Thursday, February 18, 2010

How to Write a Novel 4: Plot, Part II

Quote: “The role of a writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say.”
~Anaïs Nin

Song Playing:
Ain’t It Fun by Guns and Roses

How’s everyone doing? Good? Good. I have signed up for another blogfest, probably because I am glutton for punishment. It about an embarassing scene involving your characters, and it takes place during February 22nd, on Laurel’s blog at:

I know exactly the right character for this too…hehe, she always manages to hideously embarrass herself, in front of a large group of people no less.

Again, let me remind everyone that these posts are just one way of doing things, meant to make you think about your writing process…if you take one useful idea away from these posts, then I am happy. Remember Pirates of the Caribbean, when they are talking about the Pirate’s Code? And they say: “They’re more like guidelines, really.” I laughed so hard…so yes, these are more like guidelines.

Without further ado, I give you today gripping continuation on Plot:

3. The Inciting Incident

A complete premise will include the inciting incident, the event that knocks over the first domino of story events. You should start the book as close to the inciting incident as possible. The inciting incident can sometimes give the reader an idea on what this story is going to be about. It’s like a restaurant sign in that respect, it displays what sort of food is served here. That’s why so many romance novels start with the two lovers meeting, because the inciting incident for the romance is the meeting of the two lovers. Not always, but many times. Figure out the event that kicks everything off, and you won’t have to worry about the book starting too “slow” (for the most part).

The inciting incident can be stated as such: When something happens, it leads to other things happening, resulting in this ending.

Jim Butcher calls it a story question: WHEN SOMETHING HAPPENS*, *YOUR PROTAGONIST* *PURSUES A GOAL*. But will he succeed when *ANTAGONIST PROVIDES OPPOSITION*?

See how neat that is? Your plot, in two sentences. It’s a thing of beauty, really. It’s almost like a magic wand. Struggling with a book that isn’t doing anywhere? Try to plug your events and characters into this question. If it’s hard, then it’s possible you’re struggling because you don’t really know what your story is about yet.

The inciting incident for Detective Brewster’s story would be when the robber’s walked in and held up the bank. This one was pretty obvious, but you can see the logic: there would be no hostage situation until hostages were taken. Detective Brewster wouldn’t have been tested through trial by fire if this happened ten years after he graduated from his hostage negotiation class, so it occurs soon after he graduates.

Maybe, if you go with a theme or subtheme on family, you could even have his sister arguing with Brewster about being a hostage negotiator, and maybe even (ironically) feel like people shouldn’t give into the demands of robbers, no matter what. As you might have thought already, this could play beautifully into your theme of honor and duty. Will his sister stick with her morals now that she’s in a position to stand up for them? Or will her self-preservation kick in? How will she feel afterwards, if she survives, but only because her brother gave the robbers what they wanted? Grateful? Like a hypocrite? As you can see, I am getting on a tangent. But you could follow all sorts of trains of thought, and incorporate several subthemes if you wish.

A theme isn’t a pigeonhole for your book: there can be subplots and ideas and questions and all sort of complex bits in the novel, but usually one theme will umbrella them all, and the subtheme and subplots will connect in some way shape or form to the main theme, like how a tiger and a house cat are still cats.

4. Conflict

The lifeblood of your book is conflict. Once you know you’re story’s conflict, many other pieces will fall into place. Characters, theme, setting, stuff that I have been blathering on about for a while now can fall into place once you decide on the conflict.

But conflict is a fickle mistress, which is why I didn’t put it first. I have to chew on an idea for a little while before I decide on the conflict, and it’s usually by this point, after thinking about characters, and theme, and premise that the conflict starts to rise to the top.

You have the obvious conflict of the hostages at the bank in our example, but that’s the easy conflict, the crucible that pushes the first domino over. The real conflict will be between people.

When you put the protagonist’s and antagonist’s deepest desires in sharp contrast, you have the key to conflict. Think about what your main character wants the most, and then give your antagonist the power to thwart this. This is why your main character should want something really badly. Without wanting something, you can’t take it away from him, and create conflict. As Sol Stein states “The essence of dramatic conflict lies in the clash of wants. You need to be certain that then conflicting wants are connected significantly and are over something that the reader will view as important.”

I like to think about the protagonist and antagonist’s wants as a see saw. When one of them has what they want, the other doesn’t. Your antagonist doesn’t have to be a person, though. It could be the elements, as a man stuck on a deserted island is at mercy to the elements. It could be the hero himself, if he is sufficiently internally conflicted.

Ideally, you will have several different types of conflict in your book. It’s what makes the reader turn the page to find out what happens, and one single event in conflict can feel too overbearing, and unrealistic. Every character in the book will have goals, and should be actively pursuing them. Character attaining these smaller goals will help the reader feel a sense of accomplishment, so the book isn’t one big series of failures. You ever watch a movie or read a book like that? It’s maddening, to sit there and watch the main character do nothing but fail. It makes you lose faith that the MC can actually resolve the main conflict, and a lot of times, I stop watching/reading. Remember, small victories. Your book should be a series of ups and downs, not one big down and then one up, or all up and one down. It should be a give and take.

In our hostage situation, there can be many different types of conflict:

*the hostages are force to stay there against their will, and fear for their lives

*the hostages themselves disagree with how to respond to the robbers. Some want to fight them, and others want to behave and keep their head down.

*Detective Brewster feels trapped into being the hostage negotiator because it’s his first time, but worries that if he passes, he’ll never get another chance. (this is internal conflict)

*Detective Brewster finds out his sister is inside, and worries that they won’t let him be the negotiator anymore, because of his personal involvement.

*There is the implied conflict of time: Detective Brewster has to resolve this, and soon, because the robbers aren’t going to wait forever

There are more conflicts, but those are just what I have come up with off the top of my head. It’s best to be aware of these conflicts, because it helps you tighten up the slack when the main conflict isn’t doing much of anything.

The very best way to create conflict when you aren't certain what to do is to ask a simple question: What can go wrong now?

And these stakes, these complications doesn’t have to be huge, either. Despite my love for explosions, and gunfire, there is the same potential for conflict in a coming of age story as there is a spy thriller. Bad weather at the wrong time can be an obstacle, or someone’s kid brother showing up, or someone’s mother needing to be taken to the hospital. I like to try and think of inventive ways that things can go wrong, instead of just going straight for the obvious. It’s how you can keep the book from being predictable.

5. The Great Swampy Middle

This term was coined by Jim Butcher, and he has a full article on the middle, that I will link at the end of this series. But the basic idea is to have a good idea what the middle end is. The middle is the beginning of the end, the events the knocks the first domino over, and starts wrapping up the story. Many writers have issues with the middle, and all I can say, is Butcher’s technique works.

6. The Climax

(I am not googling "Climax" for a picture, thank you very much)

How are you going to end everything? How are you going to resolve the events? Jim Butcher has a great template at his blog to use for climaxes, that I will again link to as I wrap the series up (I am planning an entire post on resources for writers, aren’t you excited?)

The climax is very important. You have been leading the readers on for hundreds of pages now. If you give a cope out ending, and just wrap things up quickly, they are going to feel really let down, and probably hate you. Just saying. ;)

One thing to remember when it comes to the climax is to not pull punches.

Let me explain.

As a writer, you will eventually have to make some decision as to what sort of writer you are. I have already talked a little about this, about writing from the heart. No matter what genre you chose to write, some people will make assumptions about you. If you write YA, people will think it’s easy and you can’t write well enough for adults. If you write fantasy and science fiction, people will assume you want to escape the real world, and these are just your vicarious fantasies on paper. If you write romance, people will think you’re a girl just playing out her sexual fantasies on paper. And so on. These are generalizations, of course, not every single person you meet will think this, but it does happen. The same thing will happen in any genre. If your characters swear, some readers won’t read your books. If you write a sex scene, some readers won’t read your book. If you write a really gorey scene, or your subject material is really taboo, some readers will think you’re a sociopath, and not read your book.

Why am I rambling about this, you ask gently?

Because it’s all about pulling your punches. Some writers, because of these outside influences, and their own internal ones (people will think I am stupid/silly/demonic, I am just too tired to write this scene out), will pull their punches. A really important death will happen off stage, the climax wraps up a little too neatly, and so on. I am not saying in every book where this happens, the writer pulled his punch, this is entirely a matter of context. But these places—the tough places that writers go to in their novels—are the most common ones where we feel like we want to shy away.

Personally, when I come to an emotionally charged scene, especially if I have already been writing for awhile, I just feel really drained. Really tired. Like I don’t want to go on. Like I just want to wrap the scene up, and move on to happier ones. But if I did that, I would be pulling my punch, I would be shying away from the truth of the story. It takes a lot of courage to write a really messy break out scene, or a really emotional death scene, or a scene with the character breaking down. We feel it as much as the characters to.

But I have found the best writing comes from when I am uncomfortable, when I am squirming in my seat. This is the most emotional writing, and as a readers, some of the most memorable scenes I have read. I just finished a book where a girl’s friend gets kidnapped, and then murdered, and the murderers air the DVD of the guy’s death. It wasn’t really gruesome or bloody. The author gave you enough details that you could all to well imagine the rest. While I was reading that scene, I wasn’t myself anymore; I was the main character. I felt like my friend had been kidnapped and then murdered on national television. It was a tough scene to read, and I can’t imagine what it was like to write it, but it made the book that much more real for me.

I am not saying you have to write terrible scenes to write a real book. It takes just as much courage to write about a character confessing their love as it does to write a break up. The point is to not shy away from the tough spots of writing, especially your climax. You’re going to want to; you’re going to wanting to look away from the sheer emotion of all your conflicts and characters and events colliding together in a momentous moment, but I encourage you not to.

Well, I suppose I will get off my soapbox now. You may disagree with me; you may think I am utterly crazy, and climaxes are the easiest thing in the world for you to write. If that’s true, then I salute you. But for those of you who would rather get a root canal than write your climax, take heart. You can come back to it in the first draft if you need to.

7. Tone

This is the “flavor” of your novel. Is it funny? Sarcastic? Gritty? Dark? Nostalgic?

Tone is really difficult to convey, and most of it comes out during revision for me. But it’s the feel of the novel, and most of it comes from your word choices, and events in the novel. When I make funny comparisons and use endless parenthetical asides, all of this helps cultivate a relaxed, slightly jovial tone for my blog. Your characters and their attitudes on the events that are happening can also help reinforce your tone. I like to figure out ahead of time what I want the general tone to be.

8. Voice

Ahh, voice. Another fickle mistress of novel writing. Voice is YOU. It’s a combination of how you write, the words you chose, the types of characters you write about, the genre you write in, and the themes and ideas you gravitate towards. It’s what lets you recognize a book by an author you’ve read a lot of. Think of voice as the sound of the person’s voice telling the story, committed to paper. It’s your unique way of putting ideas down on paper.

Writers are always told to develop their voice. This is something that develops over time, and in my experiences, more quickly when you are writing for “you” and not worrying about other people seeing your work.

I am a perfectionist. I like things to be perfect. I used to try to make my first drafts perfect, worried that if someone read it, they would point out typos and grammar guffaws (this blog makes me a little neurotic, because I KNOW there are mistakes somewhere no matter how hard I proofread what I am about to post).

It was only until I started writing something “for fun” and “on the side” that I really developed my voice, because I allowed myself to be myself. I didn’t worry about what other people would think, because I was just goofing off with a story idea. Also, I developed a lot of my voice while writing emails back and forth to my friends (long emails, not just “hey how’s it going?” emails), because I wrote the emails the same way I would say it out loud. Blogging helps me develop my voice too, because I do more or less the same thing, and type as though I am speaking out loud.

The trick to writing a story is to write from the main character’s point of voice, so not every single book sounds the same, but you will naturally bring your voice into the novel by virtue of what happens, and who’s there, and all the other elements of the plot.

Show of hands: how obvious was it that I just learned how to use the picture function on blogger?
Now if only hyperlinking would cooperate...every time I insert a link, it doesn't show up. I have to copy-paste it manually, and it looks ugly.

Well folks, that's a wrap for today. Take a breather, hug a baby, and get back to that novel!

1 comment:

  1. Top notch post :D And it wasn't THAT obvious you had discovered the picture function...

    You are completely right about "not pulling punches" because the difficult scenes ARE sometimes the best ones. They make you connect more with the story, I think, since life is FULL of awkward and, often, really difficult bits that you just can't shy away from, right?

    OOOh, further to that brilliant post, I gave you an award thingy-ma-jig on my blog for being a star! Do what you will with it, it was given freely:~)