Tag Archives: plotting

Plotting Woes: Part I

For years, I’ve thought of story as a movie playing in my head. My characters want something and strive for it despite opposition and villainy. Their dialogue unspools in my head. I see them moving and gesturing. And I am a scribe, a secretary recording what I see and hear in my imagination just as quickly as I can type.

It took me a long time to realize that not everyone writes this way. Maybe the first inkling of this struck me back in the 1980s, when I was chatting with a guy working on his English Ph.D. He was writing a very ambitious novel set in Russia. His dissertation committee had agreed–hesitantly–to allow him to write a creative dissertation and use this novel manuscript. The work was going slowly. He was asking me questions, since at the time I’d had several books published, and for some reason I inquired if he saw his characters and plot as a movie.

“No,” he replied. “I see words on the paper.”

Recently I was working with a student that doesn’t follow cause-and-effect structure. His story events don’t occur to him in a linear progression. Instead, he thinks of a section of his story, then jumps to a different section, then jumps to yet a different portion. As a result, his rough drafts are chaotic and messy, very disorganized. Eventually he moves scenes and characters conversations around, but it seems to take a long time and the process strikes me as incredibly inefficient.

When I was putting together my book, FICTION FORMULA PLOTTING, I had to sit down and really think about people such as the two I’ve referred to here. Obviously writers have as many processes and strategies for putting stories together as they have ideas, but why? Why is the very approach to planning a story so easy for a few and so difficult for others?

Why is there so much confusion about what is and isn’t a viable plot, and why do some newbies resist help so stubbornly, clinging instead to what doesn’t work like a drowning man grasping a life preserver?

For a long time, I blithely dismissed it as insufficient reading. After all, when I’m suffering through the ineptitude and clumsiness of student writing, I can tell immediately whether the student reads currently or stopped long ago. One individual phrased his sentences so poorly, yet assured me he was reading all the time, that I finally realized he wasn’t reading. Instead, he was listening to books on audio and simply didn’t grasp how awkwardly he was formulating sentences. As soon as I persuaded him to stop multi-tasking and actually read a book, his syntax and diction improved.

Yet I know people who struggle with construction and plotting who read all the time. So I began to ask, “What are you reading? Who are you reading?”

The answer has been frequently those aimless, critically lauded novels that tend to meander without going anywhere. The kind of book some people use to impress others by having it spill from their backpacks or lie on the coffee table. Small wonder my student has been having trouble grasping plotting concepts!

Several months ago, a friend introduced me to the concept of stories delivered via texting. Naturally I was skeptical, so a YouTube.com video was found to show me two teenagers reacting to a dumb little drivel about a lost dog. The teens were enthralled.

I was appalled.

I saw at once that it wasn’t the story they were inputting because there wasn’t a story, not a real one. Instead, they were captivated by the novelty of delivery.

I hate to always bemoan the sad state of modern literature, but is our society becoming so illiterate, so removed from solid, intriguing, cause-and-effect plotting that we don’t even recognize it and can’t distinguish it from nonsense?

Good writing … good story … compelling plot has no need for gimmicks.

In this series, I’ll be sharing what plot is, how it works, and why we still need it.

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Setting & Plot

If you’re thinking you can plunk your action scene in any old gritty dark alley in generic Metropolis, USA, then you’re shortchanging the dramatic potential of your story. I’m not saying you can’t set a scene in a dark alley. Of course you can! Darkness adds to dramatic tension and helps build suspense. Alleys are splendid places for all sorts of nefarious activities or danger and therefore useful to fiction writers.

So don’t think I’m taking dark alleys away from you. Instead, for the purposes of this example, I want you to reason through your impulse to use a gloomy, narrow location.

Why is this alley dark? Is it just because alleys are always dark and spooky? Or is it because Vinny the Villain is laying a trap and has shot out all the mercury vapor lights on the backs of the buildings?

Oh, a trap. Hmmm, then Vinny is luring someone there. Cool, but why? For revenge? For a shakedown? For a kidnapping?

More importantly, who is Vinny after? The protagonist? Does Vinny intend to ambush Henry Hero? Or perhaps Lucy Love, the light of Henry’s life?

What, specifically, is Vinny’s objective, and what else besides breaking the lights has he done in preparation? Are henchmen and minions scattered around to put all the odds in Vinny’s favor? Will Vinny be helped or hindered by the darkness? Will the confrontation go as planned? What if it doesn’t?

Such questions are designed to guide you through plotting in a logical and cohesive way and help you shape plot while you visualize what sort of confrontations your characters will have with each other.

Now, let’s look at some additional questions:

Why this particular alley? A big city has many, so why choose this one? Are you thinking, who cares which one it is? Ah, ah, rebellious one! It matters.

Perhaps this alley is close to the location where a key player intends to be. Or perhaps this alley has a dead end, and Henry Hero can be trapped into a shootout. Or perhaps this alley cuts through a congested area and provides a shortcut.

If Vinny is indeed planning an ambush, then a shortcut isn’t useful or needed. But if instead Vinny is planning a shakedown and needs a fast escape route, then maybe this alley is the best for his purposes.

Remember that plotting is always about making choices and weighing options that are in line with each other. Plotting is not really about plunking your characters into a generic location and leaving the subsequent confrontations to haphazard chance.

And now, I have yet more questions:

What else is going on in the alley, or–more specifically–what features does it have? Time to decide whether the alley is located in Metropolis or Smalltown. Some alleys are unpaved, muddy, full of potholes and broken glass. Some are designed to give people parking spaces off the street. Others are to accommodate garbage trucks, so they are always littered and feature garbage and recycling receptacles. Those in turn tend to attract scavengers and prowlers, either the two-legged or four-legged variety. Is there access to backyards from this alley, or are there featureless walls of tall buildings? Are there doorways and loading docks? Do homeless people shelter in the alley? Are there guard dogs chained up in narrow yards that will snarl, bite, and bark? Are there security cameras?

What does this alley look and smell like? What … but wait! You’re feeling overwhelmed. You want me to stop.

Are you thinking, Sheesh, Chester, why do you go overboard with so many questions and details? I just want a corpse found in a dark alley because I want to put a crime scene in my story. I don’t want to count how many plastic straws are lying in the potholes.

Well, fine. Allow me to focus on other questions, such as … How did the body get there? Who put it there? Again, why was this alley chosen as a dumping point as opposed to any other alley in the community? Was the victim killed in this alley and left, or was the victim killed elsewhere and brought here? If the latter, how was the body transported? Were there any witnesses?

If this is Smalltown and it’s a muddy alley where the trash cans are kept, is the villain seen by a teenage girl sneaking into her house long after curfew?

If your story is set in Metropolis, is the villain seen by a homeless person? And if that option’s worn too thin for you, is the villain seen by a well-dressed couple out walking after going to the theater?

Get the idea? When you think through your setting and work out the details that go with it, you’ll reach less often for simplistic cliches or boring backdrops that contribute nothing.

 

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Shaken

Firstly, I apologize to the followers of this post for having neglected you for so long. This year, I have found many such apologies in the blogs that I follow, and I understand. Sometimes, we’re interrupted or become over-committed. LIFE gets in our way. In my case, I could kick about my situation or complain about LIFE stepping in and throwing my recent writing goals to the curb, but as a writer I know that we need LIFE to give us new material.

Also, after my three recent books on writing technique, I felt for a while that I’d said all I had to say on method and approach. This attitude is unfair to you as followers and shirks my responsibility to you. However, as a writing teacher once said to me many years ago when I was as yet unpublished and living on dreams and sheer determination … “From time to time, you have to let the well fill back up.”

Earlier this summer, when I was feeling guilty about posting nonsense about toads instead of advice on killing adverbs, I told myself to pull it together. It was time to walk into my office, sit in my writing chair, and resume posting on writing techniques.

Instead, a weird thing happened. I was plowing through a stack of possible novels to assign to my university course on genre fiction this fall when I read a book by a highly successful author of romance and romantic suspense. It was my first exposure to this writer’s work. I don’t know whether it’s representative of her usual effort or an aberration or a new direction for her.

All I know is that this genre novel had next to no plot. The protagonist hit a strong and dangerous problem in chapter one. That problem was resolved in chapter two. The romance was clenched in less than twenty-five pages. The subplots were introduced and resolved without any conflict. And the rest of the story filled in with illness, personal makeovers, and wardrobe decisions.

That book poleaxed me.

In hindsight, I realize that it got to me because I was tired and stressed due to LIFE. Worry and lack of sleep had sapped my reserves more than I realized. And for the last three weeks after reading that book, I kept thinking, What is the use?

That question is always a danger signal for any writer, at any time, in any situation.

It means, in effect, that the writer is surrendering, giving up, and abandoning the art and joy of creating with words on the page. Whether a writer is stymied by lack of time, distractions, hindrances, self-doubt, criticism, lack of support, or whatever form of resistance being thrown at her, too much of it becomes a tsunami that can drown intentions, goals, writing schedules, and projects.

What is the use, I wondered, of standing on technique, of trying to teach unwilling and recalcitrant students how to form scenes, follow plot questions, or handle pacing? It was as though I was trying to swim across a river, and that novel was a cement block thrown at me instead of a life preserver.

In recent years, I’ve seen waves of poor writing flood our entertainment industry, whether in books or films. I’ve read too many reader reviews raving about books that turn out to be nothing more than gimmickry or a mess of episodic events strung together. I’ve attended writer conferences where young, up-and-coming writers thumb their noses at plot and story design. I’ve watched the publishing industry crashing in Zepplin-flames as the seasoned editors retire or are driven from their jobs in the name of corporate downsizing.

From food to stories, the fashion du jour seems to be deconstruction. I understand this is a fad. I understand that youngsters love rebellion and delight in taking things apart. Yet in a year where the whole world seems to be embracing the cause of anarchy with no signs of stopping, I can’t help but think of that era of history when knowledge and civilization faltered, and Europe plunged into the Dark Ages.

See what I mean? In such a gloomy mindset, how easy–after reading a pleasant but utterly plotless effort by a bestselling author–for me to say, “Writing has reached its end. Stories are dead.”

Yeah, I realize I’ve been a drama queen about the incident. But writers have to over-react. Writers have to be too sensitive. Writers have to be so empathetic that we absorb the emotions of others and vibrate to their joys, tragedies, and comedies.

Good stories are still being written. Plots still exist out there. But, for the past month, I clung to the cement block and sank. I spent a lot of evenings thinking and pondering whether to abandon the abilities and skills I’ve been honing for a lifetime. Was it time to walk away? To say, no more writing?

Well, one of the precepts of genre writing is that readers will accept any emotion in a character except self-pity. It seems to me that it’s a good precept to follow in real life as well. So I dropped the cement block and floated back up to the surface.

Meanwhile, LIFE has backed off its pressure slightly. Stress has dropped a fraction. Sometimes, I get more sleep. I have been reading other books from my stack and they are better. I have dug down and found that my innate stubborn determination is still within me. It’s shaken but intact.

There is usefulness in what I do and teach. I will not stop doing what I know and believe in. I am competitive enough, stubborn enough, certain enough, and trained enough to go on. And if American literacy drops even lower than its current, shameful fourth-grade level, and we become monkeys able only to point and click, then I will hold my lantern aloft for as long as I’m able.

Meanwhile, my intention is to resume regular posts and put my writing schedule back on track. We’ll see how it goes.

 

 

 

 

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Plotting Workbook

Thanks for being patient! I’m delighted to announce that FICTION FORMULA PLOTTING PRACTICE, the companion workbook to FICTION FORMULA PLOTTING, should be live on Amazon.com in the next few hours. It will be available in both print and Kindle versions.

ffpp-DC-front red

Those of you who have been requesting drills and exercises will find this book filled with them, and there’s plenty of “homework” to keep you busy for quite a while.

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FICTION FORMULA PLOTTING

I’m thrilled to announce that my new book, Fiction Formula Plotting, is now live on Amazon. It’s available in both Kindle eBook and paperback versions.

There will be a companion workbook with drills that will supplement every chapter. I hope to have that up after Christmas.

Kindle Cover

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FICTION FORMULA PLOTTING

Just an update on the forthcoming books. I have finished preliminary edits on both my new book on plotting and its companion workbook of drills and exercises. I have both manuscripts in for another round of proofreading, and then I’ll be busy with cover design and other marketing details.

Although these projects have gone more slowly than expected, I hope to have them available within the next few weeks.

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The Allure of Disappointment

When you’re constructing scenes, do you allow your protagonist to succeed or do you thwart her plan?

Common reasoning may convince you that your protagonist should succeed. After all, how else can she continue toward victory in the story climax?

However, if she prevails against every obstacle and challenge thrown her way, she will be mighty indeed but she will not experience an arc of change; she will not hold reader attention for long; and she will know only a hollow, phony type of victory at the end.

It seems counter-intuitive to thwart your protagonist at the ending of scenes, doesn’t it? Isn’t it wrong  somehow that she should fail them? After all, how can she convince readers that she’s clever, resourceful, and admirable if she’s not getting anywhere? Won’t she come across as a loser?

That depends.

She won’t be perceived as a doofus if her opposition is stronger and trickier than expected and if she doesn’t whine about it. A loss makes her more of an underdog, and consequently she gains reader sympathy. As the antagonist stops her, outmaneuvers her, cheats her, betrays her, and corners her, reader sympathy for her should increase. Even better, dramatically speaking, the climax will loom ahead as a bigger threat or obstacle as the story outcome in her favor grows less likely.

However, if she fails in scenes because she makes too many mistakes, or she doesn’t plan well, or she does dumb things like chasing the villain down a dark alley while forgetting to carry her gun, then yes she will come across as unsympathetic, less than bright, and a loser.

Are you frowning over this? Are you thinking, but how will she ever win if she always loses her scenes?

The true purpose of scene-ending setbacks is to force her to take a bigger risk in her next attempt. After all, when things are going smoothly for us, why change our methods? When everything is fine, we don’t learn. We don’t dig deeper. We don’t challenge ourselves. We don’t grow.

And pushing your protagonist through an arc of change in behavior, beliefs, attitude, or personal growth is really what stories are all about. Not how many vampires she can destroy in an hour.

Therefore, if you’ve been writing scenes where your protagonist always succeeds, pause and re-evaluate your plotting. Consider what would happen if your protagonist lost the encounter.

“But, but, but,” you might sputter, “if that happens, Roxie will be fanged by a vampire!”

My response is simply, “So? What then?”

“But she can’t become a vampire. She’s trying to hunt them. She hates them. They killed her mother, and she wants to destroy them all.”

Understood. But consider how much better your story will become if Roxie is bitten, or grazed. She might then escape the predator’s clutches, and perhaps she even destroys her opponent, but now her situation is uncertain, potentially dire. She will experience the terror of believing she’s been turned. Could there be anything worse in Roxie’s world than becoming the very type of monster she’s sworn to obliterate? Consider the angst she’ll go through. And maybe she won’t know for certain right away, which means you can spin out the suspense and anticipation even more.

From a writer’s standpoint, that’s delicious. See how Roxie has become more interesting?

Never be afraid to disappoint your protagonist. Never fear to make her situation worse. Never lose an opportunity to test her to her limits and beyond to see what she’s made of.

I want to know how Roxie will handle this development. Don’t you?

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