Category Archives: Plot Structure

Three’s Company, But Six is a Crowd

Writing critique groups are like blogs. They both tend to start with vows of seriousness and dedication. They launch with vigor and excitement, but eventually slow and become work. Life gets complicated (as it always does) and priorities change. First one deadline is missed. Then two. Then all of them. Most often, people in the group wander away, and unless there is a constant flow of new blood, the collective falls apart. Though plentiful, most fail within a year.

However, decay and disbandment are not inevitable, just common. I’ve contributed to half a dozen blogs or critique groups over the years. Only two have continued to this day. First is the Fictorians. Second is my current critique group, which has been going strong for over two years and has helped us all grow as authors. So, what makes these two groups successful, whereas the others failed?

The key factor, I think, is ensuring the group is the right size for what it is trying to accomplish. Groups that are too small may fail to meet their goals because the work overwhelms the members. There are simply not enough people to carry the load. Another common pitfall that I’ve observed is the tendency of small groups to synchronize into a group think. There needs to be enough diversity of thought and experience to keep things interesting and productive. So why then not take a “the more, the merrier” approach? Wouldn’t a group open to the public be preferable?

Frankly not, in my experience. It’s a matter of the time and reliability of the individuals involved. Nobody’s time is infinite, so any meeting that is too large must inevitably splinter into smaller groups to allow for practical critique. Secondly, large groups inherently diffuse personal responsibility. Why, after all, does any one member need to meet their writing goals for the week or read the other members’ submissions? Surely someone else will do it. Finally, the larger the group, the more likely there will be conflicts of personality that sour the tone of the meetings. Writers put ourselves on display in our fiction. We must trust those we turn to for critique or we will not be open to their help.

Take as an example my first two critique groups. With seven and eight members respectively, reading everyone else’s submissions became a chore and seriously impinged on my writing time. The critique we offered was often superficial and therefore not terribly useful. The second major problem that killed these groups was that we were never able to meet face to face. We tried to use a private forum to bridge the gap, but that medium destroyed accountability and it wasn’t long before people stopped posting.

My current critique group calls ourselves “the League” and consists of three members. Though we may seem too small, our size makes us flexible and familiar. Though we live in different cities, we meet face to face each week via video conferencing. When one of us has something come up on the normal meeting date, we can usually find an alternative time. This maintains accountability, which has been my only reason for making keyboard time some weeks. Because we are friends, we trust and value one another. We understand each other well enough to know what our fellow authors are thinking and can therefore offer deep, constructive criticism. Furthermore, we are comfortable enough with one another to engage in productive conflict, pushing each other to be better.

Also key to the success of the League is that we have been able to adapt the group to our changing needs. We started by performing weekly writing challenges. At that point, we three needed something to get us writing consistently, and it worked. For a time. After a few months, we all grew bored and frustrated, yearning to get to actual fiction. We three are novelists at heart, after all, and 1,000 word challenges weren’t promoting our goals of becoming published authors. So one meeting we discussed the problem and decided to change our focus to be prewriting new books in tandem.

For a while, this vein worked for us. However, we eventually found ourselves bogged down and struggling with making consistent progress. Another discussion led us to take David Farland’s Story Puzzle class as a trio. The class was fantastic, but even better because we took it together.

We all received extremely positive feedback from Dave on our assignments. NOT because we were particularly brilliant, but rather because we discussed his lessons and workshopped the exercises before sending them to him. I firmly believe that we three got more out of the class because we took it with friends.

My critique group has found a size and a strategy that works for us. Though every writing journey is unique, none of us is in it alone. I would highly encourage any aspiring author to find a group of like minds to help them take their craft to the next level. Like writing itself, critique groups require dedication, time, trust, and most of all the ability to grow and change.

Stab Them in the Back

 

For all of you “Agents of Shield” fans, I think you’ll remember that wrench in your gut when you realized, but didn’t want to admit, that Grant Ward was Hydra. Not only was he Hydra, but he was also quite psycho. Everyone’s favorite character started betraying and killing all of his friends. Except for the recently acquired girlfriend, whom he creepily stalked.

One of the most painful and effective ways to keep our readers enthralled is through the backstabbing friend. What’s the best way to set that up and make it work for you? Let’s look at a few examples from those who draw blood well.

1) Neither the protagonist nor the reader sees it coming. In my opinion, this is the best way to have friend stab friend. It does take finesse, however. For one, you can’t have the stabbing friend act in contradiction to his final evil goal. That doesn’t mean he can’t help your protagonist, seem to empathize, and even help the protagonist further their own goals. It does mean you have to watch out for temporal contradictions. If something nasty happens to the protagonist and the stabbing friend is hiding in the shadows on the dark side, he can’t also be helping his “friend” at the same time. It also means that anything the stabber does for your protagonist has to either not effect his own goals or must further them in some way. He can save his friend’s life, it can seem that it’s because he legitimately cares, and we can find out later that it was only because the backstabber needed information. Besides Grant Ward in Agents of Shield, another great example is in Brandon Sanderson’s Warbreaker. (spoiler alert) Throughout the entire novel, Siri finds in Bluefingers a confidante she can trust, until the very end when he and the Pahn Kahl people turn against her and the kingdom. He was the one person she thought she could trust and with that paradigm shift is a plot twist that changes everything.

2nd) The character doesn’t see it coming, but the reader does. This sets up a time-bomb scenario for the reader where they can see the betrayal coming, don’t know exactly when it will happen, but as the suspense builds and the stakes grow higher, so does the interest of the reader. Who can forget the disappointment we feel as Edmund gradually becomes more and more entwined with the evil queen in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe? We see his betrayal coming, but his poor siblings have no idea until he’s gone. We can unfold the tragedy with carefully placed clues that the reader puts together piece by piece, gradually discerning the awful news that they hate to admit may be true, like in the famed Narnia series. We can also slam the reader with the betrayal for greater impact, putting them suddenly on the edge of their seats as they wait for the protagonist to find out. Either way works and I think the best choice is whichever one fits with the flavor of your book. Is it wrought with mystery so the betrayal is one of many factors or is it a book of many twists, turns, and tragedies where this can be one more layer on the cake?

3rd) We see the possibility, but nobody knows what will happen, including the friend who betrays. I thought this was done rather well in Dr. Strange. Yes, I admit it, I’m a Marvel movie fan. Stephen Strange is championed by Baron Mordo from the moment Strange arrives at Kathmandu trying to find healing. Mordo mentors him, worries for him, and cares for him. Mordo’s negative reaction when he discovers their leader has been using forbidden magic all along is a sign that not all is well. Mordo seems to come around, helping Doctor Strange save the world, and it’s not certain what Mordo will do until the moment comes. Even Mordo doesn’t seem certain what he’ll do. And then he turns his back on his friends and becomes the next super-villain. If we hadn’t already known that Anakin becomes Darth Vader, we might have been on the edge of our seats wondering if he’d really turn to the dark side or come to his senses. Because we do know, it becomes an example for the scenario above. We know it will happen, but how and when is the question. I think the unsure betrayer is one of the most compelling and heart-wrenching scenarios in fiction. It gives our protagonist’s friend a great sense of depth as they struggle with the decision. This one is also hard to pull off well, because we must show those forces of good and evil push and pull in a side character while still keeping the protagonist as the focus. Done well, it’s quite powerful.

I could probably name a dozen more types of backstabs, but I’m not willing to make this post any longer. What are some great backstabbing moments you’ve seen? What are some movies/books that you feel have done it well or some styles other than what I’ve listed above? We’d love to hear from you.

Colette Black Bio:
Author PicColette Black lives in the far outskirts of Phoenix, Arizona with her family, 2 dogs, a mischievous cat and the occasional unwanted scorpion. Author of the Mankind’s Redemption Series, The Number Prophecy series, and the upcoming Legends of Power series, Colette writes New Adult and Young Adult sci-fi and fantasy novels with kick-butt characters, lots of action, and always a touch of romance. Find her at www.coletteblack.net

 

Wading Through the Muddy Middles

Even with a fantastic opening hook and an explosive inciting incident, many stories spend time slogging through the “muddy middles.” As the name suggests, the middles are the time part way through act two where the story no longer benefits from the momentum of the inciting incident, but also hasn’t reached the point where it is drawn forward by the climax. This sag in tension is a dangerous time for any story as it allows the reader to put the book down. Therefore, deciding how to draw your audience through the middles is an essential part of any plotting.

If you ask a dozen authors how to best navigate the middles, you will often get fourteen answers. In truth, the “best” method depends on what sort of story you are trying to tell and what are the strongest emotional draws for your audience. Rather than listing all the possibilities, I’ll focus my discussion on four techniques that I think can be used in a variety of different stories.

Many thrillers and action/adventure stories will bridge the middles with a series of explosive scenes. By doing so, the author simplifies their task to propelling the reader from scene to scene rather than from initiating event to climax. As the reader progresses through the story, the duration between action sequences should shrink. This gives the illusion of accelerating right up into the climax.

Consider as an example the action/adventure film John Wick. The introduction and inciting incident occur in the first fifteen minutes of the movie and the climax occurs at roughly one hour and fifteen minutes. Taken at a very high level, what happens during the hour between those two points? First, there is a period of milieu and character work to establish the character of John Wick and the rest of the world. Then there is a beating delivered by the big bad and the big bad’s first try/fail cycle to resolve the issue without violence. This is followed by a gun fight, a short period of world exploration, a gun fight, a brief pause for recovery, a fist fight, a briefer pause for a few wise cracks, a gun fight, a yet briefer pause in which John Wick sets some stuff on fire, and once again a gun fight that ends in a capture sequence. John then escapes captivity and dives straight into the climax of the movie. The tension is not allowed to slacken for a moment because John is near constantly either in danger and/or kicking some ass.

Though the thriller model is effective, it won’t work universally. After all, mystery audiences won’t be satisfied by explosions and flying fists. Instead, they are looking for intellectual stimulation. However, it isn’t enough to simply give them a puzzle. As the story continues, they need to feel as if they are coming closer to the solution. The key here is to ensure that each new answer they find along the way complicates the puzzle by being either incomplete, misleading, or raising yet more questions. The best, recent example I can think of to illustrate this style of plotting is the movie Arrival. Don’t worry about spoilers. Unlike John Wick (2014), Arrival (2016) is still new enough that I will only speak in broad strokes.

I believe that the story of Arrival works as well as it does because everyone goes into a first contact story expecting an overt conflict between humanity and the aliens. However, twists this trope on its head, which is intriguing in and of itself. The main story is a mystery driven by the question, “What do the aliens want?” Along the way, we the audience are given pieces of the puzzle in such a way that they don’t all come together until the very end. This plotting structure latches onto our fundamental human curiosity and pulls us forward with the illusion of progress towards getting an ultimate answer.

Where action/adventure plots seek to satisfy a sense of physicality and mysteries work to stimulate intellectual curiosity, romances play on the human need for connection. Will our point of view character be able to woo their paramour? Can our protagonist choose between two appealing, yet opposing romantic interests? How will our two (or more) romantic leads be able to overcome whatever forces hold them apart and end the story together? No matter the details, the drive is still the same. Will our protagonist(s) be able to achieve their need for connection? As such, we writers need to maintain tension by repeatedly denying our characters, and by proxy the readers, the connection they desire. We can do this in two major ways.

First is by introducing conflict internal to the relationship. By giving the romantic interests compelling personal conflicts and reservations, you allow them to stand in the way of their own happiness. It’s important to note that the reasons holding your characters apart need to be fundamental to their character, something substantial enough that it can withstand several try/fail cycles and significant enough that it poses a legitimate threat to the relationship. An example of this technique can be found in the early relationship between Eve Dallas and Roarke in Naked in Death by JD Robb. During her investigation of a sensitive homicide, Lieutenant Dallas meets Roarke and sparks fly. She feels conflicted because she can’t eliminate him as a suspect in her case, but also increasingly can’t deny her developing feelings for him. Her gut tells her that Roarke is innocent, but she can’t prove it. Robb draws us through the romantic arc by having Dallas’ blooming feelings clash with her sense of duty.

The second option is to introduce some element of external conflict, where your romantic interests strive together to try to overcome a barrier from outside the relationship. Again whatever the threat is, it needs to be big enough to possibly end the relationship. Twenty three books later in Innocent in Death, Robb introduces one of Roarke’s old girlfriends into the storyline to give Eve an extra emotional complication on top of her homicide investigation. The ex-girlfriend’s presence causes friction between Eve and Roarke and in so doing threatens their, by then well established, relationship. In both cases, the emotional distance between the characters drives our readers forward; they want to make sure that Eve and Roarke end up together.

It is important to note that though all the techniques I have described are different, they all appeal to the readers’ emotional draws. Ultimately, we need to ensure that our readers are always having fun, even when the momentum slows. Lucky for us, writers start their careers as fans of their genre. We know what fun is for the genre and our own enjoyment can serve as a metric for how well we are achieving that goal. Granted, this doesn’t hold true for the twenty seventh edit where you brains are leaking out of your ears. Rather, how much fun are you having in the moment of drafting? How much do you enjoy reading your story after letting it rest for a time? If you as the writer aren’t having fun, chances are that your readers will feel much the same way.

So if you ever find yourself drafting your manuscript and just slogging through a slow section, take a moment to step back and reevaluate. Why aren’t you having fun? Is there something about this scene you can change to make it more appealing? Does this scene really need to be here or in the book at all? You don’t always have the luxury of changing or dropping a scene. Sometimes you just need to power through it and fix the problem in editing. However, writing should be a joy. If you aren’t having a good time, it’s okay to take a step back and find ways to make your story more awesome.

Starting Over Again … Again

Ungrateful God, the second volume of Unwilling Souls, is with my copy editor as we speak. While I’m not quite ready to announce a release date yet, it’s time to start thinking about the next volume. Beginning a new book is an exciting time full of a blank page’s endless possibilities. That being said, I’ve never done the third book in a series before, but before Ungrateful God, I’d never done a second volume in a series before, either. So it’s worth reflecting on some of the lessons I’ve learned when writing sequels. After all, a lot of those blank-page possibilities will lead to a pretty crappy book.

Do a better job outlining: Ungrateful God will be released many months after I’d originally hoped it would. The main driver for this was the substantial content edits my editor handed back. These were very necessary edits from the standpoint that the book was not living up to its potential (it is now, big time!), but they were also very unnecessary from the standpoint that I could have avoided them if I’d done a better job outlining. So that’s the plan for Book 3, a thorough outline followed by a call to my editor to go over the book’s structure and remove any large weak points before I ever put a word down. I’ve already begun this process, and given that Book 3 will be even more complicated than Ungrateful God (itself more complicated than Unwilling Souls), I’m hopeful I can avoid some pain and suffering later by doing this work up front.

Decide what kind of story I’m telling: I don’t mean to imply I’ve got no idea where the story is going. I have rough notions of major plot points for each of the remaining books in the series. But I also don’t want this series to feel too formulaic. Each book, while both standing alone and telling a portion of a larger story, should feel different than the other books in the series (at least, that’s my desire, but every author’s mileage may vary). So while Unwilling Souls was a chase book with a mystery at its core, in Ungrateful God the pure mystery element is much more front and center, leading to an explosive ending. Similar stylistic decisions must be made before the outline for Book 3 can really resonate. I have a good idea what the answer is, but telling would be, well, telling.

Decide how long between books: I don’t mean the time it takes to write the books, though that’s important too (see below). In this case, I mean the in-world time between books. Ungrateful God begins more than a month after Unwilling Souls ends, so quite a lot has changed between the volumes, and the author has to convey that information to the reader in a way that neither confuses nor bores them. Time jumps are a good way to skip straight over stuff that would otherwise bog down the story into parts that are more interesting and relevant to the story at hand. But they aren’t appropriate for every book, and as it turns out, Book 3 will begin right where Ungrateful God leaves off.

Decide how long between books, the other way: Simply put, I wrote the bulk of the first draft of Ungrateful God too damn fast. I’d set myself (and my editor, more importantly) a deadline I was determined to meet, and I burned myself out getting there, another reason the draft needed so much work. I’m still learning the answer to this “how fast can I write consistently?” and I’ve given myself more time for Book 3. It will help avoid unrealistic deadlines and ensure I can turn in a more quality draft to my editor when the time comes. I’d like to be able to put out more than one book a year, but the reality is I work a full-time day job and I’d also like to, you know, see my loved ones on occasion.

Determine if the formula needs shaking up: Above I said I try not to be formulaic. But the truth is that if books in a series bore no resemblance to one another, they would make for a pretty poor series. I decided early on that in order to make the story as epic as I wanted it, I’d have to play around with the viewpoint format from book to book. In Unwilling Souls, Ses Lucani is the lone viewpoint character. In Ungrateful God, Ses remains the primary viewpoint character with the vast majority of chapters, but I add a second, minor viewpoint character as well. In Book 3, I plan to continue that trend, with a second minor POV (for three total), and so on. At the moment, that works for me as a way of expanding the stories I can tell. Harry Potter fans know that JK Rowling occasionally broke with a strictly Harry POV in later books to give us an idea of what was going on in the wider world. One extra POV per book is a nicely pleasing number to me, but I reserve the right to change my pattern should the needs of the story demand it.

All this pre-work is a new experience for me, a dedicated pantser of a writer. But after several attempts at this and taking honest note of the delays the style has cost me, I’m confident the increased productivity (and decreased wait time of my fans that will result) will be worth all that unpleasant change.

About the Author: Gregory D. Littleheadshot

Rocket scientist by day, fantasy and science fiction author by night, Gregory D. Little began his writing career in high school when he and his friend wrote Star Wars fanfic before it was cool, passing a notebook around between (all right, during) classes. His first novel, Unwilling Souls, is available now from ebook retailers and trade paperback through Amazon.com. His short fiction can be found in The Colored Lens, A Game of Horns: A Red Unicorn Anthology, and Dragon Writers: An Anthology. He lives in Virginia with his wife and their yellow lab.

You can reach him at his website (www.gregorydlittle.com), his Twitter handle (@litgreg) or at his Author Page on Facebook.