Week 5 Report: Plot and Structure

plotBy: David Connors

Let’s talk about plot and structure. We all have to deal with them sooner or later. They’re the engine to our story, the way we put our ideas into motion and thread them all together.  It’s different for every writer. Just like music you have the melody and lyrics, writers have plot and dialogue. Some go dialogue first, some go plot.

Also, remember that a lot of this advice comes from Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook.

“Begin every story in the middle. The reader doesn’t care how it begins, he wants to get on with it.”
Louis l’Amour


The plot creates the pace of the novel by building to external turning points, inner turning points and high moments. A good novel plot is multi-layered, meanings lots and lots of the external and internal turning points. External turning points are things that change within the story, internal turning points are things that changes inside your character or characters. Within these turning points there needs to be conflict that they connect and build to the plot and the characters. The conflict needs to be

  • Meaningful
  • Immediate
  • Large scale
  • Surprising
  • Not easy to resolve
  • Must happen to people for who we (the readers) feel sympathy

If you want and feel it make the central conflict as deep and as bad as it can possibly be.

Learning Activity

Look through your story and at the end of each chapter identify the external and internal turning points and connect them to the main structure of the plot. Then either draw it out, write it out with bullet points, or color code the events and how they are connected. By doing this you will be able to identify and mark your plot in a simple skeleton sketch of the story.

See if your plot is similar to any of the story types or plot structure types.

Four Story Types

Four Plot Structures

Another way to look at a plot structure is:

The Balance. The Unbalance.

Quest for Resolution.

The Climax. The New Balance.

Kurt Vonnegut on the Shapes of Stories (Watch This!)


So when you’re having trouble with the plot, where to go, what to do or just where to start when you find yourself at a dead end try these tricks to freshen up the writing process while also developing the plot more. They’re from Ben Winters, author of The Last Policeman. We talked about them here, too.

  • What are the conflicts of my book?
  • Are there any unexpected consequences?
  • Complicate the needs and wants of your characters.
  • Create consequences that branch of their needs and wants.
  • Switch Point of View at the high points.
  • Stretch the tension.
  • Flashback into your characters background.
  • Skip time forward.
  • Boomerang the plot. Return to things that you threw out earlier.
  • Tell the story of the story to your bestfriend.
  • Work on parts of the story that seem exciting and interesting to you at the moment.

Also, don’t be scared to make these particular things happen within your plot. They are cheesy and you see them everywhere but when reading a story these are some things that make the novel real and help connect the reader to the plot and story.

Cheesy High Moments!

  • Forgive someone!
  • Sacrifice something!
  • Sacrifice herself/himself!
  • Change direction in life!
  • Face moral choice!
  • Die!

And like I said above connect the readers to the characters and make them want to read more.

Think Primal

  • Deny to the characters- Food, Shelter, sex, protection of loved ones.
  • Keep the outcome in doubt by making failure seem likely.
  • Plot often feels like plodding. This then this then this happens. So when the weaving the plot feels old don’t be scared to throw something new and to freshen up the plot and you’re mind.

What I Learned/Figured Out This Week

1. Get into your plot or the action of the story early. Readers do care about what happens before the action starts but they care more about the plot and action of right now more.

2. Give your story as many external and internal turning points as you want. Build and stretch the tension. It doesn’t hurt to complicate the journey through the novel. Keep the reader on their toes with external turning points.

3. If you need to write or draw out the plot and all the turning points within your story to help visualize what’s going on and keep it clean, tidy and concise so not even the writer gets confused.


To Do for Week 5: Plot & Structure

Screen Shot 2013-09-08 at 11.42.06 PM

Last week, we talked about the different subplots and layers that you need for a novel. This week, we talk about the overall, overarching structure of novels, and how to make things happen along the way.

Week 5: Plot and Structure

 T 9/17

·    Week 4 Blog Post Due: Rebecca Brill

     Scribe for this week is David Connors

·    Quiz 4: Baggott, Pure (pp. 1-121)

W 9/18    Rex Pickett virtual visit: Screening of Sideways, LB 125, 5-7:30 PM (optional); Video Conference with Rex Pickett, LB 125, 8 PM (required)

Th 9/19

·    Weekly Words #4, due by Sunday 9/22 at 5 PM. Focus: identify potential turning points, inner turning points, and high moments for your character/s. What are your character’s “doorways of no return”? What are you building towards? Have you made the problem as bad as it can possibly be? Write about this and don’t worry if it sounds cheesy.


Suggested Reading

There’s almost too much you can read about plot and structure, much of it pertaining to screenplays, but it’s quite translatable to writing novels.

Writing Exercise

Focus: identify potential turning points, inner turning points, and high moments for your character/s. What are your character’s “doorways of no return”? What are you building towards? Have you made the problem as bad as it can possibly be? Write about this and don’t worry if it sounds cheesy. Use whatever “formula” included above that works for you. Try a few different ones.

I Want To Know

  • How is the writing going? How far into your novel are you?
  • Do you have a sense yet of what type of novel you’re writing? Not just what genre it is, but what structure you might use?
  • What is the “clock” of your novel? How much time will transpire from the first page to the last? A few days? A few months? A few years? A few decades?
  • Does plotting sometimes feel like plodding? If so, here’s some great advice I got from the writer Ben Winters at the Gathering of Writers in Indianapolis, IN last year.

From Ben Winters, author of The Last Policeman and Countdown City

Try this when you’re stuck:

Switch POV. Just as you reach a high point, the point just before something’s going to happen to a character, switch to another pov character. The reader will read on because they are dying to know what will happen next.

Give yourself prompts. Let the structural needs of the novel determine the topics of the “assignments” you give yourself. For example. You’ve ended Chapter 7 on a high point of the A Story. Switch to Chapter 8 and work on the B Story for a chapter, holding out the suspense of the A Story.

Flashbacks. When you feel stuck, like you’re plodding, delve into your character’s backstory.  You don’t need a doodly doo transition, such as “The flight home had a layover in Phoenix. I looked in the bathroom mirror and saw my bra strap was showing. Suddenly, I felt transported to my grandma’s house when I was six years old, the day I tried on my aunt’s lacy red bra over my t-shirt and showed it to my family.”  No. Just hit return. “When I was six, I found my aunt’s red lacy red push up bra in her drawer and tried it on.”

Skip time. Start a chapter “And so years passed…” or “Fifteen years passed in this manner.” This will give the reader (and you) a shock of voltage.

Boomerang. Return to things you threw out earlier. Loop back.

Tell the story of the story. Rather than use bullet points to map out plot points, or “really writing” the story, try telling the story in the same voice you’d use sitting at a bar, telling the story to a good friend in your own natural voice. “Okay, here’s what happens…” And when you get to a point where you don’t know what happens, you can say “Okay, so maybe…” You might even try writing the friend’s part in this skit and have them prompt you for information. The point is to unshackle yourself, take all pressure off yourself.

Tell the story of a character. Similarly, to help you figure out a character, start with the phrase, “There’s this guy…” or “There’s this woman…” and tell the entire arc of a particular character through the book. Not a main character, but a secondary one. Walk through the book with that character. It will force you to see what you’re writing in an entirely new way.

Do research. Make phone calls. Don’t Google, b/c reading on the internet flattens out the details. Call people up and ask them questions. Tell they you’re a writer working on a novel about [blank] and you’ll find that people love to talk about themselves and what they do. They’ll give you voices and details you’d never get otherwise.

Work on the parts that seem exciting or interesting to you. When the writing stops being fun, figure out a way to make it fun and interesting again.