Monday, February 24, 2014

Critical Plot Elements - MIDDLES - #2 Raising the Stakes

So far in this series we’ve covered the plot elements critical to a successful beginning.  We've also identified at what point you’re transitioning your plot into the dreaded Middle Ground.  (Click here to see the previouscritical plot elements posts)

Now that your protagonist has decided to fight (or strive) and is settled on a plan, you have one goal for the next few chapters:

The protagonist needs to discover the problem is even bigger than they thought – and preferably, that there is even more at risk than they imagined.

In other words, turn up the heat.  Let some of the initial plan fail.  Let some of the assumptions be proved wrong.  Let the protagonist hit a wall or five – or suffer at the hands of the villain.

This is the time to bring your protagonist under immense pressure emotionally. 

I’ll say that again:

This is the time to bring your protagonist under immense pressure emotionally.

Emotions drive a book.  In terms of reader tension, events are only scary or riveting when the reader empathizes with the characters involved.

No matter how dramatic your climactic events are, the reader will yawn through them (or worse, stop reading before then) if they don’t care.  So use these pages of what is essentially transitional plot to make them feel. 

Then use that emotional connection to build an increasing sense that this situation is impossible, that victory is unattainable, that crisis is looming - and by the way, when crisis hits, the results will be even more catastrophic than we initially anticipated.

If you aren’t sure how to do this, the formula is simple:

1. Figure out what scenario would define blissful happiness for your protagonist.

2. Start pounding your protagonist with every imaginable conflict or circumstance which threatens to rip any possibility for scenario number one out from under them.**

So that’s your mission, should you choose to accept it.  Put your protagonist through the meatgrinder – and let them think that even if they somehow manage to survive it, the repercussions will be devastating. 

It’s hell on the writer, but at the end your readers will love you for it.

Your Turn: Tell me what would spell blissful happiness for your protagonist – and one of the things you’ll do to raise the stakes against them ever achieving that.  (Or tell me about the best protagonist you’ve read and what the author put them through).
**If you’re a writer who recoils from hurting your protagonist, consider this: We read to live someone else's story – but we bring our real emotions along for the ride. Human nature generally takes one look at the people who appear to have it easy / win all the time and feel jealous or a distinct sense of injustice, because life is hard. Conversely, when we see a person who has faced significant adversity and come out the other side stronger and successful, we applaud them. Food for thought?

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Critical Plot Elements - MIDDLES - #1 Schematics

Call it The Middle-Page Sag, most writers have a common complaint: It’s hard work to stop a middle from getting boring.  Hard, but not impossible.  

If you’ve been following this series you’ll know that your plot should fit roughly into a three act structure of Beginning, Middle and End.  

Beginning starts with a change and ends when the protagonist commits to fighting or working for the story goal.

But what comes next?

As you head into middle-ground it’s vital to make sure your main character(s) aren’t sitting on the fence.  The story goal has been established, so the reader knows what we’re aiming for.  It’s time to unlock…

SCHEMATICS.  (AKA a word I like that I’m using instead of “intent” because everyone uses “intent”).

Put simply, we’re at the point in the book where your protagonist needs to make a plan.  

If you’ve got an active, intentional character (which you do already, right?  Right?), they’ll have been making plans and stating goals throughout the book thus far. But now’s the time to let the character ruminate over what they’ve learned, draw some conclusions and unleash the character motivation which will push the protagonist inexorably towards your climactic events.

Even if you’re building a thriller or any plot with twists and reveals at the end, by now the protagonist must have some idea what they’re heading into.  If it’s a thriller, they’re probably aware there’s a psycho murderer on the loose. If it’s a romance, the love interest has been identified and is now firmly in the protagonist’s sights. If it’s fantasy, your hero / heroine has learned of the dastardly plan to kill them and steal their powers – and is now off to find the side-kick who will provide comedic relief and the Amulet of Eternal Protection… 

You get my point.

So your set-up is complete.  The protagonist will not have ALL the facts, but by this time they should have enough of them to understand what’s going on.  Let them tell the reader what they think of it all – and formulate a plan for overcoming the Big Problem (or achieve ‘victory’ against the villain).  

Letting the protagonist scheme plays several roles:

1.  An over-arching consideration of what’s happened so far lets the reader check in and make sure they understand things as the protagonist sees them.  This sets parameters.  It tells the reader “This is what we’re here to do” and allows them to settle in and enjoy anticipating the end.

2.  It keeps the protagonist moving at a time in the story when stagnation would be easy.  They have a goal. Now everything they do should be a step taken towards it – even when they get thrown backwards now and again.

3.  It increases tension for the reader (a good thing!) because it foreshadows What Could Go Horribly Wrong.

(A brief example: For those of you who’ve read Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater, this is the point in the story right after the protagonist has drawn the conclusion her local wolves are no normal wolves and she found men heading into the forest to go shooting.  She puts a plan into action first to stop the shooting, then turns her mind to keeping the ‘animals’ safe in the longer term…)

So, as your beginning draws to a close and you’re opening up your middle, set your protagonist into action.  Inform the reader what the goal is, and let them see the protagonist take the first steps toward it.

Tune in next time for “Raising the Stakes”; what happens when the protagonist discovers the problem is even bigger than they thought?

Your Turn: Does your story / plot present any unique challenges for having your protagonist planning for the future?

Monday, February 17, 2014

Critical Plot Elements - BEGINNINGS #4 - The End of the Beginning

This plot element is a structural point - and I know as soon as some of you read that you'll groan.

I’m often surprised by how many writers bemoan structure and "rules". The general consensus among the disaffected seems to be that structure stifles creativity. But to me, that attitude signals a misconception about what structure really means.

Structure (I believe) doesn’t mean “Your book MUST have someone’s life at threat, a humorous side-kick and a cackling villain – now go!”

Structure (in my opinion) does mean identifying the core framework necessary to build a solid story. It’s like architecture – you can make just about anything you want, in whatever weird and wonderful shapes that please you. But underneath all that unique beauty you’ve got to have a solid foundation, load-bearing walls, and doors that won’t stick. Because who’s going to enjoy a house they can’t get into, or one they’re afraid will fall on their head?


Today I’m talking about how to signal the end of your beginning. And I don’t mean “beginning” in the sense of “Once Upon A Time”. I mean beginning as in the first of three acts: Beginning, Middle, and End.

Why It’s Important to Know When Your Beginning Ends

At a big picture level the transition from Beginning to Middle does two things: Consciously or otherwise, it tells the reader that your world-building and set-up have to be complete, and it (subconsciously) tells the reader to strap in.

At a detail level, it gives you a finish line for all the critical plot elements we’ve discussed prior to this point. All of them, without fail, should be complete before the end of your beginning. The parameters for your story should be in place. When this first curtain closes, the reader should be able to describe exactly what kind of story we’re in.

Now, chances are, even without realizing it you’ve probably already got the primary signal of the end of your Beginning in place. Because it’s this:

It’s the moment when your protagonist becomes aware of what’s truly at stake and decides to fight. (Depending on your genre, we’ll define ‘fight’ as anything from ‘strive for love’ to ‘kill the villain’). This is the point when the story goal is set.

In his book Techniques of the Selling Writer, my super-swami Dwight V. Swain says it like this:

“…Curiosity is the element, on page one, that makes your reader wonder: What’s this leading up to?

So, what is this leading up to?

The fact that there’s going to be a fight.

What’s the fight about?

It concerns your character’s efforts to achieve a goal – to attain or retain something in the face of danger.

Enter the story question: Will your focal character win, or won’t they?”

Can you see what he’s saying?

You have to set the greater events of your book into action. Your protagonist can no longer be fleeing, ignoring, ignorant, undecided, etc, etc, etc. This is the point where they look at what’s happening and choose an end-game.

If you can’t identify a point at which your character chooses to fight, then create one. Make them active. Turn them into a purveyor of their own fate - even if that fate will be forced to change before we're done.

If you can’t figure out what the end game is, then get working. Without a goal the character is simply a plastic-bag riding the wind. You’ll get feedback notes from agents like ‘passive’, ‘can’t identify what’s at stake’, ‘just didn’t care about what happened’ (trust me, I’m quoting).

In other words, the first act begins when we meet the protagonist and their life changes. It ends when the protagonist (who may well appear besmudged and rising from the ashes of ruin) clenches their fist and says “Not on my watch!”

So, take a good, hard look at your plot arch. Take a good hard look at your protagonist. Then make sure the two converge at this point in the moment your reader would identify as the “launch pad”.

Your Turn: Can you identify the end of the beginning in some of your favorite books?

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Can't Wait for This one!!!! ALL LINED UP - Video Cover Reveal

I haven't anticipated a release like this since my favorite romance author, Julie Anne Long's release on my birthday last year.

Seriously guys, if you're an NA fan, you WANT THIS BOOK:

Check out this video release for the cover for ALL LINED UP, the first book in Cora Carmack's highly anticipated Rusk University Series! ALL LINED UP is a New Adult Contemporary Romance novel published by William Morrow (an imprint of HarperCollins). It is due to be released on May 13, 2014!!

In Texas, two things are cherished above all else—football and gossip. My life has always been ruled by both.
Dallas Cole loathes football. That's what happens when you spend your whole childhood coming in second to a sport. College is her time to step out of the bleachers, and put the playing field (and the players) in her past.
But life doesn't always go as planned. As if going to the same college as her football star ex wasn’t bad enough, her father, a Texas high school coaching phenom, has decided to make the jump to college ball… as the new head coach at Rusk University. Dallas finds herself in the shadows of her father and football all over again.
Carson McClain is determined to go from second-string quarterback to the starting line-up. He needs the scholarship and the future that football provides. But when a beautiful redhead literally falls into his life, his focus is more than tested. It's obliterated.
Dallas doesn't know Carson is on the team. Carson doesn't know that Dallas is his new coach's daughter.
And neither of them knows how to walk away from the attraction they feel.
“Laughter + heartache + hot sexual tension = the perfect Cora Carmack book.”
—Monica Murphy
Pre-Order Links: Amazon Barnes & Noble iTunes  

About Cora Carmack: Cora Carmack is a twenty-something writer who likes to write about twenty-something characters. She's done a multitude of things in her life-- boring jobs (like working retail), Fun jobs (like working in a theatre), stressful jobs (like teaching), and dream jobs (like writing). She enjoys placing her characters in the most awkward situations possible, and then trying to help them get a boyfriend out of it. Awkward people need love, too. Her first book, LOSING IT, was a New York Times and USA Today bestseller. Links: Website Twitter Facebook Author Goodreads ALL LINED UP Goodreads

Monday, February 10, 2014

Critical Plot Elements - BEGINNINGS #2 - The Inciting Incident

Inciting Incident – What Is It?

When you read an author talking about an inciting incident what does that mean to you?

The term "inciting incident" is thrown around a lot among fiction writers and teachers of craft. When I was really new to all this I would have exchanged the words “inciting incident” for “dramatic event”.  But that wasn't quite right.

The truest definition of an inciting incident (I believe) is simple: Change.

Whether that change is anticipated or unexpected is irrelevant. The point is that change is the element which spurs the protagonist in a new direction and so the plot begins to unfold.

But "change" is such a wide, overarching term. What kind of change should it be? Does it have to be bombastic? Does it have to be life-threatening? Does it have to bring the heavens crashing down on the head of the protagonist?

Short answer: No. But some of those elements wouldn’t hurt.

(NB: I’ll be leaning heavily on Dwight V. Swain’s book Techniques of the Selling Writer in this post because even though I’ve read dozens of blog posts, articles and book chapters on this subject, I still believe his explanation of the elements that comprise an inciting incident are the best and clearest. For a truly inspired explanation of these elements, buy the book).

Inciting Incident – What Does It Involve?

To build a successful opening – the first pages or first chapters of a book that a reader will be compelled to keep reading – you need four things.


What does normal life look like? What is the protagonist’s usual routine? How would they expect the rest of this day to pan out?

Grounding the reader in "normal" is crucial to helping them understand the impact of the change you’re about to invoke. It gives the reader a baseline – and emotionally invests them in the impacts of…


Whether surprising or expected, change must come. In its truest sense, this moment of change – either in environment, circumstance or relationship – is the core of the inciting incident. But the event itself will only have the desired impact if you’ve provided the reader with the foundation of normal first.

Bestsellers Delirium by Lauren Oliver and Divergent by Veronica Roth both do a really good job of opening with the protagonist in the midst of a normal day. Both also let the protagonist knowingly anticipate a massive change in the near future. This has the duel effect of showing the reader what normal looks like, and building tension through anticipation of dramatic change. But the reason these examples work is because they center around…


The reason an affected character is utterly crucial to an inciting incident is because s/he pulls the reader into the story via empathy.

A nuclear blast is a terrible thing. But we remain fairly emotionally detached from it until it affects us personally. At its core, the affected character is me – the reader. I feel for and with the person whose skin I’m in. If dramatic events occur in a vacuum, it’s a news story, not a novel.

Besides, how can you define "normal" and create change without a specific life to establish where we started and what changed within it?

Now, as a general rule the affected character will be the protagonist. But there are plenty of examples where the inciting incident occurs in the life of someone other than the protagonist – but the change draws the protagonist into the center of the story - i.e. a murder victim in a crime thriller wherein the protagonist is a detective. Just take care not to try and be clever. When you’re drawing a reader into your book the best vehicle is usually the person who they’ll get to know the best and be rooting for throughout its pages: The protagonist. If you have to step outside that box, do it with care and make sure you bring the protag into the mix as quickly and deeply as possible. Because they are the one who will make us realize to true depth of…


Change without consequence is either unimportant or unrealistic. Neither of those are ways to kick off a compelling book.

Take a look at your opening chapters. You’ll often hear writers talk about creating trouble or raising the stakes. Consequences are the real measure of a problem.

EXAMPLE: A strange man turns up at my door and tells me my power is about to go out because of line testing. If the only consequence of this is that I can’t have a cup of coffee or a shower for another hour, it may be irritating, but it’s pretty much a yawn-and-move-on moment for a reader.

But, if the consequence of that man’s announcement is that my security system goes offline, allowing covert entry to my premises from a psychotic criminal… well… You see what I mean.

Without consequence, the change doesn’t spell trouble. And without trouble there is no basis for tension.

The most effective tension is based on fear of what could be. So, as the change occurs (or in anticipation of the change if your plot is based around an upcoming known event) make sure the reader understands what this means. Or might mean. Or might mean if the change doesn’t come to pass.

Inciting Incident – When Does It Occur?

If you can find a way to fit all of that into your first five pages, great! Do it! But without fail, you must have all these elements in place within the first fifty.

Don’t be afraid to combine elements – let the affected character observe a "normal" day on the commuter train in the moments just prior to the Policeman running onto the platform demanding everyone off because there's a bomb on board.

Or, let the jaded protagonist curse her wretched, boring, small-town life as she crosses the dusty street in her cowboy boots - just before the romantic interest screams into town in his sleek, black sports car.

Or let the young magician’s spell fail again in the moments prior to his final exam – which, if he doesn’t pass it, will mean banishment to the dungeons of the castle and a life of servitude, rather than the vaulted heights of a King’s Man.

See what I mean?

It may be that you can depict status quo, change, an affected character and consequence in the space of a few paragraphs. Or it may take pages. Or it may take chapters. But whatever you do, do it as quickly as feasibly possible.

So, that's it!  Go forth and double-check your manuscript openings for these critical elements, then come back in a couple of days when we explore what I like to call the “Plot Mirror” and discuss the differences between foreshadowing (WANT!) and projecting (DON’T WANT!).

And to wind up: There's a lot of information here. Feel free to ask questions in the comments if any of this is unclear. I’m happy to clarify.

Your Turn: When you read these elements of a good beginning to any books come to mind as great examples of this approach working (or not working)?

Friday, February 7, 2014

Get in Quick - the BREAKABLE Kindle eBook is on sale for $0.99!

If you haven't already taken the opportunity to pick up BREAKABLE, now's your chance to get it cheap - grab it today for just $0.99!

Or, buy the paperback for a friend and get the kindle-copy for yourself for FREE!

The price won't stay this low, so click here to get in quick.


Thursday, February 6, 2014

Critical Plot Elements - BEGINNINGS #1 - Writing the Rule Book

Well, I'm deep in the writing cave and working through my own plotting exercises, so I thought it was a good time to revisit the Plot Development series. Over the next few weeks we'll hit on all the major plot-points in a novel. If you have any questions along the way, just ask! As for me, I'll be busy writing, and writing, and writing...

Let's get to it!

World-Building and Narration Rules

Let's accept the fact that readers will only trust you and your book if you lay down ground rules. Guidelines vary, but everyone who's anyone seems to agree that within the first fifty pages (some would say 20-30) a reader must have clear answers to all of the following:
- What world are we in? (Futuristic, contemporary, historical, unknown)
- Will we switch POV’s during the book, or stay behind one set of eyes?
- Are there paranormal, fantastical or supernatural elements to this world?

The important point to note is that things like POV switches and / or magic, paranormal elements, fantasy, etc, must be highlighted for the reader in the opening pages. During the first 30-50 pages, you’re writing the rule book. Literally. You’re defining the parameters for the reader. Everything they conjecture as they try to figure out what will happen, or understand about your story will be filtered through the guidelines you set in those opening chapters. So when you establish a rule, you have to stick to it. And if you don't give a clue about what's coming, you risk angering readers. To whit:

If you have a contemporary novel that tells the story of a woman on the run from an abusive husband and 140 pages in you suddenly introduce the ghost of her abusive father who's going to scare the husband away, most readers will throw the book across the room. It’s akin to a deus ex machina and it doesn’t work on modern readers.

Or if you set your book up as a romance with a protagonist on the search for love, then spend ninety pages showing her life before she meets Mr. Right, none of your readers will get that far. Romance as a genre is understood to be based not on "will they or won’t they", but on how will they. If you spend the first half of the book exploring the heroine’s issues without introducing the hero, your target demographic will get bored.

Readers believe what you tell them in those first pages. If you don’t follow through on the promise, they’ll blame you – the author.

But! I can hear you shriek, my book has a surprise twist! If I show the reader that ghosts are real in the first pages, I won’t have a climax!

That’s fine. If your paranormal elements can’t be revealed until later in the book, you need to foreshadow. Hint. Lay the trail. Let the reader know that something isn’t normal about this world – then let the story unfold to show them exactly what it is. Skillful writing creates 20/20 hindsight – an "A-ha!" moment when the reader slaps their forehead and says “I should have seen that coming!”

But! I can hear someone else saying, the first half of my book is from one character’s point of view, and the second half is from someone else’s. I can’t ‘foreshadow’ that.

No, you can’t. You need to either use POV switches with other characters throughout so the reader is accustomed to jumping heads - or you need to be a really skillful writer. To switch voices and eyes halfway through would be incredibly jarring to most readers. Rules can be broken, of course, but you’ve got to pull it off with pizazz if you want an agent / editor to take a risk on you.

But! Yells the lady at the back, I’m going for a “Planet of the Apes” effect. If I tell the reader they’re in the future, there will be no twist at the end!

I’ll refer you back to ghost-guy: That’s the beauty of foreshadowing. You have to lay a foundation and work within your own rules. In other words – the reader has to realize that way back in those first pages, you did tell them they were in the future. They just didn’t figure it out until you showed it to them at the end. That means:

DON’T have a character describe what it’s like to live in 1526, complete with medieval settings and customs, then reveal at the end that the calendar was reset in 2034.

DO use your opening words to describe a medieval world, complete with ‘historical touches’ – but have strange names for things, or superstitions / mythology based on current-world inventions or social rules (except the reader thinks it's just elements they aren't accustomed to from an historical world). Then, at the end, when the protagonist’s daughter discovers a picture of New York in 2023 in her history scroll, the reader gasps and realizes what all those little details actually meant.


No one likes to have the rules changed halfway through a game. And neither do readers. If you want to write commercially viable fiction, you’ve got to find a way to define the rules at the beginning so they still apply at the end.
Next Post: The Inciting Incident – what it is, what it should achieve, and how to do it well.

Your Turn: Have you ever read a book that successfully broke it’s own rules? Or have you read a book that disappointed when it tried to?