Tag Archives: quests

Plotting Plots

You can have story concepts and ideas all day long, and not have a plot.

Maybe you’ve been living with a character or a setting for years, ever since inspiration struck you, but have you ever gotten your story off the ground? Has the storyline ever completely come together? Or are you still mulling over the story world and never managing to figure out what should happen to your protagonist once he or she actually sets out on the great quest?

It’s not easy to make the leap from concept, dream, idea, or spark to an actual plotted storyline that spans beginning, middle, and end, but there are certain techniques in the writer’s toolkit that will make it possible.

Firstly, determine the moment of change for your protagonist. Yes, I know you’ve been designing the history, back story, and mythology of your story world, but what catalytic event does it all boil down to?

Consider the opening of Frank Herbert’s masterpiece, Dune. Herbert has obviously thought through a complex political situation, the world Paul and his family are leaving, the world they are moving to, the factions, the intrigues, etc. but instead of a massive info-dump he chooses instead to open his story with the last-moment preparations for the move off-world. This is the actual change in Paul’s circumstances, and it causes a visit from the Bene Gesserit witch that sets Paul on his path of destiny.

Secondly, examine the character you’ve selected to be your protagonist. Is this character truly suitable to play the lead role of your story? Or is this character a bystander, watching others engaging in conflict and adventures? How can you tell if you’ve chosen the best character to star?

By honestly assessing whether this character’s goal drives the story action and whether this character has the most at stake.

Too often, I watch students of mine contort their stories into Gordian knots in an effort to preserve the wrong character. They will cling stubbornly to a weak, vapid, reactive, passive bystander while ignoring the so-called secondary character that possesses drive, determination, stamina, and a defined goal.

Thirdly, what is the protagonist’s goal in light of the story situation, the stakes, and the catalytic event? Until you know it, you have no plot no matter how much world-building you may do.

Fourthly, who is the antagonist? Don’t shove forward some contrived dastardly no-good without any thought. Instead, take time to sort through your characters for the individual that most directly opposes your protagonist’s objective.

For example, I can cook up some mighty, evil super-wizard living in a remote tower as he plots the annihilation of all living things. But what has Super-wizard got to do with Young Farmboy living three kingdoms away in the dell?

Please don’t start rambling about how Young Farmboy has a destiny and someday, after Young Farmboy has gone on a thirty-year quest, he will meet Super-wizard in a cataclysmic battle to the death.

Go back instead to Young Farmboy’s goal. What, specifically, does he want? To go on a quest? To what purpose? Okay, sure, to find the Golden Casket of Treasures Untold. And what does that goal have to do with Super-wizard three kingdoms and thousands of leagues away?

Are you going to remind me that Super-wizard is evil and wants to annihilate everything? But is that intention directly opposed to Young Farmboy’s goal of seeking the Golden Casket?

No, it’s not. Beware the temptation to sweep past this glitch. Ignore it at your peril. For it will unravel your plot and leave you stalled.

There are three approaches to use in solving this plotting problem. Super-wizard’s purpose can be altered so that he has the Golden Casket in his possession and would rather see all living things annihilated than surrender it. Or Young Farmboy’s goal needs to change so that he’s seeking to stop the threatened annihilation of all living things, specifically his village and the sweet maiden he loves. Or Super-wizard can sit in his remote tower and you can devise a more immediate antagonist that can constantly oppose and trouble Young Farmboy as he seeks his goal.

Lastly, once you’ve solved the problem of goals that are actually directly opposed, think about the climax you intend. How will you wrap up this clash of opposition? How will the conflict be resolved? How will the protagonist prevail even when all the odds are stacked against him and his antagonist seems to have the upper hand?

Solve these problems and answer these questions, and you’ll have a plot. It may not be exactly what you originally intended, but what does that matter? You’ve made progress in moving from a concept – nebulous and not quite coming together – to a storyline that jumps into action from the beginning, holds together in the middle, and delivers a rousing good finish.

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New Book!

The wait seems to have been interminable, but yesterday saw the publication of my latest book, THE CALL OF EIRIAN.

Book design by Alex Ferrari. THE CALL OF EIRIAN (c) 2012 is published by Amazon Children’s Publishing.

This YA book is the second of THE FAELIN CHRONICLES trilogy, coming out under the pen name C. Aubrey Hall. I’ve always found the middle books of trilogies to be challenging to write. Similar, in fact, to the soggy center of any story where it is so easy for the tale to falter, sag, slow down, or just sink.

However, I don’t believe THE CALL OF EIRIAN suffers from those maladies. My young characters–twins Diello and Cynthe (having been orphaned in the first book, CRYSTAL BONES)–are well on their difficult journey to the kingdom of the Fae. They’re in a race against Nature; winter is coming fast. They’re hindered by not being able to use their magical powers; using magic leaves a trail for the goblins to follow. And although they’re certain that if they can just reach the Fae their problems will be over, they find that the land of Embarthi is less than welcoming to Faelin such as themselves.

Politics, adventure, and magic are entwined in this book, as in most of my fantasies. I think fantasy is always a setting for a power struggle. Whether you’re in a cute Brian Jacques yarn about an evil Portuguese rat trying to conquer the gentle mice of Mossflower or a Robert Jordan epic, the political struggle is going to be there.

I have to admit, though, that quests are not my favorite plot structure. Unless it’s a l-o-n-g chase, the conflict can unravel into just one mishap after another. I prefer tightly focused antagonism. Quests also offer a challenge in that a writer has to keep topping each segment of adventure as the story builds to a climax.

And of course, being that it’s a middle book, the climax has to resolve the immediate problems of the characters without tying up the whole story.

Whew!

Despite the hard work, coming up with the magical elements of Embarthi was a great deal of fun. I looked forward to that just as I hope readers will look forward to reaching Queen Sheirae’s palace. Originally, I wanted to pay homage to some of the visual effects of the Jean Cocteau film, Beauty and the Beast, but that didn’t come across as I’d hoped and it was cut. Trying to think up the architecture for a race that can fly led to much pondering in my office chair.

The trogs are back. The goblins are back. We find out a bit more about the Samal wolves. But I confess that my favorite part of the book involves the lions of Embarthi.

Did I plan those big felines ahead of time? Nope. They just roared their way into the book and stayed there. I’m glad they did.

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