This post was originally published on Write Anything, October 22, 2008.
Plot happens. Or in my case, it doesn’t happen enough.
I apologize for the lateness of this post, but plot … *insert heavy sigh here* is indeed my Achilles heel.
I normally have no problem finding ideas, settling on a (vague) character or finding that character’s voice, but plot … I have a problem with.
I think, at heart, I’m a short story writer. I can whip out short stories like nobody’s business, but when it comes to stories longer than 4,000 words? My brain completely locks up. I never know where to go, which way to turn and my stories tend to veer off the main highway and before long, I’m out in the middle of rural imagination land scratching my head and wondering how in the world do I find the road back to my original premise.
So, writing about plot? Is NOT an easy thing for me. However, I’ll try my best to make this post coherent and informative – for both you AND me. (And if you have anything to add, you’re MORE than welcome to do so!)
Plot, in essence, is the board, or frame, for your story puzzle pieces. You take an idea, snap on a few characters, insert them into a POV, border it with conflict and voila! You have a plot for your story.
Oh, if only it were that easy.
I’ll be referencing several areas from James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure because it truly is an invaluable how-to plot resource guide. If you don’t have this book, I recommend buying it – now.
You might be one of those writers who likes to have their story all worked out in your mind before you write your novel. You preplan, plan, revise the plan before writing. Perhaps you have index cards all over your wall or desk as you read this. (Guilty?)
Or, you might be one of those seat-of-the-pants writers who loves to plop down each day at the computer or over a pad of paper and just write, letting your story flow without planning, anxious to see where your story takes you.
Or, you could also be a ‘tweener (*raises hand*) who does a bit of planning but still seeks some surprises and spontaneity.
Which ever method you use, you have to ask yourself one question: Does it connect with readers? After all, that is the purpose behind plot.
Readers are subconsciously asking these questions when they open books:
What’s this story about?
Is anything happening?
Why should I keep reading?
Why should I care?
These are all plot questions, and if you want to make it as a writer of novel-length fiction, you must learn how to answer them.
There are a few basic plot elements, that if understood and applied, will help you come up with a solid plot every time.
Let’s talk about Bell’s LOCK system:
L is for Lead
A strong plot starts with an interesting Lead character. In the best plot, that Lead is compelling, someone we have to watch throughout the course of the novel.
O is for Objective
Objective is the driving force of fiction. It generates forward motion and keeps the Lead from just sitting around. An objective can take either of two forms: to get something, or to get away from something.
C is for Confrontation
Opposition from characters and outside forces brings your story full to life. Readers want to fret about the Lead, keeping an intense emotional involvement (and investment) all the way through the novel.
K is for Knockout
Readers of commercial fiction want to see a knockout at the end. A literary novel can play with a bit more ambiguity. In either case, the ending must have knockout power. A great ending can leave the reader satisfied, even if the rest of the book is somewhat weak. But a weak ending will leave the reader with a feeling of disappointment, even if the book up to that point is strong.
Now that you know the key points, you need to structure your plot. Plot is about elements, those things that go into the mix of making a good story even better. Structure is about timing – where in the mix those elements go. You need a three-act structure: beginning, middle and end.
For a breakdown of these three-act structures, you really must read Plot & Structure, but in essence, “a plot is about a Lead character who has an objective, something crucial to his well-being. The major portion of plot is the confrontation with the opposition, a series of battles over the objective. This is resolved in a knockout ending, an outcome that satisfies the story questions and the readers.”
But how do you come up with a plot that people will want to read about?
Bell suggests you ask yourself a series of questions. Here are a few to consider:
What do you care most about in the world? (If you care, you’ll write with passion. If you write with passion, that passion will transfer to the readers and they will care right along with you).
What is your physical appearance? How do you feel about it? How does it affect you?
What do you fear most?
What secret in your life do you hope is never revealed?
What is your philosophy of life?
“Answering these questions opens up a door into your own soul. From that viewpoint, you can better evaluate plot ideas. Does the story you’re considering hit a nerve inside you? If not, why write it?”
Here are seven of the twenty plots suggested in 20 Master Plots by Ronald B. Tobias:
1. Quest: as the name implies, quest is the protagonist’s search for a person, place or thing, tangible or intangible. (This will be the crux of my NaNoWriMo story).
2. Wretched Excess: people who push the limits of acceptable behavior, either by choice or by accident. This fascination for people who inhabit the margins of society is what makes this plot so interesting.
3. Sacrifice: your protagonist is sacrificing something from his/her life whether it’s physical or spiritual.
4. Forbidden Love: think Romeo and Juliet here.
5. Transformation: deals with the process of change in the protagonist as she journeys through one of the many stages of life.
6. Underdog: the protagonist is faced with overwhelming odds.
7. Temptation: the story of the frailty of human nature. If to sin is human, it human to give in to temptation.
We’ll cover constructing plots tomorrow, but for now, let’s talk about common plot problems and how to solve them.
Scenes That Fall Flat:
Always make sure scenes have tension in them. Even when characters are calm and relatively quiet, there should be an undercurrent signaling that things are not as calm as they seem.
Every scene should have that moment or exchange that is the hot spot, or the focal point.
There is an inherent plot problem when you use flashbacks – the forward momentum is stopped for a trip to the past. If not used properly, the reader can get frustrated or impatient. The following are tips when using flashbacks:
1. Necessity – is it absolutely necessary?
2. Function – make sure it works as a scene. Write it as a unit of dramatic action, not as an information dump.
3. Navigation – getting in and out of a flashback can be tricky, so make sure it flows naturally. For example, write in a strong, sensory detail that triggers the flashback.
The tangent is a side road that was not on your original plot map. It is a suggestion of your writer’s mind. You can ignore the tangent and move on, or you can follow the tangent for a while because it could lead to a better idea. Bell suggests that instead of continuing with your story, open up a new document and follow the tangent. If it fits with the rest of your story, copy and paste it into your story. If it doesn’t, keep it, it may come in handy for future stories.
Resisting the Character for the Sake of the Plot:
Sometimes, your characters will want to take over. Let them. See where they lead you. It could add a whole new element to your story.
The part of your story that slows down and appears sluggish. Here are some suggestions to get past this point:
1. Go back. Is there some place in your earlier pages that seems dull? Or beside the point? Have you lost sight of the Lead’s objective at any point? Keep going back until you find a spot where you felt good about the writing, about beingn on track. Come up with a better scene idea than the one that is already there.
2. Jump Cut. Jump to the next scene, move your characters forward in time, put them in a different location, if you wish. Sometimes jumping ahead can help you connect your story later.
What if your imagination shuts down? There’s nothing there. Don’t panic – it happens to all of us at one point or another.
1. Recharge your battery. Write through it. Give yourself permission to be bad. Write first, polish later. (Hence NaNoWriMo. *smile*)
2. Relive your scenes. Not rewrite. Relive. Have you ever imagined yourself to be the characters? Tried to feel what they are feeling? Then try it. Let the characters improvise. Don’t like what they came up with? Rewind the scene and try it again.
3. Recapture your vision. What does you novel utlimately mean? What is it saying about life beyond the confines of the plot? How does it illuminate your vision of life? Every story has a meaning.
To outline, or not to outline? That truly is every writer’s question. And unfortunately, there is no fast and easy answer. It really all depends on you, the writer. You’ll need to experiment with both methods to find what works for you. Bell’s section on Plotting Systems (Chapter 10) offers some great advice for the NOP’s (the no outline people) and the OP’s (the outline people) complete with step-by-step methods you can try for yourself. But the bottom line is – what works for you? There’s only one way to find out – experiment.
Bell writes, “What makes a plot truly memorable is not all of the action, but what the action does to the character. We respond to the character who changes, who endures the crucible of the story only to emerge a different person at the end.
“So, look to create character change in your novels in a way that deepens the plot and expresses a theme. For when a character learns something or suffers because he changes for the worse, it is an expression by the author about the larger canvas – not merely what happens in the novel, but what happens in life.”
Lastly: Constructing Scenes