of his life and relationship with his father. A force makes him act in a new way. A motivating incident occurs. And he meets buddies (there are always buddies). The middle makes things interesting; the end provides the answer to the lack.
- The pursuit: Marie Lu's LEGEND. She establishes the good guy and the bad guy, the stakes of the pursuit, and the incident that sets it in motion. Twists, turns, and reversals follow. In the end, she sets someone free (though catching him could also be the resolution).
- The underdog plot: The story starts in a conflict-ripe world. A catalyst pits rivals against each other. There is a power struggle. The antagonists gain upper hand. In the middle: two sides are equal in power. Then come more power shifts. Then the underdog is empowered. In the end, there's a confrontation and the underdog wins.
It was an incredibly useful session, with lots of great insight about how we can frame the shape of the stories we're working on using a simple series of questions. Jill's website
The ALIENS have landed!
"amusing. . .engaging, accessible," says Publisher's Weekly
I am writing a science-fiction trilogy and I’d like it to have general appeal to kids and teens. So, recently, I went to see the new Transformers 4: Age of Extinction to see what I could learn. Here’s one of the official movie trailers.
If you can’t see this video, click here.
Transformer’s Major Plot Points
SPOILER ALERT: I analyze the plot of this movie, so if you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want to know what happens, stop reading!
Who? Yeager family POV
When? Five years after Chicago was destroyed in the Transformer battles.
Theme: Optimus Prime: How many more of my kind must be sacrificed for humans.
- Inciting incident: Inventor-wannabe Cade Yeager and his friend, Lucas, buy a junk truck that turns out to be Optimus Prime.
Cade’s promise to his long-lost wife: I will make sure our daughter graduates from high school; graduation is only a week away, so it seems like a slam-dunk. (The rules have changed: we are all targets now.)
- Plot Point 1: The evil guys—the Cemetary Wind macho dudes—come to collect Optimus Prime (to take advantage of the rare metal that transformers are made of) and threaten Yeager’s daughter, Tessa—the Yeagers all escape with the help of Tessa’s boyfriend, Shane (though Lucas is sacrificed to show the evil that chases them).
- First half of Act 2: Rescue Transformer named Brains from the KSI and the new warrior Transformer, Galvatron is activated to chase them.
- Midpoint: Galvatron and Optimus Prime battle. When Optimus Prime is captured, Tessa is also caught and winds up trapped in the alien spaceship owned by Lockdown, an alien bounty hunter. Yeager and Shane must rescue Tessa.
- Second half of Act 2: Optimus Prime and Tessa are rescued by Autobots, Yeager and Shane. Alien bounty hunter, Lockdown launches into deep space believing he has Optimus Prime on board.
- Plot Point 2: Optimus Prime reveals that Galvatron is really a re-birth of the evil Megatron, who will try to activate the Seed to destroy Earth. They must stop him. The bounty hunter transformer, Lockdown, (To Optimus Prime: You think you were born? You were built and they want you back.) gives KSI a “seed,” which they think will help them make more of the prized metal, but will really destroy Earth.
- Act 3. Optimus Prime releases the Dinobots (T-Rex Transformer robots) and attacks Galvatron and win (though Hong Kong, this time, is destroyed). Lockdown returns to claim Optimus Prime.
- Climax: Cade, Tessa and Shane take risks to help Optimus (thus proving the story’s theme, that humans can rise to the occasion), who is hurt, but ultimately defeats Lockdown.
Promise kept: Tessa has lived to attend her high school graduation, and has a new-found respect for her Dad’s tinkering ways.
Yeager: It’s not who we are, but who we can be.
There are several main subplots and you could analyze the story from one of the other ones. Here, I’ve concentrated on Cade/Tessa as the main plot. If you want to argue that this is Optimus Prime’s story, I could go for that; however, I think readers/movie fans are more likely to identify with the human characters.
In any case, my point is to learn something.
Action/Adventure or a Quieter Story
Looking at this plot analysis, I realize immediately that I’m not putting enough at stake early enough in the story. My Plot Point I involves the character making a decision. It’s not an action scene where the antagonists arrive to threaten a girl and to recapture a rogue transformer.
Of course–different stories have different needs. I describe quiet stories as having a pastel palette and there is indeed a place for stories like this. Transformer’s palette, however, is bold.
My question to answer: What sort of physical action/adventure palette do I want? Is my story a quiet story, or does it fall farther along the spectrum toward an action/adventure story?
Glue for Act 2
The dreaded sagging middle is always a problem for me. In Transformers, the whole of Act 2 is about Rescue: rescue Brains from the KSI; rescue Optimus Prime and Tessa from Lockdown’s space ship. Notice that the Midpoint twists the story in a tangent direction when Tessa is captured and taken to the alien space ship. Of course, we are worried about Optimus Prime! But he’s a strong and able transformer who is likely to fight his way free at some point. Tessa, however, is a high school senior and it’s not fair that she is caught up in this conflict. It’s a nice way to keep the action going, to up the stakes and to play on the audience’s emotions.
My Act 2 hangs together well, and has a nice Midpoint twist. The same question lingers, though. Do I need/want more action/adventure?
The Last Lap: Pumping up Act 3
We transition into Act 3 with a revelation in Plot Point 3 that Galvatron = Megatron. With such an evil abroad, no one can relax. They MUST take the battle to him. And what a battle! Aliens v. aliens. Over Hong Kong! Dinobots, or a great combination of t-Rex with transformers! What’s not to like? We get lots of exclamation points!!!!
This is indeed a movie built on action sequences and it’s almost non-stop in Act 3.
No, I don’t want my story to be THAT action/adventure oriented. I’ll back off the Transformer’s palette a couple steps.
However, there are a couple nice moments. In the Hero’s Journey, there is often a death scene, followed by a resurrection scene. It’s the death of the hopes of the protagonist, and a renewal of the hope. Optimus Prime is impaled and we think he is dying. One of the story’s themes is that humans have potential. It’s crucial here that Cade, Tessa and Shane work as a team to help Optimus: they remove the “spear,” and help him to defeat the evil Lockdown.
My Act 3 has action, a chase, and some nice possibilities for physical action. As I write it, I must remember to include scenes that highlight the theme in an organic way. If I can find a reasonable Death/Resurrection moment, so much the better.
Thanks for the help, Optimus Prime
Studying popular movies like this can be one way to reevaluate your plot. I’m still early in the plotting process, so this is a perfect time to do this. It doesn’t solve my problems: but it forces me to ask the right questions. And at this stage, that’s what I need: questions that force me to think deeper about my story, the characters, and the plot.
The ALIENS have landed!
"amusing. . .engaging, accessible," says Publisher's Weekly
In your story or novel, something must go wrong.
Without conflict, there is no story. As you develop a plot, it’s helpful to think about what is the worst thing that could happen and then figure out if you can make that even worse?
The absolute worst thing–the thing your character fears most of all–MUST happen in the climax of the story. That’s good plotting and storytelling. Building up to that point, you should have a series of conflicts that deepen, that reach out into every aspect of your character’s life, that affects friends, family, or even the survival of the planet or the human species. The series should have a logical progression from bad to worse to worst.
Up the stakes. On way to escalate the conflict is to up the stakes by answering the “So-What?” question. This bad thing is going to happen. So what? Who cares? Who will it affect? How badly will it affect them? When the answer is that the worst thing will affect the most people, you have the stakes well in hand.
Up the emotions. However, even for stories with the fate of the world in the balance are boring if the reader doesn’t care. This means you must provide a wide range of emotions for your characters from the most ardent love to the deepest sorrow. How can I make my character laugh? What would wrench his/her heart? What is the deepest emotion possible in your story? Create that emotional impact. Then take it one level deeper.
Sacrifice. Characters who stupidly volunteer for kitchen duty aren’t sympathetic; they are stupid. However, a reluctant hero who only volunteers to save a loved one–that creates empathy. In HUNGER GAMES, Katniss volunteers to join the Hunger Games so that her younger sister won’t have to. This willingness to sacrifice herself for a loved one elevates here–and the ensuing conflict to new heights.
Jeopardy. When a character is in jeopardy–danger is looming and drawing nearer by the second–readers are on the edge of their seats. Violence, just for the sake of violence, does little to create the emotions needed. Instead, a character must be in danger and must stay in danger for a long time. When I first watched the movie, ALIEN, my stomach hurt because I was so scared. That’s jeopardy. The aliens were coming–and the movie drew out that suspense and jeopardy forever!
This marine is in jeopardy!
The ALIENS have landed!
"amusing. . .engaging, accessible," says Publisher's Weekly
To write a series of books, my biggest tip is to plan ahead. You may get by with writing one book on the fly—plenty of people do that. But for a series to hang together, to have cohesion and coherence, planning is essential. Here are three decisions you should make early in the planning process.
Decision #1: What type of series will you write?
Strategies for a series vary widely. For THE HUNGER GAMES, the story is really one large story broken down into several books. Or, to say it another way, there is a narrative arc that spans the whole series. Yes, each book has a narrative arc and ends on a satisfying note; however, we read the next book because we want to know what happens in the overall series arc. Jim Butcher’s ALERA CODEX is another series with an overall series arc; it was fun to hang out in this world for a long time.
On the other hand, series such as Agatha Christie mysteries (in fact, many mystery series fall into this category) are stand-alone books. What continues from one book to the next is the characters, the setting and milieu, and the general voice and tone of the stories. Once a reader gets to know a character, s/he wants to spend more time with that character. These readers just want to hang out with a friend, your character. A sub-category is the series of standalone books that adds a final chapter to set up the next book in the series and leaves you with a cliff-hanger.
I distinctly remember when I first read Edgar Rice Burrough’s John Carter series about Mars. Each story is a standalone novel, but he hooked me hard. I started reading at noon on a Saturday and found myself hotfooting it to the bookstore at 4:30 pm because they closed at 5 pm and I had to have the second book to read immediately.
Rarer is the series that crosses genres. This type series begins with one genre, but moves into other genres as the lives of the characters progress. For example, a romance might continue with a mystery for the second book. And the third might move into a supernatural genre. These are rarer because one reason a reader sticks with a series is that they know what they are getting. It will be this type of a story, told in this sort of way and will involve these characters.
On the other hand, some series unabashedly cross genres but they do it for every book. Rick Riordian’s Percy Jackson series is a combination of mythology and action/thriller with a dose of mystery.
Notice that this decision centers on the plot of the stories in the series. Will you plot each separately, or will there be an overall plot?
Decision #2: Characters
Besides plot, you should make decisions about characters, and as with plot, you have choices. One choice is an ensemble cast that will carry over from book to book. Here, you have Percy Jackson, his friends and his family as constants. Each book introduces new characters, of course, but there is a core that stays the same.
Another option is to have just one character remain the same. Agatha Christie had Hercule Poirot traveling around and the only constant was the gumshoe and his skills.
Whether you choose one character or an ensemble, you can add or subtract as you go along. But the characters must be integral to the story’s plot.
In developing series characters, think about cohesion and coherence.
Cohesion: Elements of the story stick together, giving cohesion. For example, if one alien in the family can use telekinesis (moving objects with your mind), then that possibility should exist for all members of the family. Of course, some might not have the power, or it may develop slowly for a child, but the possibility should exist.
Coherence: Elements of a story are consistent from book to book. If Kell’s eyes are silvery in book one, they are silvery in books two, three and four.
Decision #3: How long do you want the series to continue?
Many easy readers series go on forever. Think of THE BERENSTAIN BEARS, who continue their adventures and lives throughout multiple volumes. For this type series, the story possibilities are endless. Or think of a TV series, where the situation set up is rich with possibilities. I Love Lucy ran for years and years on the premise of a slightly crazy wife of a musician.
On the other hand, some series have a finite life span. For stories with a narrative arc that spans a series, the life span is built into the plot. However even for these, there can be spin-offs into related series. Think of Percy Jackson and the Olympians series and Heroes of Olympia series. The A to Z Mysteries by Ron Roy and John Gurney had a built-in limit of 26 books.
The Buddy Files Series, Book 1, by Dori Hillestad Butler
Sometimes, the length of a series depends on the publisher and the early success of the series titles. When Dori Hillestad Butler’s first book in The Buddy Files series, THE CASE OF THE LOST BOY
, won the 2011 Edgar Award for the best juvenile mystery of the year, the publisher contracted for more.
For Sara Pennypacker, author of the CLEMENTINE series of short chapter books, the answer of series length depended on something else. In a presentation about writing, she said that she had to ask herself what she wanted to say to third graders. She came up with eight things. Pennypacker focused on the themes of each book (friendship, telling the truth, etc) and found that eight was the natural stopping place for her. Of course, she reserves the right to many more, if other themes present themselves. But she deliberately stepped away from doing a Christmas book, a Halloween book, a 4th of July book, a fall book, a back-to-school book and so on and so forth.
My books, THE ALIENS, INC. SERIES, just released in August, 2014, is about an alien family that is shipwrecked on Earth and must figure out how to make a living. It’s been interesting developing these stories and thinking about these three issues.
They accidentally fall into party planning and each book features a different type of party or event put on by Aliens, Inc, the family’s company. KELL, THE ALIEN, the lead-off story, is about a birthday party and of course, it is an alien party. Can the aliens pull off an alien party? The second is about a Friends of Police parade, entitled, KELL AND THE HORSE APPLE PARADE. Book 3, KELL AND THE GIANTS, explored the world of tall and how to keep a giant secret.
Can you tell just from the description some of the decisions I made? There isn’t an overall series arc. Rather, the characters, setting and milieu are set up and there could be endless stories in the series. However, like Butler’s dog mystery series, I am starting with four books and their success will determine future titles. There is a main character who is surrounded by friends and family and, of course, a villainess. These characters weave through the stories and provide cohesion and coherence.
Plan ahead and your series will be stronger. For those who accidentally fall into a series, it will be harder to sustain coherence. You may realize in book three that it sure would be nice if your character had to wear glasses. Yes, you can add it—but you run the danger of it being obviously done for the story itself. So, in my series, early readers have questioned things like the art teacher who is from Australia.
They ask, “Does it matter that she is from Australia?”
“Not yet,” I answer. I just know that I have seeded these early manuscripts with possibilities. If the series goes to books 5-8, I will have hooks to draw upon. So, while I haven’t plotted those books, I have still allowed room for them.
Resource: Writing the Fiction Series: The Complete Guide for Novels and Novellas by Karen S. Wiesner (Writer’s Digest Books)
Want to write a series? What is your favorite series and how will your stories compare?
We have reached the hot days of summer in Texas. I've been trekking off and on to Shakespeare at Winedale for over 30 years. You might be surprised to find that every time I write a book I think about the Bard's plays long and hard. I lean toward his comedies. I think about the plots. I read passages. I watch and read the plays. It helps me find my novel. It's a thing for me.
Currently I'm thinking about the next book I'm going to write. Long before I write a book, I spend time thinking about it. Often times a Shakespearean play pokes at me, and that is true right now. The play that is in my head is Much Ado About Nothing. I'm turning its plot over and over. This play is serving as the spirit plot guide for my new book.
These are the kinds of thoughts I have as my spirit plot guide leads me: I love the the Benedick/Beatrice relationship. I love the idea of two characters in a "merry war", who become lovers. I love they both have strong opinions about serious relationships. I like that they are both damaged. I love that their friends conspire to bring them together. Nice. I like that Benedick is asked to defend Beatrice's cousin Hero's honor. This act reveals depth to his love. I turn the plot points of the play and I ask myself, can I use any of this. Of course, I can and will.
The spirit plot guide causes me to question the path too. The whole mistaking Hero for a skank whore is good, but the when she falls over pretend dead, it's just, you know, fake. I also don't like that it's Beatrice's best friend and cousin who is called a skank whore. It seems like it would be better if Beatrice would be called a skank whore falsely. That's just my feeling about it. I think that it would be cool if Benedick were Beatrice's most staunch supporter through a direct attack on her honor. I let keep letting the ideas roll around in my head.
Once I have a slew of plot points, ideas, etc. I start the translation process and will eventually write a random lists of ideas. I'll sift through these and pick the best ones. I will build a plot for my new book from there. So here I am all wrapped up in a play from 1623 -- a well-worn path is influencing a new one. I hope that you seek spirit plot guides for your work. I believe your work will thank me.
More lessons from Shakespeare next week.
Here is the doodle for the week: Birds.
A quote for your pocket:
....for man is a giddy thing, and this is my conclusion.William Shakespeare.
Now PLUMB CRAZY news: I have an interview on KBTX Brazos Valley Magazine that you may wish to check out. I chat with host Sharon Colson about digital pubbing and Plumb Crazy. July 5 (6PM) & 6(5PM). http://ow.ly/yfk8c
There is also the ebook giveaway that is still running for a couple of more days: Go here.
The ebook version of PLUMB CRAZY
from Swoon Romance but will be out as paperback soon. I ask you to consider supporting my work -- buy a copy, share the news, request the book at your library, ask me to blog for you. I'm open. Thank you.
To buy a copy: Here for a copy from Amazon US. Here is Amazon UK. Here is Amazon Australia
. Here is Amazon Canada. Try here for a copy for your B&N Nook
Also consider participating in my upcoming book tour. Here is the link.
Make your book a page turner by taking advantage of the moment in your characters' lives when the world acts in a way that surprises them.
Where I live, the tide determines whether I walk on the beach with sand between my toes or high atop cliffs following the shoreline. At high water, the tide builds to 6 feet with waves crashing against the cliffs and the beach under water. At low water or low tide, waves ebb all the way back to zero feet, exposing the sand and revealing tide pools in a rock plate that juts out into the bay.
The waves ebb and flow in much the same way every day. Two low tides in a 24 hour period. Two high tides. Waves come in an hour later today than they did yesterday. Waves go out. The parameters remain the same. The difference is the interaction or relationship between our moon, sun and the planets we travel with through space.
You can physically feel the difference in the energy created at low tide compared to high water. As the tide builds and waves begin crashing against the cliffs, the energy all along East Cliff builds right along with it. At low water, the energy wanes as waves gently lap and then altogether disappear.
Low tide holds the same sort of energy as do scenes of reflection before a story begins and then again after a trauma or a crisis, a major turning point -- more introspective, contemplative scenes without much external conflict and where the protagonist is not feeling threatened = below the line scenes.
High tide is like high action, movement, noise, chaos in the middle of a story where anything and everything can happen and does and then again in the build-up to the climax -- all above the line scenes on the Plot Planner. (For examples of working Plot Planners and The Plot Whisperer Workbook: Step-by-Step Exercises to Help You Create Compelling Stories has all the planners and trackers you need -- one workbook per story.)
Pull Readers in Early
Too often beginning writers delay the introduction of their story’s plot or conflict. Delaying that introduction can cause readers to quickly lose interest and not bother reading any further. A great picture book pulls the reader quickly into the story by introducing early on the problem faced by the main character – typically on the first spread and preferably on the very first line.
I WANT MY HAT BACK by Jon Klassen is a perfect example of this. In the very first sentence we learn the bear’s problem. His hat is gone. The second sentence builds on the conflict telling us the bear wants it back. This immediate introduction to the story’s plot pulls readers in quickly and has them turning page after page until they know how the problem ultimately gets resolved.
Of course, even worse than not introducing the conflict of the story early, is not introducing it at all. A great picture book needs an engaging plot and it needs to be introduced as early as possible.
Time is running out to register for the Picture Book writing workshop I'll be teaching at the WIFYR conference June 16-20
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Today I'm pleased to share a Wednesday Writing Workout contributed by the inspiring and talented author Margo L. Dill.
I first met Margo some years ago at an SCBWI-Illinois writing conference. I believe she'd already sold her first novel, the middle-grade historical Finding My Place: One Girl's Strength at Vicksburg
(White Mane Kids), but it hadn't been published yet. With today's post, we join Margo's blog tour celebrating the release of her second novel, Caught Between Two Curses
(Rocking Horse Publishing), a YA light paranormal romance novel about the Curse of the Billy Goat on the Chicago Cubs. Margo has two more books under contract--both picture books--one with High Hill Press and the other with Guardian Angel Publishing. Besides being a children's author, she is also a freelance editor with Editor 911: Your Projects Are My Emergency!
and she is part of the WOW! Women On Writing
e-zine's staff. There, she works as an editor, blogger, instructor, and social media manager. When she's not writing, editing, or teaching online, Margo loves to spend time with her husband, stepson, daughter, and crazy Boxer dog, Chester, in St. Louis, Missouri. You can learn more at Margo's website
Here's a summary of Caught Between Two Curses
Seventeen-year-old Julie Nigelson is cursed. So is her entire family. And it’s not just any-old-regular curse, either—it’s strangely connected to the famous “Curse of the Billy Goat” on the Chicago Cubs. Julie must figure out this mystery while her uncle lies in a coma and her entire love life is in ruins: her boyfriend Gus is pressuring her to have sex, while her best friend Matt is growing more attractive to her all the time. Somehow, Julie must figure out how to save her uncle, her family’s future, and her own love life—and time is running out!
As a die-hard Cubs fan, I'm really looking forward to reading Margo's new book. (I'm hoping the main character solves not only her problem, but the Cubs' curse too!)
And now, here's Margo's three-part Wednesday Writing Workout.Wednesday Writing Workout: Putting the Pieces Together
Writing a novel is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle with my daughter. I’ve been teaching her to do the edge pieces first and then fill in the middle. This reminds me of writing a novel because writers usually start with an idea, maybe a plot or an interesting character with a problem—in other words, our border. We build our foundation for a story by piecing together our ideas. But sometimes, that beginning border, even with a few pieces filled in the middle, is not finished or even sturdy. Here are exercises I use with my WOW! Women On Writing
novel students to add more pieces to their puzzle and come out with a strong, final product—a finished, publishable novel! (These can also be used with short stories and picture books.)
1. Create characters with internal and external problems.
The characters I remember best are the ones that struggled with both internal and external problems. What’s the problem your character has that he must overcome in the novel? Trying to raise money for a new bike? Figuring out how to deal with a sibling? Tired of moving around and always being the new kid at school? These are all external problems, and the ones that our plots are built on.
But your character also needs an internal problem! In Caught Between Two Curses
, Julie has to break two curses; but while she does this, she also struggles with her self-esteem and confidence as well as what love means. These are her internal struggles. While she rushes around to save her uncle, the events in the novel help her grow and work through her internal problems.
Just ask yourself these four questions either before you write your novel or even during revisions:
a. What is your main character’s internal struggle?
b. How does he or she solve it?
c. What is the external problem in the novel that affects the main character?
d. How does he or she solve it?
2. Brainstorm problems.
If you find yourself with a strong border for your novel—an exciting beginning and an ending that will leave readers talking for years, but you are stuck in the muddy middle, make a list of 10 problems that a person can have that’s the same age as your main character and in the same time period. For example, my novel’s main character is 17, lives in Chicago in present day. Problems she can have are: pressure to have sex, temptation to do drugs, failing classes, negative body image, disloyal friends, etc.
Once you have this list, are there any of these problems that you could turn into a subplot for either your main character or a minor character or sidekick? Subplots can often dry up the muddy middle and keep readers hiking to the end.
3. "Then what?"
The last exercise asks a simple question, “Then what?” Each time you answer, make the problem or situation worse for your main character. You don’t actually have to use all of these horrible situations in your book, but they may help you push your main character a little harder. Here’s an example:
Julie learns a curse is on her family.
The curse makes her uncle fall in a coma.
Julie’s grandma says her uncle will die before he is 35 if the curse isn’t broken.
He is 35 in less than 5 months.
She has no idea what to do to break the curse.
Using these writing exercises while you are piecing together your novel will give you a complete story in no time!
This post discusses a “technique” that I often catch in manuscripts. Here I’ll attempt to describe it and guess at what’s behind this phenomenon. Simply put, it’s stalling.
As savvy writers, you already know that you need to give your character an objective (something to shoot for over the course of the story) and a motivation (a personal and relatable reason for doing so). If you’ve done this, you are well on your way to having the two main tools of character and plot installed in your story already. Bravo!
But sometimes a strange thing happens. You have the proverbial “To Do” list, but all sorts of smaller errands end up worming their way in place of the main action, which should be pursuing that objective. First, they can’t get the Key until they go talk to Person X, and Person X isn’t home, so they have to rough up Person Y for details on Person X’s whereabouts, and when they finally get to Person X, they’re not talking…all for the Key, which turns out to be a very small part of the overall objective.
By giving your character objective and motivation in the first place, whether you know it or not, you’re promising to the reader, “Hey, you get to watch this protagonist do this stuff in the interest of pursuing his ultimate goal.” Every time we deviate from that, it better be for a good reason. In the above example about Keys and Person Xs, you should be able to see how a deviation can spin out of control into its own mini plotline. But if we zoom back out and look at the grand scheme of things, the Key ends up useless and we never see Person X again.
So is this a valuable component of your plot or is it stalling where you really should be working toward the main objective? The more tedious the digression, the more the reader feels further from the “To Do” list, and the more they may feel jerked around. In an, “I thought this was going to be a story about dragons but now I feel like I’m picking up the protagonist’s dry cleaning for 50 pages” sort of way.
Why does this happen? Writers sometimes have a hard time seeing the big picture of their story. Or they just love a scene or character (maybe even Person X) so much that they don’t want to do the cutting that honestly could be done.
Or the writer is terrified of the Muddy Middle phenomenon where the midsection of the story seems like it’s unraveling or rambling without direction. So they insert a lot of “stuff” into the middle in the hopes that this satisfies the reader. “What do you mean, I have a Muddy Middle?” they ask. “Look at all this STUFF that’s happening!”
But stuff isn’t the same as action which furthers the plot. That’s another way of saying action that brings the character either closer or further away from their objective, while impacting that “To Do” list along the way. This is the bull’s eye. And when we don’t see the bull’s eye any more, because we’ve taken a detour somewhere to pick up some dry cleaning, your stakes will likely dip and your pacing is going to be affected.
If you’re struggling with a plot that stalls out, set your protagonist out in the pursuit of the objective and don’t waver from this path for too long with things that don’t DIRECTLY impact the outcome.
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Ironically, I recycled one of my old comics from 2006 and revamped the art for the above. :-)