One of the things I have some trouble with when writing is plotting. It’s not a problem unique to me – I think plotting is something a lot of people struggle with, but it’s something that can be improved and worked on, which is a major plus. It’s far harder to work on your ability to create characters, or your ability to write dialogue – working on your plotting is hard, but it can be done.
Plotting a novel is not the same thing as ‘telling your story’, though they’re related; ‘plotting’, to me, is aptly named because it’s far more like sticking pins in a map and threading a piece of string between them, allowing you to view a three-dimensional representation of where you’re going – or where you’ve been.
It’s important to realise that plotting doesn’t have to be done before you set off – many writers prefer to create their first draft instinctively, telling the story without a ‘frame’, because it can help to maintain a feeling of freedom as you write. Of course, this can mean you take a few wrong turns, but the benefit of writing like this is it doesn’t really matter how many mistakes you make, as long as you tell your story. (Rule number one: get to the end, finish your work, complete the first draft, and rest before you carry on).
But it’s important to plot afterwards, to give shape to your work and to make sure it hits the expected crescendos at the expected times. Storytelling is about archetype, and this is because it has developed over thousands of years. People expect a particular rhythm, a particular flow, to occur when they’re reading a story (unless it’s something which makes a narrative feature out of going against the flow, like Ulysses or the recent A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing); if a writer doesn’t deliver the ‘ups’ when they’re expected, and the ‘downs’ where they belong, a reader will feel at sea and vaguely unsatisfied with their reading experience.
And you want to avoid this, of course.
I was recently forwarded a document to help with plotting which I feel is something everyone who writes should see. It’s called Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet, and I’d recommend you follow the link and check it out if writing is something you’re interested in. It outlines exactly what I’ve been talking about here – the ‘expected’ ups and downs, or beats, of a story. It might go against the grain for some people to think they have to write a story which conforms to ‘norms’, but the thing is, most stories fall into this beat naturally because that’s how stories work. As natural as it is, though, it’s useful to have a clear outline of this arc, and Blake Snyder’s is one of the best I’ve seen. We expect this arc when we read, but it’s not always easy to recreate it when we write, and so a road map – or a plot – is useful.
I see the beat of a well-constructed story this way (and, naturally enough, it doesn’t vary all that much from Blake Snyder’s model):
A story should always begin just before a moment of change. This might vary slightly by genre – as in, some genres will require a longer period spent ‘in the norm’ than others – but it’s a good general rule of thumb. You want to give your reader some sense of the basics of your character’s reality, the humdrum monotony of their life, the everyday. Think about it as a description of what your character has to lose when the bottom falls out of their world. I write books for children, so the period I spend ‘in the norm’ is generally shorter than it is for works of literary fiction; it’s literally a snapshot of the day-to-day before the action starts.
The crisis comes after the set-up. We have some idea of your character and their world, their values and what’s important to them, what they have to lose. Then, it’s time to hit them with a problem. Something happens to threaten their comfort, or which promises to wreak havoc, and we get to see the protagonist of your story deal with this initial challenge, usually with fear and/or confusion as they find their feet in a changed reality. They may not fully understand what’s happening, and they need to think fast to work things out; they’ll start to come up with a plan of action, which might be wholly inadequate – though they won’t know that, yet.
The choice is next – your character chooses to act, based on the knowledge they have at the time. They can be shown debating with themselves or other characters, being forced to act, being encouraged to act, prevaricating over their choice, being afraid. Being unsure. This is all fine. So long as they do something, you’re good. Even if the choice is ‘wrong’ (actually, especially if it’s wrong), it needs to be made and acted upon in some way.
The change comes once the choice has been made, and the character has started down the path they’ve decided upon. Their life has changed based on the crisis, and the choice they made as a result of it, but now is also the time to twist the ground beneath them, or send them down an unexpected track. They discover something they didn’t know before, or they get betrayed, or someone comes to help them, or another person gets involved in their quest in some way.
The challenge comes somewhere near mid-point, when the character thinks they’ve got a handle on what’s going on, and they think they know what’s coming next. But, of course, they don’t. Perhaps they’ve been tricked, or maybe they’re trapped, or it might happen that they’ve walked themselves into a corner and can’t get out. Either way, mid-point should see your character challenged somehow and overcoming it, either coming out on a high (which then slumps into a low before the finale) or vice-versa.
The chase can come next, when the character is literally being pursued by the bad guys or when time is running out for them to solve the mystery or when something is forcing them to act more quickly than they’re comfortable with. It’s always good to have some urgency here, but it doesn’t have to be a literal chase or race against the clock. It will depend a lot on what sort of story you’re telling. It’s the archetype of the thing which counts.
The crucible – or the nadir – can come after this, when the character feels all is lost, that there’s nowhere else to turn, that they’ve done all they can and it hasn’t worked. This is when we see them grit their teeth and vow to carry on regardless, when we can get behind them and will them on, urging them to give it one last try…
…which leads to the chance, the last-second idea or inspiration or twist of fate that gives the character/s one slender hope, the tiniest sliver of opportunity to turn things around, when they realise their potential/make a decision/take a risk, feeling they have nothing to lose. Even if the action they take doesn’t directly impact on the story’s outcome, the fact that the characters dig deep and force themselves to take this chance is what’s important.
Hand in hand with this comes the choice, again, the choice to act, again based on the best knowledge they have – which will be vastly different from the knowledge they had at the start. It will be informed by their experiences, by their growth as a character, by what they’ve learned and also by the people they’ve gathered around them. It will be tied in with the crisis and the change, too, the event or events which happened at the story’s outset and which set them off on their journey to begin with. It will be their last stand, when they are ready to sacrifice themselves for the good of others if need be, or when they’ve come to a realisation about themselves as a character and they’ve reached a place of peace or satisfaction, or when they’ve finally made a full and informed decision in total knowledge and acceptance of their changed reality. Normally this will coincide with their overthrowing of their enemies, but the core of this part of the story is your character and their growth, the fact that they have learned enough to make their final choice and that they’re satisfied, on some level, with whatever happens. They know they’ve done their best.
The calm after the storm is what finishes your story arc. It’s similar to the snapshot of reality taken just before the first change, and it doesn’t have to linger. The reader simply needs to know that reality, of a sort, has reasserted itself and that your character’s life – albeit changed utterly – has settled into a new ‘normal’, and that their growth is complete.
Knowing all this and putting it into practice are two different things, of course. Today, I’m going to print out Blake Snyder’s guidelines and think them through with relation to ‘Emmeline’, to make sure I’m doing the best I can to hit the ups when I should be, and to allow the downs to last just as long as they need to. My little story has got to fit in with all the other stories being sung around it, and I don’t want to be out of time.
So, I’m raising my baton and getting on with it. I hope these pointers have been helpful to those of you crafting your own tales, and if you have a different take on the ‘beat’ of a story, and how best to conduct it, please feel free to link or comment below.
Now. A-one, two, three…