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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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Kate Forsyth’s author website: www.kateforsyth.com.au

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Three Act Structure For Novel Writing, by Amy Kathleen Ryan

In my last blog post about writing page turning novels, I touted the use of the three act structure as a useful device some writers use to help create dramatic tension in their stories. I’ve written entire novels myself without realizing I was employing it. Later, I’d look at the story and realize that every element of the three-act structure has been subconsciously inserted into my story. I think this happens because so many stories I’ve read before have followed it. I’ll even go out on a limb to suggest that three act structure existed before anyone knew it existed. It’s a narrative arc that has been deeply embedded in the human psyche since the time before people were writing stories down, when the tales told were legend and myth.

Before I describe the structure, let me clarify one thing that some of you iconoclasts might be thinking: a structure is not the same thing as a formula. A structure creates a framework wherein your characters move within their story. There are some out there who write outside of the common story arc, but most writers, even the great ones, adhere to this ancient narrative form.

Many variations of three act structure can be found on the web, and I encourage you to do some research of your own, but here is a brief outline:

1. The first act sets up your world and your characters. It shows how life is before your inciting incident, which sets your protagonist in motion. Your protagonist, when dealing with this new problem, will be hesitant in some way, but will finally confront a point of no return, where she has committed herself and has no choice but to stay the course.

2. This begins your second act, your rising action, comprised of points and counterpoints between your hero and your antagonist. The second act ends when the absolute worst happens, and all is lost.

3. But wait! Your hero uses her ingenuity and courage, rallies her dwindling resources to do something completely unexpected, and somehow wins the day. This is your climax. Loose ends are tied up, but hopefully not too perfectly, and the reader can finish reading your book then hurry to the bookstore to find more titles by you.

Part of what makes this structure so useful is that it helps the writer keep her characters in charge of the story. You are free to employ the vicissitudes of fate in your plot, but the main pivot points of your story remain in your characters’ hands. This helps hold your reader’s interest, because, in the final analysis, random chance isn’t very interesting. It’s what people do with their circumstances, their choices and their mistakes that makes fiction, and life, interesting.

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Amy Kathleen Ryan’s author website: www.amykathleenryan.com

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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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Carolyn Meyer’s author website: www.readcarolyn.com

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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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Sam Hawksmoor’s author website: www.samhawksmoor.com

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Plotting A Novel Versus Winging It, by Diane Lee Wilson

I began my first novel not really knowing what I was doing. In a burst of inspiration, I scribbled a few opening sentences on a piece of paper and gradually turned that into a short first chapter. Then I started a second chapter. And it went on from there. Whenever I finished a chapter I would ask myself: What has to happen next? I was never quite sure. I wanted to move the story along and I had a vague idea where I wanted the story to end up, but the middle was unknown territory.

Did that work? Yes, I’m happy to say that it did. With the help of my agent I sold that novel to a respected publishing house. Soon after, about the time I was doing my rewriting based on my newly assigned editor’s comments, I came across a book entitled The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers & Screenwriters by Christopher Vogler. In this book, Vogler mapped each stage of a well-constructed novel or film. Oh, no. What if I’d done it all wrong?

I read the book cover to cover and loved it, happy to find that I’d intuitively followed the basic structure for good storytelling. And I recommend this book to aspiring novelists. It shed new understanding on the roles played by archetypal characters and explained the different “acts” inherent in most stories. I also adopted a few tips for making future stories stronger.

But here’s where I slipped: When I began my second novel I didn’t follow my intuition. I used Vogler’s outline to create a “perfect” story arc. I sat on my living room floor and, with an idea in my head, filled out 3”x5” cards with sequential segments of the story. I then slavishly followed those cards to write my story. And when this novel was completed I felt it was somewhat lifeless. In my opinion, it lacked the spark that arises from seat-of-your-pants inspiration.

Each of my subsequent novels has been conceived and written like my first one. I’m aware of classic story structure and the archetypes that appear in most stories, but I rely more on my intuition to keep my reader turning the pages. At times, if I’m stuck in my progress, I might pick up The Writer’s Journey for a little inspiration. I’ll be reminded of the tension created when a hero fails a few times, or the suspense lent by a “shapeshifter” character. Then I’ll set the book down and return to my writing.

I’ve spoken to authors who have found success writing from a detailed outline but that doesn’t work for me. I simply begin each novel introducing a teen character with a problem. I know where he or she needs to end up; I just don’t know how that will happen. I also don’t know how much the character will change or develop over the course of the story – and that’s part of the fun of writing without a map: I wake up in the morning wondering what will happen in the story today!

So my words of advice would be: familiarize yourself with good storytelling, whether that’s through studying manuals or just reading the works of accomplished authors, but then sit down and tell your story YOUR way, the way you see it in your head. That’s when the magic happens.

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Diane Lee Wilson’s author website: www.dianeleewilson.com

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