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?


  1. Great post, Aimee. I've read a book that successfully broke the 'no changing POVs halfway through' rule you set - Queen Kat, Carmen and St Jude save the world. The three title characters tell a third of the book in 1st person each. HOWEVER the author sets this up by introducing each of them in the initial chapters, which are told in third person. If these initial chapters didn't exist, it would have been a lot harder to accept perspective shifts.

  2. Such a helpful post! I love the way you word your advice - it makes so much sense, and I can see how it can/will/should be applied! :) Looking forward to this series!

  3. I read a fantasy novel that changed the rules about 2/3 of the way through the book. Even though the new premise was intriguing, I had liked the old one, and I was very disappointed to discover it would never be explored. So disappointed, in fact, that I put the book down and haven't touched the rest of the series.

    So, to add to your list of rules: If your whole plot centers on throwing over the old system of magic for a new one, there needs to be some hint of that in the first 50 pages.

  4. Fantastic post, Aimee! There's nothing worse than an author who pulls a 'bait and switch' on her readers, and changing the rules midway gets jarring. I about screamed when I got to the 4th book in the Twilight series and saw that, out of nowhere, Jacob popped up with his own section. And as much as I love Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series, she almost lost me when she introduced a 3rd person POV in book 2. Book 1 had been told entirely from the MC's perspective, and in 1st person, and a departure from a voice that was incredibly strong and forceful was really difficult for me to swallow.

    Excited to read the next part of the series!

  5. That's great advice! I completely agree with you...there must be set expectations! Although, there was one author who I used to read a lot of (I couldn't remember her name to save my life, I wish I could!) and her books were GREAt at turning the plot over on it's head and surprising the reader. I loved it and she didn't use a lot of hinting either. Sometimes it can work, but not often!

  6. It's always the simple things we don't think of that make us go oh, yeah!

    thanks for stopping by, great post!

  7. Aimee, I just stumbled onto your blog and am finding the critical plot elements series very insightful. Thanks. I am procrastinating before I dive back into my own re-plotting. Wait, no, this is research right?
    Years ago, I read a book by Jude Deveraux, A Knight in Shining Armor, that I always called a wall thumper because that's what happened at the very end. I literally threw it against the wall (Hardback). Now, I have a great love and respect for books but the author ended this book in such a way that I just heaved it. It's a romance with time travelling where the heroine travels back in time to the Victorian age(I think) and meets the hero. She ended it with the heroine returning to her own time, finding out that the hero had lived a long life alone. On a plane she meets a man the author alludes to being the re-incarnated hero. THUMP. Maybe if she had read a post like this, she could have handled it better and not lost a reader.

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