One Writer’s Journey

June 19, 2017

Plot and Subplot: Using One to Strengthen the Other

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:28 am
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Okay, this entire post is going to be littered with plot spoilers so if you haven’t read David Baldacci’s The Fix you may just want to come back later.  Although I normally listen to his work on audiobook, I took the opportunity to read this one and found a novel that uses the subplot to strengthen various points in the plot.

Let the plot spoilers begin!   You were warned.  No, seriously.  I did warn you.

Amos Decker is walking up toward the entrance to FBI headquarters when he sees a man shoot a woman in the back of the head.  Before Decker can reach the man, he shoots himself committing suicide.  From this point to the end of the book Decker and his cohorts are trying to figure out what happened.  Why did this FBI contractor kill a woman he seemingly had no connection to?  Why do it outside FBI headquarters?  Could this man have been a spy, unbeknownst to his wife and daughters?

As they gather information they come up with more and more questions.  Eventually the realize that a family member was in trouble and this gave the bad guys the leverage they needed to turn the contractor into a killer.

But the FBI makes some mistakes as they gather the information.  They make assumptions concerning the roles of men vs the roles of women.  Because of these mistakes, not everything makes sense and it takes them time to fill in the blanks.  But the mistakes that they make in the subplot (how did the bad guys get him involved) are mirrored by the mistakes that they make in the main plot (was there a connection between the murderer and his victim.

Because the same mistakes are made at both levels, it strengthens the themes and the plot points surrounding the assumptions we as a society make regarding gender roles.

Everything is layered and nuanced if you can use your plot and subplot to mirror plot points, errors, and themes.  Try it and see if your story doesn’t feel tighter and more cohesive.

–SueBE

 

May 18, 2017

The Dot Test: Rising Tension

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:35 am
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I’ve been contempleting one of my new manuscripts, working on a rewrite.  This particular picture book has a fun concept and interesting characters.  I say “interesting” because one of them is more interesting than she is sympathetic although she does change and grow.

But in addition to this you also have to have a story arc and part of that arc is rising tension.  One of these easiest ways to test this in a picture book is with the dot test.  I first read bout this test in a post at Adventures in Agenting.

Here is how you test a picture book.

Draw a line across your page.  Make a dot at the left end of the line and label it 1.  That is the level of tension in your first spread – spread because it is a picture book.  Otherwise it would be chapter.

Anywho, read the first spread and then read spread #2.  Is the tension higher?  If so, make another dot to the right and slightly higher than the first.  If the tension is the same, the two dots will be parallel.  If the tension drops, Dot #2 will be lower than Dot #1.

Spread by spread, read through your manuscript and judge each spread compared to the one just before it.

Ideally, your spreads will plot out something like your traditional story arc.  You need to have a climb toward the climax with tension dropping off several times immediately following an attempt by the hero to solve his story problem. A story that continually climbs in tension but never drops off even slightly, may seem tiring and burn the reader out before they finish.  A story that plots out as a horizontal line isn’t climbing towards a climax.

How does my story test out.  It climbs and then holds steady and then climbs again.  Way too much time spent with no climb or drop.  At least I know where to focus my efforts!

–SueBE

 

November 11, 2016

Plotting a Novel with Depth

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:45 am
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Plot WhispererAs I get ready to make a second attempt at plotting out my novel, I’m rereading The Plot Whisperer and The Plot Whisperer Workbook.  I’m not even past chapter 2 and I’ve already found a problem with my earlier attempts at plotting which felt confused and haphazard.  The best books are plotted at three levels — the action, the emotional arc and the theme.  I had all three — sort of.

And, that’s good, sort of.  If an editor tells you that your story feels slight, you probably have all action and no character growth.  Or your theme isn’t well developed.

I wasn’t heading into a slight plot. I was heading into a haphazard plot.  One plot point would be from the action plot.  The next might be from the emotional plot or the thematic plot.  I couldn’t get things moving forward because I had created a tangled mess.

The first step to untangling it is to understand the three plots.

Action plot.  This is the part of the plot that we most often discuss when we say plot.  The character has a goal and these are the steps that are taken to reach it.  If I had plotted the action and neglected everything else, it would have made sense but it would have been slight.  Unfortunately, I created a jumble.

Emotional plot.  I notice this one missing from a lot of adult books.  Your character needs to grow and change.  This might mean that they discover that something they believed at the beginning of the book was a lie.  Or they misunderstood something.  Or they just needed to come to a more mature understanding.  This emotional plot needs to more or less keep pace with the action plot.  I often figure this one out last, right after I figure out the theme.

Thematic plot.  Is your story about family?  Or independence?  Or hope?  Along with the arc that deals with plot and the one that deals with character emotion, you need one for theme as well.

Now that I’m thinking about them as three distinct entities, I can make sure that all three are present in my story.  They will intertwine, but now that I know to keep track of them they (hopefully) won’t again become a tangled mess.

–SueBE

August 30, 2016

How to Add Depth to Your Writing

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:29 am
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depthFor the first time in quite a while, I am once again sending out manuscripts without a contract in hand.  And today was only the beginning. I’ve got another one to submit tomorrow.  And another to go out on Wednesday.  Still another is ready and will go out Thursday.  Deep breath.  Tale a deep breath, Sue.

It doesn’t matter how many sales I have.  If I’m lucky, sending material out like this means that I’ll get a rejection.  If I’m not so lucky, I’ll get feedback with an offer to read it again. How’s that unlucky?  I’m only joking, a little.  Getting feedback of any kind is actually great but it means that I’m running the risk of hearing one of the phrases that I dread.  “You need to add depth.”

I know enough to realize that this doesn’t just mean add to the word count.  Adding another scene isn’t the way to get the job done.

But what does it mean?  For different writers or different stories it can mean different things.

For some writers, your story may be too slight.  Yes, you have a plot.  It is a well-developed plot and your hero has to put out some serious effort to succeed.  That may be enough if you’ve written a picture book, an early reader, or a chapter book.  But novels, both for middle grade and young adult readers, often have subplots.  You may need to add one or more subplots that in some way mirror the main plot.

Sometimes the problem is that the reader needs more insight into your character.  Fixing this problem may be a matter of inner dialogue or making sure that some of the dialogue has not just text but subtext.

Last but not least, what is lacking may center on the setting.  You have details.  You have descriptions but they seem to be incidental to the story itself.  You need to find a to have the setting speak about the character, the story problem or a theme.

If an editor describes your story as slight or asks you to add depth, give the comment some thought.  Read your manuscript again with this comment in mind.  The key is to craft a solution that fits right into your story, seamlessly, as if it has always been there.

–SueBE

February 1, 2016

Gender Norms

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 4:28 am
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gender stereotypesDon’t use stereotypes when you write.  I know you’ve heard that advice but have you ever taken it beyond character?

You know what I mean by character stereotypes.  These are the characters that tend to be cardboard and two dimensional.  The perky cheerleader. The brainy but clutzy computer geek.  The melodramatic drama student. When we use these character types, editors reject our work because it just isn’t original or carefully crafted.

The problem is that we have similar problems when we create plots that contain gender stereotypes.  Not sure what I mean?

Who experience prom woes?  A girl such as Lizzie Bennett in Prom and Prejudice. 

Who seeks vengence after a loved one dies?  Boys or men including The Crow and John Wick.

Who has to hide their gender?  Girls like Ruby and Lord Athen in A Riddle in Ruby. 

Who creates/purchases a robot to date?  A boy such as David in Girl Parts.

Who has adventures with a stuffed animal?  Girls like Trixie in Knuffle Bunny and Amanda in Amanda and her Alligator.

Who wants to play football?  Boys like Mo Jackson in Don’t Throw it to Mo.

I’m not panning these creative efforts but let’s face it.  They’ve been done. You can bet that if we can name two or three books and movies in each category above, then editors have seen hundreds more.  “I know . . . she doesn’t have a stuffed bunny.  It’s a stuffed giraffe. Or what if Trixie never found the bunny?”  Let’s face it, we’ve all written a derivative story or two.

How could we shake these stereotypes up? For prom, you could write a story about a boy who wants to go but his girlfriend is entirely underwelmed by the idea.  Maybe she thinks its a waste of money.  Maybe she refuses to wear a dress and her school has a dress code.

What about a young woman who must avenge the death of her husband/boyfriend?  By some means other than poison which is often seen as a woman’s weapon.

When you start to craft a story, think carefully about your main character?  Is your plot stereotypic for this gender?  If so, what could you do to make your story and character unique?

–SueBE

 

December 28, 2015

Writing Real

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 4:26 am
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don't write downDon’t write down to your reader.  It is a piece of advice that sounds simple but applying it can take many different forms.

Don’t oversimplify vocabulary.  Not every word in a picture book has to be short or simple.  Some could in fact be deliciously complicated. Rich, specific vocabulary makes a manuscript sing.  For example, which word paints a picture? Dog or afghan.  Duplex or house.

Don’t oversimplify characters.  Characters that are overly simple become two-dimensional. Your cheerleader is perky and upbeat.  Your nerd loves role playing games and hates sports.  Protagonists are as pure as pure can be.  They drink their milk, respect their parents and always use proper grammer.  Antagonists are evil with hearts as black as coal. They loathe puppies and kittens and contemplate mischief, mayhem and cruelty at every turn.

But these overly simple characters don’t feel real to your readers.  They are just too simple. A proud hard-working person may also be an egomaniac who never makes time for her friends.  An honest person may be judgemental.  But a bad person, the charcter who smokes and drinks, may also be the character who is prepared to accept the protagonist when she falls from grade.  This character isn’t 100% bad after all.

Don’t oversimplify dialogue.  When you write dialogue, it shouldn’t be like a ping pong match.  Character A speaks.  Character B replies.  Character A speaks.  Character B asks a question.  Instead, have your character say one thing and mean another.  Or Character A might ask a question and although Character B responds, it isn’t actually an answer to the question.  Shake things up.

Situations are also seldom black or white.  Your character may be faced with two bad choices.  There may be no “high road.”

 

Don’t oversimplify plot.  In a simple plot, your character faces good choices and bad choices.  But what if there is no clean cut, good choice.  What if both choices are in some way undesirable?

Don’t write down to your reader.  It’s good advice, but remember to take it beyond simple word choice.

–SueBE

 

December 17, 2015

Plot: Make It Believable

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:36 am
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BelievableIt’s December, that time of year when your mind turns to “maybe next year…”  Sometimes I think of this as fantasy time because, even though 90% of what I write is nonfiction, I start thinking about writing fiction.

I’m not a complete pantser but I don’t completely outline my stories either.  I want to know the inciting incident as well as the three attempts.  I also take a good hard look at my plot to make sure it is believable.

Even fantasy has to be believable.

It seems pretty straight forward and like it wouldn’t be all that hard to pull off but I think what goofs us up is trying to make our plots weighty and significant.  What can our character fight for that is big and meaningful and dramatic?  Yes, those things can be important but so is believability.

You can’t send your character after a ship load of pirates or aliens if it is a fool’s mission.  Okay, you can but only if they believe they have no choice.

That means that if your inciting incident is a body in the woods (hello, teen fiction!), there has to be a damn good reason for your main character to investigate on her own.  The fact that the victim was her best friend . . . that’s probably not good enough.  The fact that the victim was her best friend and she has a big old gap in her memory and thinks that she might have done it?  Now you’re on the right track.

Yes, we all know people who in reality do some pretty dim things.  But if you’re character suddenly drops 15 IQ points just to move the story along, your editor will most likely point it out.

If your character has to be able to pick a lock, but has no manual dexterity, you better come up with another solution.

Believability is a must in well plotted fiction.  It just might take a bit more work to achieve if you are accustomed to writing nonfiction.

–SueBE

 

 

June 9, 2015

Killing Characters

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:42 am
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When can you effectively kill a character?

I readFront Cover a lot — both published books and manuscripts — and I watch a lot of movies.  One of the things that I’ve learned is that if I take the time to off a character, I want it to mean something.  What I don’t want to go is create a Rambo-style bloodbath with a high but pointless body count.

Here are three ways to make a character’s death matter.

Let us get to know the character first.  This is especially meaningful if we love the character.  When Rowling killed off Fred Weasely, I was seriously angry.  Seriously Angry.  Why?  Because the Weasely Twins were by far my favorite characters.  Realistically, someone was going to die in the big battle and Rowling made it count by offing a character we adored.

Let us see the impact that the death has on those left behind.  Not all deaths take place on screen.  You can make an off screen death matter by letting us share the impact on the remaining characters.  This is one way to make it work when the character dies before the story begins.  In Karen Healey’s The Shattering, the reader accompanies Keri as she attempts to find out if her brother was killed or committed suicide.  His death matters to us because it matters to her.

Use it to prompt the actions of other characters. Whether we are discussing Keri in The Shattering or any character hell bent on revenge over the death of a loved one, we have all seen movies or read books where the death of one character pushes the others into action.  My husband informs me that even whales get revenge — in the movie Orca the whale attacked the boat because they killed her baby.

It isn’t that you can’t kill a character but if you are going to do it, make it have impact.  To read more on when to kill a character, check out K.M. Weiland’s post on How to Successfully Kill a Character.

–SueBE

May 6, 2015

Plot: Plot and Pacing working together

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:41 am
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PlotWhen we discuss plot and pacing, most of us think of either the 3 Act Structure or Freytag’s Pyramid.

In Freytag’s Pyramid, the story consists of 5 primary parts:

Exposition:  This is the everyday world.  The reader learns what she needs to know to understand the story.  There is an inciting incident and then …

Rising Action: A series of related incidents; most often the character’s attempts to solve the story problem.

Climax: This is the turning point where the main character’s fate is decided.

Falling Action:  This is where the conflict between the antagonist and protagonist plays out.

Denouement: All is resolved.

In the Three Act Structure, Act 1 is the introduction.  We meet the characters, get to know the world and then BAM something sets the story in motion.

Act 2 takes up about 1/2 of the story.  This is when we watch the character struggle and wonder if he will succeed.  Something happens half way through this act that makes us rethink the whole goal.  Is it worth it?  Will he win?

Act 3 is the remaining 1/4 of the story.  It leads us up to the climax and then the falling action and resolution.

Katherine Jacobs of Roaring Brook Press doesn’t believe you should learn to use one, excluding the other.  She uses both to edit the books on her list because some books better fit one map, some the other.  That said, if you look closely you will see that they seem to overlap.  They are simply two different ways of thinking about how the parts of your story function. I don’t tend to think in Acts so Freytag works best for me.

Jacob explained that you don’t want to stretch your denouement out too long or it will drag.  This means that you don’t want to wrap up every single loose end in the story.  Instead, tie up the main plot and the main subplot.  Your reader will assume that the rest works itself out.

Whether you are writing a novel or picture books, plot and pacing are necessary to keep the story moving and your reader engaged. Which model do you prefer?

–SueBE

 

March 4, 2015

Rising Tension

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:10 am
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Dot TestStart your story with a bang.  That’s the advice that we are given and it makes a certain kind of sense.  Start your story with a bang and you are sure to hook your reader.

The problem comes when you have to follow that opening scene with scene 2.  The tension in your story is supposed to build.  How do you follow that bang with something even bigger?  If the bang at the beginning sets your story in motion, it can work because your character now has a goal and is struggling toward it.  As she tries and fails and tries and fails, the tension increases.

But it isn’t enough to simply have more and more tension.  In scene 1, the family hurries to load their car.  The fact that they are in a hurry creates a certain amount of tension.  In scene 2, the family races away from an approaching flood.  Tension and floodwaters rise but it isn’t enough unless one scene causes or enables the next.  In this example, it does.

Unfortunately, sometimes we write tense scenes that just don’t cause or enable the next scene.  We use the excuse that we need to start the story with a bang.  Or maybe we’re adding to the reader’s knowledge of the main character.  Fabulous.  But for your story to hold together, the scenes or chapters have to be strung together like beads.

To make sure your scenes do all that they should, do a Plot Dot Test.  Take out a piece of paper and draw a line.  This is your starting point.  Read chapter or scene 1.  Mentally note how much tension there is.  This is ground zero.  But Dot 1 on the line.  Read the next scene/chapter.  Does the tension go up?  Then Dot 2 will be higher.

Can you state what in chapter 1 leads directly to chapter 2?  Got it?  Then you have the cause and effect and can connect Dots 1 and 2.

Work through your entire manusscript like this.  At some points, your tension will drop.  This is typical after your hero fails or succeeds to solve her problem (see above Dots 4/7/11).  But if you have too many drops and you can’t connect several chapters, you’ve got a bit more work to do.

–SueBE

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