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Plot Structure In Novels (Part 2), by Kate Forsyth

When I am planning my novels, I think very carefully about when an event in the book happens. Each event must lead logically to the next event, building in pace and suspense until we reach the climax, the point of highest tension in the book. This is called rising action. At the point of climax, the problem of the book must be solved, the antagonist overcome and the crisis resolved.

I usually like to have three major ordeals, or turning points (sometimes called crises).

The first will indicate a change in gear, a quickening of pace, a movement from one place to another, or from one set of feelings to another. I call this the first turning point. It often involves moving through a doorway or gateway, or from one place to another.

The second is what I call ‘the dark night of the soul’, but is also sometimes called the Midpoint Reversal, or the second turning point. It usually is a key moment psychologically as well as physically. It is a moment when it seems all is lost. I like to position this as close to the middle of the book as possible, but that’s because I have an obsession with symmetry. Other writers place it much more loosely in the novel’s structure.

The third major ordeal is the climax of the book, the point at which the hero must triumph or fail.

Each of these three major ordeals or crises takes roughly a quarter of the book to develop and the ending takes the final quarter. This helps me to control pacing, and keep the different sections of the book balanced.

As I work toward the final climax of the book, I will shorten my chapter length, quicken pace, and reduce the number of chapters ending in resolution, so that the compulsion to read on becomes stronger. This helps builds suspense.

The idea behind rising action is that each scene is more intense, more dramatic, more interesting, more compelling, than the scene which came before. Of course, one can still have moments of rest and introspection after a scene of high intensity. They just tend to be shorter.

Another thing to realise is that the tension in each scene does not need to be supplied by gun battles and car chases. It can be a scene of emotional or psychological intensity – a key moment of revelation, for example.

Basically, all events in your story are leading toward the point of highest tension, which is the climax. This climactic scene is followed by falling action, and then the denouement or “unravelling”, a scene in which the triumph of the hero is celebrated, or the tragic hero’s fate is accepted, leading to new self-knowledge.

The combination of rising action, climax, and falling action creates a shape rather like an Isosceles triangle:

Freytag's triangle

This is called a Freytag’s Triangle, named after Gustave Freytag, a German literary critic who analysed Aristotle’s Poetics and broke his theory of dramatic unity down into its different components. The above graph was made by Barbara F. McManus in her book Tools for Analysing Prose Fiction.

This is how I have redrawn this narrative arc for myself:

plot graph


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Plotting A Novel, by Laurie Faria Stolarz

When people first begin a story, they usually get inspired by one of two things: character or plot.  There’s no one right way.  Both approaches have their benefits and drawbacks.

I often get email from aspiring novelists seeking advice when they’ve hit a roadblock in their works-in-progress.  They tell me that they were initially so excited about their stories but then, when they got to a certain point, they lost steam.  When I ask those same people what it is their character wants, what keeps that character from getting it, and what the character needs to learn in order to get it, these writers often don’t have the answers.

Perhaps a little plotting is in order.  I’ll discuss more about character in the next post.

Plotting 101:

Come up with an idea.  You want to figure out the driving force of your story.  For example, perhaps you want to write about a girl who drops out of high school to pursue her dream of becoming a Hollywood actress.  Or maybe you prefer writing about a boy who gets involved in a gang and ends up stealing from his own parents.

Choose the basics of your character. This is stuff like gender, age, situation in life, or whatever helps you picture them enough to get your plot going.  In Blue is for Nightmares, Stacey is a 16-year-old practicing Wiccan at boarding school.

Introduce your character to an initial action/problem.  This is the first event/ problem in the story that pushes the reader forward.  For example, maybe      your 15-year-old bully of a character learns that her parents are getting      divorced and she’ll have to move and start over at a new school. In Blue is for Nightmares, Stacey starts having nightmares that her roommate is going to be killed within four days’ time.

Decide what it is your character wants.  This drive will influence most if not all of your character’s decisions and actions.  It’s your character’s motivation.  In Blue is for Nightmares, Stacey wants to save her roommate before it’s too      late.  She also wants to forgive herself for ignoring nightmares that she had three years ago, because a little girl died as a result.

Decide what keeps your character from getting what s/he wants.  There are usually one or more obstacles that keep(s) your character from getting what s/he wants.  In Blue is for Nightmares, Stacey’s obstacles are many: she fears she won’t be able to stop the killer (self doubt); she has botched spells; she relies too heavily on spells and not enough on herself (lack of confidence); she failed to save someone in the past and fears it will happen again.

Have your character learn a lesson.  This lesson is usually a real turning point for your character.  Having learned this lesson, they can better achieve what they want.  In Blue is for Nightmares, Stacey learns that she is more powerful than her spells, that her spells do indeed aid her, but it’s the will and power inside her that’s most important.

Climax. this is usually the highest point of tension in the story, the place where most of your action or drama will take place.  This may be the point where your character faces his or her biggest obstacle.  In Blue is for Nightmares, Stacey figures out who the killer is and confronts him.

Resolution. this is the tying up of loose ends.  It’s also where subplots get tied up (note: a subplot is any minor plot in the novel.  For example, even though Stacey is trying to save her roommate, she’s also battling the crush she has on her best friend’s boyfriend.)  Having stopped the killer and saved her roommate, Stacey now goes away with a healthier sense of self.  We also learn whether or not she gets the boy.

If all else fails, think of plot in terms of the stuck up a tree approach.  In other words, put a someone up in a tree then throw rocks at them to get them down.


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Plot Is The Backbone Of All Page-Turners, by April Henry

As a mystery and thriller writer, I’m all about the plot. A good plot will have you turning the pages at a rapid pace and staying up too late to read “just one more” chapter.

Basic plot

Something happens that forces the character to leave his ordinary world. He does not want to. He faces a series of obstacles, most of which he doesn’t overcome. His efforts to fix things go awry, resulting in more problems. Finally there is a big showdown and he is able to reach down deep to overcome both his own internal issues and the external problem and triumph.

How much plotting do you need to do?

There are more elaborate ways to plot, with dozens of steps. Will your story fall apart if you don’t religiously plan out your plot? Maybe not. You may have unconsciously absorbed story structure through reading hundreds of books and movies. You do not have to have a checklist or fill out forms before writing. But you can.

You can plot something so detailed that your outline has a page for every few pages of finished text. You can plot by just writing each day and seeing where it takes you – although it helps to have the end of the story in mind.EL Doctorow said something about how when you drive at night, you can only see to the end of your headlights, but that turns out to be enough.

What your book needs and your life doesn’t

Conflict, conflict, conflict – plot is ALL about conflict. Your book should start with a conflict – the event that pushes the character out of his ordinary world.

Make it worse, also known as “Put her up in a tree and throw rocks at her.”

Make it bigger. Not only did he look like an idiot playing with the light saber in the garage, but someone put it on YouTube and he’s famous across the nation.

Make choices painful. Force the character to make a choice between two things he or she wants desperately – or the lesser of two evils. Edward or Jacob? Peeta or Gale?

Staying safe at home or risking life and limb?


One way to ensure conflict in your story is to make sure that all of your characters have at least one secret. Only one person committed the murder, but the rest should have things in their past or their present that they are hiding. A secret can be something that a suspect doesn’t know – that her boyfriend once dated the murder victim, or that she stands to inherit her murdered uncle’s estate. A character may think a relative or friend is guilty, so they lie and say they were together. Or it can be something about themselves that they lie about in an attempt to conceal: gambling, drug use, embezzling, being on the verge of bankruptcy, cross-dressing etc. Because the characters have something to hide, they may act suspiciously, lie to your sleuth, steal important documents, etc.

Once you give each of your characters a secret, see what they do to keep it a secret.

Author Phyllis Whitney’s advice is: “In the planning stage, I make sure that all my characters have secrets that will be revealed gradually during the course of the novel.

Such secrets will motivate all sorts of unexpected action and furnish the surprise element that I’m trying for. Before I ever get to the writing, I examine my characters for those secrets they may be hiding, and I plan ways in which such secrets may affect the lives of other characters in the story.”


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Creating Conflict For Your Character, by Stephen Emond (graphic novelist)

In this post and the next I’ll show you how I apply some common writing tactics to my own work. Today I’ll talk about my first novel, Happyface.

One rule that I found useful when trying to think up events to take place early in the book was the idea of rocks and shields: the idea that your character exists in a world where rocks are constantly being thrown at him or her, so your character seeks shields for protection.

In Happyface, rocks come at the protagonist all throughout the book. The tragedy that starts him on his journey can be considered one such rock. Happyface and his mom move to a new town near the start of the book, leaving his father and brother suddenly absent. Happyface’s story is about reinvention and hiding from his past. These are his goals. So what are the rocks?

An early rock is the presence in this new school of Mr Mulvey, his English teacher. Mulvey went to Happyface’s old school and taught his older brother. Mulvey knows Happyface and his family story. For someone trying to hide everything he was before, Mulvey, well meaning as he is, becomes a dangerous presence.

Another rock comes from the Moon sisters; best friends of Happyface’s crush, Gretchen. They’re over-protective of their friend and intensely nosey. Happyface is constantly trying to throw them off his trail and keep himself a mystery but they want to know who this kid is and, more importantly, who he was.

The arrival of Chloe, his old crush from his old town, also ramps up the intensity and reveals a lot of holes in Happyface’s story that has everyone questioning his reliability. Happyface’s mom is also a rock, in the midst of a breakdown and wanting to keep past events in the present.

As for shields, Happyface has those too. His sketchbook is one – it’s a diversion and it keeps his story straight, it makes his fake stories real. His entire “Happyface experiment” is a shield – he fully immerses himself in this social experiment that takes up his days and nights as a way of erasing a painful past and occupying his mind. Gretchen is a shield. His head-over-heels infatuation with her is a way of avoiding reality. His obsession with becoming popular, with having friends, is all to avoid his home life. If he loses them, he loses everything; all he has is a dark, broken, sad family life to return to.

Another writing method I used in Happyface is a character web – the idea that each character in some way illuminates a different part of Happyface. Around dorky Mike, who is shades of a former Happyface himself, Happyface becomes an alpha male, and talks down to him. Around Frog and Oddly, his “fan club,” Happyface truly feels like the popular kid in school. Around Gretchen he’s vulnerable and scared. Around Misty and Karma Moon he plays up the comedian role, not a care in the world.

Each crush of his reveals one of his “masks”. Together they showcase the idea that he’s always had this chameleon aspect to his personality. The book is never about popularity or about love, Gretchen is never the actual goal of the story, but it’s a book about becoming comfortable with yourself. The happy ending is being able to take off the mask.


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My Novel Writing Process, by Carolyn Meyer

When I begin the first page of a new novel, I’ve already invested months in research, made notes on yellow pads, obsessed about it on my morning walks. I have a mental picture of my characters and I know in a general sort of way what they’re likely to be doing. I’m telling myself the story I hope will become a novel that teens will read fervently, talk about enthusiastically and love forever. At this point nothing is set in stone.

At first I’m talking to myself, describing the story: first she does this, then she does that, then he says and she says, then they do something else. But that’s not a novel, it’s a treatment – a story about the story.

Then comes the real work: turning the story-about-a-story into a sequence of scenes, each building on the last. In that first chapter I must also provide the teen reader with enough information to understand what’s happening. I approach the writing as though I’m making a movie, fully visualizing each scene. If I can picture it, I can write it and the reader will “get” it.

I decided to begin Cleopatra Confesses with Cleopatra’s long-absent father’s return to Egypt. I used a series of scenes and flashbacks to introduce principal characters and establish family relationships, as well as to create tension. The chapters are brief and the scenes move the story along quickly. Here’s how I structured the first chapter:

Scene 1: Cleopatra hears a commotion and goes out to investigate; a messenger brings news that Ptolemy XII is on his way from Rome.

Scene 2: Cleopatra visits her younger sister, plays her with sister’s pet monkey and her sister’s bodyguard is introduced.

Transition: description of Cleopatra’s older sisters, brothers and father.

Scene 3:  Cleopatra, in borrowed servants’ clothes, leaves the palace for the marketplace.

Scene 4 (flashback): Cleopatra with her father before he leaves for Rome.

Scene 5 (flashback): Cleopatra with her jealous sisters.

Then on to the second chapter, with scenes in the marketplace with Cleopatra waiting for father’s ship; then in the palace, dressing for her father’s welcome.

Total pages for first two chapters: thirteen.

Contemporary teen novels usually take place over a relatively short time – days or weeks, rarely covering more than a year. A teen historical novel may span years, even decades, and that requires tracking the passage of time in a way that keeps teen readers oriented. One strategy is to use the day or date in chapter titles, but the calendar in Cleopatra’s era was so confusing that I indicated the time in other ways: “It is the season of the Inundation, the time of year when the Nile overflows its banks….”, “In the evening of the first day as the royal boat drifts….” or “It is winter now…”

The structure of Cleopatra Confesses evolved as I added and deleted scenes; lengthened, shortened and divided chapters; and changed chapter titles. This process continued through successive drafts and revisions, as it has through all of my teen novels. It may be worth noting that I never get it right the first time but only through trial and error.


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On The Process Of Plotting And Writing A Novel, by Sam Hawksmoor

Patrick Ness told me that he always begins by writing the last line first.  I could never do that.  I like the voyage of discovery in the writing process too much to prescribe an ending.  I like an element of surprise.  After all, I am putting my characters through the mill and during this they will develop and change and sometimes surprise you with their reactions to events.

Nevertheless if you want to interest an editor or agent you need a plot.  I have recently submitted a detailed six-page plot outline to my publisher for a sequel. However, it’s a plot outline with no flesh on the bones: a character may do something horrid to someone and they will react but, until I write it, I don’t necessarily know quite how the character will react.  An editor doesn’t need to know that. They need to know if it will be exciting and different (but not too different). They will want to know where there will be action or emotion and how the story will be resolved.  You will have to work al that out before you pitch, even if you start your pitch with a simple  ‘Boy meets girl, girl prefers another boy… who claims to be a alien.’ (No, I’m not actually writing this.)

The idea is that you are dealing with consequences.  The boy will seek to disprove the other boy is an alien and the more he does that the more the girl will like the alien…

A good editor will be one step ahead of you and ask detailed questions: Where is the alien from?  What are his characteristics?  What makes him so special?  Why does the girl prefer him? Don’t pitch until you are ready with the answers.  The last thing you need is to have the editor interested at the beginning and then feel deflated because you don’t know how it all will turn out.

I love character interplay and the mechanics of a relationship.  It’s also imperative to let characters fail. Take risks. A reader might be disappointed but then will be rewarded when your character picks themselves up and tries again.

Plots are pathways to a resolution but the strength of a good plot comes from the characters: readers like the characters so much they want them to succeed, and care less about where the characters are going than being able to go with them.

Sometimes when writing you can trap yourself in a corner.  Do you go back and rewrite or do you write on?  Raymond Chandler always knew what to do: have someone kick down the door with a gun in their hand.  Don’t worry if things get difficult.  Rescue is at hand, even if it’s a ‘Sorry, wrong door.’  I think creating difficulties for yourself is good for the writing. The reader is doubly rewarded when you finally figure it out.

What point in your story should you begin your novel?

The most obvious answer is ‘the beginning’ but sometimes it’s good to start half way in:
Your character is trapped in a cave, fire is blocking the entrance and something is approaching that means to kill him.  He wishes he hadn’t left home at all because any moment now he is going to have to fight to the death, and death is the easy way out.  Now you can go back to the beginning.  Last Tuesday.  It’s raining and your character gets a text that simply says, ‘Help me. If you love me at all, you will come’.

Readers will have the patience to go along until your character is standing in that burning cave facing the prospect of death.  Let’s hope your character knows how to survive.


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Crafting Your Novel’s Plot And Characters To Sustain Story Momentum Throughout The Middle, by Sam Hawksmoor

I have no fear of the middle of the novel. I’m scared to death of the beginning and the end but the middle is a ledge I can regroup on, to take stock and re-energise.

Writing as someone who has taught screenwriting for twenty years, the mantra is always beginning, middle and end, with each part having its own beginning, middle and end… That all said, knowing where the mid-point is, in terms of plot development, can be problematic.  In a two-parter the midpoint is the end of part one, but to be honest I am not sure that I know where the mid-point of The Repossession is - perhaps about 60% in.  At the point where Genie is done for and Rian knows he’s lost her.  That feels right. It’s an emotional moment where the gravity shifts and the story takes a new direction.  In The Hunting I know exactly where the middle is - a point where the characters know they can’t just keep on running. They have to turn around and face the enemy.  They have no idea how they will do that - but again it’s the emotional shift that takes place.

Sometimes you have to cut scenes that you like because, in the editing process, you can see that they detract from the main story.  You can’t see this when you are writing it, and it might well be a good developmental scene, but if it doesn’t move the narrative forward you don’t want to risk a reader putting it down. Backstory information is quite often material that eventually goes.  (You can always put it on the website).  Your main protagonist’s story is where the attention must be.  I had a nice developmental scene in book; one with Genie remembering her Grandma (whose death has caused her to be locked up in her room in the first place). Nevertheless, it comes too early. Readers want to get on with the story immediately and you can’t take the risk with something cute but unnecessary.

YA fiction is filled with characters all fighting for the limelight.  When teaching, I’d tell my students to make a list for each main character: how they live, what they eat what they read or listen to, and what they like or dislike, but I’m afraid it’s a case of do as I say not as I do, as I tend to keep all that in my head.  I do however form a deep mental image of my characters (especially when they are based upon someone I know) and try my best to differentiate between each person, adding quirks and tics to find their particular voice.  *Incidentally, I dislike the creative writing class thing about finding your voice.  It’s a novel filled with people - you have to find twenty voices and you’d better be all of them and stay in character for each of them.

If I ever doubt I’m getting it right, I take a character out of their comfort zone. A small device will do. I might have the prettiest girl in the book trapped in a loo - a horrid messy stinky loo – and unable to get out. No one can hear her cries for help. The window is too small to climb out of and she is going to have to crawl out under the partition through all the waste to get out.  Just as she finally emerges covered in wee and toilet paper, she runs into the guy she has been trying to impress.  How she reacts and how he reacts will define them. The tension and desperation of the moment will cement a relationship between your reader and the character for the rest of the book.  (It worked well enough in Bridget Jones’s Diary).


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Writing Teen Novels


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