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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: Plot, Most Recent at Top [Help]
Results 1 - 25 of 235
1. How to Write a Book Series: 3 Crucial Decisions


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

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.

9781629440217-Perfect-PB-CS.inddMy 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?

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2. Writing Lessons from Shakespeare: Spirit Plot Guide

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 AustraliaHere 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. 


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3. The Gap

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. 

http://ingridsnotes.wordpress.com/2014/05/21/the-gap-how-to-make-your-story-a-page-turner/

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4. Plotting

Michael Crichton used 3x5 index cards when plotting out his stories. 

http://writershelpingwriters.net/2014/05/michael-crichtons-method-plotting-story/

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5. Comic: International Writer Crisis

Ironically, I recycled one of my old comics from 2006 and revamped the art for the above. :-)

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6. Stalling Out

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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7. Wednesday Writing Workout: Putting Together the Pieces of Your Story


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.
     Then what?

     The curse makes her uncle fall in a coma.
     Then what?

     Julie’s grandma says her uncle will die before he is 35 if the curse isn’t broken.
     Then what?

     He is 35 in less than 5 months.
     Then what?

     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! 

Thanks, Margo, for this terrific Wednesday Writing Workout. Congratulations on your new novel. I look forward to reading it.

Readers, do let us know if you try these exercises. If you'd like to read about where Margo gets her inspiration, check out this blog post. And if you haven't already done so, be sure to enter our current giveaway for a chance to win The Poem That Will Not End: Fun with Poetic Forms and Voices (Two Lions). See April's interview with the author, Joan Bransfield Graham, for complete details.

Happy writing!
Carmela

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8. Plot Issues

Don't force them, but rather use them as an opportunity. 

http://scotteagan.blogspot.com/2014/05/dont-force-plot-issues-look-for.html

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9. What Makes a Great Picture Book - Tip 4

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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10. The Many Layers of Structure and Design

layers_exampleI’ve spent the last two months talking all about classical design, alternative structures and plots, and designing principles! Hopefully you’ve seen that there are innumerable design possibilities at your fingertips. But as I walked us through this series, I’m sure a few of you read my posts and thought to yourself: Doesn’t that story fit into multiple types of structure? For example, as I explained that The Godfather uses a fairy-tale structure, you might have been thinking: But Ingrid, it also uses the mountain structure!

To which I’d say: You’re right!

Which brings me to my final point in this series: design and structure are layered. You won’t necessarily pick on design concept and be done.

In the film Memento, the designing principle uses a backwards structure to reflect short term memory. But it also has a goal-oriented plot and a mountain structure. Only the major structural beats are flipped.  If the story was told forward, what would be considered the inciting incident becomes the climax when it’s told backwards. Additionally, because the story revisits events of the past, again and again, you could also consider this movie to have a spiral structure.

Helen Frost’s novel Keesha’s House is also layered.  It’s told with eight protagonists as a portrait of a community and each chapter uses a wheel structure to unify the characters through a theme. But the structure of the whole novel still uses a mountain escalation as each chapter introduces new obstacles. It’s also a goal-oriented plot: to find a safe place to live.

Layered Design Slide

Stories are layered. And you may find, like me, that the story you’re trying to tell doesn’t fit easily into a three act structure or the hero’s journey. Or maybe it does. And it’s okay if it does. Just make sure that’s a choice you’ve made because it’s right for your story.

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman said in a lecture to the British Film Academy that “there’s no template for a screenplay, or there shouldn’t be. There are at least as many screenplay possibilities as there are people who write them.  Don’t let anyone tell you what a story is, what it needs to include or what form it must take.”

Only you know how to tell your story and only you know how to design it.

Thanks for reading this series!


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11. The Many Layers of Structure and Design

layers_exampleI’ve spent the last two months talking all about classical design, alternative structures and plots, and designing principles! Hopefully you’ve seen that there are innumerable design possibilities at your fingertips. But as I walked us through this series, I’m sure a few of you read my posts and thought to yourself: Doesn’t that story fit into multiple types of structure? For example, as I explained that The Godfather uses a fairy-tale structure, you might have been thinking: But Ingrid, it also uses the mountain structure!

To which I’d say: You’re right!

Which brings me to my final point in this series: design and structure are layered. You won’t necessarily pick on design concept and be done.

In the film Memento, the designing principle uses a backwards structure to reflect short term memory. But it also has a goal-oriented plot and a mountain structure. Only the major structural beats are flipped.  If the story was told forward, what would be considered the inciting incident becomes the climax when it’s told backwards. Additionally, because the story revisits events of the past, again and again, you could also consider this movie to have a spiral structure.

Helen Frost’s novel Keesha’s House is also layered.  It’s told with eight protagonists as a portrait of a community and each chapter uses a wheel structure to unify the characters through a theme. But the structure of the whole novel still uses a mountain escalation as each chapter introduces new obstacles. It’s also a goal-oriented plot: to find a safe place to live.

Layered Design Slide

Stories are layered. And you may find, like me, that the story you’re trying to tell doesn’t fit easily into a three act structure or the hero’s journey. Or maybe it does. And it’s okay if it does. Just make sure that’s a choice you’ve made because it’s right for your story.

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman said in a lecture to the British Film Academy that “there’s no template for a screenplay, or there shouldn’t be. There are at least as many screenplay possibilities as there are people who write them.  Don’t let anyone tell you what a story is, what it needs to include or what form it must take.”

Only you know how to tell your story and only you know how to design it.

Thanks for reading this series!


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12. Excitement: Starting a New Novel


Goodreads Book Giveaway

Start Your Novel by Darcy Pattison

Start Your Novel

by Darcy Pattison

Giveaway ends October 01, 2013.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter to win

There’s an excitement in the air! I’ve started a new novel project.
Here’s what I don’t want to happen:

I don’t want the excitement for this project to get bogged down and dribble away. It happens too easily, as life issues take over, as problems arise with the project, or just as the work drags on.

I don’t want to talk bad about this project to anyone. Sometimes, I fall into the habit of complaining. This chapter or that character just aren’t cooperating! Why is this so hard? ARGH! I hate this project because it’s not going like I want. Nope. None of that this time. I love this project and I’m excited about it. I think my readers will love it, too. Hurrah! It’s such a joy to be working on such a great project.

I don’t want this project to drag on forever. I have scheduled two months to get a first draft done and I’m working hard on keeping to that schedule.

Here’s things I want to happen:
Joy. Excitement. Productivity.

Scheduling the Project

When faced with a big project, how do you break it down into manageable pieces?
I’ve already gone through the process of deciding what kind of novel this will be. Now, I just need to write it.

Here are the steps I plan to follow:
One page synopsis. I’ve written a one-page summary of the story, knowing full well that it would need to be fleshed out when the time comes. Now that the time is here, it’s easy to see where I want the story to go. There are huge gaps in the story, of course, but the one-page synopsis grounds the story in some particular issues.

Subplots to Detailed Plot.I am taking a day to flesh out some of the subplots. For example, one subplot will involve kids planning a parade. I spent today researching fun ideas to add to the parade and parade planning. Did you know that some parades these days require horses to wear diapers? It’s true. Horse poop on city streets–though once the norm–is now a no-no. There are special bags which are strapped to horses to catch their “meadow muffins.” (Now, see, isn’t that great language to use in a book? Meadow muffins. Horse apples.) Real life can be stranger than fiction: horse diapers.

I’ll take a day to research the other subplots and layout some ideas for developing the plot lines. Then, I’ll spend a day picking and choosing scenes to include and weaving them into the main plot line to create a detailed plot. That breaks the task of plotting into steps that I can manage. By approaching it from the subplot angle, I am free to make leaps and make errors: it doesn’t matter, it’s just a subplot. But in the end, I am sure that I’ll find some unique things to add to this story to make it more fun and funny.

WARNING: THIS 24-SECOND VIDEO SHOWS A HORSE POOPING. Your kids will probably love it!

If you can’t see this video, click here.

Characterization and character continuity. With a detailed plot in hand, I’ll double check the characterization needed. Because this is a second book in a series, much of the characterization is set up and I’ll need to continue it on, create an emotional arc for this book and make sure there is continuity. The first step will be the emotional arc for the character. I’ll need to make sure the external plot echoes the internal arc. This means a detailed summary of the story that includes the plot, subplots and character issues.

Revise. With a very long, detailed synopsis of the story, I’ll look for holes in logic, characterization and plot.

Write. Finally, I’ll use the synopsis to create a full draft–by Halloween.

This is a slightly different process for me, with more upfront planning. I’d like the full synopsis to be about 1/3 of the finished book, which will be enough detail to help me get the whole story done.

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13. Trust the Writing Process: Of Anteaters and Spider Webs


Goodreads Book Giveaway

Start Your Novel by Darcy Pattison

Start Your Novel

by Darcy Pattison

Giveaway ends October 01, 2013.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter to win

I am working on a first draft of a story and am reminded of a couple things.

First, you must write the story. You can plan all you want, but the story comes alive in the actual writing. A small thing this week: my main character is afraid of all bugs. That includes insects and anthropods (spiders)–anything that crawls or flies. So, there they are, the Main Character(MC) and Best Friend (BF) sitting in art class and painting. Guess what the BF paints? An anteater! It’s a perfect addition to the story but I hadn’t planned on it. It came about simply because I wrote the first draft of the first chapter. And there it was.

We don’t know what we think until we write.
We don’t know what the story is until we write.

It’s like sports. You can predict who will win or lose a game, but the teams must still play the game. And there are always surprises.

Write your story. It will surprise you.

The second thing that is happening is not as nice. The story is boring.
I am still feeling my way through the story to find the line of tension, the exciting bits. I’ll keep writing even if it’s boring, because I am digging up anteaters. To use another bug metaphor, I’ve spun a web and I am sitting like a spider monitoring the web for the slightest hint of movement. When the movement–or story excitement–happens, I’ll be ready to pounce. It’s called trusting the process. It’s the most exciting and satisfying thing about writing, when a story comes together on many levels. It’s also scary: I KNOW this is a boring chapter, too full of static action and talking heads. I KNOW it’s bad. I could throw up my hands and just quit. Instead, I’ll plod along and write through the problems until I find something exciting. I can delete this boring chapter later (and, I will!). For now, I am trusting the writing process to get me to a stronger story. And it will.

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14. Chase: A Fast-Paced Plot


Goodreads Book Giveaway

Start Your Novel by Darcy Pattison

Start Your Novel

by Darcy Pattison

Giveaway ends October 01, 2013.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter to win

My current WIP novel has a subplot of a chase, which is one of the 29 possible plot templates. Chase Plots are pretty straight forward. There’s a person chasing and a person being chased, the Chaser and the Victim. It’s an action plot, not a character plot (though always, character should be as strong as possible.)

The Chase plot has one major imperative: The Chaser must constantly catch sight of the Victim and the Victim always escapes by the narrowest margin. Otherwise, it’s boring. This subplot must tantalize the reader with the possibility of Chaser actually catching Victim.

My first draft of chapter one completely omitted the Chase subplot, so the first revision I did was to revisit the idea of a Chase Subplot. Yes, the story still needs it. Then, I had to decide how to add in the Chase subplot in an exciting way. What could I add that would give the Chaser a glimpse of her target? My twist on the Chase Plot is the Chaser doesn’t always recognize the Victim. So, I gave Chaser a smart phone app that identifies the Victim. Now, Chaser walks up to a table where Victim is sitting and the app starts to go off, but. . .Chaser is interrupted.

Car Chase

The Car Chase is a staple of Chase Plots. You can choose any form of chase, though, and still up the tension of your story.

Victim is almost caught and only escapes by chance. Because the story is in Victim’s point of view, this works because Victim realizes the danger he was in. Chaser is still clueless, of course, but that’s OK, because it’s not her POV.

Having a chance escape also works this initial time, because the scene introduces the rules of the Chase scene. But now, Victim KNOWS there’s a smart phone app and will have to use his ingenuity to stay out of range of that app. It will, of course, be easier said than done.

The whole scene has upped the stakes in the story as a whole. The other subplots are now free to carry on as needed, because at the right moments the Chase Subplot will be there to add to the story’s tension. Will Chaser actually CATCH Victim? Who know? Stay tuned!

What subplot(s) are you adding to you story to keep the tension high?

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15. Dissecting Christie Part 1


For the next few weeks, we are going to dissect The Crooked House by Agatha Christie.


The first layer we're going to examine is her use of theme. In The Crooked House, Christie used a children's rhyme to illustrate the bent and twisted nature of the family involved in the murder.

The following excerpts illustrate her use of the theme throughout the story.

Chapter 1

She added softly in a musing voice: “In a little crooked house …”

I must have looked slightly startled, for she seemed amused and explained by elaborating the quotation. “'And they all lived together in a crooked little house.' That’s us. Not really such a little house either. But definitely crooked – running to gables and half timbering!”


Chapter 3

I suddenly remembered the whole verse of the nursery rhyme:

There was a crooked man and he went a crooked mile.
He found a crooked sixpence beside a crooked stile.
He had a crooked cat which caught a crooked mouse,
And they all lived together in a little crooked house.


I wondered why it had been called Three Gables. Eleven gables would have been more apposite! The curious thing was that it had a strange air of being distorted – and I thought I knew why. It was the type, really, of a cottage, it was a cottage swollen out of all proportion. It was like looking at a country cottage through a gigantic magnifying-glass. The slant-wise beams, the half-timbering, the gables – it was a little crooked house that had grown like a mushroom in the night.

Chapter 8

This was the Original Crooked Little Man who had built the Crooked Little House – and without him the Crooked Little House had lost its meaning.

Chapter 13

I went down to the Crooked House (as I called it in my own mind) with a slightly guilty feeling.

Chapter 15

“I think that’s what I mean when I said we all lived together in a crooked little house. I didn’t mean that it was crooked in the dishonest sense. I think what I meant was that we hadn’t been able to grow up independent, standing by ourselves, upright. We’re all a bit twisted and twining (…) like bindweed."

Chapter 17

“He was a natural twister. He liked, if I may put it so, doing things the crooked way.”

Chapter 26

“We will go there together and you will forget the little Crooked House.”

Throughout the solving of the murder, the evidence twists and turns and reveals the way the family members are intertwined in an unhealthy way. The young widow is often described as resembling a cat.

Christie sprinkled the theme in with a delicate hand. The analogy is referred to in only seven of the twenty-six chapters. The idea of crookedness inspires the whole.

To address theme, I suggest considering at the beginning or end of the first draft what you want the story to say. Then, as you go through the revision layers, develop your theme through description and dialogue.

You might find a nursery rhyme to fit your purpose.

Next week, we will take a look at how Christie uses description to introduce characters.


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16. The Weekend Writer: Organic Writers And Plotters

I am an organic writer, as I said earlier this month, which makes it difficult for me to talk about plotting. What is an organic writer, you ask? I've seen references to us for a long time, but usually the references aren't very involved, as if many people aren't clear on what we are. ("I may not know organic writers, but I recognize one when I see one!") We are said to write by the seat of our pants. Thus you sometimes hear us referred to by the mildly vulgar term "pantsers." We are said not to plot. I once saw a blogger describe us as using our first drafts to find our stories, meaning we sit down to write before we know what our story will be.

Plotters, on the other hand, presumably plot out their stories before they start to write. My understanding is that they know what they're going to write, they just have to sit down and do it. I once read a plotter describe spending three months working out his plot before he started actually writing. I don't know if most plotting writers do that, or if plots spring from their heads fully formed, or how they work at all. I can only guess what they do.

My last Weekend Writer post dealt with The Plot Whisperer by Martha Alderson. Alderson provides some of the best writing on organic writers that I've ever seen.

Organic writers, she says, tend to think in pictures, as in "the big picture,"  rather than language, while plotters go the other way. They are more analytical and detail oriented. Organic writers tend to prefer writing about characters while plotters prefer dramatic action. Organic writers tend to see a story as a whole and are short on details. Plotters tend to see the story in its parts. Organic writers may concentrate on character and end up being weak on the action that drives readers to stick with a story. Plotters may concentrate on action scenes and lose readers who need human interest.

I agree with a lot of what Alderson has to say about organic writers. Our interest in the big picture tends to leave us going, Okay, how do I get to that big picture? This is why formulaic plotting plans often aren't very useful for us. They involve coming up with details. A problem to solve and roadblocks to solving said problem or, heaven help me, metaphorical doors to go through or not are more mystifying than not for us. If I have problems coming up with details, telling me to come up with details isn't going to provide me with a lot of help.

Plotters are like engineers who design every element of a project so that it can be built into a completed whole. Plotters supposedly know what's going to happen in their story after they have their plot worked out, just as engineers know how their project will turn out once they've finished their, though both may have to make some changes before the job is done. Organic writers are also like engineers, engineers who have to "fast track" a project, meaning construction begins before they've finished the design. Organic writers frequently begin writing before they even are clear on what the basic story is going to be. Their process is all about design changes.

In future posts, I'll have more to say about writing process for organic writers.

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17. The Weekend Writer: Revision Means Getting Rid Of What You Don't Need

I'm in the midst of a big revision right now, and I'm doing things a little differently. I had two influences.

The Plot Whisperer


In The Plot Whisperer Martha Alderson writes about making sure that scenes include dramatic action, character development, and thematic significance. I'm working with a chart to keep track of those three elements in each chapter. What about material that doesn't relate to any of those things?

Some Disappointing Reading


For several years, one of my sons and I have been slowly making our way through a beloved fantasy series. I gave him the next volume last year for Christmas. He passed it on to me earlier this year with the comment, "It's not very good."

I finally started reading it a few weeks ago, and I have to agree with my offspring's assessment. Right away I could tell what was bothering me about the book. There was lots of clever, even amusing, material that didn't relate to any story. It didn't deal with the dramatic action and character development Alderson wrote about, and that early into the story I had no way of knowing if it had anything to do with thematic significance. This somewhat random wordiness made the book  slow reading. It was difficult to tell just what the narrative line was, so I had little desire to follow it. In fact, I've put the book aside.

What Does This Mean For My Project?


Taking the two influences together--Alderson's contention that dramatic action, character development, and thematic significance be included in every scene and my reading of a book with scenes that included a lot of material that didn't relate to any of those things--led me to become hyperaware of material in my manuscript that had nothing to do with action, character, or theme. What I'm finding is that a lot of that material no longer seems necessary. It drags down my reading. So it's being cut.

Right now I'm not missing it.



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18. 13 Blast it Out of the Park Posts of 2013


Yes, Darcy! I want to share the story
of the Oldest Wild Bird in the World
with a special child(ren).

"On Dec. 10, 1956, early in my first visit to Midway, I banded 99 incubating Laysan Albatrosses in the downtown area of Sand Island, Midway. Wisdom (band number 587-51945) is still alive, healthy, and incubating again in December 2011 (and in 2012 and in 2013). While I have grown old and gray and get around only with the use of a cane, Wisdom still looks and acts just the same as on the day I banded her. . .remarkable true story. . . beautifully illustrated in color." -- Chandler S. Robbins, Sc.D., Senior Scientist (Retired), USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD.
CLICK BELOW to view
the story of the 63-year-old bird
in your favorite store.


It’s a time to look backward. What are the 13 most popular posts on Fiction Notes in 2013? Here’s the countdown!

Posts Written in 2013

13. 63 Character Emotions to Explore When your character gets stuck at sad, even sadder and truly sad, explore these options for more variety.

12. 5 Quotes to Plot Your Novel By. We always like to know what other authors think about writing and how they work. These quotes are a tiny insight into the writing process.

11. 5 More Ways to Add Humor. Ever popular, but hard to get right, I always need help being funny.

10. Nonfiction Picture Books: 7 Choices. What types of nonfiction picture books are popular now, especially with the Common Core State Standards.

9. Why Authors Should Believe in Their Websites. This was a response to a posting on Jane Friedman‘s website that challenged why authors need a website at all.

8. Help Me Write a Book. A list of suggested resources that will help you write a book.

7. 7 Reasons Your Manuscript Might Be Rejected. A discussion of the rejection cycle and how to defeat it.

c.2013 Dwight Pattison. All rights reserved. My favorite picture that my husband took this year. Pelicans along the Arkansas River

c. Dwight Pattison. My favorite picture that my husband took this year. Pelicans along the Arkansas River


Classic Posts


6. 9 Traits of Sympathetic Characters. How to make that protagonists a nice-guy or nice-girl.

5. 29 Plot Templates. Lost on where to start plotting? Consider one of these options.

4. 30 Days to a Stronger Novel. This series continues to be popular. It’s 30 days of tips for making your novel into the story of your dreams.

3. 30 Days to a Stronger Picture Book. Likewise, 30 days of tips for writing a picture book is hugely popular.

2. Picture Book Standards: 32 Pages. The most frequent question people ask about picture books is how long should they be. Here’s the standard answer, with explanations for why 32 pages is the standard.

1. 12 Ways to Start a Novel. 100 classic opening lines are categorized into twelve ways of opening a novel.

This list reflects the range of topics that consume me and that I want to write about. But it’s not just about me. Please leave a comment with one topic you’d like to see discussed this year.

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19. Idea to Book: Outline + Character


READ A SAMPLE CHAPTER: Now Available

The Girl, the Gypsy & the Gargoyle by Darcy Pattison.

How do you take an idea to a book? I am just starting the process again and every time, it overwhelms me. I know the process works, but it seems so daunting at this first stage. So, I only look forward to the next task, knowing that taking the first step will lead me onward.

For this story, I’ll approach it on several levels at once:

Outlining. This is the fourth book in an easy-reader series, so I know the general pattern that the book will follow over its ten chapters. Chapter one will introduce the story problem and chapter ten will wrap it up. That leaves eight chapters and each has a specific function in this short format. Chapter 2 introduces the subplot, chapter 4 intensifies it and chapter 6 resolves it. That leaves chapters 1, 3, 5, 7-10 for the wrap-up. Chapters 9 and 10 are the climax scene, split into two, with a cliff hanger at the end of chapter 9. In other words, I can slot actions into the functions of each chapter and make it work. Knowing each chapter’s function makes it easier–but not automatic. I’ll still need to shift things around and make allowances for this individual story.

Character Problem. Making my characters hurt is the second challenge. Squeezing them, making them uncomfortable, making them cry, dishing out grief and mayhem–it’s all part of the author’s job. I tend to be a peace-maker and find this to be quite difficult. But if I can manage to bring my character’s emotions to a breaking point by chapter 8, I’ll be able to move the reader. I’ll be searching for the pressure points for the character as the outline progresses. Hopefully, the emotional resolution in chapter 9-10 will be a twist, something unexpected by the reader.

Back and Forth Between Outline and Characters. The nice thing about focusing on just this much at first is that it is interactive. I’ll go back and forth between plot, character and the structure demanded by this series until the story starts to gel. Will it be easy and automatic? Oh, no. I’ll be pulling out my hair (metaphorically) for a couple days. But by the end of the week (I hope) there will be progress.

How do you start your story? Do you free-write, create a character background, or outline? Which parts interact as you create the basis for a new story?

Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bk/12392396893/

What Character Are You? Click to Enlarge. Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bk/12392396893/



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20. Body Language: Gestures

Gestures are not random. They have purpose. They illustrate. They convey the words we do not speak. They confirm, deny, or emphasize what we say. People "talk with their hands."


Gestures vary from person to person and culture to culture. People can have nervous ticks. They can have "tells" that indicate they are lying, anxious, or unhappy. Use gestures wisely.

If a gesture begins before the words, it is a sign of honesty.

If a gesture lags after the words, it's considered a sign of dishonesty.

A gesture can be involuntary but squelched by the character. This is especially true if he is angry with someone he cares about or fears.

Gestures include: 

air kisses 

averted gaze 

bared teeth 

biting cuticles, hair, lips, or nails 

blowing raspberries 

bowing 

chewing inside of lips or cheek 

crossing ankles 

crossing/uncrossing arms 

crossing/uncrossing legs 

curtsey 

cuticle picking 

elbow bump 

eye rolling (or eye-ball rotating) 

eyebrows lift 

eyebrows wrinkle 

finger curling 

finger pointing 

fist shaking 

fist swinging 

flapping hands 

flicking fingernails 

fingernail tapping 

genuflecting 

grasping elbows 

gripping hands 

hands behind back 

hands over face 

hands over heart 

hands together 

hands wide 

hat tip 

index finger raised 

kowtow 

lip curls or purses 

looking down 

looking up 

looking to the side 

lowering arms 

lowering hands 

middle finger raised 

mooning 

mouth purses 

mouth tightens 

nodding 

nose thumbing 

nose wrinkles 

pointing 

pouting 

raising arms in the air 

rubbing earlobe 

rubbing fingers 

rubbing hands 

scratching 

scratching chin, ear, nose, or throat 

shaking head 

shrugging 

sneering 

sticking out tongue 

swinging legs 

slash throat with hand 

smoothing hair 

tapping fingers or toes 

tucking legs under 

thumbs up 

thumbs down 

thumb to the side 

tightening fist 

tugging clothes 

tugging an ear 

tugging hair 

saluting 

sweeping hands 

waving 

Keep this list handy and add to it. 

When revising, cut repetition and make sure the gesture is used for a good reason at the right time.

Next week, we'll discuss eye contact.

All of the information on body language can be found in Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers.

http://www.amazon.com/Story-Building-Blocks-III-Revision/dp/1475011369

http://www.amazon.com/Story-Building-Blocks-III-Revision-ebook/dp/B007SPPL68

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21. I Hate Nice

I know what you’re probably thinking, “But, Mary, I’m nice and you’re nice and nice is so…nice! Why do you hate it, especially now that you live in the state of ‘Minnesota nice’?” Don’t worry, I think you’re perfectly nice, and this isn’t a veiled complaint about moving to Minnesota. As for me being nice, sure, I have my moments. Thanks for falling for my Internet persona. :)

What I really hate, though, is when a manuscript has a lot of nice in it. The character is succeeding. Things are going their way. We end a chapter on a cozy moment when they curl into their reading nook and all is right with the world.

How nice. How abysmally nice for them.

The problem with “nice,” though, is that it doesn’t keep our attention. You know how people sometimes say, when they’re being dismissive of something, “Oh, that’s nice, dear”? Nice doesn’t really force us to sit up and take notice, and nice certainly doesn’t create tension within us, pulling us to the edge of our seats.

Sure, we don’t want a character to be dragged through the wringer. Nice things do have to happen on occasion. But last week I was preparing for a workshop that I gave on Saturday at the Loft, and I was going over a story theory that I cover extensively in my book, which I call the Emotional Plot.

emotional plot

The gist is a little hard to explain in one blog post (thought I try to do it here, in a 2009 blog post that contains the seeds of what I would extrapolate on in the 2012 book). Basically, what we’re looking at above is the standard three-act structure but instead of tracking how the plot rises and then falls, we are tracking how the character feels during each step of the process.

And if you’re seeing this graph, you’ll notice that the “Fall” is a HUGE part of it. And it ends in something called the “Rock Bottom.” That doesn’t exactly sound too nice, now does it. Basically, for the majority of your story, your job is to put your character through internally or externally uncomfortable or dangerous situations to get the most possible tension out of your work.

The “Fall” shouldn’t be a complete slide into misery. Like a good snow tubing hill (Am I from Minnesota now or what?!), it should have a few bumps to keep things exciting before plunging again. Allow your character small victories and moments of contentment, then yank the rug out from under them again.

If your plot seems thick, or your story is lacking momentum, or you feel like wandering away for a nap when reading your revision for the Xth time, think, “Am I being too nice? Are too many nice things happening to this character?” Take an especially close look at your chapter endings. Do they mostly end at the resolution of a scene or problem? If so, there’s too much “nice” and not enough tension to carry the reader across the vast expanse of the white at the end of the page and past the mountain of your next chapter heading.

Not everything can be life-or-death in your story, that’s not sustainable, and your reader will learn to ignore that level of tension like the body ignores a dull pain. But if you find that you’re running into a lot of “more tension, please!” comments, think of the nicest, coziest moments in your story, and really focus on a way to either cut them down or insert an especially shocking twist after then that turns “nice” on its ear.

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22. Emotional Plot

Unless your character experiences highs and lows, your story will be flat. 

http://kidlit.com/2014/04/14/i-hate-nice/

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23. The Gap: How to Make Your Story a Page Turner!

Lately I’ve been having a hard time finishing books. Not because the writing is bad, or the stories don’t have developed characters, or even interesting plots. The problem is the stories don’t grip me and I’m not compelled to pick them up again to see what happens next.

Tired and bored boy sleeping among the books

With so many distractions in life – television, facebook, cooking classes – it’s easy to put a book down and stop reading. This is a reality we all must face. So, how do we keep our readers hooked? How do we make it impossible for them to put the story down?

Of course there are a lot of possible answers to that question, but the one I want to talk about today is The Gap.

The Gap is a concept coined by Robert McKee in his craft book STORY, wherein he argues that we read because we want to see characters presented with situations that “pry open a gap” in their lives. He describes the Gap as a moment in a character’s life when the world acts in a way that surprises them. It’s a revelation and/or situation in which the character’s landscape operates outside of what they knew was possible.

For example, a tornado headed straight for your character’s house is a gap in their life. Normal life has been interrupted by mother nature and now your character must act. But a gap can also be as small as the “cool kids” deciding to talk to your character at school. It’s any event that tilts your character’s landscape in a new way and presents your character with new opportunities and obstacles. At least, on the surface that’s what a Gap is.

But let’s talk about how to maximize the Gap and make your stories un-put-downable!

McKee describes the Gap this way:

story“The protagonist seeks an object of desire beyond his reach. Consciously or unconsciously he chooses to take a particular action, motivated by the thought or feeling that this act will cause the world to react in a way that will be a positive step toward achieving his desire. From his subjective POV the action he has chosen seems minimal, conservative, yet sufficient to effect the reaction he wants. But the moment he takes action, the objective realm of his inner life, personal relationships, or extra-personal world, or a combination of these, react in a way that’s more powerful or different than he expected … his action provokes forces of antagonism that open up the gap between his subjective expectation and the objective result, between what he thought would happen when he took his action and what in fact does happen … The gap is the point where the subjective and objective realms collide, the difference between anticipation and result, between the world as the character perceived it before acting and the truth he discovers in action.” (McKee, Story)

Creating a Gap for your characters isn’t as simple as throwing obstacles in the character’s way and hoping for drama. A compelling Gap will present your character with a situation that demands they make a difficult choice. This choice should be one that isn’t easy to run away from. I should “trap” your character and not allow them to return to their normal way of life. This is the space in which characters grow. It’s the space in which plot becomes so intoxicating your reader cannot put the book down.

Why? Because we want to see what choice the character will make. And, we want to see the consequences of their actions.

McKee goes on to say that:

“Once the gap in reality splits open, the character, being willful and having capacity, senses or realizes that he cannot get what he wants in a minimal, conservative way. He must gather himself and struggle through the gap to take a second action. This next action is something the character would not have wanted to do in the first case because it not only demands more willpower and forces him to dig more deeply into his human capacity, but most important the second action puts him at risk. He now stands to lose in order to gain.” (McKee, Story)

Okay, let’s look at an example to help illustrate this idea.

One of my favorite examples of a compelling Gap is in the reaping scene in The Hunger Games. As writers we have a lot of choices to make in our novels. Hunger Games author, Susan Collins, could have chosen to have Katniss’s name pulled out of the reaping basket. This would have presented a Gap in Katniss’s life. She would be presented with the choice of accepting the challenge of the games or running away and putting her family in danger. But Susan Collins makes the Gap even more intense and unimaginable for Katniss. Instead of pulling Katniss’s name from the reaping basket, her sister Primm’s name is pulled. Now the world has really opened up and torn a Gap in Katniss’s life. The world has truly acted in a way she did not see coming.

Katniss

The Gap forces Katniss to choose between staying alive and watching her sister go off to die, or choosing to volunteer in her sister’s place and fight to the death. Neither decision is a good one. If you were forced to put the book down at that moment, before Katniss made her decision, don’t you think you would be itching to get back to reading? YES! Of course you want to see what choice she will make. This is the stuff of great drama!

Sunshine posterAnother great example of Gaps is the movie Sunshine. This is a lesser known sci-fi film directed by Danny Boyle and written by Alex Garland. Every action, decision, and plot point in this movie has a consequence that forces the characters to face a new Gap. The film follows the crew of ICARUS 2, a spaceship flying toward Earth’s dying sun in hopes of “rebooting” it with a nuclear bomb. ICARUS 1 failed its mission in the past and ICARUS 2 is Earth’s last and final hope before the planet dies from lack of sunshine. The first gap in the film comes when ICARUS 2 receives a distress signal from ICARUS 1. The crew is now forced to make a choice. Do they alter their course to intercept ICARUS 1 and get a second “payload” bomb to help re-boot the sun, thus allowing them two chances for mission success, or do they stay on course and gamble that the one payload they have is enough? It’s not an easy decision. Both choices have consequences. As a reader we want to see what they will do!

The brilliant thing about Sunshine is that each Gap has consequences that lead the characters to a second Gap, and then a third. In Sunshine these Gaps aren’t simple issues of survival. Instead these decisions force the characters to make choices that challenge what it means to be human, how far they are willing to go, and what is an appropriate sacrifice for the greater good. I love the film because it isn’t plot and action for the sake of plot and action. Every action opens a Gap in the character’s world and forces them to react in ways they never thought possible. (Note: I’ve been deliberately vague here, in case you want to watch this movie – which you should!)

I realize both of these examples come from high-stakes adventure stories. Let me give you an example of a Gap that isn’t “life or death” in nature:

Sky is EverywhereIn Jandy Nelson’s young adult novel, The Sky Is Everywhere, teenage protagonist Lennie is dealing with the death of her older sister, Bailey. There’s a wonderful Gap when Lennie is hanging out with her sister’s boyfriend Toby. The two are chatting about Bailey, remembering her, and then they look at each other and — BAM! — Toby kisses Lennie. However, the gap comes in the moment when Lennie realizes she likes kissing her sister’s boyfriend! Suddenly the world has acted in a way outside of all that Lennie thought possible. And even more exciting, now she has to decide what she’s going to do about it.

So, how can you apply the concept of The Gap to your work?

Ask yourself these questions about your book:

  1. Within the scope of your story, what Gaps have been presented in your protagonist’s life?
  2. How is your character challenged and incited to act by those Gaps?
  3. How has the Gap brought into question what your character believes, wants, and thinks is possible?
  4. What are the consequences of the choice your character makes when presented with a Gap? Does that choice move the story forward and take your character to the next Gap in the story? If not, does the Gap need to be changed so it challenges your character in stronger way?
  5. What does your character learn about herself as a result of the choices she makes when presented with those Gaps?

It’s one thing to throw obstacles, problems, and action at your character, but that doesn’t make the story compelling on its own. We often hear the phrase “torture your characters,” but that’s not what captures your reader’s attention. It’s the moral questions imbedded within the choices they must make that allows your reader to peek through the words on the page and see what makes us human. It’s those choices and the subsequent consequences that compel readers to picking the book up, again and again, to see what will happen next.

Want to learn more about The Gap? 

Please Read:

  • Story by Robert McKee, specifically pages 147 to 149.
  • McKee also talks about the Gap on pages: 154-157, 177-180, 208, 270-271, 311-312, 362.
  • These page numbers are based on the 1997, hardcover, It Books edition.

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24. The Gap: How to Make Your Story a Page Turner!

Lately I’ve been having a hard time finishing books. Not because the writing is bad, or the stories don’t have developed characters, or even interesting plots. The problem is the stories don’t grip me and I’m not compelled to pick them up again to see what happens next.

Tired and bored boy sleeping among the books

With so many distractions in life – television, facebook, cooking classes – it’s easy to put a book down and stop reading. This is a reality we all must face. So, how do we keep our readers hooked? How do we make it impossible for them to put the story down?

Of course there are a lot of possible answers to that question, but the one I want to talk about today is The Gap.

The Gap is a concept coined by Robert McKee in his craft book STORY, wherein he argues that we read because we want to see characters presented with situations that “pry open a gap” in their lives. He describes the Gap as a moment in a character’s life when the world acts in a way that surprises them. It’s a revelation and/or situation in which the character’s landscape operates outside of what they knew was possible.

For example, a tornado headed straight for your character’s house is a gap in their life. Normal life has been interrupted by mother nature and now your character must act. But a gap can also be as small as the “cool kids” deciding to talk to your character at school. It’s any event that tilts your character’s landscape in a new way and presents your character with new opportunities and obstacles. At least, on the surface that’s what a Gap is.

But let’s talk about how to maximize the Gap and make your stories un-put-downable!

McKee describes the Gap this way:

story“The protagonist seeks an object of desire beyond his reach. Consciously or unconsciously he chooses to take a particular action, motivated by the thought or feeling that this act will cause the world to react in a way that will be a positive step toward achieving his desire. From his subjective POV the action he has chosen seems minimal, conservative, yet sufficient to effect the reaction he wants. But the moment he takes action, the objective realm of his inner life, personal relationships, or extra-personal world, or a combination of these, react in a way that’s more powerful or different than he expected … his action provokes forces of antagonism that open up the gap between his subjective expectation and the objective result, between what he thought would happen when he took his action and what in fact does happen … The gap is the point where the subjective and objective realms collide, the difference between anticipation and result, between the world as the character perceived it before acting and the truth he discovers in action.” (McKee, Story)

Creating a Gap for your characters isn’t as simple as throwing obstacles in the character’s way and hoping for drama. A compelling Gap will present your character with a situation that demands they make a difficult choice. This choice should be one that isn’t easy to run away from. I should “trap” your character and not allow them to return to their normal way of life. This is the space in which characters grow. It’s the space in which plot becomes so intoxicating your reader cannot put the book down.

Why? Because we want to see what choice the character will make. And, we want to see the consequences of their actions.

McKee goes on to say that:

“Once the gap in reality splits open, the character, being willful and having capacity, senses or realizes that he cannot get what he wants in a minimal, conservative way. He must gather himself and struggle through the gap to take a second action. This next action is something the character would not have wanted to do in the first case because it not only demands more willpower and forces him to dig more deeply into his human capacity, but most important the second action puts him at risk. He now stands to lose in order to gain.” (McKee, Story)

Okay, let’s look at an example to help illustrate this idea.

One of my favorite examples of a compelling Gap is in the reaping scene in The Hunger Games. As writers we have a lot of choices to make in our novels. Hunger Games author, Susan Collins, could have chosen to have Katniss’s name pulled out of the reaping basket. This would have presented a Gap in Katniss’s life. She would be presented with the choice of accepting the challenge of the games or running away and putting her family in danger. But Susan Collins makes the Gap even more intense and unimaginable for Katniss. Instead of pulling Katniss’s name from the reaping basket, her sister Primm’s name is pulled. Now the world has really opened up and torn a Gap in Katniss’s life. The world has truly acted in a way she did not see coming.

Katniss

The Gap forces Katniss to choose between staying alive and watching her sister go off to die, or choosing to volunteer in her sister’s place and fight to the death. Neither decision is a good one. If you were forced to put the book down at that moment, before Katniss made her decision, don’t you think you would be itching to get back to reading? YES! Of course you want to see what choice she will make. This is the stuff of great drama!

Sunshine posterAnother great example of Gaps is the movie Sunshine. This is a lesser known sci-fi film directed by Danny Boyle and written by Alex Garland. Every action, decision, and plot point in this movie has a consequence that forces the characters to face a new Gap. The film follows the crew of ICARUS 2, a spaceship flying toward Earth’s dying sun in hopes of “rebooting” it with a nuclear bomb. ICARUS 1 failed its mission in the past and ICARUS 2 is Earth’s last and final hope before the planet dies from lack of sunshine. The first gap in the film comes when ICARUS 2 receives a distress signal from ICARUS 1. The crew is now forced to make a choice. Do they alter their course to intercept ICARUS 1 and get a second “payload” bomb to help re-boot the sun, thus allowing them two chances for mission success, or do they stay on course and gamble that the one payload they have is enough? It’s not an easy decision. Both choices have consequences. As a reader we want to see what they will do!

The brilliant thing about Sunshine is that each Gap has consequences that lead the characters to a second Gap, and then a third. In Sunshine these Gaps aren’t simple issues of survival. Instead these decisions force the characters to make choices that challenge what it means to be human, how far they are willing to go, and what is an appropriate sacrifice for the greater good. I love the film because it isn’t plot and action for the sake of plot and action. Every action opens a Gap in the character’s world and forces them to react in ways they never thought possible. (Note: I’ve been deliberately vague here, in case you want to watch this movie – which you should!)

I realize both of these examples come from high-stakes adventure stories. Let me give you an example of a Gap that isn’t “life or death” in nature:

Sky is EverywhereIn Jandy Nelson’s young adult novel, The Sky Is Everywhere, teenage protagonist Lennie is dealing with the death of her older sister, Bailey. There’s a wonderful Gap when Lennie is hanging out with her sister’s boyfriend Toby. The two are chatting about Bailey, remembering her, and then they look at each other and — BAM! — Toby kisses Lennie. However, the gap comes in the moment when Lennie realizes she likes kissing her sister’s boyfriend! Suddenly the world has acted in a way outside of all that Lennie thought possible. And even more exciting, now she has to decide what she’s going to do about it.

So, how can you apply the concept of The Gap to your work?

Ask yourself these questions about your book:

  1. Within the scope of your story, what Gaps have been presented in your protagonist’s life?
  2. How is your character challenged and incited to act by those Gaps?
  3. How has the Gap brought into question what your character believes, wants, and thinks is possible?
  4. What are the consequences of the choice your character makes when presented with a Gap? Does that choice move the story forward and take your character to the next Gap in the story? If not, does the Gap need to be changed so it challenges your character in stronger way?
  5. What does your character learn about herself as a result of the choices she makes when presented with those Gaps?

It’s one thing to throw obstacles, problems, and action at your character, but that doesn’t make the story compelling on its own. We often hear the phrase “torture your characters,” but that’s not what captures your reader’s attention. It’s the moral questions imbedded within the choices they must make that allows your reader to peek through the words on the page and see what makes us human. It’s those choices and the subsequent consequences that compel readers to picking the book up, again and again, to see what will happen next.

Want to learn more about The Gap? 

Please Read:

  • Story by Robert McKee, specifically pages 147 to 149.
  • McKee also talks about the Gap on pages: 154-157, 177-180, 208, 270-271, 311-312, 362.
  • These page numbers are based on the 1997, hardcover, It Books edition.

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25. The Universal Story and the Sea

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.)


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