Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Plot Trick-by Connie Flynn

An 8-Point Plotting Method
by Connie Flynn

So you've got these great characters. He's brutally handsome, she's terminally pretty. The setting is outstanding, a slick trendy nightclub in a major city or a brooding house in the depths of some godforsaken wilderness. The conflict is of the 'she's an arsonist, he's a firefighter' variety. You can't go wrong, except for one thing. What should your characters do. It's called plot. Some people think it's unnecessary. Other people think it is king. Neither side is right. Or wrong.

Plot serves one function – making sure your character changes. Good luck having a good story without characters who learn and grow and strong, connected plot points pressure your character into that growth. So, surrender yourself to learning a few basics. This structure can be as loose or as tight as you want. What it does do is give you a box for your story. So here goes.

A writer can start a book by first developing the characters or by first developing the plot. Either way is a valid entry point to the story. When beginning plotting, however, these following elements must be taken into account.

1. Setting
2. Characters
3. Goals
4. Obstacles to the Goals (conflict)
5. Motivation (reason for trying)

A novel can also contain a theme or moral, but use a light touch. Avoid preaching.

Begin with the story problem (question), which includes:

1. What the character(s) wants to achieve. (goal)
2. What the character stands to gain. (motivation)
3. What stands in the way. (conflict)
4. The consequences of failing. (motivation, i.e., the other side of gain)

Give this area lots of time and attention because when you have this established for all major characters (not just hero and heroine) the rest of the plotting process will more easily fall into place. Now, using the bare bones method, you will plug in brief scene descriptions in the following areas of story change. Complex motivation and intense detail can be filled in later, once you’ve completed this skeleton outline. And, yes, there are nuances for each of the eight steps but we won't be talking about them today.

Bare Bones of Plotting

1. Inciting incident: Sets the tone for the book and defines the story question. It is an action scene that contains a place, a conflict and action that shows the conflict. It also contains setting, at least one of the characters (usually), and ends with readers understand the clear-cut problem the protagonist faces. This is one of the most important scenes in a book and few books get sold without an outstandingly written inciting incidents.

2. Escalating troubles: The character takes steps to overcome the problem, but each attempt makes the situation worse, until he finally tries something that he falsely believes has solved the problem. You can plug in one to three action scenes and one or two summary scenes, depending on the length of the book, The events will include:

A. Point of No Return: The spot where your character is so invested the goal that turning back is a major issue — risking major loss of property, relationships, even of life. Most return options have closed. The character is now stuck with the problem until the end.

B. Small Successes: Or a large and outstanding one that will later be reversed or turn out not to be what it seemed.

3. Resting Point: The character's success let him take a breather. In mysteries and thrillers this is often when characters believe they've caught, killed or identified the villain. In romance, the characters believe they've overcome the obstacles to love. In horror they believe the wicked witch is dead.

4. Major Crisis: But something is held back from some, if not all, characters and very often also from the reader. When this information surfaces, all illusion of success is shattered. The character now realizes the problem hasn’t been solved, and this last crisis convinces him it can’t be. This leads to despair. This is a key point of character change and one of the three most important scenes. Develop it well. It destroys completely whatever success has been achieved and the rules have escalated.

5. The Black Moment: Characters believe that all is lost. This can be a period of story review and high angst and if properly done leaves the reader wondering if the character(s) will ever prevail. This is where the character changes. This is usually more than one scene involving more than one character. While introspection works well here because characterization is at a high, action scenes can add interest and texture and should be worked in whenever possible. The longer you spend here the more character based your story becomes. The faster you go through it the more plot or action driven your story becomes. Neither is better, they're just different.

6. Turnaround: Something occurs that causes the protagonist(s) to see a solution. This must be something that is caused by an external event, not just a result of the character’s thinking process. A new decision is made. The turnaround is caused by some kind of action so this is an action scene. It's intensity can surpass the major crisis, but not the climax. This is the third of the important scenes

7. Climax: The character acts on the decision and either succeeds or fails to achieve the goal. This is the most intense scene of the story but is often not the most important one because it answers questions rather than raises them. Here is action, action, action. This is not the time to stop and complain. This scene must answer the story question. Some loose ends can be delayed but not the major ones.

8. Denoument:: Shows character(s) receiving the appropriate rewards or punishments. Remaining loose ends are also tied up, but many should have already been resolved during the major crisis through climax scenes. Keep it short.

The trick to plotting is creating incidents that demonstrate the ideas you want each step to convey. The incident must include character, goal, motivation (if only implied) and most important, conflict (obstacle to goal). These scenes are considered plot points because the plot will not move without them.

Example: If you've filled in the major crisis like this – Sara loses Jim's love – you've failed to define an action. You need something like this – Angry that Sara failed to tell him her parents didn't approve of their relationship and wouldn't be at the celebration, Jim broke their engagement and walked out on her. Physical details that you can picture in your mind or draw on a storyboard. Specific words like angry, instead of vague ones like lose. This is the key point of plotting. On these major plot points, picture your characters DOING something and then describe that, plug it into the plot point, move on to the next plot point. Once the majors are defined, it's not too hard to figure out how to link them together if you must. Often that isn't even needed as you can use scene and chapter breaks to end one event then establish the next one.


Once you have the basic bones begin filling in more details of characterization, motivation and consequences. Never forget that characters drive the plot through their decisions and actions. Make sure secondary characters have a vital role in the plot. The sidekick whose only job is to give the hero someone to bounce his ideas off is not enough. Give this person another role, perhaps that of unwitting betrayer. If not kill him off or eliminate him.

The inciting incident must be an action scene. Buildings don't have to explode, but a problem very serious to the protagonist(s) must be outlined as an action scene. No backstory allowed.

The escalating troubles must build on one another. The character applies for a dream job. First complication is the bus breaks down and she must reschedule the interview. During the reschedule telephone call, the interviewer makes a racist comment that the character cannot abide. She objects and while the interviewer does reschedule the appointment, the character knows she won't get a fair outcome. What does she do next? Each decision makes things worse until she reaches small successes.

The major crisis must believably derail the character's chance of succeeding. Not only must the character believe this, the reader must believe the character. It's okay for the reader to know that the pot of gold is just over the next rise in the road, but they must be convinced the character doesn't believe that.

The turnaround scene must be triggered by an outside event that gives the character a shift in perspective. The character can’t just look in the mirror, think “I”ve been such a fool,” then make the change. Although this kind of turnaround has been seen in some books, it always makes the reader feel cheated.

Keep in mind, plot equals character and character equals plot. In other words, although the character makes the decisions, you must decide what those decisions will be and how the actions will play out. This is plot. Without it, the characters cannot demonstrate the full depth of their abilities.

So there you go . . . good luck with your story. Let your imagination roam, put together plotting group and brainstorm together. Creativity feeds off itself. Most of all have fun with your writing. It's the best way to write a great book.


Pamela Tracy said...

As always, a wealth of knowledge. Thanks for the tips and the reminders!

rozdennyfox said...

I always learn so much from your full and mini workshops. As Pam said, thanks for the reminders. It always helps to go back over techniques. We love you for being so organized and concise, too.

Laurie Schnebly Campbell said...

I can't wait until next time somebody says "I've always wanted to write a novel but I don't even know where I'd start." All I have to do is point 'em to this blog, and voila -- everything a writer could need, all on one page!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for blogging with us today, Connie. I ditto Roz's post. Whether it's a program or a conversation, your wealth of knowledge is amazing!

Natalie Hatch said...

Thank you I'm in the middle of major plot dilemmas and your post is exactly what I needed to get focused.

Carrie Weaver said...

Wow, Connie, your knowledge always blows me away! I can count on you to put the information in such a way that even the panster in me is eager to tackle that plot. 8-)


Anonymous said...

Hi ladies,

Thanks for stopping by . . . I'm humbled by the praise from so many accomplished writers. Carrie and Natalie, I'm glad I can help. I believe in boxes. If I didn't have boxes to shove loose papers in, heck, they'd be all over the house. I find the same is true of story ideas.

Pam and Roz and Laurie, I'm so glad you found something useful after all your years of writing. I, too, find that the basics should be reviewed now and then.

And, Kim, you're welcome. And if I haven't confessed before, this is my first blog. I hope I did it right. :-) and I hope to do it again.

Carrie Weaver said...

You did great, Connie! 8-)

Anonymous said...

Thank you for dropping by with your sound writing advice. We appreciate having a college instructor giving us advice for free. You are always so generous with your time and knowlege.

Erin Quinn said...

Connie, you do such a great job of summing it up.

Plotting has always been the hardest thing for me and in my first two books I didn't even do it. I'm still not sure how I managed that, but I will tell you it wasn't easy. Knowing the steps and thinking it out makes the whole process so much easier.

I've already printed out your tips so I can refer to them later. Thanks for sharing!