Friday, 4 August 2017

A simple guide to plot - and other bits and pieces . . .



PLOT
Unless you are writing Experimental Fiction, almost all stories require a plot. A plot is simply the sequence of events that make up the story.

There are usually three stages to a story: the beginning, the middle, and the end.

Simply put:

I)          BEGINNING – SETTING UP CHARACTER AND CONFLICT
This can be anything from a chapter to a third or so of the book, and introduces the reader to the main characters and the central defining conflict(s) of the book.
II)      END – CRISIS, CLIMAX, CONSEQUENCES
The last phase of the book where the central defining conflict rises to a climax, and is resolved in some way. Usually shorter than the beginning section. A good old adage is to finish quickly. Once the story has reached its climax and the consequences are apparent, don’t hang about.
III)   MIDDLE – THE STUFF THAT HAPPENS FROM BEGINNING TO END
The sequence of events that takes the main character(s) from the beginning section of the book to the ending section of the book. It’s no more complicated than that.

There are two distinct approaches to writing a book. The first is to plan the book beforehand, to varying degrees. This might involve filling out character sheets, conducting character interviews, writing up a detailed chapter by chapter plan, etc.

The other approach is colloquially termed ‘winging it’. This is where you simply drop your main character with the central defining conflict into the world they inhabit, and let them take you through the story. This method requires you to have a firm working knowledge of both your main character and the world they inhabit. It also requires you to trust your own writing ability, and where it might take you. Plot is still an important ingredient. But in this method, the plot reveals itself as your character moves through the story rather than your character dancing to the tune of a plot you have already devised.

Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages. A writer who writes to a pre-drawn up plan perhaps has a better chance of completing a book, but may sacrifice the crackle and freedom that a writer who merely lets the words flow out, one following another. Whereas a winger might have a dozen manuscripts, all half written, not a one amounting to a completed article. But the one they do eventually finish, might be very special indeed.

Most writers gravitate towards one or the other approach. This decision can often echo not only the sort of writer you are, but the sort of person you are. If you lean more towards the cautious end of life, wanting to know what is coming next in a world full of unpredictability, if you are fans of contingency plans, pensions, weather forecasts, and the like, then planning a book might make the most sense to you. If, however, you tend to live life as it unravels, happy to skip along the edge of freedom’s roar, eyes closed, knowing that whatever comes, you’ll embrace it with everything you’ve got, no matter the cost, then winging it might be your thing.

Planning it or winging it? Doesn’t really matter. Do whatever feels right for you.


Knowing your main character
Whether you are planning your book or winging it, you need to have a very firm grasp of who your main character is.
In my work as a counsellor, I ask these three things of my clients:
i)            Who are you?
ii)          What do you want?
iii)        What are you doing to stop yourself from getting it?

These questions are just as important in getting to know your main character(s). In literary terms, however, the questions need to be slightly adjusted:
i)            Who is your main character?
ii)          What does your main character want/what is their goal?
iii)        What is stopping your main character from achieving their goal?

These questions also concern you, the writer. It is impossible to separate yourself, who you are, from what you write. Who you are, what you want, what you are doing in your life to stop yourself from getting what you want, not only define your own personal conflicts, but somewhere, stripped down to the bone, the characters in your books will be struggling with just the same issues.

The Central Defining Issue
Each story/book/plot usually presents a central defining issue (internal) or goal (external) for the main character(s) to grapple with. How this issue originated, perhaps, or how it presents itself, what they do in terms of grappling with it, and how this all turns out, that is basically your beginning, middle, and end.

So what is your story about? I mean, really about. Strip it down to its barest bones story down to the bare bones. If you can say what your story is about in less than fifty words you are going a long way to defining your central defining issue. Once you recognise your own conflicts in those of your characters, then you are really able to grasp what it is you are writing about, you will be writing from the inside-out, from a place of knowledge and pain, a place of deep knowing. This is a place your readers will know from their own lives – that is why they have picked up your book. That is why it behoves you, whatever your story is about, to make it feel real

If your story feels real you, it will feel real to the reader – and that is where the magic of emotional engagement with a complete stranger occurs.

From short story to novel: increasing the wordcount
Writing short stories is a fantastic discipline for experiencing what it is to complete a piece of fiction from beginning to middle to end, replete with characters and conflict and resolution. 

Whether it be a novel you are writing, or a novella, a short story, or piece of flash fiction, they are all are pretty much the same, only differing by degree. The major part of that difference is, of course, word count.

So how do you get from a fifteen hundred word short story to an eighty thousand word novel? A short story requires a tightly written narrative, often not having the room to explore character, conflict and plot in as much detail as you may wish. The longer length of a novel allows you to stretch out, take your time, explore all those hidden motivations, those little foibles of character. Subplots also come into play. Subplots are those side stories driven by characters other than the main character. The thing with subplots is they MUST somehow connect or echo the central defining question of the main character. If there is no connection, the question to be asked is, what are they doing in this particular book? Stick them in another one J.



Tension
As the plot unfolds, keep an eye on, and vary, the tension level. Take the reader on a real journey. Ratchet it up, slow it down, then ratchet it up again. And make sure, as the end phase unfolds, ratchet it right up through the roof.

In order to have tension, something needs to be at stake. What are the consequences of the main character not attaining their goal? Make sure it is a consequence that really matters. If it matters to the main character, it will matter to the reader. Doesn’t have to be life or death, but make it something important. So when you ratchet up the tension/stakes towards the end, the reader will be hurtling through the final part of the book, hoping with all he or she is worth that the main character will make it all right.

One way to ratchet up the tension is regarding the nature and importance of the obstacles in the way of the main character’s goal. Have the obstacles increase in size and insurmountability, the character overcoming them all – or not, right until they are faced with the point where all hope is lost. This when your final phase begins, and you take the book into the depths and up out again into the stars, taking your gasping for breath reader along for the ride. 

Obstacles confronted and surmounted, then confronted with again, each time getting bigger and more desperate, also helps a great deal in expanding the word-count. If you find yourself a few thousand words short, throw in another obstacle for the main character(s) to overcome. But don’t make it too blatant.

Showing/Telling
We will get onto this in greater detail in another lesson. But, basically, ‘showing’ is when you write a scene as it is unfolding whereas ‘telling’ is when you are telling about a scene that has already happened. ‘Telling’ normally requires fewer words than ‘showing’. Have a look at your manuscript. Are there any scenes you have written as ‘telling’ that you could ‘show’. For example, something like ‘They argued for hours’ has four words in it. 

‘Showing’ the argument as it unfolds could last an entire chapter. But balance is the key. You do not need to show the entire four hours. The highlights would suffice J

FIRST DRAFT REMINDER
In terms of a first draft, the only goal is to reach the end. This ‘end’ could be twenty thousand words, or it could be a hundred and twenty thousand words. 

Often, you will not know the entire plot of your book until the third or fourth draft. Even if you are a planner not a winger, do not hold too tight to your plan. Allow the plot to evolve. Allow your characters to speak. Give them air. Let them breathe.

And have fun.

That is what first drafts are for J

See you on the other side.

All the best,

Ian J

1 comment:

  1. 50K words of winging it at the moment and I wish I was more of a planner. And, yes, it does say something about me - that life is often chaos. Useful notes these and thanks for sharing.

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