Tag Archives: plotting

Strategy

It’s a well known fact about me that I’m useless at Scrabble. This is despite being quite good, all told, in the word department and having a vocabulary which is bigger than the GDP of most countries (or, these days, their national debt). I do so love words, and I love spotting them in jumbles of letters, and I adore setting them down on the board with gentle care – none of which, of course, is any good if you’re trying to win a game.

Image credit: SJ O'Hart Taken during a recent-ish game, the only one so far in which I've managed to beat my husband. Hoo-rah!

Image credit: SJ O’Hart
Taken during a recent-ish game, the only one so far in which I’ve managed to beat my husband. Hoo-rah!

If one could gain points in Scrabble for making pretty words, or unusual words, or ones which force your opponent to check the dictionary, then I’d win hands down every single time. But, sadly for me, the only way to win in Scrabble is to be good at something I’m utterly useless at.

Strategy.

My husband – who is, more often than not, my opponent on the Scrabble board – is brilliant at strategy. Not only does he think like Machiavelli, but he also has an incredible ability to place his tiles over the high-points bits of the board, and he’s great (like, frighteningly great) at doing that ‘combining’ thing, where you get to count tiles twice because you’ve made two words out of them… or something. Anyway. You’re probably beginning to see why he beats me all the time; he understands how to make the tiles work for him. I, on the other hand, think in straight lines. I don’t get much more complicated than making my word intersect with one that’s already on the board. Opportunities to clean up don’t even occur to me. I could sit looking at the game for hours and a massive juicy 40-pointer could be staring me right between the eyes and unless someone gave me a nudge, I’d never spot it.

I also notice this when I’m watching TV programmes, particularly murder mysteries and/or spy-related things. Other people tend to guess whodunnit a lot faster than I can. It’s strange; I’m pretty good at reading people when I see them in reality (better than most, I’d wager), and I love nothing more than people-watching and looking at body language – but when it comes to spotting the televisual murderer, I’m pretty useless. This, of course, means that I get to enjoy the suspense a bit more than the average person, but it does make me worry a bit about myself and my utter lack of guile.

I have no immediate plans to take over a neighbouring country, or to enter into the cut-throat world of business, or anything like that. Strategy, on the whole, doesn’t play a huge part in my life. On a more personal level, I don’t understand game-playing or emotional manipulation (though I was pretty good at it as a toddler, by all accounts) and I’m pretty much a ‘take me as you see me’ type of gal. All of this would be fine, if plotting wasn’t part of what I do on a daily basis.

Not plotting to commit crime, of course, or to do anything more interesting than move my WiP from chapter to chapter. But plotting, nonetheless. And, in its essence, all plotting is the same – you’ve got to be able to see the big picture, anticipate how every player in the situation is likely to move, and see the endgame before it’s immediately apparent. You’ve got to be able to spot the intersections on the Scrabble board, essentially, and tell who the killer is from their first appearance. It’s a skill I’m a bit too straightforward to possess, and it’s something that worries me.

I’m working through a WiP at the moment, and it’s going well. I like the characters. Already, they’ve embroiled themselves in two scenarios I hadn’t anticipated (currently, they’re still in the middle of one, and I’m not one hundred percent sure how they’re going to get out of it – but that’s what’s so interesting about writing). I figure the story is pushing along at a reasonable rate, and I’m happy with it. But then, I think about Scrabble and TV mysteries and me, and I wonder: am I, as a person and a writer, complex enough to write proper plots, ones that aren’t immediately obvious to all and sundry, ones which twist and turn enough to keep a reader interested?

Well. I’m not sure, frankly. I’m not even sure I know how to find out.

At the end of The Eye of the North, when the story was reaching its conclusion, the final bit of the plot took me by surprise. There was a moment when things just went click, and I saw – like a piece of film on fast-forward – exactly how the story could and should wind up. It was great, because up until that moment I hadn’t been certain I knew where to go with it. I loved the idea that it had come out of nowhere, even for me, and while it was a natural progression from all the set-pieces I’d placed right throughout the novel it was also slightly unexpected, and maybe just twisty enough to be exciting. Well, the book has since sold, and (hopefully) before too much longer you’ll all have a chance to read it and tell me if I was right. It’s staking a lot to expect this to happen again, and again, but maybe I should just trust my simplistic little brain to come up with the dastardly stuff while I’m not looking. While I’m cooking up clever dialogue and funny characters and set-pieces, perhaps there is a secret plotter inside me, whirring away, mixing up the threads of story that I’m feeding it and getting them nicely tangled. I hope so.

I believe that good writing is about good characters and believable dialogue, but it’s true that plot is vital, too. Having said that, I could forgive a weakish plot if the characters are fabulous, but I could never forgive poor characters in a cracking plot. Perhaps it’s just as well I’m not trying to be Agatha Christie; I certainly don’t have her way with storylines! But let’s hope I’m just complicated enough to write plots that will be interesting, vaguely surprising and full of enough warmth and heart to keep everyone interested. Fingers crossed!

Finding the Path

Recently, in conversation with other writers, a discussion about plotting came up. Ideas were shared about how to plot, and different techniques for sketching out story arcs and character arcs were examined, and I found it very useful and interesting, even if I didn’t have a huge amount to contribute.

Photo Credit: mpclemens via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: mpclemens via Compfight cc

I’m not sure I have a ‘method’, as such; my most successful draft (which was ‘Emmeline’) was written largely on the fly, in a haze of inspiration, and honed to its current state in round after round of edits. I enjoyed that process hugely, and I’m hopeful that I’ll have an experience like it again with another book. You can’t help feeling exhilarated when writing this way, as though there’s a universe of story that you’re being allowed a glimpse into, or a momentary chance to link your brain with a larger plot, one which encompasses everything (if that doesn’t sound too ‘out there’). My current book, however, is different. It’s another beast entirely. It’s not flowing like ‘Emmeline’ did, which may have as much to do with my frame of mind and the situation I’m at in my life as it does with the actual story itself, but whatever the reason, it’s scary.

One of the writers I spoke to described how, when she’s plotting a novel, she plans out every chapter, to the point of writing a page or two on what’s going to happen in that chapter, and that essentially all she then does when creating her first draft is expand upon these detailed notes. This struck me as being a very good idea, and it isn’t something I’ve tried before. I don’t like being too detailed when I’m plotting, because I prefer to leave space for improvisation and last-second ideas, and I love to feel a plot resolving itself as you write, but I also feel entirely stuck right now. So, it’s time to try something else, and I decided I’d give her method a go, as much as I could.

So, yesterday, I wrote a chapter plan for this new book, a book which doesn’t exist yet. I won’t say it’s complete, or anywhere close; it certainly needs a lot more revision and work, and there are gaps in it which I’m trusting myself to figure out later, but the important thing is: I did it. And it helped. Not only did it help me to see that I do have a story to tell, but it showed me that there are more problems with it than I was willing to face up to before, and it also gave me an idea about how to wrap the story up. Again, it might come to nothing or change completely by the time it’s written, but I’m considering it progress.

Most importantly of all, it gave me back some of the enthusiasm I’d lost for this story, and made me eager to tackle it again (even though this will be the fourth time I’ve tried to write it!) I didn’t make notes as full as the ones my writer friend described – they’re far from being two or three pages per chapter (more like two or three lines!) – but at least I have a partial road map now. It has all the major landmarks, but it’s missing some of the finer detail. I’m hoping all that will become clear the closer I get, and I’m determined to get on the path and stay on it until this story is told.

However, as always, I beg you to send me a little of your finest luck. Truly, it seems clearer every day that each book written is a collaborative effort. I’m glad to have y’all on my team!

Blocked at Every Turn

You know when you see a mouse in a maze, and it’s running up a passageway only to find it’s blocked off, and so then it changes direction and runs down another passageway only to find – horrors! – that it’s blocked off, too, and so on?

Yes. Well. I always had huge sympathy for mice in those sorts of situations. From now on, though, I will have even more, because, right now, that mouse is me, people.

Photo Credit: Rain Rabbit via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Rain Rabbit via Compfight cc

You see? I’m so stressed I’m using too many commas.

I’m about three-quarters of the way into my rewrite of Eldritch. My hero is in a bind. He’s trapped in the presence of a powerful, but unhinged, relative who has A Nefarious Plan. Of course, my hero has a secret weapon, but it’s not one he knows about yet – and even if he knew he had it, he wouldn’t know how to use it, anyway. So, as you can see, plenty of scope for dramatic tension.

You’d think.

The first version of this story had the hero trotting off, at this point, on a whole rambling sub-plot about magical creatures which (for reasons best known to the automaton who appears to run my brain) appeared in the story, just because. I got myself all tangled up in their world, their King, their city, their rules and laws – and after about ten pages of this I came to a screeching halt and went…

What is the point of any of this?

So I stopped, forthwith, and went back to the last good point in the story. We have the hero and his relative facing one another down. Cue lots of mwahaha-ing and threatening language and displays of awesome magical power, and in this version the hero accidentally discovers how to use the secret weapon we talked about.

It should’ve been brilliant. But instead it was – flat. Ridiculous, actually. Images which looked so cool in my imagination came out of my fingers like so much fluff.

I junked all that, too, and went back to the first storyline which – if I’m being honest – seemed to flow better in terms of my ability to put one word after another, but I still had the nagging question in the back of my mind all the time. What is the point of any of this? Having been through a substantial edit on another book, I could anticipate my agent reading the work I was doing. I could see her comments. ‘Sorry, but what in the world is going on here? What does this have to do with anything?’ The only answer I’d be able to give her would be ‘Nothing. None of this has anything to do with anything, because it’s just silly. And unless I can find a way to tie it to the larger plot, it’s a piece of pretty decoration but not a lot else.’

Which meant, of course, it has to go.

So then it was back to rethinking the other plot, the secret weapon one. I had to consider what I wanted my character to do at this point; what does he need to learn? He has to overcome a difficulty, sure – but it doesn’t have to be a difficulty on the magnitude of being taken hostage by a bunch of magical creatures and having to fight his way out of their clutches at the same time as trying to fight his deranged relative. He has to learn that he has power within him which he hasn’t tried to tap, yet; he has to learn that when he needs to make a last stand and deliver, that he has the goods. So, there has to be another way – a neater and more pleasing way – of doing that.

There has to be.

So I decided to consider the scene in relation to the story overall, keeping in mind the larger movement of the book. One of the reasons I felt the scene with the magical creatures wasn’t working was that it was too slow, and took the story away from the primary field of action for too long. It wasn’t necessarily a bad scene, badly written or uninteresting – it just didn’t fit where I was trying to put it.

The first question I asked myself was: what is this scene trying to illustrate? I realised that the answer lies in several parts. Firstly, the power of the antagonist, and the lengths to which he’ll go to get what he wants. Secondly, the power – as yet untapped – of the protagonist, who knows not only his life, but also the lives of people he loves, are being put in danger by his relative’s megalomania. Thirdly, it has to hint at (but not give away entirely) the method by which the hero will eventually fight the antagonist, and I don’t want there to be too much repetition going on. As my agent said, repeatedly, on my last MS: ‘Ring the changes.’ As in, don’t allow yourself to fall into the trap of using the same structure, plot device or conceit too often. It’s really easy to do, and it can be really hard to fix. I’m still not sure how to distinguish this preliminary battle scene from the one which I’m sure will come later – the showdown – but I think I have a calmer handle on the story at this point. I think. Though I’ve yet to look at it today, so that might all change in the next thirty minutes.

Anyway. I think I can safely say I found this technique (wherein I stop running around bashing myself into walls for long enough to think about the actual book and what I want it to do) very helpful. I keep forgetting who’s in charge when it comes to writing; I think of the book as being the one who calls the shots, neglecting to remember that I’m the writer and therefore the shots all lie with me. I also tend to put myself under so much pressure, as though there’s a looming deadline, that it destroys any sense of creativity or fun I might have in my work. There really is no need to panic: the calmer you are when looking for your story, the easier it is to find it.

That’s the theory, anyway. I’ll let you know how it all works out.

Success! (ish…)

All the notebooks! All the wiggly lines! All the markers!  This, kids, is what plotting looks like.

All the notebooks! All the wiggly lines! All the markers!
This, kids, is what plotting looks like.

Today, November 11th, always fills me full of feelings. My mind is on battlefields and gently waving rows of blood-red poppies and ranks of simple white gravestones, and on the harrowing losses of war. I’ve already shed a few tears this morning, and I’m sure I’ll shed a few more before the day is out – but that’s not what I want to write about, today.

(It’s not because I don’t care. It’s because if I started writing about the War, things would get messy very quickly, and nobody wants that).

So instead, I’m going to write about plotting (still), and how well (or badly) my ‘method‘ has been working out for me.

The first thing I did yesterday was print a copy of my own post, Conducting a Story, and lay it out flat on my desk to get an overall reminder of the ups and downs which every plot should have. Then, I  made a list of the core things about this book – significant themes, important events (by which I mean they’re interesting while they happen, but they also cause other things to happen, thereby advancing the story), the primary characters and their relationships to one another, some of the imagery which I’d consider to be essential and – something which took me by surprise, a bit – a box in which I mapped out all the places in the book where the characters have a choice about what way they’re going to act, and where they don’t, and whether there’s a balance or any sort of symmetry between them.

I was almost finished doing this last bit, mapping out the choices, before I understood what I was doing it for, actually. Strange, sometimes, how your brain just takes over and gets the job done if you give it the space it needs. It’s important when you’re putting a story together that you show your characters being active, making choices (even or especially if they’re ‘wrong’, or don’t lead them to the desired outcome straight away); that’s something I have a particular problem with, so this is why I focused on it. When you’re plotting and structuring your story it can happen, without you even realising, that you’re constructing your story around your characters’ needs and thereby giving them no space for their own agency and decision-making. Things happen to them, not because of them, and that makes for a boring story where your character is simply awash on a flood of events out of their control, going with the flow and doing whatever they’re told – and who wants to read about that?

Nope. You want to put them into complicated situations and twisty dilemmas, where the choices aren’t always clear-cut. They need to be shown wondering if they make this choice over that choice, what difference it will make; who will be affected (besides themselves) by their choices; what the long-term ramifications of their choices will be, and what the endgame is, as far as they can predict it.

So, basically, just like making a decision in real life.

The important thing is that they have to make decisions and act on them, and – importantly – that this is made perfectly clear to the reader. These decisions can’t all be internal to the character, and left to the reader to decipher. While writing ‘Emmeline’, for example, there were several instances where things appear to simply ‘happen’ to Emmeline, and contrived coincidences, none of which were intended, abounded. One of the reasons for this was that I hadn’t made the motivations of other characters around Emmeline clear – they had their own reasons for doing things, which had nothing to do with her – and because she seemed to be carried along with their actions, making no decisions for herself at critical junctures, it turned into a major mistake. To fix it, I had to bring her thought processes to the fore, showing how she was using things to her own advantage, and also change one scene subtly to show her directing the action, instead of simply acting once the decision had been made. Because the writer is clued into the characters’ thought processes it can be hard to spot where you’ve simply not explained why a character is making a particular choice – or seeming not to – and so I found it useful to make a list of the pinch-points in ‘Eldritch’ where choices need to be made, and who makes them, and why.

Then, I moved on to mapping out the ‘corners’ – the turning points, I guess, which are vital to the story’s structure – and I divided the book up into four rough quarters. I hoped that each of them would be equal, or nearly equal, in terms of length and that each corner would have a moment of crisis which led to a change, and that they’d fit together, one leading to another. Then, I took my ‘story beats’ – Change, Crisis, Choice (1), Change, Challenge, Chase, Crucible, Chance, Choice (2) and Calm – and mapped them onto my corners, in the hope that the major plot events as they stand now would fit roughly into this schema – and they did. Not as evenly or in as finely balanced a way as I would have liked, but it was a pleasant surprise to see the book’s structure come together. The story isn’t exactly where I want it, yet; there are things I know need to happen, and I’m not sure how best to arrange those scenes, but it’s a major positive to feel that the overall shape of the book will hold. I had been feeling rather despairing about salvaging ‘Eldritch’, but now I feel there may be hope.

And isn’t hope the best feeling in the world? I think so. Have a hopeful and positive Armistice Day, everyone.

 

 

 

Diagramming

Good morning! It’s misty, it’s moisty, and it’s cold, but at least it’s ours, right?

I’m back to work at the word coalface this morning after a busy weekend spent away from my usual routine. It’s funny how life can sometimes serve up to you these things you have to do, and places you need to be, and events you’re privileged to attend, right when you need time away from something work-related which is bothering you. I did do a little thinking about my current WiP (which is, technically, a revisited old WiP) on Saturday morning during some downtime, but besides that I took myself away from anything which smacked of fiction for two full days and lived completely in the real.

It was weird. But it was good.

I didn’t even do any reading – besides half a newspaper – and that’s really unusual. I left the book I’m currently halfway through sitting at home, and it’s still where I left it, gathering dust, bookmark gallantly guarding my place. I plan to get back to it later, but that’s a secret, so don’t tell it.

And why am I rejigging an old WiP, you may be wondering? Well, there are a few reasons.

I was asked several months ago to become part of a critiquing group for children’s writers in Ireland, which was an amazing honour. I immediately accepted, despite worrying that my relative lack of experience would impact upon the usefulness of my feedback – but so far, so good. Some of the members are fully-fledged published authors or people whose debut novels are forthcoming, some (like me) are those who’ve gained agency representation but not a book deal, and some are people who are aspiring to gain an agent or who simply like to write. All of us share one thing: we’re interested in improving. The group is fantastically well-organised, supportive, interesting and also demanding – which is a good thing. It’s important to give feedback which is as full and useful and honest as possible, and that takes time and effort, but it’s time and effort I have no problem expending.

I haven’t yet had to submit any of my own work for critique, though. That’s happening next month – or, in about three weeks’ time.

So.

I can’t submit any of ‘Emmeline’, because I don’t think that would be appropriate. So, I thought, what shall I submit?

Well. The first book I wrote after the initial, monstrous draft of Tider (if you’re an old-timer around here, you may remember this as ‘Tider Mark I’) was a story named Eldritch. It’s never really left my mind, even though it’s changed dramatically since I first wrote it. It was supposed to be the first part of a trilogy (now, it’s going to be a standalone); it once featured a very hard-to-pull-off narrative style which I’ve had to sacrifice in favour of picking one narrator over another (still not a choice I’m entirely happy with); it once featured a prominent girl character, who has now fallen beneath the editorial knife.

So, it’s a different beast, really. The characters are still in my head, though, and I know there’s something to be told here, a story which does exist, somewhere, and it’s up to me to find it. It’s changed, it’s morphed, it’s become something different from what I first imagined, but I know I have to try to tell the tale – and that the only thing which will allow me to see it properly is to try to look at the whole thing, the bigger picture. I want to submit the first three chapters to my critique group in a few weeks, and I want them to be three good chapters; I’m looking forward to learning from the incisive suggestions of my peers, of course, but I would like to do my best, all the same.

What I’m going to do, in order to get a handle on this book, is tape together several sheets of printing paper and do out a large diagram of the story, based around the ‘beats’ every plot should have. I’m then going to see if I can find the ‘corners’ of my story – the scenes I really want to include, the non-negotiable bits – and plot those out, in order to see how to connect them up in the most logical, interesting and dramatic way. It’s easy to get lost in the words when you’re trying to find your way through a story, and for them to become meaningless after a while. It’s like trying to scope out a landscape from ground level – it’s very hard to see beyond the next hill. If you’ve done a draft of your plot and it’s become ‘stuck’ in your head as the only way to complete a story, it can be hard to see another way to get from A to B, a way which could be far more elegant, interesting and neat. I think doing out this large diagram, then, is the way to go. I know my characters, and I know where they start off and where they end up, and I know what they need to go through in order to get from start to finish – and all that is important. But it’s the plot, and the ups and downs, and the intricate niggly bits, that I need to fill in, and for that I need a wide view.

So, it’s out with the paper and markers (I’ll refrain from using glitter, though, if at all possible), and hopefully my critique group – and my agent, who will no doubt be interested to know what I’ve been working on since I submitted ‘Emmeline’ to her nearly two weeks ago – will get a good, strong piece of work to dissect. I can’t wait to get their learned opinions, and to see what other eyes make of this revamped Eldritch. It’s a story close to my heart, and I hope they like it, but if they don’t it’s important for me to know, and to know why.

It’s good to start a new week with a refreshed sense of purpose and a determination to change up your perspective on an old problem, and I hope my attempts to sketch out a map to my imaginary world will be helpful. Stay tuned for more on how it all works out!

Write in Haste, Edit at ‘Leisure’

So, hey.

Editing’s hard. Did anyone ever tell you that before? Well, it is.

Photo Credit: Tambako the Jaguar via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Tambako the Jaguar via Compfight cc

It’s hard for reasons I can’t even express, because I don’t fully understand them myself. It’s slow, it’s painful, it’s making my brain hurt, and it’s making me tired beyond anything I’ve ever experienced. I’ve worked hard all my life – both physically and mentally, sometimes both at the same time – and nothing (not even writing my doctoral thesis) has compared to this. I knew it would be challenging, but this has surpassed everything I expected.

Editing your work involves far more than simply hitting the Delete button when your editor tells you something’s overwritten or unnecessary – if that’s all it was, there wouldn’t be an issue. I have deleted, without a spark of regret, thousands of needless words over the past couple of weeks; I have cringed at my tendency to overuse similes and, much as a chef stuffs cloves of garlic into a leg of roasting lamb, my need to stuff my prose with imagery (see what I mean? That kind of thing – avoid it). That’s all fine. I’m learning things about myself as a reader and a writer, and it’s all good. Some of what I’ve deleted has given me a good giggle, actually, along the lines of what on earth was I thinking when I wrote that? And how did it survive seven passes of self-editing? (Kids: this just proves editing your own work is pretty much impossible. Let my pain be a lesson).

But then there are the questions your editor asks – Why is this happening here, when something else would be better? Why is this character doing x, y or z when a simpler course of action has just presented itself? What do you mean by describing something this way? Can you cut some of the description here because it’s getting in the way of imagination? I think you need to cut this character because they don’t add anything to the plot; can you think of a better way to move things along here?

Holy mackerel.

Photo Credit: Graham Crumb via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Graham Crumb via Compfight cc

This stuff is hard not only because you’re facing up to your own writerly inadequacies – which is tough by itself – but because you’re being forced to face up to the fact that you got so caught up in your own story that you let things like logic and physics and characterisation, dang it, go out the window. I don’t think there’s been a paragraph yet in this book of mine in which every single detail in it has been explained properly – by far the most-used phrase in my edits is ‘help your reader’, by which my agent-editor means sort this mess out, right? Stuff isn’t making sense here, again.

It’s hard to realise that you’ve made mistakes, and that you’ve made them repeatedly throughout your manuscript. It’s hard to realise that they’re mistakes you were aware of, mistakes you tried to avoid, mistakes you were certain you weren’t going to slip into – but you did, anyway, without even noticing. It’s hard to realise that these mistakes mean you need to rethink entire plots, whole chapters, chunks of paragraphs, exchanges of dialogue and character motivations – and that every change you make may have serious knock-on effects for the whole book. Essentially, every change means a cascade of further changes, and it’s hard to catch them all.

I guess, too, that part of me hoped I’d be better, maybe more talented or more of a ‘natural’ or less in need of help – and maybe the hardest part of these edits is the deconstructing of that edifice. It’s easy to feel self-reliant when you’re writing on your own, to yourself, and it’s tough to have it pointed out, however gently, that you’re in need of improvement.

But that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Writing is a collaborative thing, requiring an author and an editor – sometimes a team of editors. It’s not a simple case of ‘lone genius in ivory tower churns out bestseller, effortlessly’ – it takes time, and hard work. Every book is a lesson learned. Hopefully, I won’t make these ‘rookie’ mistakes again, and I’m learning as I go, but I’ll always need someone there with a critical eye, making me face up to the tough questions and forcing me to think carefully about the words I put down, and why. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I’m glad to have the chance to do it.

Now. Time to get stuck in, again. See you on the other side…

 

 

 

Conducting a Story

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.

Photo Credit: Eric Kilby via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Eric Kilby via Compfight cc

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…

Photo Credit: chrisbb@prodigy.net via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: chrisbb@prodigy.net via Compfight cc