Writing Tips – Plotting

Plotting a Novel6a010536b33b69970b017c36ed10a6970b

Listed below are techniques and tips I’ve come across while researching the subject of plotting.  This refers to genre fiction and not literary fiction.  I start broadly.  Specific, practical advice is at the end.  Happy writing!

A plot is a series of escalating events revolving around a character, the protagonist, who desperately wants something very hard to get.  What the character wants must be clear.  This could be solving a crime, finding a soul mate or coming to grips with a painful past.  Whatever the motivation, it must be important, and the stakes for failing must be high.  By the end, the question of whether or not the protagonist prevails should be answered, and a change of some kind should have happened.

Without tension there is no plot.  The role of the antagonist is to thwart the protagonist.  Two forces meet and one triumphs.  This opposition prevents the protagonist from getting what he or she wants too easily.  The antagonist can be a person, place or thing.  It can be external (a crazed gunman out to kill), internal (the protagonist’s inability to speak to the woman he admires) or environmental (a typhoon bearing down).  The protagonist and antagonist must battle, but the fight should be as even as possible to strengthen drama and suspense.  A story needs constant, escalating tension.  The protagonist should face a series of barriers.

A plot revolves around one character.  In a novel with one viewpoint, there is one plot.  With multiple viewpoints, there are multiple plots which should be constructed separately and then woven together.

There are two types of plots, action and character.  The action plot is a puzzle.  Readers are challenged to solve a mystery.  Character plots involve human nature, relationships between people.

To give a story depth, or deep structure, involve an issue of morality.  Readers wonder how they would react in similar circumstances.  Don’t provide an easy, clichéd solution.  Great plots arise from impossible situations with no right or wrong answer.  Put the protagonist between a rock and a hard place.  The best stories don’t involve good versus bad, but good versus good.  Both sides should have logical, valid, compelling arguments.  Start with a premise not a conclusion.

To test a plot idea, decide if it’s a subject you’re excited to explore.  Would it be meaningful to others?  Is there something specific or vital at stake?  Can it be dramatized in scenes without a lot of explanation?  SHOW DON’T TELL.  Showing means writing scenes.  Something has to happen, people need to talk and act.

Creating a Gripping Plot Line

An engrossing plot hooks readers right away and keeps them interested.  This is done in several ways.  It’s done by creating a protagonist they care about.  The writing itself shouldn’t draw attention and should flow like good conversation.  The key, though, is creating compelling questions.  Where do these questions come from?  From the scrapes the characters get into.  As soon as the protagonist has a goal, readers have a question they want answered.  Will the detective solve the crime?  Will the boy get the girl?  Give the protagonist a goal in every scene, one of many small things to do to reach the overall objective.  Characters other than the protagonist should have goals too, probably at odds with the main character.  Have several story questions going at once.  Delay answering these questions as long as possible.  Readers will want to know what happens next!

Three Act Plot Structure

Three is the magic number when it comes to plotting.  Most stories follow this arc:

1.  Beginning — the protagonist makes a decision to act.

2.  Middle — the action itself.

3.  End — the consequence of the action.

The rule of three can be applied to characters as well.  Three of them, a character triangle, makes the strongest combination.  Events also tend to happen in threes.  The protagonist tries three times to overcome an obstacle, failing the first two times, finally succeeding on the third.

Writing Scenes

An overarching dramatic question is posed in chapter one.  It’s critical to set up a dominant, unresolved issue around which characters have a huge stake.  Use the same technique to build scenes.  In the first few lines or paragraphs, raise a question.  Inform readers what the characters want to happen to generate more suspense.  Readers get hooked waiting to see how issues are resolved.

With each scene decide the climax in advance and prepare for it.

Big scenes contain a startling surprise, are built around powerful conflict, or alter the situation for a major character.  The core action stems from one or both characters desperately wanting something from each other.  Maintain intense action or high emotion for a sustained period.  The character’s emotions can rise, fall, and rise again to higher and higher peaks.  This makes the tension and excitement grow.

Plan ahead for big scenes.  Seeds should be planted early that will raise questions in reader’s minds.  Big scenes will often depend on surprise, coincidence or something or someone coming in from out of the blue.  To retain credibility, these devices should be prepared for.

Big scenes should take place between major characters to make readers more excited and empathetic.

The entire book should be a preparation for the final confrontation.

All Important Beginnings

The beginning must do three things:

1.  Get things going and show what kind of story it’s going to be.

2.  Introduce and define the protagonist.

3.  Hook readers.

The most important job in the beginning is to hook readers but that can be accomplished by introducing a compelling character.  Writers make characters compelling by forcing readers to care.  Something needs to happen to that character and soon, something of consequence that will disrupt the status quo and force the protagonist to act.

Introduce the main character living his or her normal life.  For the rising action to have full impact, you need to start from a place of no action to provide a comparison between the ordinary and the not so ordinary.  When the storm hits, the action will seem all the more dramatic in comparison.  The protagonist’s life doesn’t have to be all sunshine and roses.  Just stable.  Then something happens to disrupt the status quo.  The protagonist has to act now!  If what happens promises more momentous events to come, readers are further hooked.  This first event triggers the rising action.  There’s a goal.  The protagonist doesn’t necessarily have to be committed to it yet, or even aware of it.

Sometimes it’s obvious what the protagonist has to do, sometimes not.  Sometimes the protagonist takes immediate action, sometimes not.  It’s often more interesting to have the protagonist shy away from the first challenge.  Maybe, it’s the detective’s first murder investigation.  Maybe, the boy thinks the girl is out of his league.  The protagonist comes around in the end but has to work up the nerve.

Some beginnings also create moods, introduce narrators or subordinate characters.  Characters can be used to establish a norm by contrasting regular folk with usual people, i.e., Watson in comparison to Sherlock Holmes.

Make characters do things that show who they are.  If we hear the protagonist on the phone to his bookie, if he keeps checking E-Trade, we know he’s a gambler.  Props are great for reinforcing character.  If the protagonist rattles dice around in his fist, the image of him as a gambler is solidified.

Start the book when the situation in play is coming to a head.  Explain how things got that way later.  The past is exposition — telling rather than showing.  Get the action rolling first.  The protagonist should enter talking and doing.  Along those same lines, what the protagonist looks like is secondary.  How they behave, think, react and talk conveys character more than appearance.  Describe what they look like later.

Don’t open too big.  Don’t make the beginning too hard to follow.  The opening should make a promise the rest of the story delivers.  Keep the opening simple, especially the first few pages.  Don’t introduce too many named characters, just one or two, and don’t provide a lot of explanation.  It’s best to begin with a self-explanatory situation.  Plant questions, but don’t answer them.  Talk and action are better than wordy description.  Make the beginning true to the nature of the novel to come.  A cozy mystery wouldn’t begin with a nuclear explosion.  Don’t begin with a situation not central to the main plot.  Devote more care to the opening than to anything else.  It’s what readers — and agents and editors — see first.

Exposition

Well-handled exposition gives perspective, dimension and context.  Even high drama needs relief.  Fiction is a balance between scene and explanation but there should definitely be more scene and less description.

Build exposition into scenes.  For example, props like birthday cards or divorce decrees tell readers a great deal about what’s happening.  Use dialogue.  Characters can deliver facts but make sure they don’t sound stilted or ridiculous.  Explain things through interior monologue but don’t let it go on too long or characters will seem self-absorbed and boring.

Limit exposition to absolute essentials.  It’s only needed when it has a direct bearing on what’s happening now.  It should only include critical events from the past, high or low turnings points, never mundane trivia.  Keep it as short as possible.  Spread it across several scenes.  Always make sure the present story is running strongly first.

We tend to remember information best when it’s surrounded by highly charged emotion.  Make characters desperate for facts.  Readers will catch the infection and want the information too.

Writers can develop a back story apart from the novel.  What is the history of the current situation?  Do it if it helps flesh out the story in your own mind, but the novel itself should start at a later point.

Tricky Middles

In the middle, or the rising action, characters pursue their goals.  The action grows out of what happened in the beginning.  Cause and effect.  The protagonist now runs into problems (reversals) that keep him or her from successfully getting what he or she wants.

If the beginning is handled well, you have the reader’s attention.  Now you have to keep it.  The middle represents the protagonist’s journey.  He or she is leaving the familiar for an unfamiliar, unsafe world.  Sometimes, it’s a literal departure.  The ship sails.  Sometimes, it’s metaphorical.  The boy starts to date.  It might be a combination.

Protagonists don’t immediately set out to achieve the ultimate goal.  First, they have to learn the rules of the new world.  They make allies and enemies.  They discover new things about themselves, like how much courage they have.  The journey isn’t simple.  It’s one step forward, two steps back.  But, little by little, despite these setbacks, they edge closer to the object of their quest.

The section right after the beginning has two tasks:  augment the story by adding context; and lay the groundwork for what is to come.  This is where the story starts in earnest.

There should always be a specific event readers can anticipate.  The plot, or problem, is broken up into a series of actions, each of which has a crisis and resolution.  One problem or crisis leads to another.  Keep the main plot firmly in mind, always building toward the final confrontation. 

Often there are subplots which run for a short while or continue throughout the story being tied up just before the end.  Sometimes, they focus on the protagonist.  Sometimes they focus on another character.  Well-handled, they can deepen the story’s context, mirror or contrast with the main action, help to keep the pace going while the main plot is in lull, or generate additional suspense.  If a subplot focuses on the protagonist, start it just after the beginning.  If the subplot focuses on a minor character, introduce them first. 

The job of the middle is to build toward and deliver a series of crises via big scenes.  Readers should see the scene coming and look forward to it with hope or fear.  This is one of the ways to create tension, drama and suspense.  The earliest big scenes are the hardest because they require exposition.

If characters are heading toward a fight, show the tension building, show hurt feelings accumulating, then blow it sky-high.  Make the fight happen somewhere they can’t escape until they’ve had their say.  Use the setting to compliment or contrast with the action.  Big scenes don’t have to be wildly crazy.  A commando isn’t always rescuing the president.  Whatever the scenario, make the most of it.

Always know what the next big scene is going to be.  Lay the groundwork for it right up until it happens.  A novel has maybe a dozen big scenes.  They are the story’s high points; events that advance the plot.  Name the approaching event.  Indicate why it’s likely to be climatic.  Add a preview scene.  A small duel can come before a big one.  The big scene will have more drama if you use short, brisk scenes leading up to it.  If the big scene is a grim disaster, have the lead-ins be cheery, hopeful or peaceful.  Make things worse than expected.  If the big scene makes everything wonderful, the lead-ins should be as dark as possible. 

The impact of big scenes is cumulative.  It helps drive the story’s momentum, its pace.  Often, many of the middle events will be disasters, making matters worse than before.  The protagonist will be defeated, although not utterly.  This increases tension and suspense, acting as a build up for the final confrontation.  Each middle crisis should offer a revelation as to the real nature of the problem the protagonist faces without giving everything away.  If events seem too predictable, throw in a surprise.  It characters duel, have them fight with dynamite instead of guns.  The twist shouldn’t change the basis of the confrontation though.  Don’t have them throw water balloons.  The dual must be fought.  Readers are waiting for it.  Go ahead throw in a surprise, but make the confrontation believable.

The outcome of a big scene has to matter.  The story should be changed and the characters meaningfully affected.  Big scenes are turnings points.  With each round, the stakes are raised.  Risks should escalate and intensify from the opening right up to the end.

Protagonists arrive at the final crisis via these mini events where they have encountered conflict and failed.  They should react emotionally, and lay low to lick their wounds.  Then they need to come up with a new strategy.  They don’t quit at the first sign of trouble.  The way to prevent a sagging middle is to string together a series of mini events each of which leave the protagonist in a worse position.  Each crisis should be the cause of the next one.  The final mini crisis, before the end, lets the protagonist reach for the overall goal but this attempt should also fail.  Plot development is about being mean to your central character.  Kick him or her harder than ever.  Protagonists might feel on the cusp of victory but they are wrong.  Something terrible happens and the character hits rock bottom, all hope of achieving the final goal gone.

Be aware that more stories collapse from premature tinkering than anything else.  The middle is the hardest part to write.  The excitement of the initial idea is probably long gone.  Doubt creeps in.  Don’t stop.  Don’t question yourself.  Fix it later.

Melodrama

Melodrama is sensational fiction with exaggerated characters and exciting events intended to appeal to emotions.  Using strong, interesting, dramatic characters and exciting events that don’t require a ton of explanation and involve readers quickly leads to forceful plots.  That’s why it’s the basis for popular fiction.  But because melodrama ignores the ordinary to concentrate on the unusual, the unlikely or the extreme, it often creates a credibility problem.  It can seem too sentimental or too apt to go for thrills or scares without adequate reason.

There are several ways to make melodrama work.  One or more of these techniques can be used in the course of a book.  Start with an unlikely scenario such as zombies or vampires right away, on page one.  Show it don’t tell it.  Make the premise and the rules clear and go from there.  Or, show the premise being viable in the recent past.  There’s no arguing with history.  It’s already happened.  Characters can discuss an event before their own scenario begins.  A story where anything can happen doesn’t make sense.  There’s no tension.

Establish a reasonable character and let him or her take the situation seriously.  Similarly, surround the melodrama with everyday objective or activities.  In the movie, The Birds, the birds wait patiently on a jungle gym until school lets out.  The killing in Psycho takes place in the shower.  Events can quickly progress to the bizarre if a story is first anchored in reality.  Balance the extraordinary with the mundane.    

Use one improbable scenario or character at a time.  If there are a lot of odd happenings, they should have a single cause.  If the extraordinary thing is the character, it’s often better if it isn’t the protagonist.  Keep the focus on the mundane.  If you are writing about an elf or sorcerer, let them be normal most of the time.  If the plot involves a monster, don’t trot it out every chapter.  The monster imagined is way worse than the monster seen.  Waiting builds suspense.  Reserve revealing moments for big scenes.  Afterwards, you’ll need new drama because the monster won’t be as scary. 

Another technique used is to introduce the extraordinary through the backdoor in a scene about some else.  Make the situation seem innocent until the reader is hooked.  Two characters are arguing.  One says, “I want a divorce.  I hate your drinking.  I hate your pet snake.  I can’t stand the way your mother walks through walls.”

Include a preview before the real situation arises.  Two kids are walking home from school.  Another kid jumps out to scare them.  They keep looking over their shoulder after that, hearing footsteps, thinking the same kid is about to scare them again.  They walk faster.  Only then does the space ship tractor beam appear.

Have a character expect something way worse so that when the real situation develops it seems more credible.  In Wuthering Heights, the initial narrator is confronted by several crude, unfriendly people, then attacked by savage dogs.  When Heathcliff appears he seems like a gentleman in comparison even thought he’s the wildest thing there.  Or, have a character expect a smaller more credible version of the situation.  A woman thinks a man is trying to seduce her when he’s really trying to steal her artificial leg. 

Patterns

Patterns occur in life.  Deliberately creating them can lend a plot authenticity.  Repetition can be used as the framework holding the narrative together.  For example, in Star Wars The Empire Strikes Back, the threat of freezing in the beginning mirrors the threat of freezing in the end.  A cave in one plot line is mirrored by a cave in another.  Han tells Leia he loves her even as Vader tells Luke he’s his father. 

What’s important or striking about your initial scene?  What’s the emotional dynamic?  How is it shown?  What objects, ideas and words are used?  Repeat them throughout the rest of the story.  Or, think of a way to contrast what happens in the initial scene to what happens next.

There are many ways of using patterns to deepen emphasis.  Keep several scenes virtually identical except for a crucial element.  Repeat lines of dialogue in the same way or in a similar form.  Repeat a brief description of emotion or action.  Have situations go through the same stages.  Have situations end the same.  Use similar imagery.  If two characters argue and use animalistic descriptors like growled, pawed at the air, bellowed — do the same when the characters argue again.    

Use the Rule of Three.  One brother meets the witch, is rude and is turned into a goat.  The second brother does the same.  The third shares his sandwich and is rewarded with riches.  One situation is an incident.  We learn the risk.  Two situations are a pattern confirming the risk.  Three breaks the pattern.  Readers will appreciate what the third person does differently to prevail.  Three is suspense, pattern, and contrast all in one nifty package.  Further, if two similar situations have resulted in failure, the tension and drama are that much higher on the third attempt.

Contrast can be used just as effectively.  Repeat elements in scenes but change something radically.  In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge scolds Bob Cratchit for using too much coal and resents giving him holiday pay for no work.  He doesn’t care about Cratchit’s problems.  After visits from the three ghosts, Scrooge’s behavior is changed but circumstances remain the same.  He tells Cratchit to use more coal.  He donates a large goose for the Cratchit’s Christmas dinner, gives Cratchit a raise and promises to help him with his family.

Characters that mirror each other can be used to highlight differences or similarities, but what happens to one must effect the other.  In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge is an emotional cripple the way Tiny Tim is physically impaired.  Sidekicks get bumped off a lot in detective fiction so the author can maintain peril without killing the main character.  What you can’t do to your protagonist, you can to do a mirror character.

Using mirroring techniques can elevate a book from being strictly formulaic.  Further, it can provide substance to a plot that’s too lightweight.  Let’s say you’re working on a plot about a man watching his father die of cancer while trying to come to terms with their troubled relationship.  By giving the man children, with whom he also struggles, you can use mirror and pattern techniques to make the man reflect more deeply on his relationship with his father.

Pacing

Putting together a string of scenes where the action builds ever higher doesn’t necessarily make for a good novel.  Stories needs drama and lull.  A book should have rhythmic ups and downs, scenes where the protagonist is battered or decisively beaten, and scenes in which he or she prevails.  There must be relief from intensity, often in the form of a diverting subplot which helps if it’s funny.  An oddball or comic character will make big scenes even more jolting.  Intersperse action scenes with character confrontations.

If you’ve had a series of emotionally intense scenes, it’s probably time for a narrative summary.  You can provide this kind of information by using a flashback, which has the value of showing over telling.  But be careful with flashbacks because they are never as strong as scenes occurring in the present and they disrupt a story’e timeline.  If you opt to use them, make sure the plot is running strongly first.  Make the flashback clear.  Use patterns and mirrors to connect the past to the present.

To unite all these elements, use good transitions.  An effective transition can be a sentence at the end of a scene and another at the beginning of the next.  It can be the lead-in paragraph to a new section.  It can be several pages of narrative summary.  When moving between scenes, choose something that continues.  It can be an action begun in one scene and finished in another.  It can be keeping to the same setting.  It can be a mood established by the environment such as wind or rain.  It can be verbal repetition.

Frames

Frames — prologues and epilogues — are used as bridges to the main plot.  If using a prologue, it should be kept short and it must be relevant to the current situation.  Epilogues shouldn’t be used for writers to ramble on or to tie up every loose thread.  The story is over.  There’s no drama.  It’s anticlimactic.  Let the ending be the ending.  If you include an epilogue, make it a scene, not exposition.  Keep frames brief, direct and interesting.

Endings

An ineffective ending can invalidate an otherwise fine story.  A good ending should satisfy readers and reward them for sticking around.  It doesn’t have to be happy but it should be fitting.  Characters get what they deserve.  The good are rewarded, the bad made to pay.  You can leave a few things to the imagination.  A touch of ambiguity isn’t bad, but the initial overarching question posed in chapter one should be answered.

The beginning of the end starts with the protagonist’s reaction to hitting rock bottom.  They are metaphorically dead.  Their reaction should reflect it.  They can cry, hit the bottle or act violently.  Better is quiet resignation.  Spiritual emptiness.  They gave all they had and they lost.  They’ve got nothing left inside, not even the energy to bemoan their fate.

As the writer, you’ve made your protagonist’s life a living hell.  Now, it’s time to start turning things around.

It starts with the protagonist having an epiphany.  It’s a moment of clarity in which the protagonist finally realizes where he or she has gone wrong and what needs to be done to fix it.  Ideally, the solution should have been apparent all along, hinted at very cleverly by the author.

Now, the protagonist takes whatever action is required to seize the prize.  (The plot can go another way, if through the epiphany the protagonist realizes he or she doesn’t want what they thought they thought they did or turns a back to it for the greater good.  Plot endings like this aren’t happy.  They might even be tragic, but bad outcomes are just as relevant as good ones.)

There are different techniques to get to the finish line.

In circular endings, the conclusion is like the beginning with everything brought together with a single, crucial action.  The end mirrors the beginning by using a similar situation (a season or holiday come again, the day opening or closing), similar dialogue or the same characters.  This unites the story.  A trip away returns.  Quest-adventure stories often end like this.  Circular endings have the advantage of highlighting what has changed.  Problems occur when the beginning and end are poorly connected or lack a turning point.  A circular ending needs to show a homecoming or the new norm.  It needs to establish why the quest or resolution mattered.  It shouldn’t be a big scene.  Most end quietly.  Readers just need to know something important happened that produced a change.  The issue has been resolved.

With linear endings, the story is a suspenseful uphill journey, with the occasional slide or diversion, which builds until it reaches a summit.  Once the two major opposing forces have battled, and the conflict is resolved, the story is over.  Most genre fiction operates like this.  Drive toward a single goal and stop when it’s been attained.  What finishes a linear story is the main issue.  Anything after that is anticlimax.

Linear endings require narrowing down.  Any narrative clutter should go.  Any subplots or side issues should be resolved.  Leave the major characters alone in the spotlight.  Don’t introduce a complex setting for the final resolution if it’s going to involve tons of exposition.  It will stop the story.  If the ending itself will be complex, keep the setting and other elements as simple as possible.  Don’t introduce any new characters except walk-ons.  Make sure the final scene is a scene:  Make Something Happen!  Actions speak loudest.  Don’t introduce a new plot point.  Otherwise you forfeit all forward momentum.  Make sure the protagonist is an active participant in the end.  Otherwise the focus has changed and it will make for an empty resolution. 

Do not impose melodramatic improbability.  An airplane should not fall on the main characters to resolve the issue.  That kind of weird ending coming out of the blue for no particular reason is called deus ex machina.  Take the ending from the story itself.  Trick endings can work but they must be handled properly.  If the gimmick doesn’t work, the book goes down the drain.  If you’re using a twist, make sure you’ve prepared for it beforehand.  It shouldn’t come out of the blue.  Lay the groundwork first.

Happy Endings

All endings aren’t necessarily happy.  It only has to satisfy.  It should be fitting and definitive.  Most genre fiction ends happily.  The murderer is caught, the lovers reunited.  But mindless cheerfulness is boring.  Most literary fiction tends to end in misery.  That’s no better.  Make the ending honest rather than vapidly happy or churlishly grim.

Don’t leave the ending flat.  Provide a final climax that’s worth the build up.  For the grand finale, set off the biggest, baddest rocket of all.  Don’t leave everything unfinished or inconclusive, even if the story is part of a planned series.  Some issue needs to be resolved.  Stories that spark effective sequels don’t do so because the original story was left hanging, but because there’s more than one good story in the world that’s been created. 

Revisions

Don’t dive into immediate revisions.  As long as you’re working on your book, you don’t have to send it out.  No one has to see it and possibly not like it as much as you do.  Let the story rest after you’re done.  Get some distance.  It doesn’t have to be perfect just yet.  Write the first draft.  Let it sit at least a week or two, preferably longer.  Do the second draft.  On the third, work only with what’s there.  Don’t yank things out and jam things in.  When it’s the best you can make it, let someone else read it and offer their opinion.

A Brief Note About Characterization (See Writing Tips – Characterization)

The protagonist should be introduced in chapter one.  Any other major characters should be introduced relatively soon as well.  Bring them on one at a time and solidly establish an identity for each.  In genre fiction, it’s best to create a protagonist who is loved, admired or respected.  But perfect people are BORING.  Give the protagonist an uncontrollable tendency, a less-than-wonderful habit or some off-key idiosyncrasy.  Make him or her aware of the problem.  Most people are balefully unaware of their faults.  If a character deplores or feels guilty about a bad habit they rise in our estimation.    

If what the character wants is socially acceptable, work the goal in with dialogue.  If it’s too intimate, work it in through interior monologue or author narration.

We decide a person’s character based on what we see him or her do.  Characters may have reputations, but we form our opinion based on their actions.

Readers related to people who have close ties with others.  They empathize more with the larger than life hero who has a love interest, a strong bond with family, or someone who has lots of friends.

Conflict between family members magnifies whatever’s at stake for both characters.  A strong relationship between perpetrator and victim ratchets up tension.  Someone once said, all great stories are family stories.  Knit together a tight web of relationships between the main characters to juice up the emotional voltage.

Let readers see the setting through the character’s eyes.

Attempting To Plot A Block Buster

If you are trying to write the next Jurassic Park, good luck with that.  Here are a few things to keep in mind.

The plot should be high concept — that is it should be based on a radical or even outlandish premise.

It should probably be contemporary, based on a fresh concept that’s topical.  Make it sexy.  Big books need to be built on highly dramatic situations, plots that include bizarre and surprising actions leading to one powerful confrontation another.

Include multiple points of view.  The action stays highly charged because we experience each scene through the POV of the character with the greatest emotional involvement, the largest stake in what’s happening.  Each chapter should contain a climax and push the story ahead.  Let us empathize with at least one character whose fate gets resolved excitingly at the end.

Don’t, however, have too many POV characters.  Readers won’t like it if they’ve bonded with other players.  Have POV characters of both sexes to gain a broader readership.  Vary their ages.  The contrast between sexes and ages provides contrasting world views which ratchets up tension and drama.

The environment or setting should be new, unfamiliar, exotic.  Readers like to learn.  Color description with emotion.

7 Point Story Structure

From Ryan Lanz’s WordPress blog as taken from a writing seminar video done by horror writer Dan Wells.

Starting Point

Plot Turn 1

Pinch 1

Midpoint

Pinch 2

Plot Turn 2

Resolution

To use this system, you must know how the story ends.  Start with the resolution.

The starting point should be the opposite of the resolution.  Consider the TV show Breaking Bad.  A nerdy science teachers ends as a streetwise drug lord.  That’s about as opposite as you can get and it’s what helped make the show so interesting.  This system creates movement — a character arc.

The midpoint is where something changes and characters begin moving from one state to another — reaction to action.  It doesn’t have to be exactly in the middle of the book, and it can take place over several scenes.

Plot turn 1 moves from the beginning to the midpoint.  It often hints at a major conflict.  Often, the protagonist is introduced to new people or a new setting.  It can serve as the call to adventure.

Plot turn 2 moves the story from the midpoint to the resolution.  It’s where the protagonist obtains the final thing/skill/knowledge to make it happen.

Pinches apply pressure when something goes wrong, someone attacks, a problem comes up or an obstacle is placed in front of the protagonist’s goal.  It forces the protagonist to action or to change course.  It forces an action.  It’s often the introduction of the villain.  Several conflicts may be set up in the beginning of a story that bridge the gap until the main conflict is introduced.  If the main conflict was revealed in the first few pages, it would feel rushed.

The second pinch applies even more pressure, often making the situation feel hopeless.  A plan could fail, a mentor disappear or die, a villain seems on the brink of victory, a break-up happens.  The harsher the second pinch, the sweeter the victory.  The second pinch must be tougher than the first.  A sense of loss generally goes along with the second failure. 

Example Harry Potter

Starting Point:  Harry has a dreary existence.  He has no power or special abilities.

Plot Turn 1:  Harry finds he is a wizard and starts to learn magic.

Pinch I:  A troll attacks.

Midpoint:  Harry learns about the Sorcerer’s Stone.  He vows to protect it from Voldemort.

Pinch 2:  Henry battles alone as Ron and Hermione fall to traps in the dungeon.

Plot Turn 2:  Harry finds the stone in his pocket because his motives are pure.

Resolution:  Harry defeats Voldemort.

Example Pride and Prejudice

Starting Point:  Lizzie and her sisters are single.

Plot Turn 1:  Darcy and Lizzie meet and dislike each other.

Pinch 1:  Darcy breaks up Jane and Bingley, then proposes to Elizabeth in an insulting way.

Midpoint:  Darcy explains himself in a letter.  He was simply trying to protect a friend.

Pinch 2:  Lydia runs off with Wickham.

Plot Turn 2:  Darcy helps Lizzie and her sisters by paying Wickham to marry Lydia.

Resolution:  Lizzie and Darcy get married.

Example Othello

Starting Point:  Othello and Desdemona are happily married.

Plot Turn 1:  Iago swears to destroy Othello.

Pinch 1:  Iago plants evidence that Desdemona is having an affair.

Midpoint:  Othello suspects Desdemona of adultery.

Pinch 2:  Othello kills Desdemona.

Plot Turn 2:  Othello learns Desdemona is innocent.

Resolution:  Othello kills himself. 

Example A Tell-Tale Heart

Starting Point:  The narrator insists he’s sane.

Plot Turn 1:  The narrator resolves to murder the old man.

Pinch 1:  The narrator tries eight times but can’t bring himself to do it.

Midpoint:  The narrator succeeds in killing the old man.

Pinch 2:  Police officers come to the house.

Plot Turn 2:  The narrator can hear the old man’s heart beating.

Resolution:  The narrator is insane.

One-Page Plot Outlines

1.  Decide what the story is about by giving the protagonist a goal.  Build a world around the protagonist that makes the goal important to everyone.

-List the protagonist’s goal.

Example:  A career woman puts off having a family and regrets it.  Her goal is to find true love before it’s too late.  Other possible characters:  her mother who wants her happy; colleagues who are equally lonely; a spinster aunt who doesn’t want her making the same mistake. 

2.  Decide what disaster will happen if the goal is not achieved.  The conflict between goal and consequence creates the main dramatic tension.  It makes the plot meaningful.

-Create a list of possible consequences.  Choose one to be the counterpoint to the goal.

Example:  She could end up like her spinster aunt who died home alone.

3. Decide what must be accomplished to achieve the goal.  As requirements are met, it generates anticipation for the protagonist’s success.

-List events that need to happen to achieve the goal.

Example:  She needs to join a dating service.  She needs to take a leave of absence.

4.  Decide what could happen to prevent such progress.  These events are counterpoints to what must be accomplished.  They lead toward the disaster forewarned, creating anxiety — an emotional roller coaster between hope and fear.  Pair an accomplishment with a failure.  This increases tension and creates plot momentum.

-List events that could serve as forewarnings of disaster.

Example:  She has a series of bad dates.  A woman at the singles club tells her all the good men are taken.  A friend’s messy divorce shows her marriage doesn’t always equal happiness.

5.  Decide what sacrifices the protagonist will make.  The goal or problem must be important.  If trivial, the protagonist (and readers) can’t get worked up.  Show its importance through sacrifice or suffering.  If costs are steep, readers feel the protagonist more deserving.

-List costs the protagonist might face to achieve the goal.

Example:  She gives up a great promotion that requires excessive travel.

6.  Decide what rewards the protagonist will get.  They provide a counterpoint to costs.  They aren’t necessary to achieve the goal, and might not be directly related, but they aren’t possible without the protagonist’s journey.

-List ways to reward the protagonist.

Example:  Her efforts to meet men prompt her to start a dating service of her own.

7.  Decide on a few prerequisite events for requirements to occur.  They add a layer of challenge.  As they are met, readers feel progress is being made toward the goal.

-Look at the requirements and list possible prerequisite events.

Example:  She has to buy a new wardrobe or get a make-over before she begins her quest.

8.  Decide what small impediments can occur to hinder the protagonist.  They are smaller versions of forewarnings, stipulations laid down by certain characters that make it more difficult to achieve the goal.

-List possible preconditions the protagonist might encounter.

Example:  She can’t date on Fridays because her company makes managers attend meetings early Saturday morning.

Hollywood Formula

This is a plot structure commonly used to write “blockbuster” movies but also to write books.  It’s built on the concept of three characters and three acts.

“In Act 1: you get your character up a tree. In Act 2: you throw rocks at him. In Act 3: you get him down from the tree.” — Billy Wilder

Three Characters

-The story has three important characters.  Everyone else is background.

-The protagonist must want something concrete, an achievable goal.  It can’t be, find happiness, get rich or save the world.  They have to find happiness by marrying the prince, get rich by robbing a bank or save the world by blowing up a comet on a collision course with Earth.  In Die Hard, John Maclean, a cop from New York, is the protagonist.  He wants to rescue his wife from terrorists who are holding her, and others, hostage.

-The antagonist actively tries to stop the protagonist from achieving the goal.  Antagonists might know they are working against the protagonist or might not know and just be working on their own agenda.  In Die Hard, FBI agents are the antagonist.  They want to do things “by the book” and stop the terrorists no matter what the cost.

-The relationship character is closely tied to the protagonist, but doesn’t necessarily have to be family or a romantic interest.  They might be a mentor or a sympathetic ear.  In Die Hard, Al the street cop is the relationship character.  He talks Maclean through difficult moments and otherwise supports him.

Three Acts

-The story is broken into three broad parts called acts.

-Act 1:  The three main characters are introduced.  Their goals are revealed.  The who, what, where, when and why of the story is established.  The act ends with the protagonist making a “fateful decision” that propels the rest of the story forward.  It comprises 25% of the story.  In Die Hard, Maclean chooses to stay in the building which has been overtaken by terrorists in order to save his wife.   

-Act 2:  This is the main part of the story.  The protagonist makes attempts to achieve the goal while the antagonist works in opposition.  The protagonist usually goes through two major reversals.  The relationship character offers support, becomes a complication, eases the situation, or makes it worse.  The act ends with the protagonist at his or her lowest point.  It comprises 50% of the story.  In Die Hard, Maclean has gotten to the point where his feet are cut up by glass, he only has one bullet left and FBI agents are about to do something stupid he can’t stop.

-Act 3:  Here the protagonist fights — literally or otherwise — to the end.  It’s the final conflict that leads to the protagonist either overcoming the antagonist, or failing horribly if it’s a tragedy.  It comprises 25% of the story.  In Die Hard, the FBI is taken out of the equation, Maclean confronts terrorist Hans Gruber, and he is reunited with his wife.

2 thoughts on “Writing Tips – Plotting

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