Tag Archives: plot

Cause and Effect in Outlines

In the past year I reviewed story pitches for a small publishing house. Prospective writers were asked to provide an outline of their story, including protagonists, antagonist/conflict, and a brief summary of the plot.

Most writers were able to adequately describe their heroes and the challenges they would face, often from villains/enemy characters, sometimes from nature, circumstances, or their own old beliefs. But several writers didn’t show cause and effect in their outlines. Often, these were the same writers who ran into trouble while creating their stories.

“My hero is captured by the enemy king and put in prison, but she escapes…somehow.”

“My hero”s sidekick finds out…somehow…that his ex-boyfriend is in trouble and decides to go help him.”

You’re writing away, following your outline, and you’ve successfully gotten your hero thrown into prison…but now you’re stuck, because you don’t know any way to get her out without resorting to cliches (look! a loose brick in the back of the cell!) implausible coincidences (the guards all get the Spotted Pox and are too sick to pursue her) or power creep/god-moding (it’s fine because my hero is tough enough to beat up all 20 guards at once!)

Meanwhile, your hero’s sidekick is riding to his ex’s rescue, leaving your readers wondering why anyone would put their entire lives on hold to go haring off after a former lover, or how he even knew his ex was in trouble to start with. You’ll explain it later (like, perhaps, when your editor points it out?)

Getting stuck during the writing process, and weak spots in the story, can be avoided if cause and effect are worked into the outline.

“My hero’s sidekick finds out from his ex’s sister, a prison guard at the king’s palace, that his ex has signed on to a dangerous scouting mission. She begs the sidekick to go with him and keep him safe. He agrees, on one condition: his friend (our hero) has been thrown into the king’s dungeon for speaking out against government corruption. If the sister helps him break our hero out of prison, both of them will go to assist her brother.”

In summary, knowing what happens is only half of what you need….you also need to know why and how it happens. If you’ve pre-planned why and how, you’re less likely to get stuck during the writing process. You’re also less likely to feel tempted to resort to cliches, coincidences, and over-powering your characters just to keep the story moving forward. And your manuscript will have a lot fewer weak spots, where a character seems to psychically know some crucial bit of knowledge, or a glitching machine will suddenly start working properly again, or some other event occurs “because the author needed it to” rather than because of any in-story chain of cause and effect.

Fill your outlines with why and how. Show cause and effect–how one event leads into another. You’ll have an easier time writing and end up with a more satisfying story at the end.

 

And Now for Something Completely Different

When it comes to giving advice regarding plot structure, I have found that most everyone seems to focus on the time from the beginning of the book to the climax. In a way, I completely understand. After all, that’s where the majority of your story happens. However, I find that some people seem to forget that after the climax the story must come to a graceful ending, and that this resolution is as essential to the story as any other part. You’ve made the characters struggle and suffer for their triumph, so they deserve a little time off right?

The denouement is more than just sympathy for a cast you’ve spent years torturing. It’s a matter of practicality. The climax of a story is supposed to be the defining challenge of the protagonists’ life and potentially for the entire world they live in. It doesn’t matter if the story takes a single volume or a twenty part series to tell, once the climax is resolved, the story is done. Young authors need to learn to let go even when, or perhaps especially when, you don’t want to.

I really admire a storyteller who knows when to take their bows and move on to the next work. After all, we are writers people! We are not limited to a single story. Sometimes the best endings for an old story is the beginning of a new one. The more one writes, the better the stories get. Often it is best for our career to work on something else for a while and then return to an old project when the time is right.

Over the past couple years, I’ve been pursuing a deal in traditional publishing. For the first time, I’ve had a story that I knew was good, and that friends who I trust to be honest with me say is near publishable. I’ve devoted all my time and attention to this single story. Not just drafting and editing, but also networking and promoting myself in an attempt to secure a traditional publishing contract. I’ve been obsessed with the idea, and in my attachment forgot to move on.Don’t get me wrong, the story’s not dead to me. I still believe in its potential and will continue to shop it until I find a good home for it. Publishing takes a long time. With eight months to a year between submitting the story and hearing back, I just can’t afford to wait for it anymore. It’s like trying to fish with only one line in the water. You might eventually catch something, but you may be waiting a while for that first bite.

So, in 2016 I’m going to work on something completely different. Up until now I’ve written fantasy, both the sword & sorcery and urban varieties. In order to force myself to grow as a writer, I am trying my hand at a bit of science fiction. So far, it’s been a fun ride and has forced me to rethink many of the assumptions and tropes I had grown used to relying on. Even better, once I finish drafting and polishing this new manuscript, I’ll be able to cast a second line into the pool. Then I’ll start again. And again. Eventually, I’ll get a bite.

Lee Child vs The Boring

I’m not a big fan of first person fiction despite ascertains that it gives me the most internal and personal perspective. Mostly, I don’t find that to be true. I don’t care for first person point of view because I find myself so conscious of it that I am pulled out of and distanced from the story instead. Lee Child writes his Jack Reacher novels in both first and third person, yet even when he writes in first, I hardly notice. For me that is gold. If I can get to page three and forget the story is being told in first person, I’ll read the book. If not, I’ll give up on it. It’s very few authors who pass this test.

When I read a Jack Reacher novel I am immediately in it. I am inside Reacher’s head and understanding why he does everything he does, no matter the point of view. I am along for the ride and embracing his ethics which are not particularly the norm. That’s huge. That’s the real deal for me. If Lee Child can put me so far into Reacher’s mentality as well as the moment and empathy of the story that I am with Reacher for every action – every violent action, then that’s great writing to my mind.

I love the precision of his staccato-like dialogue. I love the imagery he shows me. I love the detail of weapons, trajectories, behaviors, thoughts, etc… that he explains to me. I love the way Reacher puts himself into the heads of others to reason out what they are doing and why. I would be hard pressed to find something I didn’t find great in any of his books. As a writer, I find so much I want to emulate in my own writing. I believe good/great writing comes from avid reading of good/great books. Lee Child and the Reacher novels are that for me.

On the other hand, there are books I find so bad. Boring. Frustrating. Bad.

I shan’t name names because this example is by a ‘legendary’ writer. It was a science fiction and truly I could not tell you what that book was about. My best friend played a guilt card to make me read it because it was “one of the best” for her. So, I read it. Every boring, pointless page (mostly – I admit I started skimming towards the end because I really couldn’t take it any more).

Why was it so bad for me? There were several factors and they apply to all writing I find bad, but generally they aren’t all in one book so predominantly. First, if there was a plot, I’m sure I don’t know what it was. That’s pretty sad when the meandering prose loses me to the point that I have no clue what the author’s point might have been. As a writer, I wondered throughout why did he write this? What story is he trying to tell? Why am I reading this? Why am I bored out of my gourd? Because there was nothing to latch on to. No inciting incident that changed things and got me curious. No beginning, middle, end. No purpose that I could find. It was sci-fi. Genre writing. I really thought it should have a plot. Plots are a good thing.

Second, there weren’t any characters I could root for or invest in. I don’t remember liking any of them or disliking them either. I was completely ambivalent about them, their lives, their problems. Nothing. Nada. Had no connection whatsoever. If I don’t have at least one character I can despise or love or care about or finding interesting, then how am I supposed to relate to the story (presupposing there is a story)? How am I supposed to connect? I don’t necessarily need to love the main character, but I do need to have some reaction besides indifference. And if not the main character, then give me a secondary character to feel something about. Anything. Antipathy for every character is bad, bad, bad.

Third – and this was specifically my friend’s reason for loving the book – the author just went on and on and on about the weather, a sunrise, the sea, the landscape, the main character’s memories of the weather, a sunrise, the sea, the landscape… blah, blah, blah. It was chapter long meanders of description that served no point that I could see except for the author to wax poetic (and not in a good way). Every other chapter seemed to be one of these strange unrelated rambles that had little or nothing to do with anything. I have no problem with loads of description and detail if, and this is a big if, it serves a purpose other than the author’s ego and romance with his own words. Lee Child gives a lot of description yet every word feels necessary and keeps me attentive.

I wish all writing could take me where Lee Child’s writing takes me and I desperately hope that I can achieve a similar quality and depth in my writing. I use the other book as a reminder of what not to do.

Getting Stuck in the Big Swampy Middle

It was breathtaking and I couldn’t stop reading it!

That’s the experience every reader wants and those are the words every writer wishes to hear. The adage that if your character is sleeping, so is your reader is all too true. So if your novel is stuck in the big swampy middle, so will your reader be and he may not have the fortitude to move on. So, how does one gracefully dance across the swamp without getting stuck? There are many books written on the topic but here are three things I’ve learned:

 

1) you have permission to make things difficult for your protagonist.

When a fellow writer made me aware that it was my duty to make things difficult for my protagonist – that I was supposed to be mean – writing got a whole lot easier and the middle became so much more fun! Disasters, unexpected problems, the fatal character flaw, the goal he so desperately wants is within reach yet is maddeningly elusive, twists and turns, the mentor dies, red herrings … the list of trouble goes on.

Through the middle, there will be many mini-problems which escalate into bigger ones and culminate into the BIG middle disaster. The BIG middle disaster is the lynch pin of a problem that propels the protagonist into the third act where he rises to the challenge in the smashing climax. This disaster can happen anywhere from the mid-point to the end of the middle.

Most importantly, the protagonist complicates the situation, makes it more complex, worsens it and raises the stakes. How can your protagonist worsen the situation? By having a fatal flaw that he must overcome in order to achieve his goal such as shyness, insecurity, impulsiveness, greed, play-by-the-rules, or risk taker. Sometimes the character may experience success but that can have unintended consequences such as: the antagonist’s reaction; there’s a worse problem he wasn’t aware of; or a secondary character has a bad reaction to the achievement.

2) plan your BIG middle disaster and work toward it

The plan doesn’t have to be overly detailed. Even if you’re a pantster, it helps to know where the BIG middle disaster will occur and what it will be. This will keep you from being derailed, from writing scenes that don’t support the story goals and the final conflict. There’s still lots of room for pantster creativity in getting to the BIG middle disaster and moving beyond to the climax.

As you’re working toward the BIG middle disaster, as you’re ramping up the tension by increasing emotional, physical and psychological conflict, as your characters reactions and actions are met with resounding consequences and reactions, keep in mind the story telling technique you’re using. For example, is this primarily an action oriented, plot driven story? Are you using a mini-arc, a smaller story within a larger one which although connected, serves to reveal information about the characters? Are you following a sub-plot? Is there a new character to add an unexpected dimension to the tale? It’s too easy to get derailed and fall into the swamp if you’re not clear about which technique you’re using.

And it can never be overstated: increase conflict to increase tension to keep readers wanting to know what’ll happen next. For every event, there is a reaction with resounding consequences and more reactions and actions. This will make writing the story exciting for you and a white-knuckle read.

3) focus on the prize

You’ve got your beginning with the story problem clear in your mind. Your protagonist has faced an opening disaster that commits him to solving the problem. You know the prize, the novel’s ending. Now, you must focus on that prize with your protagonist to get him to the ending. At this point, it doesn’t matter if he succeeds and this is a happy ending, or if he fails and this is an unhappy ending or if this is a bittersweet ending with mixed results. What matters is keeping an eye on the goal, working toward the climax by making sure all events -setbacks, triumphs, actions and reactions – somehow contribute to the end result.

Subplots, side trips that reveal character only count if that incident or revelation shows us something significant about the character in relation to the story goal. Saving a cat may be important if it shows a compassionate, compulsive need to act which gets him into trouble later on. For example, it’s a laudable trait to get the cat out of the tree because grandma’s upset and her blood pressure is rising. But, when escaping from the bad guys, he stops running across rooftops because he sees a half starved cat that’s too scared to jump and the six year old kid is on the ground crying. You can imagine how his compassion may get him into more trouble. The rule is that everything you reveal or use must contribute to your character working toward the prize.

The middle is really the fun part of writing the novel. It’s where you can explore your character, exploit his weaknesses and strengths, and keep ramping up the excitement. There are times when I stop writing and ask my character: What do you see? or Oh, oh, what are you going to do now? Your character will answer those questions for you and stay true to the story goal if you’ve done your homework in your character profile, and if you keep your focus on the prize.

 

For me, the middle is an incredible adventure where the protagonist and I journey through murder, mayhem and have the time of our lives!

What works for you?