Posts Tagged Plot
Are you making an outline for NaNoWriMo?
We all need different levels of planning. Some writers like a step-by-step map so they can settle back and enjoy telling the story to the page. Others want the joy of discovery while their fingers are flying.
However you do it – whether formally beforehand or as your wordcount builds, these are the questions you need to tackle. (And even if you’re not doing NaNoWriMo, you might find them useful.)
Why is this story going to grab a reader?
All stories need to dangle a lure – an element of intrigue, the remarkable, the sense of something unstable, a disturbance. That could be:
- a literal outrage like a murder
- a dilemma that puts a character in an impossible position
- an event that appears to be ordinary to you or me, but is a profound challenge in the character’s life.
Unless you are deliberately exploring the ‘anti-remarkable’, ask yourself what will make the reader curious from the start? Something exciting? Something weird? Something horrifying, unjust or wrong? Something comical? Something the readers will recognise as part of their own lives? This will probably be your way into the story too.
Why are your protagonists and antagonists compelled to take part in the story? Why couldn’t they just turn around and walk away?
What is the first change that starts the story rolling?
Why does the story begin where it does? Have you started too soon, in order to get set-up in? Might you be better cutting those scenes and filling in the back story at natural moments further in? Or have you started too late and missed some moments the reader will enjoy?
How does it escalate?
No matter how bad the situation looks from the start, it needs to get worse or the story will seem stuck. As the narrative goes on, the events and what people do must matter more. The price of failure must rise. If you’re writing in conventional three-act structure, which movies follow, there will be definite points where the story shifts into new gears – these will be the quarter, half-way and three-quarter marks. But even if you aren’t, you need a point where everything totally blows up, and a moment where the characters feel the worst has happened.
I never would have thought…
How does the story take directions the reader wouldn’t have guessed – and how will you convince them that they are fair?
Is it still the same quest as it was at the start?
Most stories start with the main characters wanting or needing something, but that goal can change. A simple search for a lost dog becomes a crusade against the fur trade. Perhaps at the end your characters want the opposite to the thing they fought so hard for in the early days. Stories where the characters’ priorities shift are very powerful. Stories where they don’t can seem predictable.
In the end…
What does your ending resolve? How has the characters’ world changed? Can the story really go no further? Is anything left unresolved – and if it is, does that suit your needs?
Speed is of the essence in NaNoWriMo and it’s much easier to write characters when you’ve spent time getting into their skins.
Do you know a few trivialities about their daily lives? You might need a hobby for them to do to get themselves out of the way, or a commitment that might put them on a particular road when something happens. Have a list of a few likely trivialities about your characters, and then when you need one you don’t have to stop the flow.
But if you don’t have time for that, just insert a tag such as [findout] and come back to it in the revision.
Much more important is to know how they relate to each other in the story – because the best plot moments will grow from friction and alliances. Do you know who gets on with whom (or would if they got the chance to meet)? Which characters would never understand each other? If you gave them all the same challenge, how would they show their different mettles? Which story events will really push someone’s buttons?
That’s my template for starting a NaNo novel. What would you add? Share in the comments!
You can find tips for researching, outlining and what makes a robust story in my book, Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. Available on Kindle and in print. You also might like my multimedia course with Joanna Penn – more than 4 hours of audio and slides with an 86-page transcription – find it here.
I first suggested it in my purple writing book Nail Your Novel, as part of the section on revision, and it must have struck a chord because time and again it gets picked up by other writers around the blogosphere. Here’s KM Weiland and here it is most recently being passed on by Larry Brooks, at all stations from Jenna Bayley-Burke to Porter Anderson.
Since it’s proving so useful, I thought I’d take a more in-depth look at why we might do this.
But first, here’s what you do (from Nail Your Novel)
Imagine you are writing a blurb or a review and that you have understood everything the writer was trying to do. Be specific about the story, the themes and the mood…
When might you do this?
You could do it when you embark on major revisions, to firm up your ideas before you hack and slay. Or any time you’ve got in a muddle and lost faith. What you do is step back and write how you would like the book to work if all problems were solved. If you step away from the details and look at the big picture, you often find you are not as lost as you think. Whether you knew it or not, you have strong, specific ideas about what the book would be.
What should you put in it? Everything distinctive and exciting about your novel. This might be any or all of:
- how the themes will work
- the influence of the setting and what it brings to the story
- the functions the characters might perform; perhaps whether they will be likable or not – and why that will be enjoyable
- what the set-pieces are
- why the big reveals will pack such a punch
- the literary traditions the novel might fit into, if that’s your bag
- the kind of readers who might enjoy it
- if you’re planning a non-linear structure or something tricksy like two narrators, why that was a clever move.
You can probably see you have to do a bit of head-scratching, so this exercise is good for making you justify – and understand – your creative decisions.
The title of this post suggests you do it when stuck, but it’s also a very useful exercise to do it at the start, as a mission statement for what you hope the book will be. Especially in that first flush of enthusiasm when the idea is seductive and brilliant. When you’re courageous and undaunted – you simply know it will be good. It’s good to harness that for later when the honeymoon’s over.
Novels take so darn long to write that there usually comes a time when we’ve lost perspective. We confuse ourselves with infinite possibilities. We may even suspect we’ve ruined everything. If you wrote your ideal version review to start with, you have something to pull you back together. Even if the novel changes substantially in the writing, it’s useful to have a record of this early, optimistic vision. (It might have got richer, more sophisticated. Or you may find that fundamentally you’re still on course.)
Most of all, this exercise gives us confidence. By confidence I don’t just mean feeling better; I mean clarity and boldness in the way we handle our material. We can pitch the mood, decide what themes to highlight, what word choices fit, what’s superflous. We can strengthen character motivations and plot. Novels that work well know where they’re going.
So if you’re feeling lost, write yourself a rave review. Spoil yourself and strengthen your novel.
Thanks for the pic Bidrohi >H!ROK<
Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence is available on Kindle and in print. Sign up for my newsletter! Add your name to the mailing list here.
”He hummed Cole Porter – so anachronistic in those days of psychedelic rock’n’roll’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Anne R Allen
My guest this week is another writer who usually keeps music well away from her workspace. But when she unearthed a note written to her by an enigmatic friend from her college days, she found herself drawn to the music that reminded her of him – Ella Fitzgerald’s legendary recording of the Cole Porter songbook on the Verve label. The novel that resulted is The Gatsby Game, and its author, Anne R Allen, talks about its undercover soundtrack today on the red blog.
I just finished a novel I should have loved. As I read the climactic scenes I could see how they were supposed to work. A scene brought certain ends dramatically together. A character’s action had poetic parallels. Certain lines of dialogue resonated with the themes and echoed a casual utterance early on. The twist should have been an exquisite emotional ambush. A character was symbolically repeating acts from earlier in the story.
Neat as it was, dramatic as it was – it left me cold.
Because I didn’t care about the characters.
Drama isn’t about intellectual parallels or puzzle solving. Drama works on the heart, not the head.
It’s the same with beginnings. The usual advice to start a story with something attention grabbing can mistakenly be translated into a big bang for its own sake. A car crash, a bomb going off, a chase or a fight. They work much better if we know the people these events are happening to – if they matter to us.
Drama isn’t a bang, it’s a fright, a clench of anxiety. It’s not the event, it’s the feeling. And at the end of a book, the events, parallels, thematic repetitions are simply box-ticking if we’re not bonded to the characters at a closer emotional level.
So I looked back at where I became so detached reading that book. It all hinged around the central romantic relationship.
I didn’t see the relationship matter very much to the narrator. I didn’t see him pin hopes on it, worry about it or indeed react to it in any strong way. I didn’t see what life might be like if it went wrong.
It’s easy for writers to take the reader’s reaction to a relationship for granted. And of course, you don’t want too much hand-wringing or moping, but you do need to remind us, with story sleight of hand, that it’s important.
Also, it’s easy to forget to intrigue us. If the narrator is intrigued by the other character, make us captivated by them too.
Anyway, I came away with a reminder to always ask myself this question. To make my ending work, what do I need the reader to care about?
Thanks for the pic epSOS.de on flickr
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Writers often have trouble deciding where they’re going to start their story. The first chapter takes multiple rewrites, mind-changes, tweaks and deletions. Chapter 1 frequently has more scar tissue than any other part of a novel.
There are so many decisions to make about what to squeeze in and what to leave out. Sometimes writers get carried away and I see novels with any or all of:
- an introduction
- a mission statement
- an explanation of themes
- a foreword (which as a tweeter has pointed out is technically written by someone other than the author)
- a prologue
- or sometimes two prologues.
Often these are little more than instructions for how to read what follows. But there are times when a prologue is welcome. Here’s my guide to using prologues responsibly.
Not all bad
Readers relish prologues when:
- they show us something important that is out of the main story’s timeline, for instance something that would otherwise have to be shown in flashbacks or cumbersome exposition
- they show action or characterisation that the reader needs to understand chapter 1, for instance the start of a war or a quest
- they are vivid and entertaining in their own right
Even prologue enthusiasts do not like:
- an info-dump for its own sake – or back story that should be worked into the main text in a more natural way or was simply not needed (writers are prone to include too much back story and resort to prologues to shoehorn it in)
- when a prologue is really just the first chapter, given a fancy name – if you put prologue at the top, it had better be truly separate
- when a prologue is a rehash of a dramatic moment from later in the story, shown out of order because the start of the book does not have enough of a hook.
However, as with everything arty, there’s a fine balance to be struck. You can get away quite nicely with a prologue that comes from a scene near the end of the novel, to make us wonder how the characters got into such a mess.
Genre makes a difference
Some genres are more forgiving of prologues – fantasy and science fiction, for instance. These readers enjoy being plunged into unfamiliar worlds, and so the scene-setting aspect of a prologue is a helpful device.
But the closer the genre is to the everyday world of the reader, the less necessary a prologue is – because these readers want to be whirled in, immediately, to the people and the story they are going to follow, at the point that is most likely to hold their interest. They want you to unravel everything naturally and with your storytelling skill. However, they don’t mind:
- prologues that show a crisis from near the end of the novel – perhaps the main character on their deathbed or in some sort of showdown
- an event from a point of view that we will never revisit.
If you’re doing the latter, does it need to be a prologue? Many thrillers start with a startling event that happens to a character we will most likely never see again – quite often their gruesome demise. But these are usually called chapter 1. Why? Because they are the start of the story. Even though we’re probably not going to hear a squeak from those unfortunate characters again. If your opening could quite happily be called chapter 1, you don’t need to call it a prologue.
The first steps are the hardest
Novels are big. It’s always hard to work out how to introduce an enormous work you know intimately to someone who knows nothing about it – and to do justice to it. You’ll find this with the first chapter. You’ll also find it with the pitch you’ll write for an agent or editor, or the sales blurb, or if you try to answer that beastly question ‘what’s your novel about?’.
Sometimes prologues are useful and welcome. But make sure you really, really need one. And you probably don’t need two.
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In the meantime, share your thoughts on prologues – good and bad – and examples if you have any!