Monday, April 27, 2015

It’s All About the Plot – II

Last week I said I’d explain how I go about plotting a story. Let me remind you that this is MY approach, and it may or may not fit your writing style.

My plots usually start with a “what if” idea. For example, the big idea for Blood and Bone came from a news story I was working on about a bone marrow donation program. I thought, “what if” someone needed a transplant and the only possible donor was missing?  My detective Hannibal would have to find the missing person.

So I have an idea of where the plot starts.  Hannibal needs to find a missing person. And I know where it ends.  Hannibal will find the missing person in time and save the day.

Now you may not have noticed, but I just gave you the outline of a story. 

Hannibal is asked to find a missing person =è Hannibal finds him and saves the day.

If I was writing something simpler, say, a fairy tale, the outline might be:

Hansel and Gretel get lost=è Hansel and Gretel get home.

This is the basic outline and from here I just add more and more detail until I’m ready to write. Notice that the story starts when the normal state of things is disturbed, and ends when the normal state is restored.   

The next step is to fill in a slightly more complex diagram:

                          Now what?                                             What now?                       
Problem presented==è much bigger problem appears --à  high speed finish=è hero saves the day.

The “problem presented” section is about a quarter of the book.  It only looks like our hero has a big problem until the second bit.  This is what I call the “now what?” point, at which our protagonist is temporarily at a loss for what to do next. (Goldfinger’s not just smuggling – he plans to rob Fort Knox.) That second bit is around half the book. At the end of that point it what I call the “what now?” point, or better yet, the “we’re doomed!” point, when all appears lost. (The Death Star is moving in and powering up!) Then the hero figures out the solution and it’s a race to the finish.  If you watch Hollywood movies with a stopwatch you’ll see they almost always use this three-act framework. For our familiar example it would look like this:
Hansel & Gretel are lost=è  h & g are captured by a witch ===è  h & g escape & kill witch =è 
h & g get home.

Once I get this far I start looking for the secondary plot. Why? Well, that’s the topic for next week.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

It's All About the Plot

Last week I discussed some of the elements of writing fiction, and today I'll start sharing what I've learned about one of them.

For some writers the most fun part of writing is creating the plot, the actual series of events that take place in the story. The basics seem so simple. A good plot starts with conflict and ends with resolution.  So the first thing you need to know is, what is the central conflict?  What is it that my protagonist wants? And what are the obstacles to him or her getting that thing. For example, in the film Rocky, the title character wants to be a successful boxer. The current champion wants to stop him. That’s where the plot begins.

The plot starts with someone who wants something important, and follows them as they strive to get it. They need to do that striving themselves, and they need to learn something from the effort.  What matters in plot, unlike football, is not whether you win or lose but how your hero plays the game.

In a really good plot, each of the lead character’s successes leads to another failure, and each of the character’s failures is somehow caused by his own flaws. You can see these points in every bible story, every fairy tale, and most classic long poems like, say, the odyssey.

The protagonist is the lead character whose plot we’re following.  The antagonist is the person or force trying to stop our protagonist from getting what he so dearly wants.  it could be Goliath or Goldfinger or Mt Everest if your hero feels the need to climb it. The antagonist – the bad guy – has to offer serious competition, maybe appear from the beginning to be too much for our hero.  And the barriers our hero faces have to be logical and believable.

How does a writer make sure his novel captures all those elements? For me, the only way is to outline the plot before I being writing.

But my outlines are not like the ones they taught me to make in junior high school. I’ll walk you through my style of outlining next week.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

What's It All About?

I’ve been contemplating some of the questions I am often asked at writers’ conferences and clubs. It seems to me, contrary to obvious assumptions, that the simplest questions draw the most complex answers.

For example, there’s “What should I write?” If the person asking is seeing me as a fellow writer, they might really want to know what books are selling right now. If they see me as a publisher, they may really be trying to find out what my company is looking for. Either way I tend to take the questions literally. Therefore I answer the question with a question: “What do you read?” When I get a quick, strong response the rest is easy. If you’re an avid reader of romance or legal thrillers or horror tales, that’s what you should write. Write that book you really want to read. Occasionally someone is honest enough to admit they don’t read much. In which case my answer is: “Don’t write.”

Almost as often I’ll be asked something like, “What’s the most important part of a story?” Among fiction writers, this is sometimes a confusing issue. The person I’m talking with may want my take on whether fiction writing is an art or a craft (of course, it is both, and they are equally important.) Or they may be focused on the so-called elements of fiction. Perhaps they’ve written a character driven novel and are being told that a story is all about the plot. Or they have something to say, a strong theme but their first readers say it’s the dialog that pulls the reader into the story. Or they’ve created a wonderfully complex universe in their speculative fiction story, and a good friend has tried to help them by explaining that world-building isn’t what people want. They need to have a unique voice.

I get it. We all want to assemble the parts and build a sturdy novel or short story, and we want to know what part to focus most on. Sadly, the true answer is to the “most important part” question is: “All of them.” A great story with weak characters is as big a fail as wonderfully developed characters who spout weak dialog. Every one of those elements is vital to a great story. And the worst part is, you can’t even develop them separately. Those elements grow organically, like crystals, and rely on each other to grow strong. The setting helps shape the characters whose actions drive the plot that expresses the theme revealed in the dialog IF the story is being told from the right point of view.

That said, the elements of fiction can be discussed separately, and I’ll try to do some of that in the next few blogs.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

An Anthology Takes Shape

We at Intrigue Publishing are pulling together our first anthology. It is a collection of Young Adult stories aimed at a holiday release. For a title we settled on YOUNG ADVENTURERS: HEROES, EXPLORERS & SWASHBUCKLERS. The subtitle is, “Tales of teens saving the day in the past, the present, the future & on other worlds.”

When we put out the call for submissions I didn’t know what to expect. Similar calls for novels in the genres we publish have raised a lukewarm response. So my first surprise was the 55 submissions we received. Reading our way thru the stack gave us our second surprise, or two. I was frankly stunned at how dismal some of the stories were. Besides the bad writing, some authors totally ignored the submission guidelines. How could you read that title, and subtitle, and send a story with an all adult cast? Or a story in which the teen is endangered but saved by adults? Some writers also ignored the stipulated minimum and maximum lengths, that the stories needed to be in Word, and our chosen fonts.

BUT… I was also blown away with how good some of the stories were. Amazing prose, fabulous character development, strong plots with nice hooks, lots of suspense and satisfying conclusions. We had some tough choices to make and for the sake of length we had to say no thank you to some really good stuff.

Another big surprise was subject matter. I expected westerns and pirate stories. However, we got nothing set farther in the past than the Cold War era. As it turned out, that was fine.

Building an anthology is very different from writing a novel. An anthology has to be shaped. You can’t just throw the stories together randomly. They need to have a flow, a rhythm of sorts. Some stories are faster pace, some more deliberate. Some have male protagonists, some female and some both. Where should that humorous story pop up? Or the one that’s a little scary?

As it happens, the stories shook out nicely. We settled on 18 stories: six set in our familiar world, six science fiction tales, and six set in fantasy worlds. It was easy to group them that way. Our heroes and heroines face thugs, spies, monsters, zombies and a variety of aliens. Protagonists vary from stone serious to sweetly smart-ass. There’s a story that may move readers to tears and one that will make them laugh out loud. But in every case a brave and resourceful teenager saves the day.

There’s lots more work to do, but now that it has taken shape, I can’t wait to introduce this YA anthology to the world.