Posts Tagged plot structure

Stuck at the beginning of your novel? How to get going

‘Please help,’ wrote the author to me. ‘I’ve been writing a novel, I have a mass of text but no idea how to pull a plot out of it.’

We’re now doing well with the plot. But one big thing is holding her back.

‘Should this be the opening? Or this?’

We don’t know yet, I say. Don’t worry. Write a placeholder scene, and make the decision later.

We talk. We make much progress about themes, events and character arcs. Then my author returns to the question. Should this be part of the beginning? Or this? We haven’t even got to the first plot point. (What’s that? Here are posts about story structure.)

My author is finding it extraordinarily hard, very counter-intuitive, to postpone the decision about the beginning.

Why now is not the time to decide the beginning

Although you have to start somewhere, you cannot decide the proper opening until you know the rest of the book very well. Here’s what an ideal opening has to do.

1 It holds a lot of information back.

(You didn’t expect me to say that.)

2 It tells the reader just enough.

(Just enough for what?)

It tells the reader enough to make promises. About the tone, style, themes. About how the narrative will scrutinise the characters and events. About the issues and experiences the story will explore. Those are deep promises, and you must live up to them. (How do you know which promises to make?)

There’s also a 3:

3 The beginning should intrigue, beguile, ignite the reader’s curiosity. And in a way that’s faithful to 2.

Some beginnings are simpler than others

Beginnings are simpler for genre writers, as the reader’s expectations are relatively well established. But if you’re writing a novel that’s more complex or unconventional, you have to direct the reader to your unique flavour – your themes and angles and interests. You might not yet be aware of them all.

Certainly you won’t know them as you’re assembling the book for the first time, from all your swirling ideas. Perhaps not until you’ve made several revisions. (That’s one of the meanings of revision. Not just rewriting. Re-vision. )

The beginning is somewhere in the end

Here’s a nice cryptic idea. The story’s resolution, the what-it’s-all-about moment, will also be, in some way, signalled in the beginning. Probably obscured, of course.

Why is your ending your ending? Usually because a question is solved or a situation concluded. In some novels, particularly non-genre, you may not be sure at first what you’re solving or concluding. The biggest questions will stir up as you live with your themes, plot and characters, the angles that most attract you as you write and revise. Go with that, let the book become what it becomes. If it’s taking you a surprisingly long time, you might be cheered by this: the slow-burn writer.

Your ending will probably work best if it’s somehow signalled in the beginning, so once you know where the bulk of the book is taking you, you can shade the beginning appropriately. But if you fix the beginning from the start, you may limit your explorations. (There’s more about this in my plot book.)

Start here… for now

Write a placeholder opening, something that gets you going. Don’t worry at all about whether it works for the reader. Make sure it works for you, gets you in the flow. This draft, and probably others that will follow, is for you, your playground, your lab, your quarry, your rehearsal.

The beginning, the official proper beginning, is for the final performance, when you’ve done all the other work and are ready to invite readers in.

(Thanks for the bike picture Paul Harrop.)

PS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here (where you could win many beautiful books) and subscribe to future updates here.

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Three diagrams to make your plot a page-turner

Nail Your Novel unexpected plot developmentsI’ve had this question from Elizabeth Lord: I have just finished your book Nail Your Novel and found it extremely helpful for the rewrite phase of my novel. You mention graphs as a way to see where plots are plodding and character arcs intertwine – do you have any examples?

What a good question! Diagrams coming up.

First, though, a bit of explanation. Readers get bored if the plot appears to be predictable – ie the characters start with a goal and proceed doggedly towards it, step by step by step. This is a linear plot and it looks dead dull, like reading the syllabus for an education course, not a story. So when the characters have a clear goal at the start, we try to introduce developments that upset expectations. They’re going on the Orient Express? Great. Make one of them miss the train. Now everyone has a new problem that matters far more.

The major changes diagram
So your first drawing exercise is to go through the plot looking for points where you throw in a development that changes the characters’ priorities in a significant way. Make a ‘didn’t expect that’ diagram.

Nail Your Novel diagrams 001

You want several of these developments, BTW, and they’ll probably be the main turning points in the story. Note also that they’re emotional. They’re about changing the characters’ goals – the things they want, the things that matter to them. So early in the story, they’re trying to catch a murderer. By the end of the story, they’re trying to stop the murderer killing their wife. Or murderer and detective are embroiled in a towering love affair.

The highs and lows diagram
Another helpful diagram might look at the main characters’ emotional state throughout the book. You want them to feel increasingly pressured and troubled, and you want their worst moment to be the climax of the book. So try a diagram where you look at their levels of joy and achievement versus despair. The joy part isn’t so important, although you want to give your characters a few breaks so that the disasters are more agonising – and also to show what matters to them. Make sure the despair increases in magnitude as the story proceeds.

Nail Your Novel diagrams 003

The un-convenience diagram
You can look for smaller reversals too. You might not realise you’ve made everything too easy for your characters. Every time they need to accomplish something, make it harder than they expect. Or make it backfire. You can check on this by going through your manuscript and drawing a little circle whenever you’ve thwarted your characters.

Nail Your Novel diagrams 002

If you have a lot of little circles, you’ll probably keep your reader gripped. If you haven’t, you know to throw some spanners into their spokes.

Nail Your Novel diagrams 004

Compare your plot strands at a glance
If you have several plot strands or main characters, you could combine them on one diagram and use different colours. Thus you will see, at a glance, how your character arcs intertwine and if you like the harmony of their highs and lows. Or you might spot a general lull where several characters seem to be having a successful run – in that case, it might be good to rework the story and introduce a setback or twist. If you’re the kind of person who has music manuscript paper lying around (how stylish of you), you could draw your diagrams on the staves, like lines for different instruments.

X-ray your plot
The serious point is this: these exercises are ways to extract and visualise important plot mechanisms that might otherwise be invisible to you, and help you fix problems with the structure and pacing. Have fun!

Elizabeth’s question was inspired by a section in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. There’s also a lot more about plot and structure in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth and Heart: Nail Your Novel 3.

Do you draw diagrams to assess your plot – or any other aspect of your book? Share them here!

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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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I’ve started my novel – is it too late to write a plan?

stuckwithoutplanI’ve had this very good question from Alison Strachan, who tweets as @Writingmytruth

What happens when you realise half way through writing that you needed to plan more?

There’s a story I tell in Nail Your Novel about how I learned the value of planning. Years ago, I embarked on a novel, ever so excited, wanting to explore a disturbing incident and see where I’d go. The first chapters galloped along nicely. I read it out to my writing group, who loved it. On I went, flinging ideas down. And soon I realised I didn’t know where the hell I was going. After 60,000 words I gave up. And I’m not a person who does that. It annoyed me intensely.

But I knew the characters were running in pointless circles. I simply couldn’t see a way out of the rut.

60,000 words. What do you do with all that?

I didn’t know then, but I do now. Here’s the cure.

1 Deep breath

It’s okay. You haven’t proved you’re unfit to write a novel. You haven’t ruined your idea.

2 It’s never too late to make a plan

Some novices feel they must write it all perfectly in one go. But seasoned writers might stop, start and re-start many times before the book is finally ready.

Once the manuscript is finished and handed to an editor or an agent, it’s likely that their critique will suggest extensive changes – especially if you’re learning the ropes. Some of these mean you have to re-plan on a fundamental scale, including character arcs, plot, structure and pacing. Welcome to rewriting.

So that means … even if you’re a chunk of the way into the book, it’s not too late to make drastic changes. Heck, it’s not even unusual.

3 You haven’t even wasted your time

All that stuff you wrote isn’t junk. It’s browsing. Some of the scenes you’ll be able to use as they are. Others will need to be rewritten, deleted or replaced. Relabel the file as ‘development notes’ and you’ll feel more comfortable about changing it.

4 Take control

Now you need to understand the material you’ve already got. My favourite tool is the beat sheet – a summary of the purpose of each scene as it is at the moment. Don’t judge whether they’re good or bad; that comes later. For the time being, you’re making a map of what you’ve already written. Another way to do this is by summarising each plot event on cards or a spreadsheet. Once you can see the book at a glance, you can figure out how to use this material or whether to delete it. You can also plan more events and scenes to the end of the book.

5 Restore your faith

The chances are you’re not as keen on the idea as you used to be. To rescue a book, you need to reconnect with the initial spark, see its potential once more. You might have some early notes you made right at the start – see if these rekindle your excitement to make a story. If you haven’t got any, start a new file and write yourself a note about the qualities of the idea that first inspired you.

Perhaps you’ve moved on from the original idea. If you’ve learned there are different depths to mine, that’s good. Write a new mission statement.

Or is it time to move on?

I never actually returned to that 60k draft, and sometimes our early attempts are not fit to be developed further. What they teach us is more important than the content. I still think there’s mileage in those characters and their situation, but they need a bigger spark to get them working properly. I’m not taking them on again until I’ve found it.

That’s creativity

When I think about it, a good half of writing is rescue and salvage. Sorting out muddles and solving problems. If you’re writing and you suspect you should have made a plan, your instinct has just told you something important. Do whatever helps you get control of your material. There’s no wrong time to realise this. Except when you’ve hit ‘publish’…

nyn1 reboot ebook biggerYou can, as you’ve probably guessed, find plenty of tips like this in Nail Your Novel, original flavour.

Thanks for a great question, Alison. Guys, what would you tell her? Share in the comments!


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