Tag Archives: plotting

Setting and Atmosphere

For this one, let’s take a page–pun intended, ha ha–from Edgar Allen Poe.

In his fiction, he demonstrated the effectiveness of imagery, atmosphere, and even the weather on a story’s impact. Poe focused on themes of despair, decay, rot, death, and madness. He did not confuse his readers, therefore, by tossing in a charming little cottage backdrop with bunnies cavorting amidst its flowers. Instead, he set his tales in crumbling palaces, isolated old houses, and prisons. These are the intrinsic settings for gloom and disaster. His characters prowl secret passages by night–not the happy sunshine of day. They lurk in underground crypts and break their hearts among coffins and tombs. No one in a Poe story is going to trill song. The ravens may gather like ominous omens silhouetted against a darkening sky, but bluebirds of happiness will not twitter. The lashing wind of a winter’s gale can batter a house. Within, there will be insufficient candlelight and no cheer burning merrily on the hearth.

Consider the tropes of your chosen genre. Think about the plot you’ve outlined. Plan the tone and mood of your story with as much attention as you’ve organized your plot events. Let setting contribute to that mood through active participation in those tropes, whatever they may be.

For example, let’s examine the mood and location of a romantic story. Both should enhance the tone you’re trying to evoke.

In the 1952 John Ford film, The Quiet Man, Sean sees Mary Kate for the very first time as she’s leading a flock of sheep across a verdant Irish pasture with the sun shining on her red hair. He’s instantly attracted by her beauty and wants to get acquainted. If I recall correctly, in the 1933 short story by Maurice Walsh that the film’s based on, the author depicts Sean in church, sitting behind Mary Kate and being struck by how the hair on the back of her neck swirls in delicate tendrils. One version works best for a movie while the other version takes advantage of viewpoint in prose. Both approaches are incredibly romantic. They convey the same plot event, and they are both using setting to enhance this man’s first attraction for the woman he’ll court and eventually marry.

On the other hand, if your story is a gritty thriller, using the lush natural beauty of Ireland as a backdrop and having your protagonist stop in the middle of dangerous action to notice a woman’s fiery hair will only make him appear stupid or super lousy at his job. Of course, he can notice her hair if he has her under surveillance and its bright color makes it easier for him to follow her. But in that situation, he’s going to focus on the hue rather than how a tendril curls on the back of her neck.

If you’re writing comedy, you can use a dungeon as contrast, but it will be a place your characters want to avoid or escape as soon as physically possible. The setting then becomes a locale for mishaps, pratfalls, exaggerated terror of axes and spears, or playing cat-and-mouse chases up and down dark staircases. The photo below comes from the 1948 comedy-horror film, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. As you can see, the two comics are trapped on a rickety staircase between Count Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster. The set’s image shows rot and decay, but the lighting is bright, and the staging is not scary.

Comedy, however, will not in a serious way depict a dark torture pit beneath a rotting castle with the viewpoint character suffering dramatic, grim, joint-breaking, moment-by-moment sessions on the medieval rack. Comedy will instead gloss over the nightmare suffering and focus on other story elements, much as the Pit of Despair is handled in the 1987 film, The Princess Bride.

Contrast the comedic use of underground chambers with a serious one as depicted in the 1955 thriller, Night of the Hunter, where two children are hiding in the cellar from the psychotic that’s murdered their mother. Here, the darkness and the earthy baskets of stored potatoes serve as inadequate concealment for these frightened children.

It’s always a matter of appropriately choosing the details on which to focus. How well you employ them to conjure up atmosphere that will support your plot rather than detract from it will determine how useful your setting can be.

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Setting and Plot

If you’re thinking you can plunk your action scene in any old gritty dark alley in Generic City, USA, then you’re shortchanging the dramatic potential of your story. For one thing, there are no generic cities in America–or anywhere else in the world. (I would love to plunge into the character of European cities, for example, but for the purposes of this post, I’m going to focus on the US.) Each major metropolis has its own unique vibe, character, and tempo whether it’s a planned retirement community in Miami, where the condos are sleek, modern, too manicured to look real, and the inhabitants wear Bermuda shorts and sweaters tied around their necks, or winding narrow streets and back ways in Baltimore, or avenues of abandoned old mansions in Detroit. Yes, there are elements common to nearly all large cities, but the atmospheres of New York City, Ft. Worth, and St. Louis are far from identical. What could be more divergent than New Orleans, El Paso, and San Diego? Are you dodging the selection of a big city because you don’t want to do the research? If so, why choose a location you don’t know?

Let’s move on to the dark alley as a scene locale:

While not all real alleys are dark–or even gloomy–writers of many genres find them to be practical places for various sorts of nefarious activities and/or danger. If you haven’t ventured into an alley lately, try it. Even in broad daylight, an alley can have a decidedly creepy, abandoned, utilitarian vibe that makes you feel surreptitious, as though you shouldn’t be there. Darkness, naturally, adds to dramatic tension and helps build suspense. After all, darkness hinders the physical sense of sight, which humans depend on. Darkness triggers primitive survival instincts. Darkness offers crime the opportunity to flourish. Therefore, alleys–both creepy and dark–are infinitely useful to fiction writers.

I am not taking dark alleys away from you. Instead, for this post, I want you to reason through an impulse to use a dark alley. We’ll take it one step at a time:

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? Aha, it’s a trap. Okay, good. Now we understand that Vinny is luring someone there. Why? For revenge? For a shakedown? For a kidnapping?

More importantly, who is Vinny after? The protagonist, perhaps? Is Vinny planning to ambush Henry Hero? What if Vinny is instead after Lucy Love, the light of Henry’s life?

What, specifically, is Vinny’s objective here, and what else besides breaking the lights has he done in preparation for his trap? Are henchmen or minions scattered around to put 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 as these are designed to guide you through plotting in a logical and cohesive way. They serve to help you shape plot and visualize what your characters might encounter as they move into confrontations with each other. By mulling over questions like these, liking some of them and discarding others, you’re systematically planning your story instead of just jumping impulsively from one character action to another.

I have some additional questions:

Firstly, why this particular alley? A big city has many, so why choose this one? Did Vinny select it because of its proximity to the location where Henry Hero is expected to be? Or does he like it because it’s a dead end and Henry can be trapped into a shootout? Maybe, instead, this alley cuts through an area and provides a shortcut? No, wait. If Vinny is planning an ambush, then a shortcut doesn’t fit story needs. On the other hand, if Vinny is planning a shakedown instead of an assassination, then maybe an alley that goes somewhere is best for his purposes.

Plotting, you see, 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 bland, one-size-fits-all location and forcing them into haphazard confrontation.

Let’s ask some more questions:

What else is present in this metropolitan alley? Remember that alleys in Smalltown are different from those in Metropolis. Some alleys in Smalltown will be unpaved, muddy, full of broken glass. In Metropolis, some are designed to give people parking spaces off the street. Others are for the use of delivery or garbage trucks, so these byways are often filled with litter and feature Dumpsters and recycling receptacles, loading docks, ramps, and utility doors.

Do homeless people shelter in this alley? If so, what types of detritus, cardboard-box sleeping quarters, and trash are scattered around? Are there narrow side yards containing guard dogs that will snarl, bite, and bark? Are there security cameras? What does this alley look and smell like? Are there rats?

Okay, maybe my questions are starting to overwhelm you. You’re thinking I go way overboard with too many questions and details. But my alley is coming to life. It’s becoming vivid in my imagination. How’s your generic one doing?

Maybe you don’t want to deal with Vinny the Villain at all. Maybe you just need a corpse found in a dark alley so you can insert a crime scene into your story. No problem! Let’s consider this body and where it’s been dumped.

How did it end up in this alley? Was the victim killed here, or was the victim murdered elsewhere and brought to this place? If the latter, how was the body transported? What forensic evidence will be left? Were there any witnesses? If you’re writing about Smalltown and it’s a graveled alley where the trash cans are kept at the back of people’s yards, does anyone’s dog bark? Is the killer seen by a teenage girl sneaking into her house long after curfew? If your story is in Metropolis, is the killer observed by a homeless man? And if that scenario has worn too thin for you, is the killer seen by a well-dressed couple out walking after going to the theater? After all, in NYC’s Broadway district, that’s when cabs are hard to get. In San Diego, the couple might be walking because it’s a beautiful evening and they want to watch the moon shining over the bay.

Why was this particular alley chosen as a dumping point for the body, as opposed to any other alley in the community? Please don’t tell me it was just random, and the villain didn’t plan anything. Because if so, then why wasn’t the murder planned? And if not planned, what are the consequences for the killer who now must weigh options or else be caught immediately?

The more you think through the details involved in where your story action takes place, the more specific and non-generic you’ll be. The more specific you are, the more believable your setting becomes. And the more vivid and plausible your setting, the more your story comes alive.

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Swamp Survival Strategy 7: Incorporating Multiple Story Lines–Part B

The last technique I want to address in this series on coping with a book’s second act has to do with Hidden Story. This is the third of three story lines that books contain. It’s not a subplot. It is instead what’s happening among your characters who are offstage.

You dramatize the Ongoing Story (your main plot line) in successive scenes and present them onstage for readers. But while that story action is happening, what is going on behind those scenes?

Hidden Story runs parallel to and simultaneously with Ongoing Story. Consequently, it’s far more challenging to handle than Back Story. The Back Story is about character secrets and motivations. It’s invented as needed. Hidden Story is about staging the next conflict that will take place. It’s about the trouble that will hit your protagonist next. Most of the time, Hidden Story is far more important to a book’s progression than Back Story. Hidden Story should be plotted with as much care as the Ongoing Story.

Don’t let this intimidate you. In your first few learning-novel manuscripts you may not deal with Hidden Story other than indirectly as you keep track of what your antagonist is doing, plotting, scheming, and planning when not confronting the protagonist in scene action. It can be sufficient to focus on the central, dramatized plot and simply figure out where and when the antagonist will throw a plot twist at your hero.

However, you may find yourself with that empty stretch of pages in the middle where nothing seems to be happening the way you planned. You may find your ongoing story action stalled while your protagonist waits passively for plot developments to unfold. You may feel that you’ve lost your way. You may worry that the excitement of your opening is fading.

When you start to want more from your book idea, when you find yourself eager to add dimension, when you feel ready to stretch and grow a bit, then it’s time to take on the strategy of where and when you’ll reveal glimpses of Hidden Story to your readers. Doing this in the book’s swampy, dismal, gloomy, dark middle can spark new interest in moving the plot forward.

Handling Hidden Story can be managed in either single viewpoint or in multiple viewpoint. Most of the time, Hidden Story involves tracking the movements of the antagonist, although the POV shift can move focus to any secondary character capable of carrying a subplot.

If you choose to write from a single POV, the Hidden Story will be much more hidden. Readers don’t know what’s going through the villain’s mind. They have to settle for allusions through character action, behavior, reaction, and dialogue.

If you choose to shift viewpoints, Hidden Story becomes much easier to handle because the characters are onstage more often. Readers gain the privilege of seeing much of the antagonist’s plotting and planning against the protagonist. Readers are privy to actions which serve to raise new threats over the hero or endanger people the hero cares about.

Of course, if you’ve never tackled multiple POV before, you may not feel ready to take it on. That’s perfectly okay. Remember that I’ve shared six other strategies for keeping your book’s middle from sagging, bogging down, or drowning. However, if you decide to shift viewpoint to try this strategy, please remember that changing viewpoint effectively requires adept story sense and timing. You need to set hooks and switch clearly from your protagonist’s perspective to follow story action that doesn’t involve your primary character.

Please understand that if you stick to one viewpoint, your story’s plot twists will be less predictable and more surprising to readers.

On the other hand, if you choose multiple viewpoints, you can raise threat and generate suspense, but it’s possible to reveal too much Hidden Story and thereby undermine your plot twists.

The proper handling and management of the three story lines can make a vital difference in whether your manuscript seems to flow plausibly from character goals and motivations instead of featuring puppet characters being moved too visibly by the author’s hand.

The proper handling and management of these three story lines will also affect your decisions of how to order your scenes and their reactions for the best dramatic result. Just remember that although Hidden Story often will be revealed for the first time in the dismal middle, you should have plotted it carefully in your initial outline. You will also wait for the revision process to best determine where you’ll allow Hidden Story and Ongoing Story to intersect.

And so this wraps up the seven strategies for dealing with the dismal swamp. Using one or several of these techniques should help you navigate the most challenging section of a novel and make it as much fun to write as it is to read.

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Swamp Survival Strategies–Part 3: Managing Subplots

A subplot is any plot thread that’s secondary or subsidiary to the central plot line. Consequently, a subplot receives less emphasis and fewer pages than the central plot. Subplots can revolve around the protagonist by bringing out internal conflict or a relationship conflict aside from the external conflict of the main story.

You don’t have to wait until the middle of a book manuscript to bring in a subplot. These secondary story lines can begin almost anywhere in a novel except the climax. Most of them, however, enter the book near the end of the first act or in the book’s middle section.

If you’re somewhere in the dark, dank, miserable, swampy middle of your story … if you feel your main, central story line sagging and losing impetus … if you feel bogged down and unable to keep your story going … then you should try the strategies I’ve mentioned in previous posts (toss in some new plates and increase conflict) or introduce a subplot.

Writers frequently start a subplot at the end of the first act as a transition into the second. This gives readers a jolt of renewed interest from the story taking a fresh direction or a different perspective. The pacing usually changes here as well, and the middle of a story is an adroit place to insert some background explanation or to deepen characterization. Sometimes, the protagonist will become involved romantically here, or an old flame can be rekindled. New characters and their problems may be brought into the story, giving the protagonist additional challenges to solve.

However, as exciting as it is to launch a new subplot in the story’s middle, readers tend to expect that. It can be less predictable and potentially far more exciting to conclude a subplot in the middle of the book.

While not all plots lend themselves to opening with a subplot, and most books don’t, doing so can be effective whenever there’s a plausible reason for delaying the start of the central conflict.

Some stories require a longer setup than others. For example, the current trend in modern mysteries is to delay the murder almost to the middle of a novel. This allows readers to get acquainted with the victim-to-be and to see how this individual’s behavior contributes to motivating the other characters into potential violence. By striking the victim down in the book’s center, an exciting and pivotal plot event occurs that keeps the middle section from sagging.

The Dick Francis novel, ODDS AGAINST, has remained in print since its first publication in the 1960s. This is due to the complex arc of change within the protagonist. The book opens with the subplot of the protagonist being shot and undergoing a slow recovery. As soon as he’s on his feet, the mystery investigation of sabotage against a seedy racetrack begins and carries the story forward.

In the classic film, CASABLANCA, the central story line is delayed until after Rick the protagonist is introduced, the political situation is dramatized, and Ilsa and her husband Viktor arrive at Rick’s cafe in search of safe passage from north Africa.

While delay involves advanced writing technique and it’s seldom advisable to delay the central plot for long, a small subplot can engage reader interest while you acquaint readers with your protagonist and story world. Tying off that subplot then–as mentioned above–becomes an exciting little spike within the book’s second act.

You can use subplots to generate additional forces of antagonism against the protagonist. These serve to make life more difficult for the main character, but they can focus on a romance or create comic relief from the central plot’s violence or tensions.

To return to the CASABLANCA film as an example, the central plot involves the love story between Rick and Ilsa. There is also a political subplot revolving around Ilsa’s husband, an anti-Nazi agitator desperate to escape arrest by the Germans. Additionally, the movie contains a thriller subplot that deals with a petty crook’s attempt to steal possession of vital passports. There’s a tiny subplot about the corrupt police chief’s attempt to seduce a young bride, also a political subplot with the arrival of German forces in Casablanca, and an endearing little cameo of an elderly couple trying to practice their English in preparation for immigrating to America. That’s a lot to pack into a two-hour movie.

Many threads can add dimension to a story, but beware the temptation to overload your book with more subplots than are good for it. Subplots that don’t focus on the protagonist will tend to split attention away from the central story line. This is how some writers–despite good intentions–lose their way in the dismal swamp.

If a subplot is threatening to overtake the rest of your story, or it’s splitting the focus away from your central plot, then it needs to be de-emphasized. You can do this by not dramatically presenting certain key elements in scenes and reducing the number of pages you devote to it.

On the other hand, if such a vibrant, compelling subplot takes over by consuming your imagination, then ask yourself if this subplot should be your central plot instead. That could involve enormous revision work and a complete rewriting, but if it will make a better book, by all means consider it.

If you’re planning a multiple-viewpoint story, keep in mind that each POV is in fact running a subplot, with that POV character serving as the mini-protagonist of this smaller story line. There will be a small central goal and story question to be answered in the subplot’s mini-climax with a YES or NO.

This is why indulging in an over-abundance of viewpoints can make juggling subplots complicated. Until you feel ready to tackle something so ambitious, you might prefer instead to confine yourself to the protagonist’s viewpoint, with maybe an internal arc of change subplot.

Beware, also, the so-called “inspired idea” of dividing a book between two characters. Such a construction focuses equally on two parallel plot lines or two equally important viewpoint characters. I’m mentioning it only because it’s become trendy in teen fiction in recent years, yet it is a misuse of classic story design principles and leads to a split focus that in turn botches climax construction.

Classic story design involves a hierarchy of importance with the protagonist being the star character. The protagonist receives the most viewpoint pages–if not all of them. The protagonist’s goal drives the central plot and forms the main story question. Anything else is split focus.

Therefore, the most important plot thread in a book should be the one driven by the protagonist’s objective–and not resolved until the very end of the story.

The next important plot thread is a subplot involving the protagonist’s inner story and/or arc of change.

After that, the next plot thread should belong to the second-most important viewpoint (probably the antagonist).

And so on, moving down in descending order of importance.

Also note that all subplots do not run as long as the main plot because you don’t want everything ending in your book at the same time.

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Swamp Survival Strategies #2 cont. (Plot Progression–Part 2)

In my previous post, I was explaining how to escalate conflict, especially in the middle of a story where it tends to naturally lose its momentum.

As we writers strive to keep stories accelerating to counteract story sag, conflict and more conflict is an excellent tool at our disposal. But there’s more to it than two oppositional characters standing toe to toe and shouting at each other.

There are, in fact, three levels of conflict:

Inner conflict

Emotional/relationship conflict

External conflict

Now, it’s perfectly viable to write a story–long or short–dealing with conflict on a single level. Stories plotted through external conflict alone sweep readers along. As long as plenty of events are transpiring and the pacing is kept quick, readers are going to enjoy the adventure.

For example, action hero and super spy James Bond faces conflict solely on the external level. He has no inner conflicts. He has no true relationships, preferring instead recreational, fleeting encounters with women. Miss Moneypenny, who would adore establishing a real relationship with Bond, is adeptly dodged.

Since Bond lacks internal conflict to support an arc-of-change subplot, stories about him must “fill the gap” through a large cast of characters. Bond faces arch-villains as well as minor villains, along with their minions, assassins, femmes fatales, and even armies. He busies himself rescuing civilians in need of help and from time to time he has helpers or semi-sidekick characters for assistance.

Although typically a Bond adventure features numerous characters, most of them are minor roles. They serve up a progressive succession of obstacles, danger, and conflict for Bond to face and overcome as he strives to complete his mission.

Stories that deal with conflict only on the level of relationships focus on the personal and emotional interaction between the protagonist and every other character in the plot. The protagonists suffer when they meet disappointment or fail to get what they want, but they aren’t deeply torn inside or facing soul-shattering internal dilemmas.

Women’s fiction and romance are two genres that favor relationship conflict. In these plots, the external conflict operates softly and exists primarily to bring additional characters into the protagonist’s life so more relationships can be explored. For example, the protagonist’s external conflict might stem from a divorce situation or sisters in disagreement over how to deal with their mother who’s developing dementia, but the primary conflict can stem from how well or poorly these characters get along and what they feel about the events happening. In more mainstream women’s fiction, external conflict can be negligible, the merest nudge of change to put the protagonist where emotions can be explored or new people met.

In romance stories, focus remains on the courtship of the couple through a depiction of how they meet, what they feel about that first meeting … and the next … and the next … and so on. It revolves around the gamut of emotions they experience as they move from initial dislike or attraction to deeper emotional connections.

Complex novels, however, don’t limit themselves to one type of conflict alone. Instead, they put their protagonists through a combination of two or three. Very often, the central act of a novel is where one of the three conflict types will move into prominence over the others.

For example, if the story has been primarily operating on external conflict in the first act with only hints of inner conflict and relationship conflict, then act two will bring the relationship conflict forward as the protagonist clashes with a loved one or copes with another character strongly attracted to (or repulsed by). Act three might bring the inner conflict up as whatever is happening in the climax starts to pressure the protagonist’s ethics. Dick Francis mysteries serve up a lot of complexity and offer far more than a simple whodunnit plot. For example, in Reflex, the protagonist is trying to investigate blackmail and murder (external conflict) but must also cope with his difficult grandmother, who wants him to dig up old family issues (relationship conflict), plus he struggles to decide whether to give up his career for another one (internal conflict).

Whichever approach you use–single level of conflict or multiple levels of conflict–your story can work fine. Just keep the conflict strong in the midsection of your plot.

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Swamp Survival Strategy #1: Juggling Plates

Here in the Professional Writing curriculum at the University of Oklahoma, we call this particular writing technique juggling plates after the type of juggling act involving spinning plates. We define a “plate” as a tiny question designed to pique reader curiosity or make readers worry. Plates are small bits of trouble or potential trouble for the characters.

If you examine published copy–choosing, say, a book chapter or even a scene–and comb through the sentences, chances are you’ll find many tiny little hooks or questions thrown into the narrative and dialogue.

The whisper of furtive footsteps came from behind Polly Protagonist. Was someone following her? Why hadn’t she noticed before? Who was it?

If she looks over her shoulder and recognizes the individual coming up behind her, the plate is said to have been brought down–i.e. the question it raised is answered.

If she looks over her shoulder and doesn’t recognize the individual coming up behind her, she may stop and confront the person, thus discovering identity and bringing down the plate.

She may decide not to look back. She may decide to look back but evade a confrontation by abruptly running across the street and catching a bus.

When a plate is brought down, new ones should be raised to replace it. Liken it to sprinkling a trail of breadcrumbs along a low wall to entice a wild bird to land and peck at the treat. We spin plates to entice readers to keep turning pages while we introduce characters or set up scenes of confrontation or have our viewpoint character mull over the story problem.

Plates are spinning usually from the opening pages of a story. Chances are, even if you’ve never heard of this technique before, you’re probably using it instinctively to some extent. After all, we can’t plop a single major story question in front of readers and expect them to concentrate on that alone for the duration of the plot. Instead, we remind them of the big question from time to time and then spin plates between setting chapter-ending hooks and chapter-opening hooks and raising the stakes and escalating the conflict.

Besides the curiosity that plates provoke, they also serve to generate anticipation in readers. Like an actual juggling act, plates are raised and lowered, spun again just as they’re about to wobble off their pole, but in no particular pattern that could become predictable and monotonous. As a result, readers never know when they’re going to find out something or when new little issues to worry about will appear.

While it would be fun to just keep raising plates and plates and more plates, writers have the responsibility of playing fair with readers. That means we can’t spin infinite numbers of these tiny questions without answering them. Each and every one has to be brought down at some point and not all at once.

Some plates get repeated to keep readers guessing and hold them in suspense. If, after you complete the rough draft of your story, you find that some plates were forgotten or never answered, address that or delete them completely.

Now, I introduced this technique as a middle-of-the-book strategy to keep the story from slowing down and becoming a soggy mess. While plates start spinning from the beginning of the plot, it’s advisable to answer the longest-spinning ones in the book’s second act. Immediately raise new ones and add more. A book’s midsection should be filled with new information, new questions, new suspicions, new worries, and lots of suspense.

In my next post, I’ll continue with Swamp Survival Strategy #2.

(Notice I didn’t mention what it is in the above sentence. See how I just spun a plate to make you wonder?)


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Plotting III: Romance Structure

A working definition of plot can be a protagonist attempting to achieve a specific objective or overcome a problem despite direct opposition by an antagonist through escalating conflict and obstacles to a crisis point, whereby the protagonist either succeeds or fails.

Granted, this is cumbersome and convoluted–as many working definitions are–but it basically means the protagonist wants something and tries to get it despite an antagonist standing in the way. They clash and maneuver until a big showdown occurs that settles the matter.

While most commercial-fiction genres follow this linear, cause-and-effect, archetypal plot structure, two genres stand out as exceptions because they utilize different–somewhat unconventional–plot dynamics.

They are the romance story and the mystery. Both of them manage to confuse and entangle new writers frequently enough to warrant further discussion.

For this post, let’s examine the romance structure. On the surface, it seems straightforward and simple enough. The couple must meet. The couple must fall in love. The couple must commit. How hard can it be to write about two people falling in love with each other?


You’ve chosen your setting–perhaps a tropical beach with palm trees swaying in the breeze and turquoise waves curling onto pristine sand.

You can imagine your heroine’s curly auburn hair and tawny eyes. You’re planning to write a heterosexual story so the hero is handsome, dark-haired, and athletic. You envision them kissing passionately on the sand as the tide comes in–something like that famous beach embrace between Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in the WWII film, FROM HERE TO ETERNITY.

Okay, and now what? What you have so far is fine, but it’s not a story. After all, besides going on dates and kissing, what else should happen? A genre romance–in contrast to erotica–is not just one torrid bedroom scene after another. And although you intend to bring your couple together happily ever after, you can’t seem to get there while you’re  contriving constant squabbles. In effect, you’re grounded on a sandbar.

So you attend some writing workshops, where the speaker advises you to create a protagonist and antagonist with directly opposing goals and talks about linear plot structure much as I did in the opening paragraph of this post. Trouble is, that advice of opposition, clashing goals, and conflict makes little sense for anyone trying to write a story intended to bring a couple together.

If the heroine is the protagonist, then who’s the antagonist? The guy? Does this mean he has to be an arrogant, foul-mouthed, ruthless, and awful villain? And if he’s like that, how stupidly besotted will a heroine be to fall for him?


The heroine isn’t going to be stupid. The hero isn’t going to be a villain.

Granted, some romance novels published in the 1970s and ’80s featured assorted rough and rotten heroes that today make us roll our eyes while muttering caustic remarks about neanderthals, but a successfully plotted–and plausible–romance can follow the classic, archetypal plotting principles just fine.

Allow me to explain.

If your heroine’s desire/objective is to meet and attract THE ONE into a wonderful, committed, forever type of relationship, she has a specific story goal. Furthermore, her goal is clear, obtainable, understandable, and fits the standard tropes of the romance genre.

The plotting principles of genre fiction, however, dictate that stories must have conflict and clashing goals. Does that mean a couple must bicker at every opportunity?

Not at all. It means they should disagree on specific goal-directed issues.

Let’s repeat the heroine’s goal: to meet and attract THE ONE. She meets him on the opening page and recognizes him instantly as THE ONE. That means, therefore, that she wants to attract him. She wants to be with him.

Now, to achieve plotted conflict that will advance the story, the hero–in this scenario–must NOT want to be THE ONE. Sure, he’ll like her. He’ll think she’s cute or beautiful. He might or might not seek a date with her. But despite his attraction to her, he will be determined to avoid becoming her ONE.

His reasons can be a variety of motivations that have little or nothing to do with her personally. Perhaps he’s committed to a bachelor existence and doesn’t want to change or settle down.

I recently read a novel by Cindi Madsen called JUST ONE OF THE GROOMSMEN, where the hero was focused on his recent job-loss and how he didn’t have a career, didn’t have enough money saved, and didn’t feel confident of supporting himself let alone a wife.

(In my youth, I dated a handsome guy who was just starting law school and didn’t want a serious relationship until he was finished with his training. I wanted to be serious, and he didn’t. Wisely or not, I moved on.)

Conversely, the heroine may be the individual that’s determined never again to be in a relationship. Perhaps she’s been burned before, and hero is exactly the type of guy she doesn’t want.

If this THE ONE / NOT THE ONE dynamic is set up clearly in your mind during the planning and outline stage, you will have the conflict you need to keep your plot going because although clearly ideal for each other, the hero and heroine will not be in sync until the story ends.

In the screwball comedy classic, BRINGING UP BABY, heroine Katharine Hepburn falls for an already-engaged Cary Grant and chases him mercilessly in a series of zany antics designed merely to keep her in his sight.

Occasionally, for the sake of variety, a writer will create a lovers triangle where a rival for either the heroine or the hero gets in the way and tries to prevent the course of true love.  In THE RAZOR’S EDGE, the hero’s former flame–who ditched him years before to marry a rich man–destroys his new relationship rather than see him happy.

A third plot variant is the forbidden romance with a parent or authority figure refusing to allow the couple to form a committed, lasting relationship. Tolstoy’s tragic story, ANNA KARENINA, centers upon an unhappily married woman’s love affair with a dashing young soldier while her husband and Russian society turn against her. War itself can also serve to part lovers as in the classic films CASABLANCA and  WATERLOO BRIDGE.

In the romantic comedy, THE MORE THE MERRIER, starring Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea, all three of these plot structures are employed:  she is seeking a female roommate to share her apartment and doesn’t want Joel McCrea for a tenant (she does not consider him THE ONE); although she’s very attracted physically to McCrea, she’s engaged to another man (lovers triangle); WWII is the authority about to deploy McCrea on a dangerous overseas mission, thus parting them (forbidden romance).

The WHY Factor

The romance plot structure requires a clear understanding of WHY from both opposing characters. In other words, WHY is he THE ONE for her? WHY is she so certain of it?

Or, if she dislikes him at first, WHY is she so determined to avoid and evade him as he pursues her?

The why factor is critical character motivation. Work through the why, and your couple will fight and disagree from valid, plausible reasons instead of bickering foolishly for bickering’s sake.

Also, remember that strong motivation will keep your protagonist from quitting, even when winning true love seems hopeless.


Jane Austen’s book has been delighting readers for over 200 years, which is a darned good track record for longevity. Her deft handling of the romance plot structure as well as where and how she turns it in unpredictable ways continues to charm readers.

Let’s look at it briefly as an illustration of my points. First of all, the why factor is critical in making this plot plausible. Darcy is eligible, handsome, and very rich. Austen must create valid, plausible reasons why Elizabeth does not instantly fall for him. And therefore, although he is handsome and rich he’s also very shy with strangers and tends to be brusque until he feels more comfortable. That is why he sneers at the people attending the dance and insults Elizabeth when they first meet. They each start off with a poor first impression of the other.




*Clashing personalities

*Stubbornness, misplaced pride, and prejudice

*Meddling from others

*Social inequality

Initially, both Elizabeth and Darcy dislike each other and are firmly convinced that neither is THE ONE.

Darcy is smitten first, but he fights against accepting Elizabeth as THE ONE because her family is unsuitable.

Elizabeth fights against accepting him as THE ONE because her feelings are hurt, then her sister is hurt, then she is deceived by Mr. Wickham, then she realizes what a social hindrance her family is.

Just as she is starting to accept Darcy as THE ONE, his clumsy first proposal insults her all over again. By the time she truly recognizes how much she’s misjudged him (as well as how incredibly rich he is) and realizes he is really THE ONE, he has backed away.

Back and forth they go, pursuing and evading then switching positions, but always in a dance of conflict until the final misunderstanding is resolved.





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Plotting II: Genre Choice

There are many ways to brainstorm, find inspiration, and be struck by ideas. This series of posts won’t be dealing with them. Instead, I want to supply suggestions for how to move your premise from a nebulous idea to a viable plot.

In doing that, let’s first consider genre. Commercial fiction relies heavily on separate, identifiable genres, and genres in turn are built on strong plots. As part of the weave of this shared dependence, plot itself is heavily influenced by its genre.

Therefore, I always recommend that writers start the plotting process by selecting a genre. How else can you know what you’ll need or how your story will go?

If you’re planning a road trip, don’t you program your GPS with the destination so you can choose your best route? Why, then, would you try to plot a novel without knowing what type of book it will be?

Imagine yourself walking into a Books-a-Million or Barnes & Noble store to buy a book for your vacation. What type of book do you want to read? Mystery? Romance? Thriller? You head for the appropriate section of the store to browse. And while you might prefer to wander through all the sections in hopes of discovering a new book that’s exciting or an author you’ve never read before, let’s say that you’re enroute to the airport and haven’t time to explore all the shelves. You need something fast. You want a sure thing, a book you’ll enjoy. You haven’t the time or inclination to gamble on the unknown.

The same principle works for plotting. You want to be efficient, productive, and professional in developing a story outline that will carry you from start to finish of your manuscript.

Therefore, choose a genre to write. If you’re unsure of what category your story idea fits into, ask yourself where in a brick-and-mortar bookstore it would be shelved. If you cannot answer that question, it’s time for you to stop immediately and do some honest thinking along the following lines:

*What type of fiction do you enjoy reading most?

*Is your story idea that type?

*If not, why not?

*Do you have elements from several types of stories swimming in your imagination?

*Do you want to impress others by writing a piece of Great American Literature?

*Have you assembled a heap of scene fragments, settings, concepts, and character sketches from a wide variety of influences?

*Are you feeling confused and overwhelmed?

So let’s dig a bit deeper into these questions.

If you don’t plan to write what you love to read, why not? Isn’t the type of fiction you love best the type of fiction you know best?

Do you think you’re not skilled enough to put together a mystery, despite having read them avidly since childhood and being able to dissect how clues are laid and misdirected in an Agatha Christie story?

Do you feel that even though you’re a romantic and adore curling up with a passionate love story–your cat on your lap and a cup of tea at your elbow–no one will take you seriously if you confess you’re writing a romance?

Do you think you can’t write science fiction because you flunked physics in high school?

Nonsense! Don’t let self-doubts hold you back from writing a story you’ll enjoy. It’s so easy to denigrate or short-change what comes easiest to us, when in fact that means we have a talent for it.

Furthermore, stop trying to impress others because doing so leads to phony writing or cliched imitations. Write what you love; love what you write. (Hmmm … should that be a tee-shirt logo?)

Now, if you’re overwhelmed, dazed, and confused because you have a variety of influences bombarding your mind, make a foundation decision and choose one genre.

From that selection, start selecting the scene fragments and character sketches that fit your chosen genre. Alter or set aside the rest. A wildly disparate mixture of motifs, influences, and concepts is seldom indicative of genius; instead, it signals a lack of focus. If this is a problem for you, don’t be upset. Whatever you eliminate is not wasted inspiration. It can be saved for other projects to come.

Genre choice will give you an anchor. You aren’t drifting rudderless now. Just as you chose a college major that immediately set you on a path of specific courses to take as well as courses you couldn’t, picking a genre clears away the infinity of limitless options and forces you to focus. This happens because genre choice affects the following:

*The length your story will be;

*The pacing your story will have–which in turn will affect how long and intense your scenes are, whether you can write scene fragments with fast scene cuts or instead need long passages of internalization and transition, and if you’ll put together a plot-driven or character-driven story;

*The types of characters you’ll need, as well as how many;

*The story’s locale;

*The amount of research you’ll do;

*The tropes required (modern versions that aren’t out of date);

*The coding of your language.

These seven areas by no means encompass all the decisions you’ll be making while in story development, but they’re a good place to start. As you focus on them, you’ll probably find more and even better ideas coming to you.




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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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