Posts Tagged plotting

The opening act – what the reader needs to understand (with help from KM Weiland)

for lf3 023It’s planning time on The Mountains Novel. I have the scenes spread out on cards and the dining table is out of bounds (see Two authors in the house).

At the moment I’m taking a hard look at the set-up chapters. Of course I’ve got my own spider sense, but it’s rather fun to have a guide to remind me of what I might not be seeing. (And what I might be ignoring because, well, to change it would be inconvenient.) So I’m sharing the fun with KM Weiland’s rather useful new book Structuring Your Novel.

Today,  she is reminding me what I need by the first plot point, roughly a quarter of the way through my story.

Introduce the setting and world

I need to establish where the story takes place, what era, what special things might be interesting or significant about the world. A setting isn’t just any old backdrop. It’s the perfect resonant environment for themes and the characters’ plights. I’m making sure my beginning gives inklings of this, while still seeming entirely natural.

Introduce the main characters

By the end of act one, I need to have the major characters established. The reader must know who they are, what makes them individuals (and distinct from each other), what their beliefs and dilemmas are, where the instabilities and disturbances might be in their lives. Even if I’m going to reveal more later, I have to give the reader enough to provoke their curiosity.

Make the reader care

Curiosity isn’t enough. The reader must feel emotionally bonded to my protagonists. Whether they’re Mr Average or someone extraordinary, I need to show their humanity. Indiana Jones has a fear of snakes; Winston Smith feels an urge to write a diary even though it’s against the rules. (In Winston’s case, his streak of humanity is going to draw him into danger. If I can combine any of these set-up steps, that will look very smart.)

Establish the need and the stakes

By the end of act one, the reader needs to understand what the main characters want. Perhaps they want to solve a crime or murder their uncle. Perhaps they want to stop their family finding out about their secret life. The reader must also understand why this is so personally important – and what failure will cost them. This is the other half of making the story matter.

Back story on a need-to-know basis

There’s quite a lot of background to establish, but it must be done – as much as possible – with scenes that advance the plot, rather than pages of explanation. Back story is important, of course, but we need to earn the space for it. Deploy back story only when the reader is hungry to know.

Add an element that makes sense of the ending

The story’s ending must resonate with the beginning. Perhaps it answers a question, solves a problem, resolves an imbalance. But if the seeds of the end aren’t in the opening, it will not be so satisfying.

The first big change at the quarter mark

Just as I have all that bubbling, I have to push the story over a point of no return. The characters make a choice, cross a Rubicon. Perhaps disaster strikes – and that dreaded event becomes reality. Why is this a quarter of the way through? As Katie points out, readers – and moviegoers – have an innate story clock. No matter how interested and enthralled they are, if you don’t shift the goalposts at a quarter through, they’ll feel the story is slow.

And now to work

strRight. I’ve got some fine-tuning to do on the beginning of The Mountains Novel. If you follow me on Twitter you’ll know that KM Weiland is one of my favourite writing bloggers. Her book is as clear and wise as her blog posts and I recommend it – whether you’re writing beginnings, middles or ends.

In the meantime, tell me: what stage are you at with your WIP?

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The ABBA of plotting: video at Beyondaries

beyondmammaI’m at Chila Woychik’s Beyondaries ezine today, musing about what it might have been like to take ABBA’s back catalogue and try to write the plot of Mamma Mia. Those of you who’ve followed this blog since its first days might recognise the post. It was one of my very earliest, but evapourated when I moved from self-hosting. So here it is again with hand-waving. (If you remember it from – gulp – 2009, wave back in the comments.)

As before, I’m in stimulating company at Beyondaries. Dan Holloway writes about fusing perfume and poetry. Shannon Elizabeth Hardwick talks about tackling the blank page. Grace Bridges talks about stories as ‘the thin places where realities merge’. Small press editor Gray Rinehart describes life as gatekeeper of a slush pile. And proprietrix Chila talks about creativity in the very atoms of the air.

nyn2covsmlIn the meantime, I’m taking a blogging break this weekend while I plough on with the next book. Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters To Life is due for release in May, so if you’re interested to know more, sign up for my newsletter.

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A site to help you fill the gaps in your story outline

I’m shuffling ideas for The Venice Novel and I’ve come across a fantastic site that’s helping me clarify where I want to take the story.

It’s called Television Tropes and Idioms. But don’t be fooled by its name. Tropes doesn’t mean cliches; it means story conventions and readers’ expectations. In fact, you can use the site as a cliche and stereotype warning – it tells you what’s already been done to death so you can keep your story and characters fresh and original. And the site includes movies and novels as well – of all types, all genres (and even stories that don’t fit easily anywhere).

I’m using it to fill gaps. At the moment I have a rudimentary cast of characters and a fundamental conflict, so I need to see what else could gather around it. Poking around in the subject sections (‘topical tropes’, in the left sidebar) suggested a lot more places I could take the characters and ways to develop the plot. It also gave me ideas for more defined roles my characters could play.

If you want to hit a particular genre, zip down the left-hand sidebar and look up ‘literature’ and you’ll find a list of categories to clarify where you fit. You can also check you’ve covered enough bases to satisfy readers and identify possibilities you might not have thought of.

But even if you don’t fit traditional pigeonholes (like certain folks I could mention), you can look up story ingredients, such as ‘war’, ‘betrayal’ or ‘family’ – just for instance, under the latter you get a delicious sub-list with suggestions like ‘amicably divorced’, ‘hippie parents’, ‘dysfunctional’.

Some writers get their first inspirational spark from a setting – if that’s you, you can research how other authors have done your setting justice, from pre-history to ‘4000 years from now (and no jetpack)’.

One of the other things I like about it – very much – is its tone. No judgements are made about whether genres are fashionable, overworked, lowbrow or highbrow. It’s all about celebrating how stories work – or sometimes don’t. As we know, that comes down to the writer’s skill anyway, not whether a ‘subject’  is en vogue. And after a few hours in the company of their rather breezy descriptions, not only will you be better informed, you will be spurred to avoid the lazy story decision.

If you’re sprucing up your outline – especially as NaNoWriMo looms – spend an afternoon exploring Television Tropes and give your story a thorough workout.

Do have any go-to sites when you’re planning a novel – and how do you use them? 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.

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Repost: Nail NaNoWriMo! A routine to help you finish

As NaNoWriMo gets under way, how are you doing?

Are you finding NaNoWriMo easier than you thought it would be, or harder?

I’ve never done NaNoWriMo because other projects have got in the way, but I have had to write several novels to tight deadlines – 50,000 words in two months, finished and ready for a publisher to see. It was effectively two NaNoWriMos back to back, which I did several times. I had detailed synopses, but I had to just get my head down and pound out the words. It taught me a thing or two about keeping myself at the keyboard.

Here are my top seven tips.

1. Are you getting into the scenes enough? If you’ve written a synopsis, you’ll have summarised everything. The first draft is where you turn it into living, breathing scenes. That’s how you meet the wordcount, because it takes a lot more words to write a scene blow by blow than it does to say ‘Vanessa confronts the woman who betrayed her’. In your NaNo draft, DO NOT summarise anything. Show, not tell. Try writing to music – it can help you immerse yourself. If scented candles do it for you, give yourself a Proustian boost!

2. Are you worried about the quality of what you’re writing? Don’t be. NaNoWriMo is about inventing. Editing is not allowed until the month starts with a D but you might be better leaving it until J is involved. You can’t edit as you invent, your brain doesn’t work that wayand you’ll never make the wordcount if you stop to fret over what you’ve written. So let the scenes unfold in your head, write down what’s happening and to hell with how it reads.

3. Are you getting stuck in your story? Use reincorporation. Find a thing or a character you put in the story before and work it back in to solve your problem. This is the single most useful way to solve a story problem.

4. Are you giving yourself enough credit? Make yourself visual awards. Find a way to visually represent how far you’ve got – a thermometer with coloured bars, a graph climbing slowly skywards, or any combination of these. Put them up in your work area. Yes this is just like in infants’ school where the teacher puts up rows of stars. We are primitive at heart. Reward your inner child for writing so much.

5. How NaNo is your environment? Theme your writing area. If you’ve made an ideas scrapbook for your novel, put up pictures and make the edges of your monitor or your desk into a mood board. Change them regularly to keep your interest and sense of immersion, or to kick-start your writing for the day. In December, tinsel and stuff helps you feel Christmassy; in November, decorate for NaNoWriMo.

6. Will you be derailed if you miss a day or fall behind? Everybody falls behind a little, because we all have lives to live as well as books to write. A sudden birthday or crisis need not derail your NaNo plan. Make sure your writing plan includes some slack so you can steal back time if you need to. If it doesn’t, rewrite it NOW, while you still have plenty of room for manoeuvre.

7. Remember NaNoWriMo is an experiment. You are experimenting with your muse and your writing habits by setting yourself a challenge – and a difficult one. Experiments don’t fail or pass; they produce what they produce. Some of it will be nonsense, and some will be sublime invention. This is why it’s a good thing to do, despite what its critics will say. Stay the distance and see what happens. Enjoy the journey and the surprises. That’s what it’s all about.

If you’re doing NaNoWriMo this year, how’s it going? Post up a link in the comments to let us all cheer you on! If you’re a past WriMo, what advice would you give to this year’s runners?

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.

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