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Exploding Plot

“Plot is people. Human emotions and desires founded on the realities of life, working at cross purposes, getting hotter and fiercer as they strike against each other until finally there’s an explosion–that’s Plot.”

–Leigh Brackett

Have you outlined a tidy, well-organized, and logical plot for your story? Are your characters busy being civil, well-educated human beings going about their lives and work, sighing now and then over a lost dream or one of life’s disappointments? Are they angst-ridden mopers propped up on bar stools, feeling sorry for their failures and delivering beer-sodden soliloquies that are your insights to life?

Are you typing and typing and typing, compiling a ever-growing page count while in the back of your mind you worry whether your story is actually going anywhere and how will you end this thing anyway?

And if you have a reader that’s honest with feedback instead of simply an ego-supporter, and that person is quiet after perusing your sample pages and hasn’t much to say in reaction, then it’s time to face reality:

Your work-in-progress could well be a self-indulgent, staid, lackluster, sanitized bore.

As Winnie the Pooh would say, “Oh, bother.”

Where, I ask you, is the fire?

A book, a story, a yarn intended for the commercial market isn’t a collection of words, or character speeches, or passages of description, or self-conscious style, or even a slice-of-life duplication of life’s most mundane moments.

Instead, it should be alive, with vivid characters bursting with emotion. It should be messy, because human beings are squalid, and tender, and ferocious, and petty, and heroic, and gentle, and greedy, and contradictory messes themselves.

Your characters should be in trouble. Not just suffering from a bad day. Not simply afflicted with the choice of whether to purchase a white car or a blue one. Not concerned with how to afford those Starbucks lattes while paying little Jimmy’s private school tuition. When I say trouble, I mean plagued with worry so intense the stress is eating them alive. Blighted with jealousy so white-hot it sears them every time they look at the person they believe is their spouse’s lover. Terrified in mind-numbed paralysis by the stalker that leaves eerie messages and gifts inside their apartment while they sleep. Raging with the grief and frustration of being falsely accused and convicted of a crime they didn’t commit. Horrified by the cruelty of cyber-bullies that have been secretly grinding their once-happy daughter into a withdrawn, bulimic, isolated, social outcast.

At its essential core, a story is what pits one character against another. It’s how those characters clash in struggle against each other, how they grow fiercer in striving to win–or survive–and how they overcome the biggest challenges of all at the end to achieve poetic justice.

You cannot generate a successful, emotionally satisfying plot that comes alive in reader imaginations unless you’re willing as a writer to get your hands dirty. By that, I mean willing to step right into the intense emotional quagmires within your protagonist and antagonist. Until you do that, you will never fully understand their motivations, and of course without motivation the actions a character takes will always seem contrived and artificial.

In other words, you can’t write at a distance from your characters. You can’t remain tidy and detached. You must be willing to crack open a sleek character’s facade and look at what’s seething beneath the mask.

More than that, you must be willing to apply more pressure to a protagonist already in tremendous trouble. This is done by not protecting or safeguarding your lead character. This is done by allowing the antagonist to hit the hero where he or she is most vulnerable–and hit that person hard.

Until we push a character hard enough, how will we–let alone readers–ever know what that story person is really made of?

Until we push a character hard enough, that character will not take action, will not take risks, will not dare to strike at another individual, will continue to hide or stay safe, and will remain dull and boring on the page.

Think about the best mysteries you’ve read. Often–in cozies anyway–the first victim is a sly, wicked, conniving, ruthless, immoral blackguard so rotten every suspect has a solid reason to wish him dead.

Think about your favorite thriller where the protagonist is swept up in the sudden terror of an ordeal so dangerous and horrific the suspense is tightened to an almost unbearable degree. The danger forces the protagonist to flee whatever comfort zone she has always known and attempt the unthinkable in order to survive.

Think about those romances where sparks fly between hero and heroine who stand on opposite sides of an issue yet are pulled together by a physical attraction so potent they are nearly powerless against it.

Think about the fantasy where magic is the only way to save the person the protagonist most cherishes, yet using that magic will extol a terrible price the protagonist fears to pay.

Do you see how, in each of these genre examples, I’ve set up a situation that puts the protagonist inside an emotional or ethical pressure cooker? Yes, some of these examples are stereotypical, and the tropes are well worn, but they work to illustrate my point.

Brackett’s quote says that explosion creates plot. If so, then you need intense emotion, conflict between characters in active opposition to each other, and situations that demand frequent clashes. They are your dry tinder. Additional pressure and/or stress is the spark.

Result?

Conflagration … and a plot that comes alive.

 

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Bubble, Boil & Trouble

Just the other day, I told my class that more amateur fiction fails from insufficient conflict than for any other reason.

Conflict, problems, adversity, bad luck, pressure, stress, worry, anguish–these are all part of a writer’s toolkit and should be at the center of stories.

However, sometimes new writers stumble over these variants of character trouble or dodge them altogether.

Instead, let’s look ’em right in the eye:

TROUBLE

Conflict is the linchpin of scenes. I always define it as two characters in direct, active opposition to each other. They meet in confrontation. They argue, fight, interrogate, bicker, evade, etc. Each one comes into the confrontation with a strategy and maneuvers through various tactics and persuasions in an effort to win the encounter.

So as long as you’re writing scenes, fill them with conflict.

If your characters won’t confront each other, you have a problem, and the scenes will crumble.

Problems that can’t be ignored or evaded give your characters something to do. Problems in the story’s opening situation, in the story’s subplots, in the characters’ backgrounds are all useful devices for filling mushy places in your plotline where the story action might otherwise flag.

Adversity (aka random bad luck) carries a warning label because it’s so often misused whenever inexperienced writers try to substitute it for conflict.

Let me state this clearly:  conflict and adversity are not the same thing. Adversity is conflict’s weaker cousin and it can’t do the job that conflict is responsible for.

Even so, occasional adversity doesn’t hurt. Like problems, adversity in small doses injected strategically brings another level of trouble to a story. If you’re writing plenty of conflict and your scenes are strong, adding an occasional dollop of bad luck will help raise the story stakes and keep your plot less predictable.

However, adversity alone just doesn’t carry a story well. Random bad luck is the volcano spewing molten lava on the spot where the hero just happens to be standing. Had the sidekick been there instead, the lava would have melted him. The lava doesn’t care. It has no intelligence, let alone a reason for doing what it’s doing.

Yet if lava spewing danger to a resort Hawaiian community is a catalyst that kickstarts a story and gets the protagonist moving in an effort to warn the community residents or evacuate them, then the volcanic eruption works very well as a backdrop of added danger. But on its own, it is not an actual antagonist.

Pressure ups the stakes. Pressure comes from deadlines, bad luck, and threats. Just when your protagonist has more than enough to cope with, add more pressure. Maybe Granny decides to have a coronary just as the protagonist is trying to load everyone on her neighborhood block into a van for evacuation ahead of the lava flow. The ambulance is cut off from rendering assistance. Minor characters are panicking. And now the protagonist has to find a way to save Granny.

Stress is a by-product of trouble and pressure. And while I want to experience as little stress in myself as possible, I certainly want my protagonist to suffer through a lot of it. Because stress indicates my protagonist is being tested, which is what fiction is really about.

Worry in a hero when things are going from bad to worse creates a corresponding concern in readers. And that helps keep pages turning.

Anguish stems from scene conflict that’s more challenging than the protagonist expected, ending in setback or disaster. Think about times in your life when you’ve wanted something so very, very much and it did not happen. Look at the faces of Olympic athletes who’ve trained for years for the split-second ending of a race when they reached out with all they had and fell short.

That’s your protagonist, reaching through conflict and opposition so bad he isn’t sure he can survive it, and feeling intense anguish as the story goal looks to be dropping away, lost forever.

BOIL

Conflict, problems, and trouble have to start strong and grow harsher and more formidable as the story progresses. This kind of story pressure will then force your protagonist into taking risks and growing. It will push your protagonist’s emotions into a churning turmoil of conflicting feelings.

If your viewpoint character isn’t “on the boil” inside, then chances are you haven’t pitted him or her against enough opposition.

Raise the stakes and stop protecting your protagonist.

BUBBLE

What’s bubbling beneath the surface? What do you know that your readers don’t? Is your protagonist torn within, at conflict with himself as he struggles to find a way out of his current difficulties?

External plot conflict should exacerbate whatever flaws your hero possesses. Not just little things like failing to pick up her clothes, but areas where your protagonist lacks something necessary to win, to survive the story situation.

The external conflict should force your protagonist to grow. And a character grows whenever he’s pushed from the cocoon of physical, emotional, or psychological safety where he’s taken refuge.

Trouble with consequences that can’t be ignored is the first step toward shoving your protagonist beyond the safety zone. Being pitted against an antagonist that shows no mercy will compel your protagonist to strive to do things never tried before despite that inner flaw or fear. The story’s plot is all about making your protagonist face her fear or overcome her inner weakness despite all the internal doubt and uncertainty holding her back.

Without trouble, boil, and bubble–protagonists are flat and lifeless on the page. They never quite come to life. They fail to be compelling.

Reach past your personal comfort zone and stop protecting your hero. Amp up the challenge, and kick emotions to life.

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Story Outlines

Ah, the dreaded outline–aka plot synopsis. An invaluable aid in organizing a story before commencing the actual manuscript, and a requirement in marketing any manuscript to potential agents or publishers … yet how many inexperienced writers panic or hit dead ends in creating one?

When appealed to for help, it’s easy for an experienced writer to shrug and say, “Just put it together chronologically from start to finish.”

But there’s a bit more to it than that. Let’s consider a few tips. (Any repetition in the following points is deliberate and for emphasis.)

  1. Understand that a story idea or premise is not the same thing as a plot. You may have thought up a terrific concept. You may have devised a highly imaginative setting. You may be able to envision what your protagonist looks like. All of that is great, but those elements do not add up to a plot. Until you have an actual plot in mind, you cannot write an outline of it.
  2. To create a plot from your idea, you need the following elements:  a protagonist that will serve as the most important character in the story; an objective for your protagonist that is specific and potentially obtainable; a foe for your protagonist to serve as the story’s antagonist or villain; and some idea of how, when, and where the story will end.
  3. It’s important that your protagonist character be an active individual. Your protagonist should not be remote, isolated, held prisoner, or someone to be rescued by other characters. In other words, your protagonist should not be someone living exiled on a distant island with all your other characters trying to  effect a rescue. No, your protagonist should be the bloke hired to guide a group of adventurers deep into uncharted territory in order to save a person in need of rescue. Your protagonist is the character doing the primary work.
  4. You must create a villain. For some reason, bad guys tend to be overlooked by inexperienced writers. I’m not asking you to like them or defend their dastardly actions, but villains serve a vital purpose in making stories work. You need someone that actively tries to oppose the protagonist or stand in his or her way. And the stronger your villain, the better your story will be. Why? Because opposition challenges your protagonist, tests your protagonist, and forces your protagonist to become stronger and more heroic as the story progresses.
  5. Testing your protagonist is the whole point of writing a story. Fiction isn’t about creating a new system of magic, or evoking the desert sands of the Sahara. It’s about changing a protagonist from an ordinary person into a hero. Or in giving a naturally heroic person a place in which to shine.
  6. The end of a story–its climax–should be dramatic and dynamic. It’s the big showdown between hero and villain. It’s where your protagonist will resolve his or her story problem. It’s where your story is headed from page one. It should demonstrate in action (or words) who and what your protagonist really is made of, and your protagonist should defeat the villain.
  7. Take time to think through these elements carefully. Until you have all of them, you aren’t ready to start outlining.
  8. The outline should start at the point where your protagonist becomes actively involved in a problem, challenge, or dilemma. You can call this in medias res (in the middle of things) or you can think of it as the change in circumstances that forces the protagonist to take action. Outlines should not open with heavy descriptions of the setting or long explanations of what’s led up to the problem itself.
  9. From start to finish, you then summarize what will happen as your protagonist takes his or her first action to solve the story problem or reach the story objective–and is directly opposed by the villain. That first encounter is a roadblock. The protagonist will have to figure out a way to move past it and try again. Again, villain will oppose hero, forcing another, more daring, attempt. Step by step, in sequential order, summarize what happens through attempt and block, attempt and block, until the end. Your story involves dramatizing how your protagonist is forced from his or her comfort zone into taking progressively larger risks.
  10. Don’t be coy. You will not entice an editor’s curiosity by leaving out a critical event. An outline is no place for tricks. Include all the major turning points of the story. Will the outline read as dry and flat? Yes. Will it illustrate your talent for lyrical prose? No. (Nor should it.) Should it indicate that you have an active, sympathetic protagonist pursuing a clear, specific goal despite direct opposition from a villain? Yes.

 

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Fighting for Story

There’s a quiet battle waging in the entertainment arena these days.

Classic story design versus minimal story design.

Plot versus character.

Story-driven versus problematic situations.

Good fighting evil versus shades of gray.

Linear plotting versus webbed plotting.

Bold and vivid versus drab and small.

Scene-based conflict versus discussions of problems.

Resolution of story versus open-ended stopping point.

Now, there’s no simple explanation for this situation. Too many factors ranging from the flux of trends in prose fiction, TV, and films to cultural pressures and social agendas are all mixing into what’s currently taking place.

The why, in this context, is less important than the acknowledgement of what is happening. And writers need to be aware of it so they can decide whether they want to stand for one side or the other or whether they simply want to follow the current trends like flotsam riding a river.

Classic story design versus minimal story design

What is this? What does it mean? What’s the difference?

Classic design is the plot structure that’s archetypal — meaning it’s worked universally since the dawn of time. It follows this pattern:  a protagonist pursues a goal despite the active opposition of an antagonist until the conflict escalates to an ultimate showdown and the protagonist prevails or loses.

Minimal story design is where the protagonist is facing a problematic story situation but is reactive to it and may not necessarily be facing a direct foe.

Plot versus character

This debate seems a bit pointless to me because plot derives from character and what a character wants. However, the phrase “plotted story” generally means a story that follows the archetypal pattern of a protagonist in pursuit of a specific goal despite direct opposition.

The “character-oriented story” is sometimes shaped around the circumstances surrounding the protagonist and how that individual responds to or thinks about it. There may be a perception of a desired goal, but little action will be taken toward it.

Story-driven versus problematic situations

Story-driven refers to the protagonist initiating confrontations in scenes in order to accomplish a specific objective. Each confrontation causes a chain reaction or consequences as a result that lead to bigger complications for the protagonist.

Problematic situations are difficulties in the life of the protagonist or problems afflicting someone the protagonist cares about. But there’s no particular human foe behind those difficulties. They are often stemming from adversity such as illness or financial worries or some nebulous sense of unhappiness or misery.

Good fighting evil versus shades of gray

It’s become unfashionable to label fictional characters as the good guy or the bad guy. To consider someone a villain means you must make a judgment. You must gauge this person against your standards, ethics, and principles, and find him or her lacking.

In classic story design, we need villains just as we need heroes in order for the story to take shape. Fiction is art, and art makes order of reality. The story protagonist must become heroic in order to prevail over an opponent who chooses expediency enough to become a villain.

While some mainstream fiction out there seeks to explore the concepts that there is good and evil in every person, classic story design acknowledges this while pushing the characters to move to one side or the other of that line. In other words, will the flawed protagonist change and take risks or overcome inner fears to become heroic and win? Or will the character waffle and wallow in doubt and angst until nothing ultimately is achieved?

Linear plotting versus webbed plotting

Classic design unfolds a story in a logical, cause-and-effect chronology. It begins with the catalytic moment of change in the protagonist’s circumstances that forces him or her to take action. Thereafter, it moves in a linear direction toward the finish where the story’s climax will resolve the protagonist’s problem one way or another.

Webbed plotting involves numerous flashbacks to dramatize past events or character motivations through scene action. It involves several viewpoints, which in turn requires the story to present each viewpoint as directing a subplot. Strict chronology of story events is deemed less important than a character’s feelings or perspective. Although web plotting can generate more depth of characterization, if handled poorly it can result in a split focus in the story and much difficulty in achieving effective story resolution.

Bold and vivid versus drab and small

In classic design, there is no attempt to hide a scene antagonist. Every scene is focused around conflict, which is created by the clash between the protagonist’s goal and the antagonist’s goal.

Classic protagonists are heroic, strong, and admirable. They are presented to readers in ways that make readers like them, sympathize with them, and relate to them. This is not by accident. It is through the writer’s design and intention.

Classic antagonists are devious, ruthless, and driven. They may hide some of these qualities beneath charm or lies, but they are not depicted so that readers will like them.

I’m not saying that good guys won’t have flaws or bad guys won’t have positive qualities, but whatever the character design is … go for bold. Exaggerate that quality. Own it. Flaunt it. Build it bigger. Don’t be timid in writing characters. Make them vivid.

The drab, small, insignificant character that’s designed for realism is a character that comes across as flat, dull, and unimportant.

Writers who fear being considered melodramatic and cheesy tend to constrict their characters into bland, monochromatic, non-achievers.

Scene-based conflict versus discussion of problems

Is there anything more boring than two drab characters sitting in a small, drab room, discussing a small, drab problem without ever getting up to do anything about it?

That’s too realistic for my taste. When I read fiction, I want to follow a viewpoint character through tough problems right into the heart of conflict and see that character meet the challenge or be temporarily flattened by it.

Minimalized plotting reduces the drama, shrinks the scene conflict, seeks subtlety at the expense of story progression, and usually devolves into dull yammering circular dialogue.

Conversely, scene-based conflict focuses a confrontation between protagonist and antagonist, brings an issue out into the open, pits the two characters against each other, and drives one or the other into victory or defeat.

Resolution of story versus open-ended plot

Okay, I get that the current fad is to leave stories hanging in order to entice readers into buying the next volume in a series. I get that in this rough economic climate publishers are desperate for a sure thing and would rather expand a book series than take too many risks seeking new authors or fresh stories that might or might not grab public fancy. I get that TV series are generally now structured like novels from start to finish of the season or all the seasons in their entirety, stopping weekly episodes with cliffhangers like book chapters, to keep viewers tuned in.

I get it and I understand it. However, the danger with too much of it is that readers — and inexperienced writers — lose touch with how stories should be resolved, how questions raised within stories should be answered, and how readers should be taken through a cathartic experience of anticipation, suspense, emotion, and satisfaction at the story’s conclusion.

You can resolve a plotline and settle issues between hero and villain sufficiently to give readers a feeling of completion without losing opportunities to set hooks for the next installment to come.

The habit of leaving every single thing open and hanging eventually creates a perception that this is the norm. This is realistic. This is believable.

No, it’s too much like real life.

Fiction isn’t supposed to be realistic. It’s art, and art focuses on the message its creator wants to convey. Story is contrived by writers to transport readers to a different place and time, to put them vicariously through tremendous challenges and difficulties, and to let them survive, prevail, and grow as individuals.

Last weekend, I settled in to watch ABC’s special presentation of Cecil B. DeMille’s masterful feature film, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. I have been watching that film since childhood. Some years I focus on the costumes or sets. Other years I skip the parts I like less and wander in and out of the living room when the movie reaches the points I enjoy most.

This year, what struck me was the writing and how strong in technique it actually is. The storyline of the two rival princes vying to be Pharaoh’s successor is well written so that each character is powerfully motivated, and every scene — even if it is between a princess and her faithful servant — carries clear, easy-to-follow conflict. Every scene centers on a clear character goal, and every scene ends in a setback for the central character.

I was surprised by my reaction to the technique. Usually I acknowledge it as a matter of course, but this year I found it soothing and reassuring. It was comfortable. It worked. The plot rolled forward, and even the subplots made sense. I felt myself relaxing and truly enjoying the way the story unfolded. I realized how much I’ve been missing that kind of writing in what I view–and often read–these days.

In contrast, I took advantage of commercial breaks to click over to my public station to check out the Henry VIII drama on PBS Masterpiece — WOLF-HALL. Granted, I was watching it in small snippets, but the characters were drab and drawn with such subtlety that I found the drama hard to follow. Few historical events are as dramatic as the battle between King Henry and Cardinal Wolsey, and I’ve seen — and read — several fine fictionalized accounts. But this version was small, realistic, drab, talky, and shaded to the point that I wasn’t sure whom I should be rooting for and whom I should revile. Only my actual historical knowledge of the characters involved helped me understand anything of what was going on.  Scenes faded into each other. There didn’t seem to be any significance to what was depicted. The episode didn’t make me care. If you think I’m being unfair by comparing DeMille and ancient Egypt to a smaller BBC production of Renaissance English politics, then pit WOLF-HALL against the film ANNE OF A THOUSAND DAYS.

 Even so, the two programs I watched Easter Sunday couldn’t illustrate the point of this blog better. One classically designed, clear, easy to follow and compelling. The other modern, realistic, webbed, shaded in drab stripes of gray, no clear-cut hero to cheer for, no clear-cut villain to boo, no reason to keep watching, no point in returning.

Call me old-fashioned if you wish. But muddled technique does not a compelling story make.

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Flat or Lively?

When you read over your copy, does it seem flat? Does your story carry a blah aspect? Do you feel that it’s close to being where you want it, yet something’s missing?

Chances are that you’ve made two fundamental mistakes: a passive protagonist and insufficient scene conflict.

The passive protagonist may be a decent human being, may be skilled and knowledgeable, and may be capable of fending off attacking zombies with a good chance of survival. However, if this character isn’t initiating action or isn’t taking charge of the story situation, then he or she is just following at the heels of someone else.

That does not a hero make.

When you put your protagonist in charge, you will instinctively change aspects of his or her personality to some degree. You will find this character now has a purpose in mind, now has things to do–even if she’s interrupted by the story problem. This character becomes much more interesting to readers.

Lack of conflict within a scene will automatically weaken it and prevent it from achieving its fullest dramatic potential. If your protagonist waits for someone else to wander by and suggest what should be done, and then the two of them take that action without any disagreement, and they find themselves working together in complete accord, there is nothing (dramatically) happening!

Scenes of conflict can occur between two people on the same side, working together toward a common cause or objective. Just because they’re allies doesn’t mean they have to agree about what to do or when to do it. They can disagree on the approach or the timing or one may want an explanation that the other one doesn’t want to supply. Conflict can be mild, but it still needs to fuel the scene in some way.

Remember that agreement between characters is dull.

Also, without conflict a scene has nowhere to go. As a result, you may have planned your story but it will read like you’re moving your characters from one event on your checklist to the next. The characters must appear to move the story by making plans, disagreeing on how to implement the plan, attempting to carry it out, failing or partially failing because of opposition stronger than expected, and then reacting to the new problems.

Scenes without sufficient conflict generally end without setbacks. And setbacks are necessary to force a protagonist to take subsequent risks in order to reach the story’s climax.

Flat and dull, or lively and exciting?

The choice is yours to make.

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Plot Is a Four-Letter Word

Lately, quite a few people have been requesting more information about plotting, so let’s consider a few basics:

1) P is for persistence:
Webster’s Dictionary defines the word “persist” as to go on resolutely or stubbornly in spite of opposition, importunity, or warning.

Your protagonist must be a character who persists in pursuing the story’s objective, no matter how difficult the circumstances or opposition become.

Plot hinges on conflict, and conflict comes from two goals in opposition. Therefore, both the protagonist and antagonist are persistent people. They are focused on what they want or are trying to achieve. They are highly motivated. They are determined to succeed. They refuse to give up. And each scene of the story … each event within the plot should center on these stubborn, focused people who are maneuvering against each other to win.

2) L is for length:

How long will your story be? Short, say about 3,000 words? Or long, about 70,000? Whatever the length, that is your border. The story has to fit within its perimeters, whether those are set by genre or publication specifications. Knowing your intended length helps you determine your priorities as you select the list of events that will occur in your story.

If, for example, you’re supposed to be writing a novel about star-crossed lovers and your assigned length is 65,000 words, you’re going to need a lot more happening than they meet, they feel instant attraction, they quarrel, and they make up in time to live happily ever after.

Consider the comedy film, THE LADY EVE, by Preston Sturges. Starring Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck, the story revolves around a con artist father and daughter who set up a meeting with a wealthy, reclusive, naive young man. Eve weaves a rapid spell around him, and he quickly succumbs to her charm and beauty. By the end of a few days they’re engaged to be married. That comprises the movie’s first act. How will Sturges fill the remaining two-thirds of the film’s length?

Act Two must have a breakup between the two lovers. So Henry’s character discovers that Eve is an adventuress and her father is a professional card sharp. He breaks off the engagement at once. However, Eve has truly fallen in love with him. Angered by his dumping her, she sets out for revenge and “meets” him once again, this time posing as her identical twin half-sister. And she makes him fall in love with her a second time.

Act Three is where she marries him, then–on their wedding night–talks about her numerous liaisons with countless other men. All of this is invented, of course, but poor Henry doesn’t know it. He flees again, heartbroken and distraught, only to encounter Eve a third time–once again in her “real” card-playing persona.

Beyond this bare bones summary of the central storyline, there are subplots, amusing secondary characters, and comedic stunts to help fill the length.

However, trying to fit a story of this scope into a short story’s limited word count would involve chopping it down to a mere sketch of two or three scenes. A LOT would have to be left out. In effect, it would be a radically different plot.

3) O is for outline:
Most writers start out with a character in mind or perhaps a setting or a handful of events. From that kernel of inspiration, the actual plotting has to be worked out. Outlining can be challenging, but no matter how difficult it may prove to be, the time invested is nearly always worthwhile. Would you rather spend your hours writing and rewriting an outline of five to ten pages, or write fifty to one hundred pages of poorly thought through manuscript that then has to be thrown away?

*Start with your protagonist. What does she want? Why?
*Next, create your antagonist. Who is opposed to your protagonist achieving that objective? Why?
*Write down a list of possible plot events as quickly as possible. Don’t edit or analyze. Just jot them down.
*Later, determine which of the events to keep and which to toss aside.
*Put the kept events in sequential order. Don’t worry if they don’t precisely connect. These will possibly be your key turning points.
*What signifies a huge or significant change in your protagonist’s life? Put that first.
*Look at your list of events again. Do any of them follow logically from the event of change? If not, think about what might happen next. Toss and keep events as needed.
*What is your protagonist’s plan to achieve the goal?
*What step will your protagonist take first?
*What is the immediate outcome of that attempt?
*How does the antagonist thwart this attempt?
*What will your protagonist do next?
*How does the antagonist thwart that?
*Do any of these attempts and failures lead logically to one of the plot events on your list?
*If not, what crisis do they lead to? That will be your first turning point.
*Think about what might happen next after the first major crisis. Plot from there to the next crisis/turning point. Follow cause-and-effect logic.
*The climax of the story should be a big showdown between the protagonist and antagonist. Plan for it. Make sure that what happens in the story leads in that direction. It is your story’s destination.
*Look at your outline again. If anything seems contrived or out of place, shift it or motivate it. If it still seems wrong, delete it.

4) T is for trajectory:
Think of your plot as an arc spanning the story from its start to its ending. At all times, the protagonist is working toward achieving his objective. With each attempt, and failure, the protagonist should find a plausible motivation for why he’s willing to continue. And he should try again.

All of those efforts will result in gradually changing the protagonist. That alteration may be slight or it may be profound. Either way, the protagonist should be forced to either grow as an individual or devolve.

Consider two examples of trajectory: Scarlett O’Hara from GONE WITH THE WIND and Michael Corleone from THE GODFATHER.

Scarlett starts out as a pretty, willful, headstrong young girl who is infatuated with her neighbor Ashley Wilkes. When he chooses to marry his cousin, Scarlett plunges into an impulsive marriage of her own. Through the course of the Civil War and the Reconstruction period that follows, she changes into a survivor, a businesswoman, and a mother. She’s so goal-driven and stubborn that it takes a lot of heartache to shake her from her infatuation with Ashley. By the end of the story, she realizes who she actually loves instead and is finally willing to at least try to work out a real relationship with him. Her character trajectory seems slight because it’s so gradual, but at the end of the story she has at least set her feet on the path of true change.

Michael starts out as a young man who knows what his father does for a living but thinks naively that he can remain separate from the mob activities. He’s distinguished himself heroically in WWII and is planning a political career. It’s not until his father is gunned down in an assassination attempt and lying helpless in the hospital that Michael involves himself directly in his father’s business. He protects his father, saving the don’s life. Beyond that, Michael takes revenge on those behind the plot by coldly executing them in a restaurant. Then he seizes the reins of his father’s empire from his older brother. He lies to his wife, promising her that this is temporary and that he’ll get out of the business. But instead he goes in deeper and deeper into the cesspool of organized crime. He eventually becomes far more ruthless than his father ever was. And when he orders the execution of his remaining brother, his trajectory downward from a respectable young man to a ruthless monster is complete.

Story plot, ideally, should be an entwining of the protagonist’s outer story problem and attempts to solve it and the inner problem or trajectory of change that happens along the way. The plot events should affect the protagonist in one way or the other from start to finish.

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Stop Watching!

Does your protagonist jump into trouble, take on opponents, and try to get things done?

Or does your protagonist hang back timidly–or sensibly–refusing to dip a toe in the quagmire of story problems?

When you read over one of your scenes, is the protagonist just standing there, listening to two other characters debate?

Or is your protagonist at the center of the action?

In evaluating your stories, always ask yourself these questions. If your protagonist is creeping around in the attic and pauses to listen in to what is–in your authorial mind–a “very important conversation that will have a vital bearing on events to come” then you aren’t really writing a strong scene of conflict. You just think you are.

The conflict between secondary characters is never going to be as interesting to readers as the conflict between the protagonist and someone else.

Beware the trap of sidelining your protagonist. The star of your story should be at the center of the action … unless you switch viewpoints. The star shouldn’t be sitting in the bleachers, watching other characters at work.

Consider if you were putting together a movie instead of writing a story. Let’s say that you’re paying your protagonist a hefty sum of money to perform, yet the script has put Paolo Protagonist in a chair beneath an umbrella with a cool drink. The upcoming story action is going to center on Sidekick Sam and Confidant Charlie. They’re supposed to be playing tennis but instead they’re arguing because Sam thinks Charlie has learned Paolo’s secret and is upset that Paolo would trust Charlie more than anyone else. So Sam is trying to wheedle the secret from Charlie, and Charlie refuses to spill it.

Back and forth they argue. It’s a good scene with directly opposing conflict. Paolo may enjoy watching it. He may laugh at Sam’s attempts to trick Charlie, and Paolo may be proud of Charlie’s loyalty. At the end of the scene, Sam stomps away, frustrated and angrier than before.

Do you think you did a good job, presenting that to your audience?

Nope!

Why not? Because the audience wants to see the star perform.

You may argue that the scene was indeed about the star. “They were talking about Paolo the whole time!” you may insist.

Yeah, but it’s not the same thing. Consider this scenario instead:

Paolo needs to confide in someone. He shares his secret with Charlie, whom he trusts.

Later, Sam comes to him and berates Paolo for not trusting him. “How can you trust Charlie and not me?” he asks. “Why don’t you tell me the secret, too?”

But Paolo won’t. Whatever his motivation happens to be, for some reason he’s not trusting Sam with the information. At the end of the scene, Sam is angry and frustrated. He breaks his friendship with Paolo and withdraws his assistance from the important project looming ahead.

Now Paolo has managed not to spill his secret, but he’s lost a valuable ally.

Do you see the difference? Putting Paolo in the story action of the scene is going to be more interesting than merely having him watching and listening.

The protagonist–the viewpoint character–must participate in advancing the story.

Always check. You may find that you have some vivid and contentious secondary characters who are stealing scenes–and possibly the story–from your star. Don’t diminish them. Just give your protagonist a job to do.

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