Thursday, March 27, 2014

Critical Plot Elements - The Plot "W" Round-Up

The previous posts in this series can be found here.

We've finished identifying all the critical plot points! Now it's time to take a step back and make sure we know how to put them together.

The truth is, the wordcount between each plot point will expand and contract for different writers and genres. They'll also overlap. What I'll show you today is the structure I've found works best for me.  Maybe it will work for you too, but hopefully you'll at least get an idea of how to figure out your own.

If you google "Plot structure" you'll get all kinds of weird and wonderful shapes and sizes. Some are very straightforward: 

Others will look like this.

Still others might feel like this:

But in the end, most agree on two things: Good plotting requires peaks and troughs.

Personally, my Plot W usually looks something like this:

If you view the length of the arrows as wordcount, events in the first act are fairly swift. The protagonist's story  moves quickly through set-up and she experiences a dramatic down-turn in her circumstances early on.

The second act tends to be the longest, with the most drawn-out trough. The Protagonist learns a lot during this period and tension is developed through a series of smaller wins and losses.

Then, towards the end, the protagonist's journey becomes dire. At that point it's a swift and steep climb to the end.

In terms of the plotting elements we've discussed in this series, they fall roughly in this design:

Note that the very first element, (B1 - World Building) occurs simultaneously with the other beginning elements.

In practice, many of these plotting elements will overlap - particularly those at the very beginning.  And I've left the indicator for The Black Moment off because that changes depending on the book. But I'm hopeful this will give you some idea how I see these elements working together, and how I've come to structure them in relation to each other.

So, that's it folks! We now have a solid, structured plot development plan to help you move from beginning to middle to end.

If you have any questions, jump into the comments and let me know. Otherwise, keep an eye out for some later posts in this series where we'll discuss how these plot points look in different genres.

Your Turn: Do you tend towards a certain 'shape' for your plot, or is each book different?

Monday, March 24, 2014

Critical Plot Elements - Endings #3 - Ribbons and Bows

All previous plot posts can be found here.

Bloodied, panting and with soot smudges all over their face, your protagonist staggers out of the ashes of your climax to pump his / her fist at the world and say "I DID IT!"

But there's still another five-to-twenty pages to go. 

Yes, there is.

You aren't finished yet.  You've got some loose ends to tie up.  There's still some pay-offs to pay out. You're embarking on those final steps, tying the bow on top of your plot package. Nudging your reader and saying "Don't worry, I didn't forget..."

Okay, okay, I'll get on with it.

You have one goal for the final chapters (or epilogue, if that's how you roll): Resolution.

There are only two critical elements for resolution, but I'm throwing in a third that (in my opinion) makes for a really satisfying read:

#1 Thing Most Professionals Say a Resolution Needs - The tying up of loose ends.

There will always be one or two questions left unanswered by the end of your climax.  Whether new information comes to light, a previously unattainable character is freed, or your protagonist 'wins' something they didn't have before, one way or the other you've got to use these pages to make sure your reader isn't jumping on Google the minute they're done to find out "Whatever happened to Aunt Ruth and Lassie?"

#2 Thing Most Professionals Say a Resolution Needs - Safety / Sanctuary

Even in a book that's part of a series, even if the overarching conflict hasn't finished, these final pages should show the protagonist in safety.  Even if it's only temporary.

This is where you want to dissolve tension. This is the big pay off. We've just watched them win, now reassure us that they're being rewarded for being such a great, noble protagonist.  Show them in love, or in victory, or safely shielded from the people who still want them dead.  However you choose to achieve it, make sure that (like the Almost Lull) there's a definite sense of sanctuary about their circumstances.

3# Thing Aimee Thinks Your Resolution Needs - A Prose Mirror

I'm not the only one to say this, but I don't run into it every time I'm studying craft, so...

Remember that first chapter, those opening pages? Somewhere back there is the mental image your reader associates with the beginning of your book. 

If possible, bring the book full-circle by mirroring that scene, circumstance, or setting in the closing pages, or somehow bringing the reader back to the beginning of the emotional circle.

You and I both know everyone doesn't do this. Not every book makes it possible. But most do - and it doesn't have to be trite:

Maybe in the opening pages your detective was in the car on their way to a murder case.  So maybe at the end they're in the car telling (or being told by) the same colleague those last few details that needed to be cleared up.

Maybe your Cowboy was struggling to train a stubborn horse in the opening pages. Maybe at the end, the son whose custody he's fought to win is in the ring with him learning the ropes with an equally stubborn mule.

I'm being overly simplistic to get the point across, but you know what I mean.  If it's possible, bring something from the intial impression of your book into the end.  Whether it's a setting, a saying, an object of importance, who cares? What we're looking to achieve is the sense of 'full circle'.  This is completion. The satisfying feeling of a job well done.

It's the opportunity to close the book on book.

Now - we're almost done!  Next Post: The Plot W Round-Up

Your Turn: Last chance for questions about any of the Critical Plot Elements posts, or to give me ideas for examples you'd like to understand better. Comment here or email me.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Critical Plot Elements - ENDINGS #2 - Climax!

You can find all previous posts in this series here.

We're rolling into the final stages of your book! The countdown is on, the stakes are high, the protagonist is primed to win or lose.  These are the pages your reader has been waiting for since the very first chapter. Every comment they make about your book from here on out will be colored by their evaluation of these scenes.

No pressure.

In an ideal world, everything that happens in the next 5-50 pages (depending on what kind of climax you've built to) will be surprising - but predictable in hindsight.  Ideally you've laid a trail for the reader that they couldn't quite decipher until they read these scenes and then they're jumping up and down and screaming "Of course! Why didn't I see that?!"

There are some exceptions to the rule, but if your genre's different to mine, you're (hopefully) an avid reader of it and have a much better idea than I do what elements make for a satisfying climax.  So I'm not going to focus on events here, but rather on elements that a lot of novice writers may skip or include through inexperience.


Emotion. I'm not talking about your characters being emotional, I'm talking about bringing the reader to a heightened state of tension.  Depending on your genre you'll primarily use love, grief or fear to drive this, but regardless of which emotion you're aiming for, it's critical that your focus is on the emotional journey.  Make no mistake, its the feelings the reader experiences in these pages that will make or break their final opinion of your book. And that means you're better off making them feel angry than nothing at all.  Capeche?

Active Protagonist. I can't stress this strongly enough.  It means one thing: Whatever events lead your book to its conclusion, regardless of who is involved, the protagonist must be instrumental in bringing it to pass.  They don't have to do it alone.  They don't personally have to 'win' every conflict.  But when the reader sighs with satisfaction and looks back on what just happened, they must see that the deciding factor between victory and defeat was the protagonist's contribution - otherwise, why have we focused on this person the whole time? 


Off-Screen Action.  This is simple: If it affects the ending, you should write it in scene.  Having one character walk on stage and inform the other characters / reader isn't enough. This does create certain challenges for first person / third-person limited points of view.  But that's why you're a writer.  Get creative. The reader has been waiting for this through the whole book.  Don't steal part of their thunder by leaving important action off-screen.

Deus Ex Machina.  I've said it before and I'll no doubt say it again: If you don't know what this is, for goodness sake, google it. Study it. Look for it in literature - because it is out there. And it's NOT satisfying for the reader.

Wikipedia defines Deus Ex Machina as: ""God out of the machine"; a plot device whereby a seemingly inextricable problem is suddenly and abruptly solved with the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object."

Did you catch that? "...NEW event, character, ability or object." If your final problems are solved by introducing anything in those last pages, head back to the drawing board.  If you can't get rid of that event, character, ability or object, find a way to weave it (or foreshadowing of it) into the earlier text.

There's a very fine line between laying a trail of smoke (something that the reader can see only in hindsight = good) and throwing something totally unpredictable into the mix at the last minute.  If you do the latter your reader will feel cheated.


This is a personal observation, rather than something I've learned elsewhere, so I'm separating it out.  But I'll tell you that my reader heart really despises a final explanation that hinges totally on dialogue with the villain.

If you're as old as me (or older) you'll remember the old Batman and Robin television show wherein at the end of pretty much every episode the villain would put Batman in an apparently impossible position, tell him everything they'd done and why, then walk away so the now fully-informed Batman could save himself (perhaps with Robin's help).

While this technique ticks all the answer boxes in minimal time, there's a reason most movies / books nowadays don't use it: it's unrealistic and not really very satisfying. 

Today's readers are more sophisticated, more analytical.  If your villain reveals all his / her tricks at the end without being forced to do so it feels...well, forced. 

Deep down we all know our opponents in real life hide things from us.  They don't want to share information, they want to outsmart us.  We take that knowledge subconsciously into our reading.  We like to see our protagonist outsmart our villain.  We like to have the trail laid so maybe we can outsmart the villain.

In every final conflict, there's going to be some form of reveal. I'm not suggesting your villain shouldn't give anything to the conversation.  But the better, stronger, safer bet is to have laid the trail throughout your prose. Let the protagonist piece together whatever they need to win. And just give a little space for final details to be ironed out.

And please, whatever you do, don't have your villain walk away from the protagonist. I used to watch those old Batman shows and think "Why didn't the Riddler just shoot Batman there when he had him, instead of setting up a lazer beam that would take two minutes to cut through the steel beam Batman was on before it cut the caped crusader in half?"

If your villain has to walk away to provide the opportunity for your protagonist to win, you're not writing smart enough.  In my opinion.

Now, if you've written a plot that forces the villain to walk away or lose, well... you're on the right track.

Next Post: The "Plot W" Round Up

Your Turn: I've been asked to explain how the plot structure might apply to different genres, which I plan to do in a blog post at the end of the series.  If you have a question regarding applying these structures to your genre, or anything else you aren't sure of, feel free to ask the question here and I'll answer it - or find someone who can.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Critical Plot Elements - ENDINGS #1 - Crisis

You can find all the previous posts in the critical plot elements series here.

I've used the terms 'climactic chapters' and 'climactic events' a lot in this series.  We're now entering that territory.

The first time I wrote a book it was a surprise to me that the climactic events didn't start in those final pages when everything was drawing to a close, but rather, several thousand words earlier.

Reading Techniques of the Selling Writer (no, they don't pay me to keep plugging that book - I just found it SO useful) helped me to understand how and when the actual end occurs.

So, here we are.  The beginning of the end.  And even though there's thousands of words left to go, we're on the uphill march to victory (I hope).

What's the first element of your ending? 


Not just any old, run-of-the-mill crisis, mind you. This isn't just a delay to the protagonist's plan.  It isn't just a complication.  This a knock-down, drag out, change-the-feature-of-the-landscape kind of crisis.

Depending on your genre, this kind of crisis could be anything from an overprotective parent showing up, to a psychopath with a nuclear bomb threatening to bust the globe open like an overripe melon.

The problem isn't important - how your protagonist feels about it, is.  Because this crisis MUST achieve three things:

1. It must make the current state of affairs untenable.  The protagonist and other major players must be forced to act and act fast because things literally can't go on as they are.

2. It must narrow the field of options.  Ideally in the grand, breathless, climactic moment we want to see your protagonist left with only two options - good or bad, right or wrong, yes or no.  The crisis should go a long way to eradicating most (if not all) the options available.

3. It must be unexpected, unavoidable, and preferably life-threatening. 

An excellent example of a crisis is in The Hunger Games. ***Spoiler Alert*** Suzanne Collins did a great job of creating a crisis that appeared to be climactic - Katniss and Peeta victorious over all the other tributes and therefore, the winners of the Hunger Games... except the Gamemakers changed the rules.  Now, suddenly, Katniss and Peeta are pitted one against the other and forced to come up with a new plan for victory.

However you choose to do it, whatever your genre, make your crisis a no-turning-back moment.  The beginning of the end.

Next Post: CLIMAX (Part One)

Your Turn: Can you think of any other good examples of a crisis in a novel?

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Critical Plot Elements - INTERLUDE - The Black Moment

Like the inciting incident, this black moment is unlikely to be the only black moment in a novel plot. But this moment should be the black moment - the portion of the story that takes your protagonist to the darkest place in your pages.

I marked this post 'interlude' because there's a range of philosophies on where and when the black moment should occur.  But as long as you've got one just before, or during the climactic events, you'll be fine.  Tune in to the Plot W Round Up post at the end of this series if you're uncertain where your climactic events begin.

What is 'The Black Moment'?

In short, the black moment is a perfect storm of emotional despair, circumstantial defeat or discouragement, and personal crisis.  When the black moment occurs, it should plunge your protagonist to the bottom of the barrel emotionally - and make it appear to the reader that their story just couldn't get worse.

The black moment IS an emotional, internal crisis.

The black moment ISN'T a series of events or circumstances (though events or circumstances may trigger a black moment).

The black moment ISN'T NECESSARILY the point in your climactic events during which the protagonist appears to have been defeated.  (As noted earlier, there are a plethora of options for how and when to engage the black moment and the bottom of the climactic roller coaster is only one of them).

EXAMPLE OF A BLACK MOMENT NEAR THE END OF THE BOOK - ***SPOILER ALERT***: In Maggie Stiefvater's Shiver when Grace has infected Sam with the meningacoccal virus and believe's he's dead.  (Though, in my opinion, Ms. Stiefvater didn't make full use of the intensity available to her).

EXAMPLE OF A BLACK MOMENT PRIOR TO THE CLIMACTIC EVENTS: In Rowling's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, after Ron and Harry fought and Ron left.  Harry and Hermione hit bottom emotionally for a while and wonder if they're ever going to figure this thing out.

EXAMPLE OF A BLACK MOMENT EARLY IN THE BOOK: In Stephanie Meyer's New Moon, Edward leaves Bella and she takes the emtional plunge just a few chapters in.  Love her or hate her, Ms. Meyer has (in my opinion) achieved something rare in her choice to combine the black moment and the inciting incident.  Bella's emotional hole drives the entire novel from that point forward.  Her climb out of despair literally lasts through to the final pages. 

I'm sure you get the picture by now, but if you have any questions, please feel free to ask them in the comments.

The most important aspect of the black moment isn't its location, but the reader's awareness of (and empathy for) the protagonist's emotional darkness.  Every book needs a moment that tears the reader apart because they just want the person they're rooting for to get a break.  If your book doesn't have it, you're going to have a hard time selling it.

Next Post: The Beginning of the End - Crisis!

Your Turn: Can you think of an example of a really impactful or harrowing black moment? What about it made you want to keep reading?

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Critical Plot Elements - MIDDLES - #3 – Catastrophe & The Missing Link

Have you ever seen the “Plot W”?  We’ll examine it in more detail at the end of this series, but suffice to say, the three act plot structure looks like a roughly ‘W’ shaped roller coaster, plunging down from the opening as the protagonist is sucked into the plot vortex; shifting up when the protagonist begins to think maybe they can win this thing; plunging down again somewhere in the middle act when all seems hopeless (*cough, cough* that’s what we’re talking about today); then the slow but satisfying climb to victory at the end.

Last time we discussed putting your protagonist under pressure.  Now, as the middle act of your plot is winding towards its conclusion, it’s time to make pie from the fruits of that labor.

So far in the second act your protagonist has made a plan, then found themselves thwarted and / or at the business end of a life (or blissful happiness) threatening deal.  However you chose to do it, you’ve turned up the heat under your protagonist’s rapidly blistering rear end.

Now we’re reaching the point in the story where the excrement hits the air-conditioning: Catastrophe strikes.  

While catastrophe may include a black moment for your protag during which all hope is lost, the important element to a catastrophe is that it puts the entire plan your protag made a few chapters ago into jeopardy.  The situation must appear untenable.

(You have options here: a failure on the part of the protagonist; betrayal from someone else; an apparent victory on the behalf of the villain; or a combination of all three).

But here’s the interesting part: In the midst of all this awfulness, you – the author – weave in “The Missing Link”.  That means: you draw a line for the reader between the current impossible problem and the real solution.

Depending on your genre and how you write, that line might be a linear, identified solution the protagonist will now work towards.  Or it might be foreshadowing – something the reader doesn’t realize you told them until they look back.  But either way, the story must start telling the reader how we’re going to win this thing.

The trick is not to give certainty.  Readers thrive on tension.  If the solution is identified outright, there must be so many ‘ifs, ands, or buts’ that victory seems unlikely (if not downright impossible).  If your missing link is foreshadowing the actual solution, then ensure the protagonist has a goal, but is taking steps towards it in a last-ditch attempt because, frankly, all hope seems lost.

However you structure it, be careful to ensure the crisis doesn’t look trumped up.  Make the problem organic and preferably unexpected.

Next post: The Final Countdown – Using the ticking clock to build to the end.