Posts Tagged story

Self-editing masterclass snapshots – do you have a plot or a premise?

guardThis 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?

plot or premiseA writer in my class told us she’d had a literary agent, who had said: ‘Your problem is that you have a premise but not 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.

Still life
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.
ebookcovernyn3In 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.

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Are you underusing your best plot ideas? Guest post at KM Weiland

kmwDoes your plot have enough going on? I see a lot of manuscripts where the story seems to lack momentum, or the characters are spinning their wheels doing not very much of anything. But the funny thing is, the writer isn’t short of ideas. They’ve simply not realised where they are hiding.

Today I’m at KM Weiland’s blog, with 4 places to find the ideas that are right under your nose.

And while we’re at it, let’s discuss: have you discovered your plot ideas were hiding in plain sight?

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Something wicked this way comes: plot book ready soon

3nynsThis week I’ve been pouring my grey cells into edits for Nail Your Novel 3 so I hope you’ll forgive this brief hiatus in my blogging schedule. The third Nail Your Novel book finally has a title (Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart), a cover and most of its insides. I’ve been adapting and greatly enlarging the posts I’ve published here into an in-depth exploration of what plot is, how it works and how to write a good one. In asking these questions I’ve taught myself a thing or three as well.

If you’re eager for a taster right now, one of my recent shows at Surrey Hills Radio discussed plot – you can find it on this page as show no 6 (we’re working on getting proper titles but we don’t have control of the website!).

The plot book should be out within the next month … hopefully. I’m waiting for comments from my critique partners so I reserve the right to be coy about the actual release date in case they find a howling omission or other embarrassing disaster. If you want to know the very moment it’s out, you can get my newsletter here.


I’ll be back with a proper post next week. I hate to miss a week but sometimes we need to. How about you? Do you have a strict blogging schedule? What makes you bend it? Til next time… R xx

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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.

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How to get ideas for stories – be gullible

Be open to oddness: BBC TV Panorama's infamous April fool hoax, the spaghetti trees of 1957

How do you get ideas for stories? Here’s one trait I’m sure keeps my ideas machine ticking away

I am hopeless at spotting a fib. The other day I was at the hairdresser having the red refreshed. Instead of my usual contact lenses I was in glasses, which have to come off while my locks are being daubed. I was listening in a thick myopic fog while my hairdresser, who is Spanish, was telling me about Christmas traditions in Madrid. They were quite charming and I repeated them in wonder: you put out gifts on January 6th for the Three Kings, including water for their camels? Wow – I love that.

She might have been kidding, but I would never have seen any ironic winks or smiles because I couldn’t see beyond my own eyelashes. The rest of the stylists in the salon and their clients might have been sniggering through their capes, agog for what I would believe next. If they were, I don’t mind. I was having a great time because I liked the story.

I have always been hopeless at spotting a fib. If you tell me something whacky that sounds interesting, I will find a reason why it is plausible. So a glass of water left out for the Wise Men’s camels makes perfect sense to me, because it has story logic, and in my head I’ve joined the narrative dots.

As storysmiths, the extraordinary, the ironic and the surprising are our currency. Part of our job is to invent the logic that gets from A to bizarre – or the other way around. Good stories are about big changes, interesting journeys, the unexpected.

If a straitlaced friend tells me she has taken up burlesque dancing, the last thing on earth I’d say is ‘you’re joking’. I’d swallow it because I’d think what a surprising and refreshing turn her life has taken, how wonderful it is that she has conquered her stage fright, shyness, objections to female exploitation and previously voiced disapproval of skimpy feathered costumes. I will think: ‘she must have needed it – I wonder why?’

So I am A1- gullible. But I’ve far outgrown being embarrassed by it. It’s served me well as source of stories.

Do you value the strange? Have any personality traits that may seem laughable or embarrassing, but that you feel help you as a writer? Share in the comments!

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