Plotting, Plotting, and More Plotting

December is upon us. There’s no snow yet, but there’s plenty of holiday cheer, and it’s only two weeks until the solstace and the days start getting longer. I’ve been out of school for two years, and yet this is still a time of recurring stress dreams about exams for classes i didn’t know I was taking. It is also the time, once again, where I try to keep up my NaNoWriMo momentum. So far, not so good. But there are still three weeks of the month left, and all those unexplainable nerves need to go somewhere. Why not give them to some of my characters?

 

So, this November, along with writing a bunch of short stories, I wrote blog posts about how I plot stories, from the ending, to the climax, to the beginning, and finally to the middle. If you missed them, check them out. This week, I want to wrap up my discussion by talking a bit more generally about plot.

 

The plot of the story is the action of the story. When I say action, I don’t mean crazy chase scenes or gun fights or anything like that—though that is always fun. I mean the physical events of the story and how they move from one to the next to the next. It is the arc of these events, usually from bad to worse to even worse to the moment of ultimate desperation to finally heading towards better. The plot arc is usually separate from the character arc of the story, and you can have plot driven stories—where the action pushes the story forward—and character driven stories—where the character’s goals and desires push the story forward (I’ll talk about character in more detail later). My favorite stories are the ones that are pushed forward by a combination—or a conflict—of plot and character.

 

One of the things I do to help me plot a story from scene to scene, or something I do after I have written the whole story but need to substantially clean it up, is try to fit the plot into one of the basic plot structures that already exist. This is a really helpful tool for me, because it almost always points me towards the parts of the story that need work. Your plot doesn’t have to fit these structures in every way, but these structures also work for a reason. So if my plot doesn’t fit the plot structure I think it’s trying to be, I take the time to ask myself why.

 

There are a bunch of plot structures, but here are my favorites.

 

The Basic Plot Arc: This is the plot arc you are taught in elementary school when you’re learning the basic components of a story. You start with the exposition—the beginning. You are introduced to the key players in the story, the situation, and the setting. You can also include information about the characters’ backgrounds here, enough to keep the reader from being confused anyway. I like to sprinkle in backstory along the way rather than dump it all in the beginning. Then you have the developing conflict, the climax, and the denouement—the ending. James Joyc also calls the denouement part of the story the epiphany, the moment when the main character learns something about him or herself or about the situation that changes how

they view the world and the events that came before.

 

This is so basic that I don’t really use it for anything, but it’s still the foundation of all other plot structures, so I like to keep it in mind. I do like the idea of the denouement as including an epiphany moment for the main character, though.

 

The Three Act Structure: This is most commonly used for television shows and movies, but I’ve seen it applied effectively to books and short stories as well. Basically, the story is divided into three parts, or acts.

 

The first act introduces the characters and the situation. The inciting incident or call to action breaks the main character out of their routine. There is the first confrontation between the protagonist and the antagonist. The stakes are raised. There is a turning point.

 

In the second act, the protagonist experiences a second turning point or a reversal. The character discovers their approach has been completely wrong. Their world-view is realigned. The character hits rock-bottom, but then finds the means to continue.

 

The third act is the resolution of the story. There’s the climax, and then the denouement.

 

I mostly use this structure when I’m revising rather than when I’m planning. It is a framework for analysis, rather than the bones of my story. It is useful to judge the balance of the parts of your story and the levels of tension.

 

The Hero’s Journey: This one is pretty fun, and it’s usually used in big epic adventure stories. Lord of the Rings, which I recently finished for the first time, and A New Hope, which I recently watched for the first time (feel free to judge me), both follow this pretty closely.

 

The hero’s journey starts with a call to adventure. The hero refuses the call. They like things the way they are. But then the hero is forced to except the call. Usually, something happens that leaves the hero no other choice. The home they love so much is burned to the ground and everyone they love is killed or captured or enslaved.

 

Next, the hero goes through a road of trials. This is a series of try-fail sequences. The hero attempts to solve the problem, defeat the enemy, rescue their kidnapped loved ones, etc. But they fail. Over and over and over again.

 

Then the hero gains allies and powers, and they think they have a shot at it. They confront the forces of evil and fail again. Really badly. This is the dark night of the soul for the hero, their moment of greatest desperation. Next, the hero takes a leap of faith—in themself, in their friends, in some sort of higher power. This faith gives the hero the power to overcome what they could not overcome before. Now the hero confronts evil and succeeds. At last, the hero returns. They go home or find a new community, and they are recognized for their victory.

 

The Try-Fail Cycle: I have a worksheet that David Levine handed out my first year at Alpha that outlines this very well, and while I have grown away from filling it in for every story, I still keep it in the back of my mind as I’m planning. The worksheet takes your story from an idea to a scene by scene outline. You start with an idea, then think of a situation that goes with that idea. Next, you come up with the characters to go in the situation. What do your characters want (related to this situation), and why can’t they have it? Then you think about the implications of the situation. How can it go wrong? How can it get worse? How can it get even worse? Finally, how does the story end? The traditional try-fail cycle is three fails and a success. If you haven’t noticed, the number three is heavily engrained in our culture. Ideally, every character in your story will have their own try-fail sequence, though we hope that the antagonist doesn’t succeed in the end.

 

The worksheet also asks questions to guide your thinking about who is the protagonist of the story, where the story is taking place and how elements of the setting can be used to enhance the story, and what you think the tone of the story will be. These are all important things to consider before you start writing and then again as you start to revise, but the questions that are really important to me are the ones about the plot.

 

What is the situation?

 

What do the characters want from this situation?

 

What are the implications of this situation?

 

How can it go wrong?

 

How can it get worse?

 

How can it get even worse?

 

How will it be resolved?

 

When I was in high school, I didn’t understand plot. And I mean I really didn’t understand it. I read a lot, and I could recognize well-plotted stories, but no matter how many times I was told, “Jameyanne, this is how plot works,” it just didn’t sink in. I wrote very character-driven stories then, but even then, the characters weren’t actually doing anything. When I went to college, I discovered how to plot. The credit for this goes to the fabulous writing conversations my friends and I were always having, as well as my two weeks at Alpha after my freshman year and some hard rejections that I really needed. So plot is still a relatively new thing to me, and I’m actually still dealing with stories I drafted in high school where I still really like the idea but there is no plot. My small child wizard novel, which I pledged to revise back in January, had this problem for a long time. It was an idea that I really believed in though, and it took three or four complete rewrites to get it from zero-plot to its current state of bursting with plot. Or at least, I hope that’s the state it’s in. My senior honors novel also has this problem to some degree, because I came up with the original idea at the end of high school, but it’s not nearly as bad as the small child wizard story. I still haven’t revised that one but I have some ideas.

 

At this point, I have a pretty good grasp on plot from the start, and I tend to use all these structures more as a frame of reference if I’m stuck or before I revise than as a step by step guide to writing my stories. To my mind, this is progress, but my plots will always be something I pay close attention to as I plan, as I write, and as I revise. Hence all the blog posts about how I plot stories.

 

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading these posts as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. My next few posts will be only sort-of writing related, but I’m planning to tackle character, point of view, setting, tone, and theme early next year, so look forward to that.

 

I want to leave you with one final thought for this post. In her book, Writing Magic, Gail Carson Levine asks what makes you keep reading a book. The answer: “The author’s cruelty. And the reader’s sympathy. We keep turning pages because we’re worried. Horrible things are happening to the heroine (some of which she may be causing), and we have to find out if she comes through them all right.”

 

In other words: You want a strong plot? You want your reader to keep on reading? Make your character suffer. Make your reader suffer. Make everything go horribly, horrribly wrong, so when at last it goes right, it is awesome.

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Muddling Through the Middle

We have reached the end of NaNoWriMo. There are just a few hours left. I did get a long car ride, and I managed to complete my goal. I wrote about 30 thousand words all told in short stories and novel chapters, not to mention all these blog posts and six law school applications. I’m hoping to keep the momentum in December, but we’ll see how that goes. I still have a few applications, and I’ve never been very good at keeping my NaNoWriMo momentum up, even when that momentum is pretty sluggish to begin with, but I will try.

 

So, this month, I’ve taken you through how I plan my stories, from the ending, to the climax, all the way to the beginning. This week, I’m going to talk about the hardest part for me—and I think the hardest part for a lot of people: the middle.

 

Every time I’m working on a story, I always make the same mistake. I plan the ending, the climax, and the beginning, and then I’m just so excited that I just start writing. I’ll get through the beginning, and then I’ll hit a wall. Happens every time.

 

Part of the problem is that I start writing before I’m really ready. I’m not good at flying by the seat of my pants, and yet I continually insist on plunging right in. I have some friends who can write out-of-order, get the scenes on paper that they’re imagining right now, and then go back and fill in, but I’ve never been able to do that. For one thing, as I write and the story grows beyond my outline, those climax and ending scenes I envision so clearly will probably change themselves, so it just doesn’t make sense for me to write them first, even if they are taking up all the room in my head. For me, those scenes are also the goal I am reaching for, and if I don’t have them ahead, I worry I might stop working on the project altogether. But that’s just me. Writing out-of-order works great for plenty of people.

 

Another reason I have trouble with the middle is that it’s generally tricky and hard to define. Even if I have carefully outlined every step of the middle, I still find myself slowing down and struggling.

 

The middle is the part between the beginning and the end. Obvious, I know, but it’s not as simple as that. The main problem or problems have been introduced. We have a grasp of the protagonist and the antagonist and what they want and what they’re planning to do to get it. The middle is where everything is developing. The characters are putting their plans into action, but it’s not going well. There might be a confrontation or two with the antagonist. There are side characters who are developing and either helping or hindering the protagonist. The protagonist is growing and learning and changing. There’s probably some subplots as well. In short, the middle takes the story from the beginning to the climax. So the middle needs to contain everything that you need to make the climax and the ending succeed.

 

Luckily, I’ve already planned my basic climax and ending, so I know what I need to get in there so I can pull them off. And lately, I’ve been making more of a conscious effort to examine all these elements, but even if I’ve spent time looking at all the pieces and planning out how I want them to go, I still have a hard time figuring out where and when they happen, how everything works together, how much space is everything given. I’m not sure where I first heard the expression, but it’s not called “the muddled middle” for nothing. There’s a lot going on that you have to juggle. Sometimes it can be pretty straightforward, but most of the time, for me, it isn’t.

 

So I do my best. The more I read in my genre and analyze how well-plotted stories move forward, the better I get. But it is always a struggle. I saved talking about the middle for last not only because I deal with it last but because it is hardest for me. When I get particularly frustrated, I think of the middle as a necessary evil. Honestly, I’ve probably given it way too much power in my head, so it intimidates me more than it should (which means I should just keep running at it, right?). No matter how I approach it, no matter how well I think I’ve planned it out, I always find myself muddling through it. But once I have a complete first draft, everything is clearer. I can pick out the real shape of the story under all the mess, and it becomes so much easier to go back in and revise it to what I really wanted it to be from the beginning.

Confronting the Climax

Last week, I talked about how the ending is my first step when I’m planning a story. This week, I’m going to talk about my next step: the climax. I plan the climax right after I plan the ending, because when I get to planning the ending next week, where I start the story will have a lot to do with where the story is going, and where the story is going is not simply the ending.

 

In very simple terms, if the ending is the solution to the story’s main problem, then the climax is the moment when the protagonist confronts the problem. This means that the shape of the climax often dictates the shape of the ending. The climax is the time where all of the protagonist’s internal growth and struggles that they have experienced over the course of the story are put to the ultimate test. In many stories, the climax is the moment when the protagonist realizes how they have changed—even if that realization is not expressed until after the action of the climax is over. The climax should at the same time put the protagonist’s character growth to the test and be the moment when everything the story has been building towards comes to a peak.

 

So, for this story I’m planning, at this point, I have a basic plot idea and a protagonist. I have an idea of what my ending will be. It could be a very specific idea, a specific moment where I want my story to land, or it could be broader, the solution to the problem and a feeling I want to convey. If my thinking here is broader at this point, it will probably become more specific as I plan out the climax. Also, at this point, if I don’t have a concrete grasp of my protagonist, my antagonist, their separate and conflicting motivations, and the main problem of the story, I spend some time ironing out those details. More specific detail will come as I continue to plan, of course, but I need some basic, concrete information before I move to the climax, otherwise, planning the climax now doesn’t make any sense.

 

I realize that this can seem like a pretty backwards way to think about this, and other people may plan their stories differently and just as effectively. But this is the way my brain works, and it makes sense to me, so I generally run with it. Also, it is so much fun to invision the most intense moments of a story. Often, it is the climactic scene that is the scene that sticks with me while I’m writing the whole story, the scene that I can’t wait to get down on paper, the scene that I even sometimes regret putting on paper because now it isn’t in my head anymore.

 

When I plan out my climaxes, I again think about what kind of story I’m writing and what kind of climax it should have. If I’m writing a more literary story, the climax might tend to focus on the characters’ emotions rather than high-stakes action. But if I’m writing fantasy or even historical fiction, which is most of what I’m writing, a little high-stakes action might be the right way to go. Or, you can go the middle route, my personal favorite, where there is lots of action and lots of feelings.

 

After I’ve figured out what kind of climax I’m looking for, I look at all the elements of the story that I have outlined so far (whether that outline is in my head or on paper). I have the main character, their goals, their strengths, their weaknesses, their fears. I have the antagonist with all their goals and strengths and weaknesses and fears. Personally, I really like to have the bad guy and the good guy be evenly matched throughout the story, or else the bad guy is slightly stronger, and something changes in the climax that tips the scales in the protagonist’s favor. I have the main problem of the story, which may or may not be related to the conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist. For example, the protagonist and the antagonist could both be working to solve the same problem, but with opposing methods. I might also have side characters I need to consider, or other points of view I’ve been narrating from that I need to deal with. Finally, I have the setting, which is one of my personal favorite elements to play with. I’m going to talk about all of these things in much more detail in future posts—I promise—but it’s important to bring them up now because they all play a role in the climax. The best climax for my story, in my opinion, is the climax where all of these elements come together.

 

Finally, I want to look at a couple real-life examples of climaxes that work for me. Again, I’ll try to keep this as spoiler-free as possible.

 

One excellent example of a climax that works is The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. The Night Circus contains so many different elements and characters, most of whom the reader cares about. It has a phenomenal setting, and the antagonist isn’t so much the main characters’ teachers, but the game their teachers have forced them to play. In the climax, all of these elements come together. The climax confronts the problem not only of the conflict between the game the two main characters are playing against each other and their love for each other but also the tension over the fate of the circus, and all those who are part of the circus, when the game is over. And then the problems are resolved in an unexpected and intriguing but ultimately satisfying way.

 

I am also a big fan of the climax of The Hunger Games—the first one. It brings into play the rivalry between Katniss and Cato; Katniss’s regret, grief, and horror over the deaths of the other tributes, some of them at her hands; the romance between Katniss and Peeta that cannot possibly have a happy ending—not if only one of them can go home; Katniss’s confusion about her feelings for Peeta; and finally her desire to be more than a piece in the Capitol’s games. Here again, the book confronts a seemingly impossible problem and solves it in a unique way.

 

Finally, I am deeply in awe of Marissa Meyer’s climaxes for her Lunar Chronicles series, especially the climaxes for Cinder and Cress (I haven’t finished Winter yet so no spoilers please). In each book, as she adds more and more characters to the mix, her climaxes become ever more complicated, and yet they all work. She is also able to make each of our heroes—by the end of the third book we have a pretty large group of them—take significant action that is necessary for the success of the group in the climax. And I could keep gushing.

 

I’m having trouble thinking of climaxes that don’t work for me, mostly because climaxes are so important to endings that climaxes that don’t work are usually tied to endings that don’t work, and I already ranted about those last week. An important distinction I feel I need to make, though, is that a climax can define a character’s growth, and do so effectively, even if the ending of the book then invalidates that growth (my biggest pet peeve when it comes to endings). For example, it is not so much the climax of Mockingjay that ruins it for me. It is the moment when Katniss votes for another Hunger Games. It is not so much the death of certain characters in How I met Your Mother that drives me nuts, but Ted’s decision when he finishes the story. On the other hand, it is the decisions made in the climax of Allegiant that don’t work for me, and that just bleeds over into the ending.

 

But climaxes I love to read—and so climaxes I love to write—are complex. The protagonist is facing seemingly impossible odds. The solution is not obvious, but it’s also not so complicated that no one could figure it out ever. The protagonist needs to make some kind of choice that ultimately reflects their character growth. Something may be lost, but something else must be gained. The climax brings every piece of the story so far together. For me, if a story is a journey, the climax is the moment that every dark and twisting step has led towards. It is the moment where the protagonist stands and faces down their problem and their antagonist. It is the moment when the protagonist stands and faces a choice, faces their fears and hopes and strengths and weaknesses, and overcomes all of it. It may seem backwards, given that everything must lead to the climax, to plan the climax before I plan the beginning or the middle or most of the specific details, but for me it works. For me, the climax is integral to the ending, and if I can’t begin without an end in sight and a solution to the problem, then I can’t begin without knowing how the protagonist will confront that problem in the climax.

 

And now that I have my ending and my climax nailed down, I can begin.

Journey to an Ending

November has arrived, which means once again, National Novel Writing Month is upon us. Unfortunately, I can’t count law school application essays towards my word count, so I have decided not to attempt to write fifty thousand words this month. Instead, I have set myself a much more reasonable goal of writing four short stories. But in the spirit of NaNoWriMo, I have been playing with my basic concepts of stories that need revising and thinking a lot about how I plot my stories—short and long alike. Back in July, I wrote about how I outline stories, but now I really want to get into the meat of how I plot stories. And as I was planning this series of posts, I realized that I usually start with the ending.

 

I have no idea if this is how other people morph their idea stews into cohesive stories, but this is what I do. I start with a basic concept—a main character, possibly an antagonist but probably not yet, and the problem that main character is trying to overcome. Then, with this idea in mind, I jump straight to the ending. It’s sort of like I’m planning a trip. I can’t decide what route I’m going to take if I don’t know what the destination is. If I know the destination, I can plan the path I will take—where I will start, where things will probably get difficult, where I will pause to rest and use the bathroom and refuel my car and myself, where I will turn aside to get lost in the halls of cobwebby museums full of rare fossils that might give the whole trip meaning. Maybe this metaphor has gone too far. I can’t even drive. Yet.

 

My point is, before I set pen to paper or, in my case, fingers to keyboard, I need to know where I’m going. Many times, I don’t start a story until I have a last line in my head.

 

This isn’t to say that the ending I come up with when I am first planning a story will definitely be the ending I write when I get there. It could happen that I reach the ending and realize that I have been driving at something completely different all along. In that case, I revise my ending and do what’s right for the story. Other times I reach my ending and everything feels just right, and I write that ending, but then when I go back to revise the story, I realize that while the ending is right for the story I want to tell, the beginning or the middle or the character arc isn’t fitting in, and I need to revise that. So it doesn’t always work out the way I want it to, but that is the joy of storytelling: it is an act of discovering the story as much as transcribing it for others to read. But even if I change the ending, if I don’t start writing with an ending in mind, the story will inevitably be a mess.

 

So when I have my basic premise for the story, when I have my main character and my problem, how do I come up with an ending? And how do I know if that ending is the right ending for the story I am telling?

 

For starters, I have a running list of endings I have loved and endings I have hated in my head. When I’m trying to come up with the right ending, I start there. What kind of story do I think I’m telling? What books or TV shows or movies have I recently read or seen that might be similar to that type of story? How did they end? Did it work? Why? Did it flop? How come? What kind of ending can I come up with that will be better than what they did?

 

Obviously, this strategy can only take you so far. You need to be careful that you’re not copying endings from things you like or deliberately doing the opposite of something you didn’t like. For one thing, straight-up copying is bad. Most of the time, your story is actually pretty different from the material you’re drawing on for your inspiration, so copying their ending won’t fit. If your story isn’t different from the material you’re drawing on for inspiration, you have an entirely different problem. (Believe me—I’ve been there. Revise. Revise now.)

 

But I digress. Using a particular ending as a model—a baseline—is how I usually start. I look at how that ending was constructed, why it works the way it does—or why it doesn’t work—and I see if I can produce the same effect. Once I have analyzed other people’s endings to my heart’s content, I look back at my own story. In very simple terms, I think about the ending as the solution to the problem the main character is facing (this is different from the climax of the story, where the main character confronts the story’s main problem). Then I start brainstorming all the possible solutions to the problem, including the totally ridiculous solutions that could never actually work, the solutions where everyone dies (I don’t think I’ve ever gone with this one), and the solution where the main character walks away and leaves the problem unsolved—or gives in to the problem in some way. Usually this brainstorming is all in my head, but sometimes I write it out. When I can come up with no other possible solutions, I think about my story fundamentally. What do I want the tone to be? What do I want the main character to learn (if anything)? What is the story I am telling? I start crossing off endings that don’t work. Usually, I’m left with just a few possibilities, and I pick the one I like the best (I usually have a feeling by this point).

 

I don’t always use this whole process. Sometimes the ending I’m looking for is perfectly clear to me from the start. But when it isn’t, going through this process helps me clarify a lot about the story that I may not have thought about before, and ultimately, it’s a better story for it.

 

Finally, I want to talk about what kind of endings I personally like and what endings I hate. I will do my best to stay spoiler-free.

 

My biggest pet peeve about endings is when all the character has learned, all their growth and change, is invalidated. Think the ending of Mockingjay or How I Met Your Mother. Usually, this ending feels so far off the rails to me that it ruins how I feel about the whole book or season, sometimes even the whole series. I have been following these characters for so long at this point, and now they’re making a decision that makes everything that came before not matter. I feel cheated. I feel like I want to throw the book across the room. Often, there are aspects of the ending I would have been okay with on their own, but when it’s all put together, it just doesn’t work for me. I have a visceral reaction to these endings. At best, I’m disappointed. At worst, I feel like I’ve wasted my time.

 

Another ending I despise is the ending where either the protagonist dies or all the people around the protagonist die and the protagonist is left on her own in a wasteland of mindless destruction and grief. My one exception so far to this dislike is The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, and that’s because Death is the narrator, so I knew it had to happen at some point. Most of my dislike for this type of ending comes from the fact that I am fundamentally an optimist, and this depressing view of the world just doesn’t jive with my sunny outlook on life. I know, I know. I kill characters mercilessly in my own stories, and a lot of the time I enjoy a good character death. But only when that character death serves a purpose. When you kill everyone just to show that the world is rough, it doesn’t work for me. Also, as in another popular young adult dystopian trilogy, when you kill the main character for no good reason other than she’s nobly sacrificing herself for someone else I really couldn’t care less about, I feel like I’m wasting my time. Because I’m not reading the story for the interesting world. I’m reading the story for the character. And that was a dumb decision!

 

My favorite kind of ending, on the other hand, is like the ending of the TV show Leverage or Kristin Hannah’s book The Nightingale. It’s what I’m hoping the ending of Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles series will be (we’ll see tomorrow!). My favorite kind of ending brings all the pieces of the story together. It solves the problems of the plot in a satisfying way. It makes me feel like the characters have grown and changed in ways that matter. It is the sort of ending that makes me want to turn right back to the beginning of the book and read it all over again. It doesn’t have to be happy, and it doesn’t have to solve everything. In my favorite endings, there is at least one piece left for the reader to ponder, one more story for the reader to imagine. And while I always love a nice happy ending, my favorite endings are bittersweet. Because what is a happy ending worth—what is any journey worth—without struggles and losses that must be overcome along the way?