Category Archives: Plotter’s Guide

Critical Elements of a Story

I think it’s a common misconception to equate story with plot. Story, however, is much more than what happens between the beginning and the end. Story is the magic you get when you mix ingredients like character and conflict, each in exactly the right proportion. Story is a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Let’s take a look at the critical ingredients of story souffle:

Plot is what happens in the story. It is composed of related events that take the reader from the beginning through the middle to the end. The plot usually begins when something *happens* that poses a story question. The plot ends when that story question is resolved.

A murder mystery most often begins with either a murder or the discovery of a body. The story question is “Who murdered this person and why?” The plot ends when the murderer and his motivation are revealed.

A plot-driven story is one in which external events play a major role in determining the actions of the characters and the direction of the story itself. An earthquake strands a group of people and repeated tremors complicate their escape. A security malfunction frees zoo animals from their cages — with a group of school children locked in the zoo.

Characters are the actors in your story. They make choices that drive the plot and story forward. They act, and they react. They feel, and the readers feel with them. There are protagonists and antagonists, main characters and supporting characters, round characters and flat characters. Each has its place and purpose.

A character-driven story is one in which the characters’ choices and actions determine the plot. In Bridges of Madison County, Francesca chooses to involve herself with Robert Kincaid. She chooses to help him when they meet. She chooses to return there the next day. She chooses to invite him to dinner. And so on. The story is an exploration of her motivations and actions and the emotional consequences of those choices.

It is sometimes said that genre stories are plot-driven and literary stories are character-driven. It’s not that simple. Although some may be purely one or the other, those are outliers on a continuum. Most stories in all genres are a mix of plot- and character-driven.

Conflict, tension, stakes… This is what keeps people turning the page. Readers do not buy novels to read about happy people living happy, easy lives, getting everything they want. Readers want a perplexing problem and a creative solution.

The idea of conflict is sometimes misinterpreted to mean people fighting and arguing. (That would indeed get tiresome!) Although that is one kind of conflict, conflict and tension in a novel is much more. It is unanswered questions and the feeling of “what happens next” that keeps readers engaged.

Theme is the “universal truth” within your story. Theme is what readers *relate* to. Very few people can relate to a boy who finds out he’s a wizard and goes off to wizard school. But everyone can relate to the themes of feeling out of place and making a place in the world where you fit in. Not everyone has had an affair like Francesca in Bridges of Madison County, but everyone can relate with the desire to, even just for a short time, throw off all of the responsibility in the world and follow your heart.

Theme and the way that theme resonates with readers is a key ingredient in making a story that people remember long after they put the book down.

Genre & Audience
It may seem odd to include genre and audience as key ingredients in a story. However, knowing where your book will be shelved in the bookstore and who will be reading it is critical information for a writer. Nothing could be more frustrating than getting to the stage where you’re looking for an agent or publisher and being told the story is well-written, but they’re just not sure where it fits. The more you identify up front, the less you have to rework on the back end.

In the next series of posts, I’ll delve into each of these critical ingredients in more detail.

Personal update…

This is five members of a group of seven wonderful, talented, brilliant women. The seven of us worked together at Microsoft a decade ago. Though most of us have since moved on to other companies, we still get together several times a year. It’s fairly rare for all seven of us to make it, but that’s not surprising. It’s hard to get seven busy schedules clear all at the same time!

We unofficially call ourselves the “Sushi Girls,” because for years sushi was the meal of choice when we got together. Still is, more often than not. Sometimes we get together at a by-the-plate sushi restaurant, but my favorite meeting spot is at one member’s home.

When we meet at her house, we’re careful to bring food for an army. One time we failed to do that, and we descended on her kitchen like locusts, emptying fridge and pantry. We stripped a chicken carcass to the bone. (No kidding. Her family had no dinner that night.)

She loves to cook or bake for us. In our typical locust-style, we’re too impatient to let things cool properly, so you usually hear a lot of yelps of pain mixed in with the sincere compliments and thanks.

I had a wonderful time at this get-together and anxiously await the next one. Chery wanted us to go roller skating, but that was nixed pretty quickly. I think we’re going bowling. Seven middle-aged women bowling. Seriously — won’t that be awesome?

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Before You Write: Analyze the Competition

This step is most crucial for those who are relatively new to writing and new to writing in a specific genre. Although I would always recommend that a writer keep reading and stay current on what’s being published in his genre, the more “inside and out” you know your genre, the less crucial this step is at the beginning of a new project.

All genres — including literary and mainstream — have certain expectations, from word count to reading level and sentence complexity to reader expectations of plot structure. Someone who can write a great thriller may not be able to write a great romance and likely doesn’t have a clue about writing picture books for toddlers.

1. Go to the bookstore, and select a variety of books in your genre that were published in the last year.

How many? 10-20. If you’re planning to write picture books, go for the full 20. If you want to write fantasy or historical sagas, aim for the lower end.

Ask the people who work at the bookstore for help. They know what was published recently, and they know what’s typical for the genre.

And yes, selecting books published in the last year is important. Styles change. You want to know what agents and publishers are looking for now, not what they were looking for five years ago. If you can find debut authors, that’s even better, because then you’ll know what they’re buying from NEW writers.

2. Read them. Enjoy them.

If you don’t enjoy reading the genre, you sure don’t want to spend a year writing and rewriting it.

3. Google conventions for your chosen genre. (For example, romance almost always follows a fairly tale model and ends with a Happily Ever After.)

Make a list of the conventions, and then compare the list to the books you read. For each convention, figure out the percentage of books that included that convention (i.e., the number of romances that had a Happy Ever After ending).

A high percentage tells you that agents and publishers (and readers) are *expecting* that convention. I understand how you may want to deviate. I understand how the idea of a formula drives you insane. I understand that your idea is so much better than any of the drivel you read. *cough* *glare*

But if you are an unpublished writer who wants to be published through a traditional publisher, then you need to give the agents and publishers what they want. Once you’re an agented, published author, you can push the envelope and bend the genre rules.

4. Figure out the expected word count in your genre.

This is a good list. It’s a hell of a lot easier to work to this word count from the beginning, instead of overwriting and having to cut (or pad) like crazy.

5. Analyze the books you read for word choice, sentence structure, plot structure, theme, etc.

Exactly what analysis you should do will vary according to genre. I listed some suggestions below. Some suggestions will apply to certain genres more than others.

  • Approximate number of words per page (picture books and beginning reader)
  • Specific rhythm to text? Describe. (picture books and beginning reader)
  • Are there techniques such as onomatopoeia or alliteration to make the verbal reading more appealing to youngsters? (picture books and beginning reader)
  • How “advanced” is the vocabulary?
  • Number of main characters / Number of supporting characters
  • POV / Number of POV characters
  • Is there a clear beginning, middle, and end? Is there a climax? (picture books only)
  • Key plot events and when they occur (10% point, halfway point, etc.)
  • Can the book be divided into clear “acts”?
  • Theme / How is theme handled relative to story?
  • Is the story funny or serious or ?

Clearly that’s a LOT of information. The less you know going in, the more important this step is. This step doesn’t write the book for you, but it provides some guidelines specific to your genre. Rule of thumb: the more consistent the books were, the more indicative that is that you should follow that guideline.

In my next post, I’ll give an overview of the critical parts of a story.

Personal update…

This week my husband and I did something I’ve wanted to do for years: We bought a bed for the dogs. You might have noticed that my dogs are large. Sadly, my husband and I aren’t small potatoes. Put us all together and, well, it’s crowded.

The sleigh bed in the picture is a king-sized bed. The new bed is the extra-long twin there to the side of it, between my side of the bed and the wall. I put pillows on it, so it would be more comfy. I put a black comforter on it, so I could pretend I didn’t see the dirt and fur.

The most difficult thing so far, other than putting the bottom sheet on our bed, has been getting in and out of my side of the bed. Particularly when there are dogs on the other bed. I woke up and needed to pee last night and had to just hold it, because all three dogs had penned me in on that side. (I’m really not agile enough to climb over the footboard or to stand up and walk over them or my husband.) But when the dogs sleep there, I have leg room on my side, so it’s a trade off I’m willing to make.

My husband thinks the whole thing is silly. His plan was just to kick the dogs out of the bedroom. I told him he’d be lonely when they and I moved to the guest room. So he capitulated. 🙂

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The Big Idea: What Should I Write?

Probably the most common question non-writers ask writers is “Where do you get your ideas?” The best answer I’ve heard recently is “There’s a store down the street with a 2-for-1 offer right now.”

The truth is, ideas come from anywhere. They’re cheap. A dime a dozen is way overpriced. You can get ideas by reading the paper, watching the news, reading books, and surfing the Internet. You can get ideas from dreams, from friends, from life experience.

The critical thing is that you find an idea you’re passionate about — one that excites you, that keeps you awake, that grabs hold and just won’t let go. THAT is the kind of idea that will hold your interest through the long process of writing a novel.

When I get that idea, I write it down so I don’t forget about it, but I don’t rush to start the story. I’m a plotter, remember. First I hold onto the idea, mull it, savor it. I play “What if?” If I have flashes of insight or interesting ideas, I write those down too. Those ideas may not find their way into the story, but they may be springboards for ideas that do.

I’ll talk more about brainstorming and developing the idea in a later post. Right now I want to focus more on the idea itself and some things you should consider when choosing an idea to develop.

Write what you enjoy reading

Peruse your bookshelves. What do you read? Got a whole bookcase of mysteries? Does fantasy line the shelves from top to bottom? Are your tastes more erudite showing a love of the classics? Maybe YA and middle-grade fiction are still your favorite stories.

Ideas that you’re passionate about AND happen to fall into a genre you love reading should be the first you seriously consider turning into a novel. Why? Because you understand the genre and the readers of it. You know what’s expected — and what isn’t.

If you don’t enjoy reading a particular type of story, don’t try to write it. If your reason for wanting to write in a particular genre is because “All the stories suck, and I could do so much better,” don’t do it. Readers (and agents and publishers) of that genre like the stories, and they will detect your arrogance and lack of connection with them, their genre, and their needs from a football field away.

Target a current genre

Genres and subjects go in and out of favor. For fans of a not-currently-popular genre who can’t find new stories, this is an irritation. For someone who wants to write a novel that he or she plans to traditionally publish, this is an industry reality.

I am *not* suggesting that you jump on the “trend wagon” and write the latest, hottest thing out there. Honestly, by the time you flesh out an idea, write it, go through critiques and revisions, and polish it, the trend will likely be over. Even if it’s not over yet, by the time you find an agent and get the book on shelves, it will definitely be over.

What I am suggesting, however, is that you stick to genres that are active, healthy genres today, because those will be the books that a publisher is more willing to take a chance on. For example, westerns simply aren’t a hot genre right now. So what should you do if you love westerns and have an idea for a western you’re crazy about? Well, if that’s your only idea — or it absolutely won’t let you go — write it! But if you’re wavering between a couple of ideas and the other is in a hot genre, you might want to start with the one in the hot genre. Show your agent and publisher that you can write an incredible story in a different genre, and they just might be willing to take a chance on that western later. (Or westerns might have a resurrgence of popularity!)

Write what you know

This is probably the most misunderstood advice in the writing world. After all, the whole purpose of research is to educate you about something you don’t know! Between research and imagination, writers are able to write convincingly about almost anything.

So why offer this piece of advice? In this case I’m referring specifically to things you know well — things you’re passionate about. (There’s that word again: PASSION.) What are your hobbies? What are you good at? What do you love? Mine those areas for ideas for stories. As an insider, you will have insights into that world that no one else will.

I love animals of all kinds, but especially dogs. So what am I writing a novel about? A dog. What were my screenplays about? Dogs. Will all my writing be about animals? Probably not, but I started writing by focusing on the thing I knew the most about and cared the most about. It meant I could focus on learning my craft with less time needed for research and learning. Was “writing what I know” required? No. But I believe it made the learning curve less steep.

After you get your big idea

Some writers have a tendency to stop reading, particularly in their genre, once they begin writing because they don’t want to be unduly influenced by another author’s style or plot. I think that’s a mistake. I think writers should both read books and watch movies in their chosen genre while they’re writing.

Nothing helps a writer grasp the flow of written language the way reading does. Find out who the “best” writers in your genre are. Read them. Absorb them. In my next post I’ll talk more about how analyzing the competition can give you a leg up.

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Plotters vs. Pantsers

To kick off this new blog, I want to talk about how writers write. If you interviewed 100 writers about their writing process, you’d get 100 different answers, some polar opposites, none wrong. The writing process is as individual as writers themselves.

Some writers start with a character or an idea or a flash of a scene. Just the tiniest spark of inspiration. They start writing, and they let the story unfold as they write. These writers are sometimes caled “pantsers,” because they write by the seat of their pants, following inspiration where it leads them.

Other writers prefer to plan before they begin writing. These “plotters” want at least some idea of a destination and some semblance of a roadmap before striking out into the unknown.

Plotting and pantsing are opposite ends of a continuum. Although a few writers (including me) fall on one extreme end or the other, most writers fall somewhere in the middle. Some do high level outlines but vary from it when inspiration strikes. Some plan a few scenes ahead. Some pour their hearts and souls into deep character backgrounds and then let their characters dictate the story events. Individual writers might even find that what works with one story doesn’t work with the next. Writing is individual to the writer, to the story, to the moment.

I am an extreme plotter. My professional background is in technical writing and instructional design, and my first professional writing was in nonfiction. Through nonfiction I learned how organization could make or break content, how structure determined whether content would be effective.

My first truly creative writing was screenplays. Structure is as critical — and omnipresent — in screenwriting as it is in a sonnet. With screenwriting I learned that structure could be the difference between mediocrity and art. I also had the importance of preplanning drilled into me by my mentor, a man who had made his living as a television writer for many years. It was, he taught, much easier — and faster — to make massive revisions at the outline stage than when you have a finished draft in hand.

And so, those were the lessons I carried with me when I began experimenting with prose fiction. To my delight, I discovered that nearly all of what I learned about story and structure in screenwriting could be successfully applied to novels as well.

I also found that the method I had worked out addressed many of the concerns and pitfalls that seemed to plague other writers. Pacing, character arcs, intertwining of events all falls neatly in line. I decided to share my method with others in hopes that someone else could skip over some of those concerns and pitfalls as well. Do I think my method and ideas are the only way to write a novel? Of course not! Do I think pantsers should abandon their preference and come over to the dark side? Yes! No, I’m kidding. I do think, however, that even die-hard pantsers will find something useful here though, because even pantsers have to deal with structure and organization during the rewrite phase.

Come on. I know it’s scary. Just give it a chance!

Postscript. . .

The blog originally started as a way to keep my friends and family up-to-date on my life and life around our little farm. Since the horses have moved in with their Aunt Leslie, the farm isn’t quite as exciting as it used to be, but I don’t want to abandon my friends and family. So at the end of each post, I will post a photo and a short update.

Pax and River in the snow

Pax and River in the snow

This is Pax (left) and River after the recent snow. River — affectionately called “Little Bit” around here — turned six months old on Christmas Day. As adolescence rears his head, he is turning from saint to holy terror, and we adore every minute of it.

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