July 31, 2009

What Every Writer Needs to Know About Plot and Structure, Part 4


Grab your reader with a killer opening line. Some may tell you never to open with dialogue, others will tell you...

well, there's an amusing article (more of a rant) that lists a number of ways you should not start a story. Read A Newbie's Guide to Publishing: How Not to Write a Story.

Joe Konrath makes some excellent points and explains each one (for the most part).

So how should you start a story?

  • First and foremost: introduce conflict. Conflict is the bread and butter of fiction. Without it, fiction is boring. If no one in your first scene has a need, then you need to cut that scene. Start somewhere else.
  • You also need to show (and I do mean SHOW) your character(s). Just the main ones for now. You don't want to overwhelm your readers with a bunch of characters at once. You do want them to connect to the characters that will be central to your story.
  • Show genre in your beginning. If you're writing fantasy, show some magic or paranormal elements to give your reader the right expectations. It doesn't have to be big. I once started a story with a paragraph about a bully with some unusual talents. (Making my heroine's hair stand on end, for example.)
  • Sensory details. Imagery. Give the readers details. There's a piece of paper on the counter. Is it rolled up? Folded? How big is it? Is it notebook paper? Parchment? A sticky note? Give smells. (That's a hard one, but it can instantly bring your characters into the setting.) The trick is to provide as much setting in the fewest words possible. If you give too much all at once, you'll boor your readers. Sneak those details in as you unfold the plot, character, and conflict.

This is the hard part. The part where all your ideas have to come together, in an interesting way, to set you up for your ending.

You needs lots of conflict here. Make your characters work hard. Make them suffer. I know it's hard, but trust me, as soon as things start to go right for your characters, your readers will put your book down. You need to constantly be stirring the pot.

If you've read my posts on sentence lite, you'll know what each scene (whether beginning, middle, or end) needs: protagonist (that has needs and is interesting), antagonist (who also has needs and is interesting), conflict (how their needs conflict with each other), a setting, and a twist. The twist is something unexpected. It moves the story forward.

In Heidi Thomas' article Prop Up Your Sagging Middles, she discusses some key questions you should ask yourself about each scene.

If you find that your middles are slim and/or your word count is too low, you'll love Dani Greer's article on Plumpers.

Throughout your book, you'll need strong scenes. This is crucial. I have to recommend Holly's Create Page-Turning Scenes Clinic. (Yes, I know I recommend her a lot, but she's the best I've found.)

This is where pantsers seem to have the most trouble. If you plan out you novel well, know where your novel's pulse is, and know your themes, then you should already know your ending. All you have to do is write to it.

But, here are some pointers:
Your ending, wherever it is, whatever happens, needs to connect back to your beginning. Somehow. I know it sounds crazy, but it's true. If there isn't a way to connect your ending to the first three pages of your story, then maybe you didn't begin in the right place.

At the beginning, you made your reader a promise. You told them, "This is what the book is about." Now you have to deliver on that promise.

For example, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone begins with the headmaster and a teacher discussing the fate of the boy who lived. How does it end? The boy who lived fought against the same villain and lived again. Some consider the first chapter to be more of a prologue, but it's still there in the second chapter. Uncle Vernon notices a number of strange happenings that are related to (surprise!) the boy who lived and the celebration of his conquest over the dark lord. Trust me. Your beginning needs to be similar to your ending.


Your characters need to be different. They need to change throughout the course of the story. Their needs changed, they've learned something about themselves, conquered a weakness, whatever. They can't be the same person they were on page one. Otherwise, there's no point in telling the story.

For clarification, I've posted a video on how endings are like beginnings here.

If you want to read this series from the beginning, here is Part 1 of What Every Writer Needs to Know About Plot and Structure.

July 30, 2009

What Every Writer Needs to Know About Plot and Structure, Part 3

When I first got bitten by the writing bug, I found an excellent series of articles, the first being: Does Your Novel Have a Heartbeat?, by Holly Lisle.
They're directed at those who already have a novel written out, but it would be helpful, in my opinion, to read them before you've typed 100,000 words and devoted a year of your life to a piece of your soul.
Read these articles, and create something with a heartbeat from the beginning. Create something real and meaningful to you. Love your work before you even start writing it.
You can find the other articles of this series at this page (scroll to the bottom).
Yes, it's a lot of reading.

As if that wasn't enough, I have some free resources for download. These tools (along with others from the same source) have made a bigger impact on my writing than anything else.

Holly's Create Your Professional Plot Outline Mini-Course is a free, completed mini course on developing a plot, starting from any number of places: a character, a twist, world building, a structure (like the ones I listed in Part 1 of this series), or questions. This is a rough sketch of one of the techniques you can use to create a workable plot. She explains the process, gives a demonstration, and then provides an exercise for you to build part of your plot.
You can download this mini-course in PDF format here.

If this is something that works for you, you can get more in-depth instruction from Holly's Create a Plot Clinic. I have the first 52 pages of it here for free.
The full course can be found here: Create A Plot Clinic, by Holly Lisle

Seriously, this has everything you need to know in order to plot out an entire novel. Last I checked, she had an updated version of this for $9.95. But she also has it available at a discount in a bundle, with building characters, cultures, and languages: Clinic Writing Bundle. They're all good, but the plot and character ones are the best (unless you do a lot of world building).
Part 4 will cover beginnings, middles, and endings.
Part 1 was on classic plot structures, and Part 2 covered getting down to creating a story that matters to you, but will keep your readers interested.

July 29, 2009

What Every Writer Needs to Know About Plot and Structure, Part 2

So, now that you know how plots used to be structured, how does today's writer plot out a novel without repeating the same-old, some-old?

Liz Strauss says the number one thing readers want from writers is for you to use an idea that is intrguing to you.

"If it intrigues you, I’m likely to be intrigued by it too. At the very least,
I’ll be curious about what it was about the idea that captured your interest and intrigued you. "

Read the rest of the article here.

This is vitally important. So many writers are overly concerned about "what's hot", what's selling, or what agents and publishers are looking for. While you should know your markets, don't let trends decide what you're going to write about. There are two good reasons:

1) The trend will most likely be old news by the time your manuscript is ready for publishing. (Getting a book to the shelf usually takes several months after you write it.)
2) If it sells, and you don't love it, you're going to hate being a writer. You'll be expected to write more of what you don't love. This job is way to hard to be worth it unless you're passionate about writing.

Create, Complicate, Resolve: The Keys to Keeping Your Readers Interested touches on the art of gripping your readers without letting them down by "cheating". (We've all seen it before--'and then I woke up.') Her advice:

Create a believable story where actions are followed by consequences. In real
life, situations happen this way, so don't hold back in your stories. It may
seem cruel, but your audience will actually thrive on how much trouble you
can heap on your protagonist while watching him drag himself over broken
glass by his lips to save the woman he loves.

Read the rest of the article here.

In Part 3 of What Every Writer Needs to Know About Plot and Structure, I'll post some freebies and other resources that helped me with plotting.
Part 4 will be on beginnings, middles, and ends.

You can read Part 1 here.

July 27, 2009

What Every Writer Needs to Know About Plot and Structure, Part 1

Let's start with classic story structure. Basically, this covers myth, legends, fairy tales, epics, etc... It has been repeated many, many times.
(Star Wars is famously known for using this.)
According to Jospeh Campbell, many plots contain the same elements and structure. You may be familiar with the Monomyth or Hero's Journey. He lists 17 stages of the monomyth, including:
  1. The Hero is called to adventure
  2. The Hero Refuses
  3. The Hero Receives Supernatural Aid
  4. The Crossing of the First Threshold
  5. The Road of Trials
  6. The Ultimate Boon (hero completes the quest)
  7. The Crossing of the Return Threshold
  8. (The hero is a) Master of Two Worlds

Then there's Vladimir Propp's 31 functions (his is my personal favorite).
For you Harry Potter fans out there, I believe J.K. Rowling used each of the 31 functions repeatedly in her series. If you don't believe me, or would like a challenge, the 31 functions can be found here.

These are based on classic storytelling and archetypes that, according to Carl Jung, every human being has a connection with. Nina Munteanu has an excellent article on classic story archetypes.
She also has an article where she takes The Hero's Journey and gives multiple examples in her Journey's Map.

The pros of classic structure: it has the tools for a perfect story arc, something that settles nicely with everyone, happy ending and all.
The downside is that it's been done millions of times. Readers want something fresh. The trick is to use elements of classic storytelling, while putting your own twists and turns, red herrings, and other goodies into your writing.
Which will be covered in part 2, part 3, and part 4.

July 26, 2009

Mind Mapping Fairy Tales

Yesterday, just for fun, I did some mind mapping. I wanted to tap into my creative side and make sure my Muse was happy :)

Anyway, I used bubbl.us to start a new map and got a little carried away on a Fairy Tale tangent. I love fairy tales. I always have. They're beautiful and magical and classic. The imagery in some of them is incredible. When I read fairy tales, I find myself drawn in by the symbols and archetypes.

Can you tell I get excited?

So I decided to post part of my mind map, which will be added to my exerise for Lesson 2 in How to Think Sideways.

Click the picture to enlarge. It may take a while. There will be some Zoom options in the top left corner.

This exercise is meant to tap into your Muse--what she likes, is drawn to, gets excited about (as well as what she fears and hates). This is part of my map. The section that stemmed off from I am drawn to... familiar stories... fairy tales.

July 25, 2009

How To Think Sideways Lessons

I recently looked up some information for the How to Think Sideways Course that I'm taking. I wanted to know when I would get the full details on how to edit and revise a first draft. Well, it's going to be a while. I'll go ahead and edit as planned. I just may have to do it twice. No biggy for a perfectionist like me :)

Anyway, I thought you might like to know what lessons are offered, so I compiled a list. Some of the titles are a bit vague, so if you have any questions, then by all means leave a comment. I'll answer it to the best of my ability.

Lesson 1: How To Break The Four "Thinking" Barriers To Your Success
Lesson 2: How To Discover Your Writing "Sweet Spot"
Lesson 3: How To Generate Ideas On a Deadline
Lesson 4: How To Recognize And Build On Good Ideas
Lesson 5: How To Define Your Project's Needs (The Dot and the Line)
Lesson 6: How To Discover (Or Create) Your Project's Market
Lesson 7: How to Develop Your Personal Project System
Lesson 8: How To Plan Your Project While NOT Killing Your Story
Lesson 9: How To Write From Inside Your Story
Lesson 10: How To "Plan" Surprises That Surprise Even You
Lesson 11: How To Design Compelling Queries, Proposals, And Sample Chapters
Lesson 12: How to Create, Complicate, And Solve Problems
Lesson 13: "Can't I Just Kill Them All?" How To Fall In Love With Your Project A Second Time
Lesson 14: How To Find And Use Your "Planned" Surprises
Lesson 15: How To "Hire" Spies, And Why Your Project Needs Them
Lesson 16: How To Assess Your Progress And Make Mid-Course Corrections
Lesson 17: How To Use Story Gravity To Get To Your Ending
Lesson 18: How To Find The RIGHT Ending
Lesson 19: How To Write The Ending That Sells The Next Book
Lesson 20: How To Work With Editors, Agents, Marketing Departments, And Artists, And NOT Wreck Your Project
Lesson 21: How To Plan Your Revision
Lesson 22: How To NOT Fix What Ain't Broken (While Still Fixing What Is)
Lesson 23: How To Deliver What You Promised And What They Want On Deadline
Lesson 24: How To NOT Be A One-Book Wonder: Learn to Produce Repeatable Results

Bonus Lessons
How NOT To Write A Series---And Why You Don't Want To includes:

Lesson 25: Why Write A Stand-Alone Instead Of A Series?

Lesson 26: That's Why... What About HOW? (the six critical reasons why HOW you get to the end of your novel is NOT the point)

Lesson 27: The Ending Before THE END

All the lessons I've taken so far are fantastic, no doubt about it. But the ones I marked in blue are the lessons that I've taken and I think are exceptionally awesome. The ones marked red are the ones that I haven't taken yet, but am super-psyched about. Either I've talked to people who are ahead of me and have worked through those lessons, and/or it's something I need, and/or I've gotten samples of Holly's methods in those areas and am eager to get more details. Most of them, it's all three.

July 24, 2009

Links: Building Conflict

Lately I've had conflict on the brain. How do you get more conflict into your story? How do I milk this conflict for all it's worth? Where can I get ideas for a new conflict to plague my characters?
So, as always, I did a little research and found some helpful articles and tools for building conflict and making sure it's rich, interesting conflict.

What is Conflict? -- A great article on writing deep, meaningful conflict and how your characters show it. She gives a great example to illustrate.

The Conflict Test -- A nice little test to see if your story has enough conflict.

External Conflict Worksheet -- "This is an exercise to help you connect your external conflict with your internal conflict."

Eight Questions for Writers -- Questions to ask yourself when you lack conflict depth.

Prop Up Your Sagging Plot Middles -- How to use conflict to keep those middle scenes strong.

Improved Scenes Done!


I finished my Sentence Lites! I can't tell you how good this feels. But at the same time, I’m itching to jump right in and start editing my manuscript. I want to take a good two week break to clear my mind. This should help to prevent burnout. (But we’ll see.)

What does this mean for the blog?

Lucky you, you don’t have to hear about my progress each week! Instead, I’ll compile lists of helpful links and tools to help you with your writing journey. I guess I’ll have to live vicariously through my readers.

The first series of links is all ready to go. It's about conflict. This is something I’ve had to focus heavily on, since conflict is the bread and butter of scenes. I hope these articles and tools help you as much as they’ve helped me.

By the way, here is the last improved scene:

July 23, 2009

Improved Scene: Answers for Protection

It took me some time, but I finally sliced my way through to another sample scene. This one went from info dump to a hostage situation. (Okay, not quite as exciting as that. Nathan keeps information hostage.)

July 20, 2009

Improved Scene: Lisa's Crush

I made a lot of progress today with my Sentence Lites. (I'm past the halfway point!)
And I edited another sample scene:

(The old sentence is at the top)
This isn't a great scene to begin with, but it's short and necessary. I'll make a note to add more suspicious activity to make it really worth it :)

July 17, 2009

My Muse knew it all along

You know that creative voice inside you? Some people call it the right-brain. Others (including myself) call it a Muse. (You know, the singing demi-gods that inspire artists?)

(It's okay if you think I’m crazy, personifying my creative side. I’ll wait for you to stop laughing.)
Anyway, I was working on my scenes, rewriting my Sentence Lites when a problem I’ve been struggling with just solved itself.

Basically, without giving too much away, my main character has issues. And those issues drive a wedge between her and Nathan. Well, in my rough draft, these issues seem to pop out from nowhere. That's a problem.
But I wasn't even thinking about this problem while I was working.

So, I’m reworking some scenes, changing around the points of view for some of them, and then I get to the scene where Rachel first starts to have problems. Guess what? She hasn’t held the point of view for several scenes. Not since before the incident that's causing her issues! So it isn’t coming out from thin air; it's been developing this whole time and we never really notice it because we’re too focused on the other characters’ problems!

My Muse is brilliant. I think she's known about this for a while now but decided not to tell me until just now.

July 16, 2009

Time Out: Writing Quotes and Tips for Writers

I figured you could use a break from all the posts about my writing. I found some good writing quotes that made my day. I thought I'd share them with you.

"Convince yourself that you are working in clay, not marble, on paper, not eternal bronze: let that first sentence be as stupid as it wishes. No one will rush out and print it as it stands." Jacques Barzun

"It is perfectly okay to write garbage--as long as you edit brilliantly." C.J. Cherryh

"Writing is rewriting. A writer must learn to deepen characters, trim writing, intensify scenes. To fall in love with a first draft to the point where one cannot change it is to greatly enhance the prospects of never publishing." Richard North Patterson

"The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug." Mark Twain

And I also found some blogposts and other nice resources that may help you.

What Keeps Readers--And Agents--Reading

From the Offer to the Bookstore - a published author describes the process of getting a book published from the time she gets an offer until it's published and on the shelf.

Edit Ruthlessly - a great lesson on the economy of words from Elana Roth, an agent at Caren Johnson Literary Agency

Writing and Mothering: How I (sort of) Do Both by Shannon Hale. Very good advice for finding balance between writing and living.

Improved Scene: Car Crash

I got through my 17th scene today, including one of my sample sentences:

Mostly, this was just a bad scene. A lot of getting ready, talking, and traveling. When I boiled it all down to the real conflict, I realized that the scene was really just a lead-in to the next one: The Car Crash. So I shortened it, got rid of the boring stuff and used only what I needed to carry the bare minimum of the little pre-conflict into the big conflict. Here's the new card with the Sentence Lite:

The protag, antag, etc are really just my thought process as I came up with the new sentence. I'll go back and fix them later. The important part is that I have a focus for my scene when I come back to revise it.

July 15, 2009

Improved Scene: Mom, Meet Nathan

Okay, I have about ten Sentence Lites done. (There are a lot of really short scenes in Chapter 2.) One of them was a bad sentence that I posted earlier:

So as a reminder, here's the old Sentence:

And here is my new card:
Not perfect, but switching the POV definitely helped. At least there's a conflict now.

July 14, 2009

First Three Sentence Lites

I started working on revamping my scenes' sentences today. Finishing three scenes took a lot less time than I thought. If I maintain this pace I'll be done in three weeks, but I'd like to finish sooner.

I've been using Liquid Story Binder to make "note cards". Each "card" can be used to track my scenes, sentences, sequencing, and the elements that each scene should have. LSB also has some nifty tools that make the process more fun.

These actors are Colleen Dengel, XiXi Yang, and Dyllan Christopher, who I think look like Rachel, Lisa, and Nathan. Just something to make note carding more interesting.

The pictures represent the point of veiw character. If you can read these (I know it's tiny guys :( I'm sorry.), I have the scene title, the old sentence (if it's an old scene), what I've changed (if it's a new scene), the protag, antag, conflict, twist, and setting, and then the new sentence.
The process is actually fun and seeing a well-put-together sentence gives me chills :) It's exciting to see this come together.

Sample Scenes: Good and Bad, and How to Fix Them

For the past couple of days, I've been working on Lesson 8 of Think Sideways. So far, I have written a Sentence Lite describing each one of my 54 scenes (a few of which haven't been written yet). As I mentioned before, some of my scenes have everything they need.

Others have been found lacking.

So as part of my process I've decided to post some of my less-than-savory scene sentences. As I revise them, you should be able to see an improvement (I hope).
WARNING: SPOILERS. Stop reading this post if you don't want to read them!

But first, so you can see 1) what does work, 2) what I'm aiming for, and 3) that there is some hope for me as a writer, I'm going to post a couple of sentences that I'm pleased with.

Here, we have protagonist (Nathan) against the antagonist (burning wreckage) in a conflict (fighting to save Rachel's life) with a twist (Nathan is a ghost, but is somehow able to pull Rachel to safety). The setting is embedded in the antagonist: burning wreckage.

The protagonist (Rachel) against the antagonist (the shade) in conflict (an attack that causes Rachel to lose consciousness) with a twist (the shade was waiting for her).
This one isn't quite twisty enough and could use some tweaking.

So here it goes. My crappy scenes:

Okay "introduces" and "explaining" are not conflict. They are boring. There isn't an antagonist. I suppose Nathan's unique situation could be a twist, but it's not a very good one. See the fixed version here.
Again, a conversation isn't conflict. For there to be conflict in dialogue, they have to want different things or there has to be some subtext that causes conflict. The improved scene is here.

While this is great news for Lisa, there isn't much conflict. The scene needs some work and the sentence needs a LOT of work. Mostly, Rachel is suspicious of Kevin, but doesn't want to disappoint her friend. That's the conflict, but it could be better. Improved scene: here.

Learning is not conflict. Nor is a discussion. There needs to be more tension. There needs to be something at stake here. See the improved version of this scene.

I think the scene is okay, but the sentence needs reworking. The verbs aren't very strong and don't convey any tension. Here's the improved scene.

So there you have it. 5 scenes in desperate need of a makeover. Let's see what I can do.
Here are the before and after shots of my first three scenes.

July 11, 2009

Okay, New Plan

I just finished Lesson 8 of How to Think Sideways and, to be honest, I'm a little overwhelmed. Basically, the lesson says to write a sentence (called the Sentence Lite) for each scene that describes the protagonist, her conflict, the obstacle/antagonist, the twist, and maybe the setting. If you don't have these, then the scene is incomplete. Thinking back, I'm glad I have SOME scenes with all of these elements, but there are a lot of scenes that don't.

So, I need to go back, make a plot card for each scene with the complete Sencence Lite on each one, and figure out how much I have to revamp.

This is really going to help my writing. Now that I'm more aware, the scenes with all of these elements are the best scenes in Shadows. Now I have the tools to make every scene just as good. This is going to be a challenge.

I knew I'd have a lot of work to do. Don't get me wrong. But now that it's time to get crackin' I'm nervous. How much will I have to cut? How much will I need to rewrite? Will I have enough time to plan my phantom novel before November?

Stay tuned.

July 10, 2009

Links: Organizing, Creating, and Marketing

So, here I am, twiddling my thumbs as I wait to add to my manuscript. I understand why I need a break from it before diving in again, but sometimes it's hard! So, to occupy my time, I've been searching for good resources and advice from the pros. Here's what I have so far:

The number one link I think I can ever give you is :
How to Start a Novel
Read it, explore the links, and explore the side bar for more articles. This site covers everything.

Plotting Under Pressure
How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method
- this provides an excellent checklist that an agent (or intern at an agency) will go through to see if they should take you on as a client. Very helpful.

One Word - a 60 second writing exercise
Deeper People: Putting Yourself into Your Characters
Pacing Scenes
How to Write the Perfect Scene

How to Finish a Novel
5 Evergreen Editing Tips - When you're done with your manuscript and think it's ready for submission, make sure you've gone over this checklist before you do.

Advanced Fiction Writing E-Zine
How to Query an Agent
When Reading Submissions

July 9, 2009

Track Your Progress As You Write

Using the NaNoWriMo Report Card by Eric Benson, I adapted a spreadsheet that will track your word count goals and progress. This is a helpful motivation tool, especially if you're goal-oriented or like a visual representation of your progress.
Click Here to Download.
Cameron Matthews has a much more high-tech version, found here.

July 8, 2009

Free Intro: Create a Plot Clinic

I found a nice little freebie from Holly Lisle. Her Think Sideways course is a bit pricey, although I can say from personal experience it's worth every penny. Still, for those of you on a budget, she has a number of writing clinics, which I've mentioned before.
For those of you on a tight budget, I found a free intro to her Create a Plot Clinic:
Click Here To Download

I've bought and used the entire clinic and it is fantastic. It takes you through the ins and outs of plotting a novel no matter where you are in the process. She gives a number of techniques and gives lots of examples. Anyway, hope you find it helpful.

July 6, 2009

Links for Writers: from Funny to Informative

As I was catching up after the fourth of July weekend, I stumbled across some new writing-related sites:

Many of you have heard of National Novel Writing Month in November (NaNoWriMo), but what about the other 11 months of the year? (Yes, I'm aware of NaNoFiMo and NaPlWriMo, but still...)

If you need motivation, you may like The 500 Word-A-Day Challenge. Easier, more achievable goals is the key. (I won't be posting their banner yet, since I'm done with my first draft and won't actually be getting word counts this month. :( But for the record, I was averaging about 630 WPD. )

There's a cute comic called Will Write For Chocolate that has some great writer humor. It makes my day.

I found a great article by Margaret Fisk. (It's actually a free workshop, since she gives an assignment.) It's called All the Way to the End. She addresses a common problem for writers : not knowing how to end your story.

And finally, Chip MacGregor's blog had two informative posts: Basic, Basic, Basic Questions and More on the Basic Basics. In the first, he explains a few terms used in the publishing world. The second is more about querying and agents.

July 5, 2009

First Draft Done!

I finished my first draft which, as I suspected, came up short at 37,800 words. The planned add-in chapters are gonna make it so much deeper. Lots of goodies--conflict, character, and of course more romance between Rachel and Nathan.

I'll take a short break (as long as I can anyway) and then add in those chapters and scenes. Then I'll take a week off followed by a hard edit. That should be fun to track. :/
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