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LESSON # 4: PLOTTING YOUR STORY
First, let’s look again at the main parts of the plot of a story:
Most authors and writing teachers agree that all stories should have an arc of somewhere between five and eight steps. That arc takes the reader from a state of rest (before the story opens) into action, then through the process of one action causing another and another, until those actions reach a climax and finally ebb into the resolution of the story. A normal arc generally includes all of the following:
A. The presentation of the conflict
B. The hero’s attempts to resolve that conflict
C. His deliberate choices to fight or give up – use force or peaceful measures – take the legal way or the illegal way, etc.
D. His ultimate success or failure (the climax of the story)
E. The resolution into a changed situation, due to the outcome of the climax.
Each writing course will label these steps a little differently, but, in the end, they represent the same 5 simple parts of a plot that we’ve mentioned here. In the chapter coming up, “Developing Characters,” you will see a similar list of steps through which every hero and heroine move as they progress from beginning to end of the story. It is not particularly important that the writer label each individual step based on one writing course or another. What is important is that the writer understand that the natural progression of action or character development is most successful if it follows the pattern we see in real life, which generally does include an arc similar to the one we’ve just described.
Conflict is always based in the very broad primary concept of Good vs. Evil. However, that “good” and “evil” can wear many faces.
Conflict can be rooted in the relationship and/or rivalry of two individual characters, two families, two nations, two worlds. It can also be rooted in one individual character’s battle with an ideology or a system (for example, a battle to avoid or annihilate a totalitarian government). Some stories create conflict between a character and some force of nature or some element or power outside of the human realm – such as a killer storm, a deserted island, a sorcerer’s curse, etc.
However, conflict can be totally internal as well – within one character himself – possibly between the character’s realization that he needs to overcome some aspect of his nature or personality and the desire on his part to avoid working at overcoming it or letting it go. Conflict can also be internal in the sense that the character is battling an enemy coming against his own mind or body (for example, a deadly disease).
Any or all of these kinds of conflict make for great stories, but you want to be sure that the type of conflict you choose is the best carrier of the story you’re telling so that the story accomplishes exactly what you want it to accomplish.
Also bear in mind that most good stories have more than one conflict going on. The major conflict will decide the resolution of the story, but while it is played out, many of your characters can be experiencing their own minor conflicts that affect how they act and react to the major conflict and how they fit into the climax of the story.
WHERE TO START
In all fiction, the first three pages of any novel (and the first few paragraphs of any short story) are the author’s only chance to grab the reader’s attention. Once he has that attention, the action or characters must develop quickly enough and realistically enough to hold that attention and keep the pages turning.
Make sure you have your reader securely in your grasp by the end of chapter one. If he isn’t in a hurry to turn the page to chapter two, there’s a moderate chance that he will do so anyway, but most of the time, at that point, he’s usually made his decision about whether or not he’ll finish the book. (A few readers out there force themselves to finish every book they start, whether they like it or not, but you cannot count on that handful of people picking up your book.) And for the short story writer, it’s safe to say that after the first 500 words, the reader has decided whether the story is worth his time.
So how do we capture that reader and hang onto him? Isaac Newton is famous for making us aware of the laws of motion. Thanks to his efforts, most of us have been taught the basic principles of physics concerning objects at rest and how they will simply stay at rest unless and until some outside force puts pressure on them to move in one direction or another. And, of course, once an object begins moving, it will, more often than not, continue moving in the same direction unless and until pressure from another source is applied to it. That pressure could be deliberate, or it could simply be circumstantial — like a bump in the road that causes a rolling ball to jump off course and veer sideways.
So what does that have to do with writing fiction? A LOT: Good plotting puts things into motion quickly and then makes sure they stay in motion, or change direction, or come to a complete stop in such a way that those actions carry the reader along at a satisfying pace. And the gifted story plotter makes sure that every one of those actions and reactions – every motion and counter-motion – has realistic motivation and cause. (And remember: ‘motion,’ as we refer to it here, can be physical, mental, or emotional. However, be careful to avoid getting your reader bogged down in thoughts or emotions with no physical action to relieve them.)
When the writer begins his story, he needs to have some kind of action taking place in those first few pages – even if his story is mainly character driven. The reader wants to get to know the characters the way he gets to know real-life people – through talking with them, seeing them interacting with other people, and seeing what they do and how they do it. A couple centuries ago, authors got away with giving lengthy descriptions of characters early in their books, and readers put up with it. But in the 21st century, we can’t find those kinds of readers.
All rules have exceptions, of course, and if you are writing a totally character-driven story that requires your reader to be thoroughly acquainted with the thought processes of the main character, you just might be able to begin your story with a monologue of that character’s own thoughts. However, the point we made earlier bears repeating here: keep in mind that too many pages of thoughts with no accompanying actions does get boring for most people.
That being the case, even if you’re focusing on your reader getting to know and understand your main character in the first chapter (or the first page of your short story), you’ll want to let the character say and do some things that will make his nature and personality clear.
So when your reader sees the words “Chapter One,” he will generally expect to see a situation that was at rest before the story started now beginning to move in a specific direction because a character does something or a specific event takes place that starts the ball rolling. Some people like to line up long rows of dominoes and then knock them all down with just the touch of a finger on the first domino in line. Until the outside force – with a motive – does something to the first domino, they all just keep standing there, silent and boring. However, as soon as the outside force causes domino number one to fall against number two – at just the right angle – there’s no stopping the chain reaction. That’s the process of good story telling.
Now, the guy who pushes down that first domino has a motive. He wants to enjoy watching all the other dominoes fall down. In the same way, your first movement in your story –whether it’s by a character, a force of nature, or even a big machine – will have to have a motive. You may not want to disclose that motive in the first chapter, but you, as the writer, have to know what that motive is, and you have to build your story so that when the reader finally does discover the motive later on down the line, the whole story makes sense.
In the past few decades, the literary world has seen a slight shift in readers who gravitate primarily to action (plot-driven) novels. Even these readers now seem to want at least a lead character that they can relate to and develop feelings for. They want to know what makes that guy tick – what’s important to him and why – and what it is that he wants to accomplish. Because, ultimately, it’s what that main character wants to do – save a city – a country – the world – and all the battles he has to fight in order to do it – that makes the story.
So one of the most important things a good story teller can do, even in plot-driven stories – is develop three-dimensional, true-to-life characters that his readers can relate to. And if the story is intended to be character-driven, then all of the characters need to be carefully developed so that the reader feels so attuned to them that he really cares whether they manage to get what they want by the end of the story. And if the reader really cares, he isn’t going to put that book down until he reads the words “The End.”
Next week we will discuss in depth the best ways to develop well-rounded characters.