Crafting a Plot

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Getting an idea, once you’ve practiced idea generation, is the easiest part of writing. Turning the idea into a finished book — that’s the hard part!

Creating a plot requires a certain amount of organization. Some writers can simply start at the beginning and write all the way to the end, but most writers find that they need some kind of organizational tool or underlying plot theory to keep their stories coherent, whether they are writing a short picture book or a long, involved novel.

Crafting a Plot
Crafting a Plot

There are as many ways to craft a plot as there are writers, and each new project may require a different approach. While some writers of “how to write” books may insist that some particular method is the “right” method, most writers acknowledge that what works for them may not work for others.

Outline or no outline?

Horror writer Stephen King says that he never works from an outline. Other writers insist that good writing can’t be done without an outline. Even those writers who claim that they never use an outline may in fact have an outline in their heads, holding the structure of the plot in their imagination as they work. Not all of us have that kind of genius, and need some kind of written structure to keep our stories from wobbling out of control.

By “outline” we don’t necessarily mean the standard Harvard outline that we all learned in English class, with its Roman numeral headers, sub-topics, and all. While the Harvard outline can be extremely valuable in structuring nonfiction, fiction often requires something more flexible.

An “outline” can be any kind of visual device that you use to organize your plot. It may be a spider-web-like mind map. It may be a series of storyboards, such as movie directors use. It may be a series of ideas written on index cards or sticky notes and stuck to a wall, where they can be endlessly rearranged. It may be a table consisting of chapter titles and the main action in each chapter. Many word processors come equipped with outliners, and there are many types of software that will outline or create visual mind maps (Inspiration is one that many people like). An outline for a work of fiction is a dynamic document. It gives you direction, but it is more a predicted outcome than an actual road map.

In Creating Unforgettable Stories for Children, an excellent introduction into the art of plot crafting, Nancy Lamb shows how she uses chapter-by-chapter charts to plan the main action and the side plots, which helps integrate the side plots into the action. James Frey, author of How to Write a Damn Good Novel and The Key: How to Write Damn Good Fiction Using the Power of Myth, uses the structure of the classic hero tale as a structure for exciting action novels, and uses a “stepsheet,” a summary of the main events chapter-by-chapter, to plan the action in the novel. Jack Bickham in Scene and Structure shows how to analyze a novel into scenes (action) and sequels (reflection, planning, deciding on new action), a technique useful not only for planning a novel, but for rescuing a novel that has spun out of control. Robert Ray in The Weekend Novelist begins with a sweeping overview of the story’s main action, using either a linear or a circular structure, and building from there.

Basic structure

A plot needs a beginning, a middle, and and end. That seems obvious enough, yet writers struggle with all three. Where should the story begin? Should it start in the middle of some action scene, or should it give some background first? What is the best way to put the scenes together to show a clear, consistent story without sidetracking? What is the best ending for the story? How do I make the ending strong, rather than just letting the action dribble away, or give an abrupt “the end”?

Beginnings

The beginning of your story is a crucial period because this is where you grab the reader and give the reader a reason to keep on going. The beginning is where the reader gets a sense of what the book is all about. The opening lines themselves usually give a clue about the action of the novel. Consider the classic opening of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice:

It is a truth, universally, acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

This delightfully tongue-in-cheek opening accomplishes three tasks: first, it establishes that this story will be a humorous romance, thus giving the reader a first clue into the plot (which in fact is summarized in those two lines). Second, it sets up a problem. Whose daughter is this young man perceived to be the property of? What are the young man’s and the young woman’s views on that supposition? Third, it hints at conflict to come. What if someone disagrees with the common assumption?

Hints at the content of the book, the problem, and the conflict are three things to address in the beginning, preferably on the first page or two. It is also important to show the main character and to reveal what kind of person that character is, not by telling (which was common in early novels but is less used today), but by showing the character in actions that reveal his or her character. Finally, the opening needs to establish the setting, both in time and place, which should be done through description. A character wearing bobby socks and Mary Jane shoes who is reading a “Buy War Bonds” poster is established as belonging to the WWII era, just as a character listening to Caruso on a wind-up Victrola as a Model-T rolls by outside belongs to the 1920’s.

Middles

For many writers, the middle can quickly turn into a muddle. The middle is where tight structure is most strongly needed, so that the action moves forward and each scene contributes to the structure of the story. Some classic stories from the early 20th century, including the later Anne of Green Gables books, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, and C.S. Forester’s Mr. Midshipman Hornblower(one of the Horatio Hornblower novels), are more a series of exciting vignettes than a complete story in and of themselves. While this structure was acceptable at the time, it is less so today. With a few exceptions, editors today want books that are one complete story, where each action leads logically to the next.

But how does one keep the action going? How do you get a character all the way from New Jersey to Los Angeles on a Greyhound bus without describing the whole dull trip? Do you add exciting things along the way, shoving in car wrecks or bus hijackings just for the excitement? Do you simply say, “Five days later, Jason stepped out of the bus in Los Angeles” and leave it at that? How do you decide what is necessary and what is unnecessary in your story?

In Creating Unforgettable Stories for Children, Nancy Lamb discusses “Throughline,” a term used by Hollywood screen writers. Throughline is the central plot point, the impelling and motivating theme that leads the main character all the way from the beginning to the end: Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind strives to keep Tara against all odds; Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars saga strives to be a Jedi knight and battle the evil Emperor against all temptations to join the Dark Side; Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Ozwants to go home to Kansas. All action revolves around the Throughline. There are obstacles to the main character’s goals (Yankees; Darth Vader; the Wicked Witch of the West), and there are helpers along the way (Rhett Butler; Yoda; the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion). There is no negotiating the Throughline; the main character is determined to achieve it, even if it’s clear to the reader that the goal is unattainable or that achieving it is going to cause more suffering to the characters than it’s worth.

Once the throughline is established, the story should be structured around how the character attempts to achieve the goal, and what obstacles the character must overcome to achieve it. This is where classic dramatic structure can be useful. The structure of classic drama calls for rising action with conflict and complications, then a climax with the major confrontation, and finally the falling action which consists of reversal and resolution, coming to the last moment of suspense and the final conclusion. This structure can be followed not only in the overall plot, but within each scene. Even plots that have a circular rather than a linear structure may have the classic dramatic structure embedded in the individual scenes.

Once the overall action is decided upon, an analysis of the scenes themselves can be useful, especially if they’re not holding together well. Jack Bickham in Scene and Structure discusses the uses of “scene” and “sequel” in structuring action.

Scenes are action events, while sequels are reflective events that follow the action and lead to the next action. A scene begins with a goal. The character wants something. Next comes conflict, where the character is prevented from achieving that goal. Finally, the scene ends either in disaster (the character can’t attain the goal) or triumph (the character succeeds, whether it’s the final success or an accomplishment along the way).

Sequels come between action scenes. A sequel is characterized by an emotion that the character feels following the end of the scene. The emotion leads to thought as the character ponders what happened or discusses it with others, and thought leads to a decision as the character chooses what to do next.

The relative lengths of scene and sequel vary from novel to novel. A literary novel has long sequels, as characters are more likely to think about and talk about their situation than they are to engage in action. A dramatic spy novel has longer scenes and shorter sequels, as the reader is carried from one exciting event to another, leaving little room for contemplation, except perhaps as the main character decides what weapon to use or what escape route to follow.

When a novel bogs down, it can be helpful to write a summary of the action, then use highlighters or colored fonts to color-code scene and sequel. Too much sequel and not enough scene can make a novel drag. Too much scene and not enough sequel can lead to choppy action that seems pointless. The scene is where the action happens, but the sequel gives the reason for the action.

Ends

After laboring through hundreds of pages of a manuscript, it can be tempting to end it at the end of the final climax, and say, “They lived happily ever after. The end.” However, an abrupt ending leaves the reader dissatisfied, and may leave too many loose ends untied. A prolonged ending, on the other hand, is tedious, and may give too much information.

Should the ending be happy or sad? This depends in part on the age you are writing for. Young children want stories with happy endings — happy at least for the main character, who achieves what he or she wants. Some middle-grade novels may have sad endings, though they may also be uplifting in some way. Young Adult novels, which are more likely to deal with painful subjects, are more open to the sad ending than are books for young children.

Whether happy or sad, the ending should fulfill all the promises you made as you wrote. A mystery should end with a solution. A humorous story should end with a punch line and a laugh. A love story should end with The Boy and The Girl happily engaged or married. Sad endings, too, should have some kind of satisfaction to them. Sinners should find a path to redemption. Characters in pain should find relief.

Never, never pull a “fast one” on the reader, such as the tired old “and Jane woke up to find it was all a dream” ending. Don’t suddenly bring in characters that the reader hasn’t seen yet, such as some long-lost cousin that the main character coincidentally runs into, who also coincidentally has the sure solution to the main character’s problem. And don’t employ a deus ex machina solution; that is, the heavens should never just open up and drop a solution into the main character’s lap. If the character is locked up in a jail cell, it’s unlikely that there will be a convenient hacksaw hidden under a conveniently loose floorboard just waiting for the character to find it, unlessthe reader knows ahead of time that someone else has put it there, knowing that the main character would be locked up. Refusing to pull a “fast one” on the reader is part of keeping the promises of the story.

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