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.”
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
- Large scale
- 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.
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!
And like I said above connect the readers to the characters and make them want to read more.
- 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.
I had finished two drafts of novels before I took my first creative writing class. People still argue about teaching writing, and some believe that writing is something that can’t be taught. They should try and read those ancient drafts and see what they think then. Of course, I’m sure that more things than merely education have contributed to my writing. I did write far more regularly back in those days, but then, everything was more regular then.
|This book is very helpful whether you’re
a pantser or a plotter.
Needless to say, I had never heard of “pantsers” and “plotters” when first I started writing. I just did what I felt like doing, usually starting off just writing and making stuff up as I went, and maybe outlining a few things later on. I used to picture my story as a kind of movie then, and I still do sometimes. I’m a very visual person and I’m studying film as well as writing. As I write more, I tend to see things a little differently. Pantsing seemed to work out all right, but then I’d go back and look at my work and find all kinds of problems. But what trouble is that? It was just a draft, after all. Yet every time I plugged one hole, something else opened up.
So, ninety pages into a new draft of a new novel, one I’m considering working on for this class, I decided to start fresh and try and build a solid foundation before I begin to write. I’m trying to be more organized. But I’m young, and I’ve always found trial and error to be effective if time consuming, so I’m trying something and seeing how it goes.
I think that’s also some of where I get blocked up when I’m trying to write. As I’m looking ahead, I’m thinking I’ll probably do lots of different outlines. Just let things go and see where they end up, then shuffle some things around and start again. Eventually my outlines will look like one of those choose your own story books probably, but it’s an experiment.
In my last blog post I talked about being a binge writer. That typically goes with being a pantser. And honestly even if I have outlined something, the details of the scenes come as I write, at least so far. Sometimes that takes me in different directions from where I had plotted, but I’m pretty flexible. The problem with writing a novel is that sometimes it takes a long time to figure out that you’re wrong.
|Redefined implies that there is nothing more to do.
Perhaps a better slogan would be “Redefining Education,”
but maybe that was already taken.
So I’m still searching to improve the way I go about writing long projects. Who knows if I’ll ever be satisfied. I don’t always stick to a certain path, even if it works. Most of the excitement is in the experiment, in the search. There always might be something better (which, by the way, is particularly frustrating when writing because I’m never really satisfied). I don’t think anyone is too old to keep learning. Then again, I’m young, so that’s easy for me to say.
Perhaps I should have put this disclaimer toward the top, but if you came here looking for advice, you’ll find that I’m still figuring things out myself. Check out the other posts on #amnoveling and you may find what you’re looking for. In addition to Plot & Structure, James Scott Bell also has a blog.
by Gaoly Thao
No Outline People or Outline People? If I had to choose which one I was, I would have to say I’m in between the two, but my radar is probably leaning towards the “No Outline People” more than the “Outline People” If I think about it really hard and look back at my writing style, I would be more of a NOP than an OP. It’s surprising because I like to be organized and write down my schedule or what I need to do for the day. However, when I am writing, I don’t really plan out my story or plot and just write whatever that comes to mind. I may have a few notes as to what I want to happen or something, but I just wing it. Is that bad?
by Tom Carreras
When I was a child, I wanted to be an author and illustrator. I was really into writing my own stories and drawing the characters that inhabited my imagination so that others could see. For some tragic reason, once I hit 7th grade, my writing desire all but vanished, and I didn’t write any stories until my senior year of high school, where I wrote a short story (16 pages) for my philosophy class. I loved it, writing by the seat of my pants (and procrastinating a bit to boot!) and loving it. Earlier in high school, probably around my junior year (and crescendo-ing into college), I became extremely interested in film. My personal film collection grew to be ridiculously large, I started to learn the names of too many films, directors, actors, actresses, and screenwriters (and other film trivia pursuit info), and I watched movies. Many, many movies.
|So many movies…|
All of this is to get to my writing method. Since becoming (after some flippy-flopping) a Creative Writing major at the start of my sophomore year, I have noticed that a lot of the way I like to write is in my mind. I enjoy thinking about scenes from stories I am developing – imagining them as live action films.
This mind-filming process of mine is typically coupled with plot outlining. I do like the surprises and changes that can come about from pantsing; however, I typically like having some sort of outline down, if anything so I can visualize more of my story in my head. I have not really used sticky notes or note cards much before for story-plotting purposes. I prefer just writing plot points in short paragraphs.
In planning out the novel for this class, I already have a feeling that there is going to be an exciting mixture of pantsing going on. I think that a balance of the two makes for a lot of fun – it gives me direction yet leaves room for exploration and improvisation.
Here’s to a well-plantsed novel!
|My “super hero” of a father and me.
Also starring my awesome Winnie the Pooh pjs.
|These are my notebooks that I wrote in for six months.
You can see my “plotting” abilities already forming.
People always ask writers (not me, but famous fiction writers) where their ideas come from. Those writers almost always provide answers that seem evasive to the questioners, but to me they make perfect sense. Ideas come from everywhere, all around. Ideas for stories are what happen when you take your own musings too seriously.
|Garcilaso de la Vega. Compelling, right?|
My ideas are usually born from ponderings on situations. I’ll read a newspaper article in which a family structure is described, and I wonder how I would feel if I were one of those people. For instance, one of the inspirations for the story I am writing now was this story on the blog Not Always Right. The connotations of the relationships therein made me wonder, and I began to hypothesize. After giving my hypothetical imaginings names and combining them with a few other ideas I had rolling around, including the youth of Inca Garcilaso de la Vega and a randomly spawned Minecraft world, I had the basis of the story I’m working on now.
So I generally begin writing with a situation, an often fantastic setting, and some relationships between characters based on other people. That, I quickly realized, is not a plot for a novel. If I were a poet, maybe it could be a poem. If I were writing a movie or a TV show or a comic, I could partner with other people more skilled at constructing plot. But I want to write novels. So something has to happen. But all I wanted to write were everyday scenes, characters talking back and forth, setting and imagery.
|I was learning this thing around that time.
I think it was poisoning my mind.
So, in middle school, I decided to tightly plot all my stories before I began writing, with the logic that if plot was taken care of, then I could write each scene freely and without concern for advancing the action. I would decide how I wanted the story to end up, how the conclusion would go. I took those everyday scenes I loved so much, and scattered them where they best fit. At this point I was so eager to start writing that I could barely hold myself back. But the plotting was not done. So then I defined every single scene in between all the others, a quick summary of what would happen and how action would be moved forward, how character would develop. With everything mapped out in detailed outlines, I sat down to write a scene.
And couldn’t muster enough interest to drag me away from a game of Freecell.
The problem, you see, was that I felt like the story was told. It was done. Nobody was reading what I was writing–my writing was just for me, to get these stories and characters out of my head. And despite the bare-bones nature of my outlines, when I looked at them I could read every nuance I’d ever thought up between the lines. If I had dramatized scenes then I could have revised and connected them, but I really had nothing, and no motivation to do more.
Even at thirteen, I knew this was bad. I could never be the kind of writer I wanted to be by just coming up with a vague storyboard. I wanted to be a novelist; I wanted the only words on my covers to be my name and the title I came up with, and I wanted those covers to be on books. I didn’t want a “created by” credit on a screenplay or to share my stories with someone else. I wanted to create a perfect dream whole from my own mind and share it with a reader.
So I read every tip I could find, every book and article on writer’s block, and in the meantime I made due with my everyday scenes in which nothing really happened.
Eventually I just had to realize that it was my own impetus that was lacking. Some people did exactly as I had been doing and ended up with finished works. Other people sat down and wrote off the cuff. What was my problem? Meg Cabot, a writer I adore (and who wrote one of my five favorite books), helped me realize the nature of my problem by being a similar type of writer and sharing her own experience. I originally read this advice on her blog, but here’s an interview in which she says the same thing.
Of course, you can always change the destination.
“I like to say storytelling is like going on a trip: you always know from the beginning where you want to end up (but, of course, you never reveal this to the reader until the last page). The fun is experiencing what’s going to happen along the way. (Which is why I don’t work from an outline, but why I often get “way laid” by wrong turns. This is called writer’s block.)”
I realized that this was exactly the philosophy I needed to adopt. So I went back to that time in my process when I could barely contain myself, when writing seemed like the most exciting thing I could be doing, and I chucked out everything that came afterwards. I decided how I wanted the novel to end, and then placed the set pieces I was excited about at points in the story arch, and then I stopped planning. That is the point, nowadays, where I start writing, and generally can’t stop. Once I’ve written those scenes, new ones arise out of them, striving to connect one to the other, and the moment when multiple scenes can be combined into one long document is one of the most satisfying feelings.
|Stickies is the best thing that ever happened to me.|
Sometimes it’s very tempting to write things out like a storyboard, but I know that it’s bad for me (not bad for everyone; maybe it’s the best thing for you). Generally I make do with keeping plot points in my head. If I start coming up with a lot of them, I resort to short notes on Stickies. (I think Stickies still comes default with Mac OS. Here’s a PC version. Get it, it’s like ruling the world, even if you love to make outlines.)
I’ve still not finished a novel, but it isn’t for lack of motivation anymore. Usually, it’s due to too much motivation for too many projects at once. I have faith that I’ll finish one someday, but maybe I won’t. Even so, it’s a blessing to be able to sit down and write enthusiastically, even if no one but me and my closest friends will ever read anything I write.