Category Archives: Plot Structure

An Infinity of Choices

Let’s engage in a little mental exercise, shall we? At its heart, a story is nothing more than a series of choices made by the author. The author begins a story with a blank page, which is to say, an infinite number of possible choices. They can choose to write about literally anything. Nothing constrains them but the limits of imagination.

Then they make a choice. They decide to tell a mystery story, or a fantasy story, or some combination of two of those. Or maybe they don’t make this choice. Maybe their first choice is about their main characters: a shepherd who has been selected to save the world, a rag-tag band of space mercenaries who can’t help but find themselves smack dab in the center of pivotal events in the solar system, the teenage daughter of a terrorist and a business magnate and who is in training to be a jailer of the gods, or the son of an alcoholic caretaker of a hotel closed for the winter forced to confront demons of all sorts.

The point is that as soon as that choice is made, many more possibilities vanish. Your main characters will probably not be both loveable space mercenaries and shepherds destined to save the world (I say probably because with sufficient thought and creativity applied to that problem, you could pull it off). By making that first choice and selecting a path, you are foregoing many other paths the story could take.

This can be tough as a writer, particularly a new one. Your tendency is to want to cram every cool concept and idea into whatever story you happen to be working on. That’s a mistake and can result in a story being overbloated, but an equally risky move is to try to have your story be too many types of stories, and to cover too many story possibilities, at once. It’s tricky enough to manage your enthusiasm for the length of a single book.

Then your story becomes a series, and the problems compound. Unless you (or your publisher) are inhumanly patient enough (as I see it) to hold off on releasing your series until all entries are done, you’re going to have earlier entries out there while you are still writing later entries. There’s going to be something in those earlier entries that you wish you hadn’t included upon hindsight, because it complicates a later entry by introducing a potential for a plot hole when held up against later decisions you want to make, or it just creates a dangling plot thread you wind up not wanting to address. And guess what? Unless that little issue is absurdly minor (in which case, is it really worth fixing?) you aren’t going to be fixing it. It’s out there, part of your story’s canon.

So the more you can plan ahead, especially the major stuff, the happier an author you will be. But unless your story is so heavily outlined that nothing is left to chance, there will be something you look back on and think “well, I really wish I hadn’t written that.” Don’t beat yourself up too much about it. It’s an opportunity to actually improve your story, after all!

What do I mean by that? Well, those of us who read a lot (and if you want to write fiction, you’d better be among that number) have an unconscious tendency to jump to familiar story beats when trying to plot a story out. If something in a previous volume in your series prevents you from doing this, that’s actually a good thing. Familiar story beats can be good. They are familiar for a reason, after all. But string too many of them together and you wind up with a clichéd, predictable tale. Instead, use this self-imposed obstacle as a goad to think of an unorthodox means around it. Put that creativity to work! Your story will often end up even more interesting for it.

And remember at the beginning of this blog when I talked about closing off choices? Well, here’s an area where writing a series can help. If Book 1 is a chase book, it probably also shouldn’t be a slow-burn mystery, or a heist, or a war book. But Book 2 could be one of those things. And Book 3 could be another.

Most importantly, don’t let either the infinity of choices or the inevitability of having them taken away from you impact your writing. Each story starts afresh, with limitless possibility of where it can go. And each story results in the inevitable consequence of all the decisions you make along the way.

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 novels Unwilling Souls and Ungrateful God are 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, Dragon Writers: An Anthology, and the upcoming Undercurrents: An Anthology of What Lies Beneath. He lives 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.

 

When Your System Isn’t Enough

A few months ago I wrote about how I outline my novels. If you missed it you can find it here. I’ve used this process for multiple novels and it has yet to let me down. Well, as I worked on the second book on my series I realized that there is one thing that this format doesn’t allow for: seeing the big picture.

Normally I’m only working on one novel and only one novel so it’s pretty easy to keep the big picture in my mind as I work. But I realized that with this series I’m not writing just one book. (I know. I’m a genius.) I was having problems figuring out how to pace the character arcs throughout the series. How far was too far? I can’t let them progress too quickly. That doesn’t make for a satisfying ending. But if I go to slowly I have to rush it and that’s not satisfying to the reader either.

The obvious solution is to outline the rest of the series. While that would work it wasn’t something I can do. I know my subconscious. If I outlined every book my pesky subconscious would come up with something awesome that would change the course of the rest of the series. I’m not going to go to all of that effort if I’m going to have to redo it later. I was really at a loss for how to proceed. So I sat down with one of my awesome mentors and talked it over with them (Thanks, Diana!). At her suggestion I wrote out what I knew had to happen for each of the remaining books — and I do mean everything. Plot, twists, and character development. Okay, I know some of you are thinking, why did I plot out the books when I didn’t want to do that. Well, I didn’t. I plotted out the pieces that I knew had to happen to bring about my desired ending. For some of them I only have five notes but it was something and in the end it helped.

(Yes, Sergeant Schlock is shooting Sailor Moon.)

In order to better visualize what I had I used 3X5 cards in different colors. Each POV character got their own color card. What you see above is the outline cards for book two. I wrote on each card what that character accomplished in that particular chapter — whether it was plot related or a personal development or both. Once I had everything that I knew in front of me it was pretty easy to put events in order and figure out what books those events needed to happen in. When my subconscious surprises me, and I have no doubt that it will, I’ll just add new cards to reflect those changes in the later books and put them in their place.

I’m very much a creature of habit. Especially where my writing is concerned but sometimes new challenges can get me out of that rut, and bring new, helpful techniques into my life. I never thought of myself as a visual person but at least in this I seem to be. If you find yourself in a similar situation and the difficulties seem too much, try a different approach. Maybe the new angle or process will make the solution clear.

When You Realize That Your Sequence of Novels Doesn’t Make Sense

Writing a Series: When You Realize That Your Sequence of Novels Doesn’t Make Sense.

A guest post by Nathan Dodge

Those that know me from the Superstars seminars know that I signed a contract for Shadow Warriors, the first novel of a YA SF series at this year’s SSWS. In brief, the series is a sequence of five novels about teenagers that are kidnapped and forced to train as the crew of a starfighter to fight in a galactic war.

I wrote all five novels in an 18-month period. That might not sound very smart, having sold none of them, but I went into a writing frenzy and they all rolled out—about 450,000 words in all. And now, finally, one is sold, with the prospect of perhaps selling more.

Like everyone else writing a novel series, I ran into “series problems,” the blips that come up for any writer of a series as the writing progresses. Example: continuity. It’s darned hard to remember all the stuff you’ve put down over time, especially about the time you get into the middle of novel 4. How many times have you started to edit something in the new book of your series and thought: Wait a minute—I said something about this situation (or character, or background element) in Book 2. Is it consistent? And sometimes it isn’t, and you have to sharpen the old red pencil, metaphorically speaking, and reconcile the two passages. And yes, I kept a “facts” diary, but you still forget.

However, that isn’t the problem that had me buffaloed as I finished Book 2 of the Shadow Warriors series. It had very nice starring roles for several of my main characters, a couple of independent parallel plots, and the usual 1/3-point and 2/3-point crises. However, as I began to reread and seriously edit, a problem slapped me in the face: The book didn’t read like Book 2. It read more like Book 3!

What was wrong? Mainly, I decided after some analysis, the characters had matured too quickly. They were already advancing in command positions, and they were becoming too important in the overall command scheme of their navy.

I had let a little of that happen at the end of Book 1. The top male character had become a unit commander after only one major battle (sort of a “battlefield promotion”), essentially in charge of not only his crew but nine more fighter crews. In addition, the two main female characters had demonstrated excellent planning and strategic abilities, so that they were assigned part-time to their Carrier commander to assist in battle planning.

Which was okay—my crew was still a group of base-level fighters, with some modest responsibilities above and beyond that of a fighting crew. That led to my realizing the problem: they had to prove they had earned the new positions by performing in them before they were again promoted in Book 3. That is, they had to gain more experience (and also more success), demonstrating that they had earned the right to advance further in their military careers.

But that hadn’t happened. What was needed was a Book 2, in which my daring young warriors proceed to act in their new roles and prove to their commanders and the Alliance at large that they deserved more command responsibility.

So editing Book 3 (formerly Book 2) was put on hold while I returned to the end of my first epic and designed another plot to allow my young charges to earn their stripes. Or, since they were all young officers (as in the US Air Force), to earn their officer ratings. Of course, that meant a new plot that would mesh with the already-established Book 3 events, but that would also stand on its own as an interesting story line.

In addition to a main, galactic-war-related plot, all the Shadow Warrior books have a secondary, more personal plot. That presented a challenge in Book 2 until I considered: in Book 1, a relatively small Shadow Warrior force had defeated an enemy of fifty times as many warships. What if the upper hierarchy of naval command, far from the battle on their home planet, didn’t understand the unique strategy that had allowed victory, even at the cost of half its ships? What if they recalled the carrier commander in charge—the one whose faith in my crew had led to the victory—and court marshalled this commander before a military tribunal for her “excessive losses?” Not only would the crew be facing a new enemy threat, but they would also have to testify in an alien court to save their commander.

All this required not only lots of new plotting, but a great deal of rereading of the former Book 2 (now Book 3) and its “facts” log to be sure that details in my new story didn’t contradict the events of the following story. At the start, I mentally groaned and moaned a lot, trying to find excuses to ditch the new volume. But I stuck to it—and about three months later, I had finished the new Book 2. Further, my revisions to Book 3 were minimized, with careful, regular back-and-forth comparisons and reading, so that in fact I did not have to rewrite the third book to any great extent. In only about a month or so more than it took to complete Book 3, the new Book 2 was done and Book 3 altered as required. Problem solved.

In retrospect, I can identify three “take aways” from my experience. First, in a series about the same character or group of characters, they need to constantly mature and evolve—but that maturation/evolution must seem reasonable and natural. Second, careful plotting and story line management can assure that if you do have to change or rearrange your sequence of novels, the transition can be as painless as possible while bringing the maturation of your characters back into balance.

Finally, this exercise brought home to me rather graphically that when you deal with a set of characters over an extended series of volumes, since these characters constantly evolve, you must deal in each new volume with what is essentially a new set of characters.

Because the “old characters” are growing, maturing, and acquiring new abilities and capacities, you must constantly expand the texture and nature of their personalities and individualities. In my case, for example, the battle-hardened seventeen-year-old veterans of Book 3 were absolutely nothing like the timid, just-kidnapped sixteen-year olds of Book 1.

If your characters aren’t constantly becoming new versions of themselves, your reader will more than likely lose interest, as the characters can quickly become flat, featureless, and boring. It can be a hassle to pay attention to the maturity level and complexity of your characters, to help them grow, and to make them continually more well-rounded and interesting, but in my opinion, the result is worth the trouble!

 

 

With BSEE (SMU) and MSEE and PHDEE degrees (The University of Texas at Austin), Nathan Dodge was an engineer and engineering manager before joining the University of Texas at Dallas. After 16 years, he retired in 2014, although he still teaches half-time. He won several teaching awards at UTD.

Nathan began writing seriously in 2012 and has attended seven Superstars Writing Seminars. He has a story in the Purple Unicorn Anthology with daughter Sharon, a short story sale to Mike Resnick’s Galaxy’s Edge, and recently sold the first book of a young adult science fiction series to WordFire Press. He and Sharon will soon release an anthology of SF stories, To the Stars.

In his spare time, of which there is surprisingly little, he loves weight lifting, hiking in Colorado, and solving crossword puzzles with wife Faye Lynn.

Screen Play Elements (Story) – Part 2

In my previous post Screen Play Elements – Part 1, I talked about the importance of the Three Act Structure. In this post, I’ll talk about STORY, what it means and how it’s used in the Three Act Structure. I’ll cover what makes Act One important, how Act Two is used to tell story, and Act Three’s role in ending the story.

ACT 1 – The Beginning
The first few moments during the beginning of the movie are critical to get right. The first moments establish viewer expectations wherein the writer is making a promise to tell a specific type of story. The genre, crime, comedy, drama, thriller, horror, fantasy or science fiction, must to be established up front. You can’t promise a comedy and somewhere in the script change it into a drama. Those first moments signal what type of story to expect and viewers will expect the conventions of that genre to be followed. For example, magic is acceptable in fantasy but not as a device to solve a crime in a modern setting (unless of course it’s urban fantasy).

If it’s an action story, start with action. If it’s a comedy, start with something comedic and light (including the music), if it’s a horror, start with something dark and horrible and scary. Establish the world your story takes place in. The beginning moments set tone, style and mood. Once we know what type of story to expect, the rest of Act One sets up the CENTRAL conflict and what motivates the protagonist to move forward into Act 2.

Remember the dreaded info dump that we’re told not to do at the beginning of a story? You know, explaining the world, explaining who the character is, what his or her issues are and what their favorite ice cream is? Same thing with the screen. In screen writing class, I learned a cool trick to approaching a beginning without info dumping. The trick is this:

MAKE THE AUDIENCE COME AND ASK YOU QUESTIONS

It’s that simple. Show the world, build the mood, put the protagonist into a situation or onto a course of action or set them in their regular routine but add something out of the ordinary to signal that there is a problem or to show a juxtaposition which makes us wonder WHY or WHAT IS HAPPENING? Even with an action or thriller, the first scenes may be unrelated to the central conflict, but they show action, attitude, and we are left wondering what the hero’s next dilemma will be.

Info dumping or shoveling information makes an author or screen writer look desperate – as if we’re trying to convince people to stay. It appears as if we’re desperately trying to show how much effort we’ve put into our special world and how much thought we’ve put into the character. It’s not about us. It’s about the story. STORY is what convinces viewers and readers to stay. Story is the hook. Info dumps are a NEEDY opening because it TELLS rather than shows. A CONFIDENT opening SHOWS without revealing everything. It makes us want more. Humans are curious by nature. We want to know what will happen next. If everything is explained up front, there is no reason to keep watching.

James Bond movies illustrate this point well. The opening scenes of a James Bond thriller have him involved in an action scene where the stakes are high and he’s outsmarting the villain. We don’t know the story behind this – this opening scene is there to captivate and intrigue us while setting the expectation for the type of movie we’ll see. In the next scene, James is getting his next assignment. Even then, we don’t get much information. The information we need to understand the villain and the dire situation, is meted out through the story. As James learns, so do we.

ACT 2 – The Middle
Act One establishes the plot – the genre, the world, the theme, the protagonist, the problem and the inciting incident. Unlike Act One, Act Two starts with us knowing the theme, the story and the problem. It has a clear mission for the plot.

This means that Act Two explores the ideas established in Act One. The exploration of these ideas is theme. Theme can be as simple as good versus evil, if that’s what your script is about. It can be about how people deal with death, if it’s drama. It can be about sacrifice for true love if it’s a love story. Whatever it is, understanding theme creates conflict and helps throw those proverbial rocks at the protagonist.

And throw those rocks we must, for that is how theme is explored and how action retains its momentum. The rocks get bigger, the hero is thrown into more dire situations and the issues surrounding theme become more evident. Half way through Act Two, there is the midpoint. At this midpoint, there is the AHA moment when something clicks or coalesces for our protagonist. The unsolvable problem has a solution. The protagonist beaten and thus far defeated by the villain, finds a way to beat the villain, or if inner resolve or confidence is lacking, the confidence begins to shine. The tables have turned and the protagonist finds a way to stop those rocks from being thrown. The protagonist becomes more active in his fate than merely reactive. The protagonist makes a CHOICE and that choice moves us toward Act Three and the final outcome. However, that doesn’t mean that there are no rocks left to throw because that is where the story would end and we would be missing Act Three.

The midpoint turn is structurally the fulcrum of the entire movie – the moment where the story stops being what it was at the beginning and starts becoming what it will be at the end. It is where chaos finally has a chance to become order and lack of control can become control.

But what is STORY?

Story deals with the issues which make a character sympathetic and they hook the reader into the character’s struggles. Story tells us why those rocks hurt so much. Story forms the character arc and informs the character’s choices.

Remember when I said to make your audience want more, to come and ask you questions? In Act One, through the opening scenes we get a hint of personality, a hint of background we don’t know but are curious enough to stay with the show. We know the character is somehow broken but we don’t understand why or how. In the second Act we learn more, bit by bit although we may not yet fully understand. Act Two reveals the past, the inner conflict, and explores the fear or issue the character is in denial of. Fears explore theme, inform the character arc, and make those rocks hurt even more. The elements of theme, character background, and character arc are designed to emotionally hook viewers. and collectively they are known as STORY.

Act 3-The End
We’ve talked about moving from chaos to order and from lack of control to control. These are the important points of plot and they will be wrapped up in Act Three. The villain is caught, the murder solved, the world is saved from the evil wizard. Solve the plot issues and you’ve got a good movie. Right?

Wrong.

Story, the part which forms theme and forms the character arc and the inner conflict the protagonist suffers from, must be wrapped up satisfactorily in Act Three.

 

Here’s an example to illustrate what I mean:

#1 – A plot is completed in Act Three
The boy lost his dog. (Act One). The boy searched for the dog. (Act Two). The boy found the dog. (Act Three).

#2 – Plot and story (theme and character arc) are both resolved in Act Three
Tommy is having a hard time because his mother is dying. When his dog Sam goes missing, he chooses to look for Sam rather than spending time with his mother. (Act One) On his journey, Sam feels guilty for not being with his mom but he also wants to find his dog. He gets into situations and meets people who give him a differnt perspective on life. (Act Two)

The plot arc here is the hero’s journey during which Tommy enters the world of the unfamiliar and returns to the familiar a changed person. Tommy’s character arc must take him from denial to acceptance of death. Dealing with the death of someone you love is the theme. Here, story is about Tommy’s inner conflict of dealing with his mother’s impending death, the things he experiences and the lessons he learns about life as he searches for his dog and perhaps there may be some physical danger.

How do we wrap up this story in Act Three which wraps up both plot and story??
Tommy returns home. (He’s a kid and the hero’s journey dictates he return home.)

Perhaps the dog Sam doesn’t exist but is a metaphor for the loss Tommy is about to experience. So, Tommy never finds Sam, has to deal with that reality and he returns home and is more comfortable about being with his dying mother. OR, Sam is real, and Tommy finds Sam and has hope his mother will get better. If that hope is not realized you have a character who has to face a painful reality. OR, Tommy does or doesn’t find Sam and he returns home and learns his mother has died. That’s a huge tragedy and I’m bawling my eyes out! How Tommy handles the situation upon his return will illustrate how he has changed.

See the difference in examples #1 and #2? That’s the difference between a satisfying script creating a satisfying movie. That satisfaction comes from completing Tommy’s emotional journey and his character arc. We in turn feel either happy or sad depending on the final outcome.

A great ending must also be both surprising and inevitable. The clues must be there for the viewer to feel the conclusion is logical. At the end the audience must feel they had the ability to solve the ending all along. For example, while Tommy is looking for Sam, he tells someone that Sam is the best, loyal dog in the world, or he wishes he was. If in the end we learn that Sam isn’t real, it’s a surprise but also inevitable because we were given the clue that Sam isn’t real.

Screen writing and the movie industry have some very valuable lessons for writers on using the Three Act Structure to tell a story. Here are my three take-aways:

Act One is best used to make the audience ask questions and want more;

Act Two is where theme, inner conflict and character arc make rocks hurt a lot; and

Act Three is where the story ends in both a surprising and inevitable way, and a satisfying ending is created when both plot and story are resolved.

Whether writing a acreen play or a novel, the Three Act Structure is a great tool to help us tell our stories in a compelling and memorable way.