Posts Tagged Plot
7 swift storytelling hacks for back story, description, dialogue, exposition, point of view and plot
I’ve just finished a developmental edit and, as always, I enjoyed how it refreshed my appreciation of storytelling essentials.
I thought I’d share them here in case they’re useful.
Don’t make back story about the past. Let back story tell us about the characters in the present. Their attitudes, aspirations, aversions, aptitudes… Also, remember back story is only half the equation. The other half is how it affected that individual.
Physical description does more than create a visual image of a character – this person is tall, this person has long hair. It also tells us about the experience of being in someone’s presence. For instance, a person might have an unsmiling aura that makes other people feel like they’ve said the wrong thing. Or a worried expression, as if they’re always expecting calamity.
Some writers always tell us about characters’ eyes, or the kind of shoes someone wears. That’s fine if they have one narrator or viewpoint character, but if they have several, it looks weird. Vary your descriptive tics!
Actions can help with description too. If characters are having a conversation and one of them pushes their hands through their hair, what is conveyed by that action? Is it a random fidget, a gesture of thinking? Is it a reaction so something the other person has said?
Which brings me to…
Dialogue is more than information. It is a way for characters to affect each other, and for the reader to witness it. Think beyond speech. Show how the characters maybe make each other uncomfortable, or amuse each other, or infuriate each other. Or how one is comfortable and one is not. So don’t miss out reactions in dialogue – they’re just as important as what characters are saying.
This usually works best if it has an emotional dimension – the character notices something because it illuminates something about their mood or feelings. So they might notice the décor because they are irritated by it, maybe because it reminds them of something they once hated; or they might feel cheered up by it.
There are two narrative steps to giving information (exposition). Step one is the information you want to give the reader. Step two is finding a way to give it that is as natural, interesting and intriguing as possible. Usually, you have to give it in a way that also serves another purpose – such as demonstrating something about the viewpoint character. It might show us they’re good at something, or afraid of something, or traumatised by something – or bad at something! Check you’ve done both steps – create the information (eg character background), then make it serve another narrative purpose as well.
Choosing point of view
When you have an event that could be described from a number of viewpoints, opt for the one that will experience most discomfort. This may not always be the person who is doing the most action – it might be someone who is observing, thinking ‘what on earth am I going to do about this?’
If you’re ever stuck for a plot idea, look for your characters’ interesting difficulties. Write your prose so that it highlights struggle, conflict, hard decisions. That way, you’ll keep the reader gripped.
And on the subject of writing, here’s what’s been happening in my creative world this month.
Novels in progress will always have rough patches and individual quirks, but there are certain common issues I routinely see that have quite simple fixes. Here are a few – and they can make a big difference.
Crucial event is underplayed or buried
Does an event change a character’s emotional state or world view? Does it make them change what they want, or strengthen their resolve? Make sure you haven’t buried it in a hasty paragraph of background or other explanation. These shifts in priorities are milestones in the story. Try showing them in real time so the reader experiences them. If a key event happens before the story timeline, consider making it a flashback.
Big reveal… falls flat
Is your big reveal a damp squib? I’ve read many climax scenes that fail to ignite, but I can tell the author was hoping they would be a thunderbolt. On some level, they know what they want … but they haven’t clarified it. Often it helps to dig into your ideas about why this moment will be so important. Write a mission statement – what do you want the reader to feel when they read this scene or revelation? Freewrite and brainstorm – you might not have given it much thought before now. Once you know what effect you’re looking for, consider what you should add in the earlier parts of the story to make it happen. Does it give the main character some important answers? What answers? And have you asked the questions earlier on? Is the moment a bigger, thematic connection, a sense of order being restored? Look back in the text – have you established a sense of instability, the world gone wrong?
Plot events make no sense
Are your plot events believable? If not, it may be because you haven’t established a plausible motivation, or given context. If we don’t know why a character does something, their actions might seem random or even dumb. What happens is important, but why is more important. Sort out the why – and you can make us believe pretty much anything (usually).
Thanks for the aurora borealis pic Patrick Shyu
Have you had to tackle any of these issues in your work? Have you spotted them in someone else’s – or even in published books? Let’s discuss!
These tips have come from my mentoring work with writers. If you found them useful there are plenty more in my books on character and plot … and let me discreetly mention that a set of Nail Your Novel paperbacks makes a terrific present for other scribblers you know, or even for yourself…
If you’re exploring characters for your story, this exercise might help. Triskele Books is holding a creative writing summer school and I’ve contributed this snippet to uncover interesting tensions that make a scene sizzle. And once you’re there, you’ll find several other storybending assignments from seasoned fictioneers. Step this way.
Husband Dave and I have recently been watching the Showtime series Ray Donovan. And sometimes, we’re finding the storytelling is rather uneven.
Interesting developments pop up that seem to promise a new and unexpected direction for the plot. Instead, though, they’re defused and then the main story trots along again, pretty much unaffected.
Here’s an example. Ray is a hired troubleshooter for the rich and famous, and has a few skeletons in the closet. In the first season he’s pursued by an FBI agent of formidable reputation; we’re told he always gets his man. This seems to be setting up a potent adversary. But then the writers then did their best to hustle him out of the story.
First they made him into a figure of fun by spiking his coffee with LSD. Then he’s shot by one of the characters. It’s clear the writers didn’t want to let him cause big trouble, so they got rid of him. (And in case you’re wondering, the shooting doesn’t seem to have had any consequences either.)
This seems to happen a lot in the Ray Donovan scripts. Interesting obstacles pop up that promise a swerve into a more serious gear. But they’re neutralised, and in a way that looks rushed or unbelievable.
For the audience, it’s terribly frustrating. If a serious problem arises, we want to see it cause lasting trouble. And we want it to have serious, unpredictable consequences. We don’t want it to be solved, and for everything to continue as before.
Last week I talked about rookie plotting errors, and this was one of them. Tunnel vision; not giving brilliant plot ideas enough development. No of course I’m not suggesting the Ray Donovan writers are rookies. But there’s another characteristic reason that this problem arises – when writing to a deadline. When a daily quota must be filled. And when the writer has to fit an overall outline.
In TV, a writer probably doesn’t have much leeway to alter the master series arc. They have to fit the show runner’s mission. But if you’re writing a novel, you’re the master. If you’ve made an outline, you can change it, even if you’re rattling the words out against a deadline.
Here’s a plan to examine a show-stopping idea without losing control.
- Acknowledge – stop and look that idea firmly in the eye. Might it upset your plans? A sure sign is if you’re already looking for a way to stifle its effects. Take a moment and let it breathe.
- Assess the consequences. Step away from your outline. Open a new file or Evernote tab or grab a pen. Make a what-if list – if you incorporated this development fully into the story, what would the consequences be? Explore them in this safe space.
- Run the comparisons. Make another list. In one column write the reasons to change. Perhaps a character’s motivation would be stronger. The setting might be used more effectively. In another, write the reasons not to. It might cause inconvenience – perhaps you’d have to rethink earlier passages. (Might that be so bad?) It might take the story into territory you’re not interested in or would be off genre. (That’s a stronger reason not to.) Be honest. Sit and mull.
- If you decide to keep the idea, adapt your outline – and sail onwards with a more robust story.
Thanks for the pic, Pixabay. Discreet cough… There are a lot more tips on outlining and on making the most of plot developments in the Nail Your Novel books.
Another discreet cough… if you’re interested in ghost-writing, my course starts its live period tomorrow. The course will be available after that period as well, but for the next four weeks, you get to take part in a secret online forum and I’ll be holding live Q&A sessions where you can pick my brains. Learn more here.
Back to plots etc. Do you write using an outline or a daily quota? Do you find this sometimes hampers your creativity, or you feel you can’t use an off-the-cuff idea? Or do you have a method for harnessing these brainwaves and making the most of them?
There are. They’re my secret.
Actually, they’re not a secret at all. The 4 Cs of a great plot is one of the questions I discuss with Lorna Faith on her writing podcast (which also has a visual, handwaving, grinning version, see right).
Lorna quizzes me about the ins and outs of a good plot and we grapple with many storytelling essentials, including structure, turning points and where plots come from. Step this way.
This is part of an ongoing series of the smartest questions from my Guardian self-editing masterclass for novelists. Previous posts have discussed how much extra material we might write that never ends up in the book, or handling the disappearance of a key character. The full list is here.
Today I’m looking at another interesting problem, one that might be especially useful if you’re gearing up for NaNoWriMo this year.
Is it a premise or a plot?
So what might that mean?
A premise is a situation that seems full of promise. (Like these little clay fellas in the picture here.) But many writers think a premise is enough. It’s not. A premise is static. It’s a still life. (Like these little clay fellas in the picture here.)
Here’s an example, using Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. A bunch of gentle people are taken hostage in an embassy in a south American country, and the siege lasts many months. That’s the premise. The story or plot (I’m using the terms interchangeably, though they have slightly different meanings) is the sequence of events that spring from that idea.
So you need to convert your premise into events. And what’s more, those events need a sense of change, of development. These events must matter to the characters, be irrevocable, present them with dilemmas and push them out of their comfort zone.
Now what might those changes be? Perhaps they might be events on a grand scale – a character dies, another character falls in love, the food supply is cut off, which makes everyone argue. Or the changes might be more subtle – the characters form allegiances and rivalries according to their personalities or political persuasion. They re-evaluate their life choices. You’ll want a mix of both, adjusted for the flavour of book you’re writing. If it’s a thriller or a crime novel, the events might be more extraordinary than the events in the character study novel.
Whichever it is, you need change to hold the reader’s curiosity. You need to treat the premise as an environment, a terrain that creates interesting challenges. The terrain isn’t usually enough in itself. You need an exciting route too.
I’ve seen many writers get stuck in this still-life phase. They create the characters and the world, and describe it all in imaginative and vivid detail. But they are lacking this sense of increasing pressure. Their scenes have a stuck quality. They write a lot of stuff that seems to examine a whacky idea, or maybe a theme, but there’s no sense of urgency and complication. Instead of advancing the situation, they simply study it.
And even if your purpose is to create a zoo to study humanity, the reader still looks for a sense of change – usually in their understanding. Your plot will come from this sense of increment, the sequence in which you present these observations of the human soul.
So you can deliver change in endless subtle ways – but it must be designed in.
The static character
A variation of this problem is writers who create vivid and thoughtful character dossiers and then present the characters in an unchanging state throughout the book. If a story is worth telling, it should contain events that challenge the characters in uncomfortable ways – and make them reveal their natures. Instead of presenting the character as an already complete image on a fixed canvas, we should think of allowing the plot to unpeel their layers.
So we could say a plot is a premise…. which you have quarried and shaped to show a sequence of change. Or how would you describe it? Have you had to confront this question? Are you still grappling with it? Some examples would be great – the floor is yours.
More to chew on…
Here’s a post about storytelling in literary fiction, and finding drama in events.
In my plot book I describe four Cs necessary for a good plot – curiosity, crescendo, coherence and change. Elsewhere in the book I talk a lot about conflict, another important C.
And if you’re doing Nanowrimo, here are other posts to help you prep.
What is plot? What ingredients are essential, regardless of genre? How do we use themes effectively, and subplots? What makes a satisfying ending? Author-entrepreneur and heroic podcaster Joanna Penn invited me to her podcast to answer these questions and more – and as you see, at 33:47 you can be assured of authorly hilarity.
You can either listen to it as a podcast or read the transcript here, or you can watch us laugh, furrow our brows and occasionally drink tea by clicking on the screen below.
A conversation on Twitter about online writing groups made me remember I had this post, written nearly 4 years ago. I tweeted it and got so many messages about it I thought it might be worth an official rerun. So – if you’ve been with this blog since 2011 you might have a sense of deja vu. If not …. I hope this is useful.
I’ve had this email from Vanessa, which is a fairly common problem.
During the past 12 months, I rewrote my novel 8 times as part of a critique group, and now I’m wondering if I should just go back to my first draft and start over. My book is different now, in some ways better, in some ways worse. I’m not even sure I can work with it in its present, 8th incarnation. I’m feeling a bit discouraged and don’t know how to recapture the original freshness. I think there are some good changes in the revisions, but also a lot of bad direction. How will I sort through it?
Discounting the fact that some of the advice might be misguided, inept or even destructive, even the most accomplished critiquers will offer different approaches when they spot a problem. You get a lot of input and you don’t know which to ignore. You try to knit them into a coherent whole and then realise you’re lost. And the idea is worn to shreds.
A brainstorming draft
If you’re feeling like Vanessa is, you have to see this as is a brainstorming draft. It’s full of other people’s solutions – some good for your book and some a bad fit.
A learning draft
It is also a learning draft – in it you learned how to sketch a character, how to show instead of tell, how to introduce back story without clogging the pipes, how to pace. You could almost view some of it as exercises that have helped you to write better – but some of those exercises will not be pieces that need to be in this book.
Now you will undoubtedly be more practised and more aware. You need to take control of this brainstorming/apprenticeship draft and make a novel out of it again.
As a BTW: one thing you find as you grow as a writer is that other people’s solutions are rarely right for you. You have to pay close attention to the problem they have identified rather than what they tell you to do. If lots of people are saying something is wrong it probably is. But their solution is probably not right for you, even if they’re an accomplished writer.
Get back to your vision of your book
First of all, have you had a break from the novel? Here’s how you can tell. Do you view most of the manuscript as a problem? If you read it through right now would you be beating yourself up for what’s not going right?
Put it away so that you can read it without wanting to have a row with it.
When you’re ready, don’t read that latest version. Find the material from before the crit group, when it was just you and your idea. I always advise authors to keep their first draft because although there will be much to blush about, there will also be glorious tumbles of inspiration. What can vanish after multiple revisions is the raw inspiration and even if you didn’t express it well when you first wrote it down, the spirit of it is usually there.
Read through this and enjoy your original idea. Look out for the interesting edges that have been smoothed away and make a file of them.
Now to your manuscript
Then read the latest version. Make a copy so you can mess about with it. Paste into a new file the sections that your gut wants to keep and that you feel are an improvement on what went before. Clip away those you feel don’t belong – but don’t junk them because they may be useful later or for another book. Don’t try to rework anything yet – just examine what’s already there.
Any sections you don’t mind about either way should stay in the original file. You now have 4 files:
- 1 initial gems with rough edges
- 2 gems from the reworked version
- 3 don’t-minds
- 4 rejects.
File 2 is your new essentials for this story. Now work out where the gaps are and how you’re going to join the dots. Yes it’s very much slimmer than the draft file, but it’s what you like about the book, in concentrate. Look at file 1 and consider how to add its contents in. Look at your ‘don’t mind’ file and figure out if you could work up any of the elements to fit with the new vision. From this you’ll build a new book that you do like from a draft you’re ratty about.
If you’re going to play with the story order a lot, you might find it useful to play the cards game from Nail Your Novel. If you’re not going to reorder you don’t have to worry about this.
Feedback is essential, of course, but you can get lost. This especially happens if you’re feeling your way, as first-time novelists are. While you have been writing with group feedback you have been putting the controls as much in their hands as your own. Now you’ve grown up a little, you have to close the doors, get to know the novel again and plan how you’re going to do justice to it.
Have you had experience revising with critique groups? And what would you tell Vanessa? Share in the comments
Thanks for the pic Hugo 90 on flickr
More about handling critiques and drastic edits in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and how you can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence