Write Great Fiction - Plot & Structure
Book notes for "Write Great Fiction - Plot & Structure", by James Scott Bell
Since this is not a subject I am familiar with, it is hard to judge how good the advice is, or how novel! The structure was slightly confused, there was a bit of repetition. Over-all it was more like a grab-bag of tips than a structured plotting system.
Table of contents
Introduction: Putting the Big Lie to Sleep
Chapter One: What’s a Plot, Anyway?
Chapter Two: Structure: What Holds Your Plot Together
Chapter Three: How to Explode With Plot Ideas
Chapter Four: Beginning Strong
Chapter Five: Middles
Chapter Six: Endings
Chapter Seven: Scenes
Chapter Eight: Complex Plots
Chapter Nine: The Character Arc in Plot
Chapter Ten: Plotting Systems
Chapter Eleven: Revising Your Plot
Chapter Twelve: Plot Patterns
Chapter Thirteen: Common Plot Problems and Cures
Chapter Fourteen: Tips and Tools for Plot and Structure
Just reading a book on plotting is not going to make you a better writer. You have to try out what you learn, see if you get it, and try some more. You test the principles in the fire of the blank page. As you read this book, take time to digest and then apply what you learn about plot and structure to your own writing.
I love books on writing. I have shelves full of them. I’ve read every one with a yellow highlighter. Then I’ve reread almost all of them with a red, felt-tip pen, marking things I missed the first time. Then I’ve gone through most of them a third time, writing out new insights on a yellow legal pad. Then I’ve taken my notes and typed them up. What I’m doing is digesting the material as deeply as I possibly can. I want it to be part of me. I want it there when I write my next novel.
“First get it written, then get it right.” I can’t remember who said them, but these are words of wisdom. Don’t spend too much time worrying and fretting and tinkering with your first draft. The guidelines in this book will help you not only in the planning of your plot and the writing of it, but most of all when you get to the revision stage. Your job with that first draft is to pour yourself onto the page. In Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity, Ray Bradbury says, “Let the world burn through you. Throw the prism light, white hot, on paper.”
Set a quota. Writing is how you learn to write. Writing daily, as a discipline, is the best way to learn. Most successful fiction writers make a word goal and stick to it. A time goal can easily be squandered as you sit and agonize over sentences or paragraphs.
The daily writing of words, once it becomes a habit, will be the most fruitful discipline of your writing life. You’ll be amazed at how productive you’ll become, and how much you’ll learn about the craft.
The main difference between successful writers and unsuccessful writers is persistence.
with plotting the novel. There are a few basics that, if understood and applied, will help you come up with a solid plot every time. How far you go from there is, like most things, a matter of plain old hard work and practice.
the LOCK system. LOCK stands for Lead, Objective, Confrontation, and Knockout.
a strong plot starts with an interesting Lead character. In the best plots, that Lead is compelling, someone we have to watch throughout the course of the novel. This does not mean the Lead has to be entirely sympathetic.
Objective is the driving force of fiction. It generates forward motion and keeps the Lead from just sitting around. An objective can take either of two forms: to get something or to get away from something.
Solid plots have one and only one dominant objective for the Lead character. This forms the “story question” — will the Lead realize her objective? You want readers to worry about the story question, so the objective has to be essential to the well-being of the Lead. If the Lead doesn’t get it (or get away from it), her life will take a tremendous hit for the worse.
confrontation. Opposition from characters and outside forces brings your story fully to life. If your Lead moves toward his objective without anything in his way, we deprive readers of what they secretly want: worry. Readers want to fret about the Lead, keeping an intense emotional involvement all the way through the novel.
People watch boxing for the knockout, he explained. They’ll accept a decision, but they prefer to see one fighter kissing the canvas. What they hate is a draw. That doesn’t satisfy anyone. Readers of commercial fiction want to see a knockout at the end. A literary novel can play with a bit more ambiguity. In either case, the ending must have knockout power.
Love? Sure, that’s simple. Boy wants girl. Girl denies boy his objective. He battles to win her love. He confronts her resistance by buying her flowers, singing her songs, protecting her from bad guys and all that romantic stuff. He gets her at the end or not. That’s one variety of the love plot. You can substitute the boy’s and girl’s families as the opposing forces, and you come up with another variety of the love story. See Romeo and Juliet. Take another plot, Change. Here, the plot focuses on an inner transformation in the Lead character. The Lead desires to stay as he is. Forces arise that challenge his complacency. He tries to resist the forces. But he is overcome at the end, and he changes. See A Christmas Carol.
Knowing why plots work is freeing. Master the principles, and you’re at liberty to add all of your personal touches. Good chefs have their secret spices, ingredients they use to give their creations something extra and unique. For writers, the spices you add to make your plot your own include characters, setting, and dialogue.
Don’t let any of your characters plop into your plot like plain vanilla. Spice them up.
It could mean simply setting your scenes in places that are fresh. How many times do we have conversations between two potential lovers in a restaurant? Back and forth they go, with the only original element being what they are served by the waiter. Why not put them in a tree house? Or on the subway stuck in a tunnel? Or underneath the boardwalk by the sea?
Tom Clancy created a whole new genre called techno-thriller because he put his hero, Jack Ryan, into a world of complex military hardware. That was new. Readers love to read about the details of other people’s working lives. Do research. Immerse yourself in some occupation, either by training for it or by interviewing an expert about it.
> For example, the martian
Alfred Hitchcock once said that a good story was life, with the dull parts taken out.
The choices you make for scenes, the raw “what happens” material, also contribute to your spice. But our minds naturally jump to clichés as we decide what to write next.
That’s why it’s critical to develop the sort of imagination that considers several possibilities before deciding which scene to write. You can do this just by pausing, writing a quick list of possibilities, and waiting for something to click.
In a novel, we must get to know some things in Act I before we can move on in the story. Then the problem is presented, and the Lead spends the greater part of the book wrestling with the problem (Act II). But the book has to end sometime, with the problem solved (Act III). It has been said in writing classes and books that the three-act structure is dead (or silly or worthless). Don’t believe it. The three-act structure has endured because it works.
Beginnings are always about the who of the story (chapter four goes into greater detail about beginnings). The entry point is a Lead character, and the writer should begin by connecting the reader to the Lead as quickly as possible
Beginnings have other tasks to perform. The four most important are: Present the story world — tell us something about the setting, the time, and the immediate context. Establish the tone the reader will rely upon. Is this to be a sweeping epic or a zany farce? Action packed or dwelling more on character change? Fast moving or leisurely? Compel the reader to move on to the middle. Just why should the reader care to continue? Introduce the opposition. Who or what wants to stop the Lead?
The major part of the novel is the confrontation, a series of battles between the Lead and the opposition.
The best endings (and we’ll look at some examples in chapter six) also: Tie up all loose ends. Are there story threads that are left dangling? You must either resolve these in a way that does not distract from the main plot line or go back and snip them out. Readers have long memories. Give a feeling of resonance. The best endings leave a sense of something beyond the confines of the book. What does the story mean in the larger sense?
The Disturbance In the beginning of your novel, you start out by introducing a character who lives a certain life. That is his starting point or, in mythic terms, the hero’s ordinary world. And it’s the place he’ll stay unless something forces him to change.
So very early in Act I something has to disturb the status quo. Just think about it from the reader’s standpoint — something’s got to happen to make us feel there’s some threat or challenge happening to the characters.
Dean Koontz usually begins his novels with such a disturbance. Here’s the first line of The Door to December (written as Richard Paige): As soon as she finished dressing, Laura went to the front door, just in time to see the L.A. Police Department squad car pull to the curb in front of the house. Now that’s a disturbance, something small to begin with, but a disturbance nonetheless.
Doorways How you get from beginning to middle (Act I to Act II), and from middle to end (Act II to Act III), is a matter of transitioning. Rather than calling these plot points, I find it helpful to think of these two transitions as “doorways of no return.” That explains the feeling you want to create. A thrusting of the character forward.
We are creatures of habit; we search for security. Our characters are the same. So unless there is something to push the Lead into Act II, he will be quite content to stay in Act I! He desires to remain in his ordinary world.
the second doorway of no return must send the Lead hurtling toward the knockout ending. These two doorways hold your three acts together, like pins in adjoining railroad cars. If they are weak or nonexistent, your train won’t run.
Lead’s normal world, a place of safety and rest, is on one side of the doorway. Problems may happen here, but they don’t threaten great change. Lead is content to stay here. Something has to happen to push him through the door. On the other side of the door is the outside world, the great unknown, the dark forest. A place where the Lead is going to have to dig deep inside and show courage, learn new things, make new allies, etc.
The Second Doorway Lead is facing a series of confrontations and challenges on one side of the door. It will go on indefinitely unless some crisis, setback, discovery opens the door to a path that leads to the climax. On the other side of the door the Lead can gather his forces, inner and outer, for the final battle or final choice that will end the story. There’s no going back through the door. The story must end.
In a novel, however, that first doorway needs to happen earlier, or the book will seem to drag. My rule of thumb is the one-fifth mark, though it can happen sooner.
All writers should periodically take a good look inside themselves. Before developing your next plot, take some time to answer the following questions. This will create what I call a “personality filter” through which you’ll be able to generate original plots full of interesting characters:
In school, I was taught to sit and think and formulate an idea, then set to work. That’s the path to the reaction, “I’ve seen this before.” You need to do the opposite. You need to come up with hundreds of ideas, toss out the ones that don’t grab you, and then nurture and develop what’s left. In a moment, I am going to give you twenty ways to come up with hundreds of ideas for your fiction. But first, some rules:  Schedule a regular idea time. Once a week at least.  Get yourself into a relaxed state, in a quiet spot where your imagination can run free.  Give yourself thirty minutes of uninterrupted time.  Select one or more of the exercises below. Read the instructions.  Begin by letting your imagination come up with anything it wants to, and record everything on paper (or the computer).  The most important rule: Do not, I repeat, do not censor yourself in any way. Leave your editorial mind out of the loop. Just let the ideas come pouring out in any way, shape, or form they want to. Do not judge anything.  Have fun. Lots of fun. You’re even allowed to laugh.  Save all your ideas.  After two or three sessions, it’s time to assess your ideas. Use the guidelines in “Nurturing Your Ideas” at the end of this chapter.  Repeat the process as often as you want.
Okay, you’ve got a bunch of ideas there. (You don’t? Get busy!) Now what? Choose your favorite idea and write a hook, line, and sinker. The hook is the big idea, the reason a reader browsing in the bookstore would look at your cover copy and go, “Wow!” The big idea in Midnight by Dean Koontz is the abuse of biotechnology, which affects an entire town. What’s the big idea behind your book?
Now comes the line. Write the grabber copy for your idea in one or two sentences. Another of Koontz’s novels, Winter Moon, was summed up this way: “In Los Angeles, a city street turns into a fiery apocalypse. In a lonely corner of Montana, a mysterious presence invades a forest. As these events converge and careen out of control, neither the living nor the dead are safe.”
 Is there some other element you can add that is fascinating? Think of the idea from every angle, and how you might add a twist or two that enlivens the whole.
A great prologue. Many page-turners begin with a mysterious, shocking, or otherwise gripping prologue. The Midnight prologue introduces a character who is jogging at night and who is killed by a mysterious beast at the end of the prologue. We never see her again. But we are left wondering about the cause of her death (as, indeed, are the lead characters). Koontz may have just written this prologue off the top of his head, and only later figured out what to do with it.
Here are some ways to grab readers from the start.
What are the successful elements of these opening lines? First, they give the name of a character. This specificity creates the illusion of reality from the get-go. A variation on this is to begin with a pronoun: She heard something moving in her bedroom.
The second thing to notice is that something is happening or about to happen to the character. And not just anything — something ominous or dangerous. An interruption to normal life. Give readers a feeling of motion, of something happening or about to happen. Give them this feeling from the very start.
Don’t misunderstand. Descriptions are not out of bounds — so long as you include text that gives the feeling of motion. And only a character can be in motion. So — give us a character as soon as possible.
Unless something disturbing happens to your Lead early on, you risk violating Hitchcock’s Axiom: A good story is life with the dull parts taken out. So stir up the waters. What happens doesn’t have to be huge, like a house blowing up. It can be something as seemingly innocuous as a telephone call in the night or a bit of unsettling news.
This brilliant opening now allows the author to drop back in time and spend the rest of the book bringing us back to the point where it begins. We want to read because we have a character who is immediately sympathetic and interesting, tied up in the battle of his life. We were there from the very first sentence.
The use of prologues is a venerable one, used by all sorts of writers in many different ways. But the most effective prologues do one simple thing — entice the reader to move to chapter one. All of the rules we talk about in this chapter apply to prologues as well, with one primary exception: The prologue does not necessarily have to introduce your Lead character. It does, however, eventually have to connect to your main plot.
Identification Since the Lead character provides access to a plot, it follows that the more the reader can identify with the Lead, the greater the intensity of the plot experience. With identification, you create the wondrous feeling that the story, in some way, is happening to me.
The Lead appears to us to be a real human being. What are the marks of a real human being? Look inside yourself. Most likely, you are: (1) trying to make it in the world; (2) a little fearful at times; and (3) not perfect.
In contrast to mere empathy, sympathy intensifies the reader’s emotional investment in the Lead. In my view, the best plots have a Lead with whom some sympathy is established. Even if the Lead has negative qualities, like Scarlett in Gone With the Wind, you can find ways to generate sympathy nonetheless.
 Hardship. If the Lead has to face some misfortune not of her own making, sympathy abounds.
The Underdog. America loves people who face long odds. John Grisham has used the underdog in many of his books. One of his best, The Rainmaker, is the classic David-and-Goliath story switched to the courtroom. We can’t help rooting for Rudy Baylor as he battles a huge defense firm.
Readers worry about a Lead who might be crushed at any time. In Rose Madder, Stephen King follows a battered wife who, after years in a hellish marriage, finally gets up the courage to run away from her psychopathic cop-husband. But she is so naive about the ways of the world, and her husband so good at tracking people down, we worry about her from the moment she steps out the door.
right. You can write about an unlikable Lead if you compensate in other areas. Giving the Lead power is one good method. Scarlett O’Hara has a certain power over men. She also demonstrates her power to overcome obstacles as the story progresses.
Make the unlikable Lead fascinating in some way, or readers will be turned off.
Inner conflict Characters who are absolutely sure about what they do, who plunge ahead without fear, are not that interesting. We don’t go through life that way. In reality, we have doubts just like everyone else. Bringing your Lead’s doubts to the surface in your plot pulls the reader deeper into the story.
Present the Story World What sort of world does your Lead inhabit? Not merely the setting, though that is important. But what is life like for the Lead?
“Don’t warm up your engines,” Jack M. Bickham counseled in The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes. “Start your story from the first sentence.” Bickham warns of three beginning motifs that can stall your story on the very first page. Excessive description. If description is what dominates the opening, there is no action, no character in motion. While some brief description of place is necessary, it should be woven briefly into the opening action. If a setting is vital to the story, at least give us a person in the setting to get things rolling. Backward looks. Fiction is forward moving. If you frontload with backstory — those events that happened to the characters before the main plot — it feels like stalling. No threat. “Good fiction,” wrote Bickham, “starts with — and deals with — someone’s response to threat.” Give us that opening bit of disturbance quickly.
It is perfectly all right that there is a mysterious opponent out there, someone to be revealed later. But that there is an opponent is all important. Make sure the opponent is as strong as or, preferably, stronger than the Lead. And do not scrimp on the sympathy factor! Give the opponent his due, his justifications. Your novel will be the stronger for it.
Nothing will slow down plot faster than an information dump. This is where the author merely tells the reader something he thinks the reader needs to know before moving on with the plot. It’s bad enough when this is done in the narrative portion, but dreadful when it is done in dialogue.
Rule 1: Act first, explain later. Begin with a character in motion. Readers will follow a character who is doing something, and won’t demand to know everything about the character up front. You then drop in information as necessary, in little bits as you go along. Rule 2: When you explain, do the iceberg. Don’t tell us everything about the character’s past history or current situation. Give us the 10 percent above the surface that is necessary to understand what’s going on, and leave 90 percent hidden and mysterious below the surface. Later in the story, you can reveal more of that information. Until the right time, however, withhold it. Rule 3: Set information inside confrontation. Often, the best way to let information come out is within a scene of intense conflict. Using the characters’ thoughts or words, you can have crucial information ripped out and thrown in front of the reader.
He’s got an attitude. That’s one key for literary novelists. If you’re doing the book in first person, then give us a voice that intrigues us. Earlier, I warned about not starting with descriptions of setting, weather, and the like. That is not an ironclad rule, but simply a helpful tip. Readers today are impatient, and want to know why they should keep reading.
Brainstorm five possibilities for your Lead in each of the following categories: Identification. How is the Lead “like us”? Sympathy. Think about jeopardy (physical or emotional); hardship; underdog status; and vulnerability. Likability. Witty? Cares about other people? Inner conflict. What two “voices” are battling inside your Lead?
The opposition merely has to have a compelling reason to stop the Lead. Three keys will help you come up with good opposition: Make the opposition a person. (A master like Stephen King can make the opposition nonpersonal, as in Tom Gordon, where it’s Trisha against the woods. But don’t try this at home until you’ve had lots of practice.) If it is a group, like the law firm in The Rainmaker, select one person in that group to take the lead role for the opposition. Make the opposition stronger than the Lead. If the opposition can be easily matched, why should the reader worry? Then ask yourself, “Why do I love my opposition character?” Climbing into the opposition’s skin will give you an empathetic view, and a better character as a result.
You must figure out a reason why the Lead and opposition can’t withdraw from the action. Writing your novel will then be a matter of recording various scenes of confrontation, most ending with some sort of setback for your Lead, forcing her to analyze her situation anew and take some other action toward her objective.
But keeping in mind that worrying the reader is the primary goal of the middle of the book, it is actually much better if the character does not attain his goal. In fact, if the situation can be made worse, then so much the better for us, your readers.
Stretching the Physical Physical peril or uncertainty is perfect material for the big stretch. The way to do it is simple — slow down. Go through the scene beat by beat in your imagination, as if you’re watching a movie scene in slow motion.
Then, as you write the scene, alternate between action, thoughts, dialogue, and description. Take your time with each one. Milk them.
Notice how Mitchard uses physical descriptions that show rather than tell: throat kept filling with nastiness; stomach roiled. She places us in Beth’s mind as her thoughts come one after another, accusing
Go for it, and don’t worry about overdoing it or wearing out the reader. You have that wonderful thing called revision to save you. If you write hot, packing your scenes with physical and emotional tension, you can always revise cool, and scale back on rewrite. That’s much easier to do than trying to heat things up the second time around.
Daffy should have been asking himself, Who cares? That’s a question all novelists must repeat, over and over, as they write. Is there enough going on to make readers care about what happens? What does the Lead character stand to lose if he doesn’t solve the central problem of the novel? Is that enough?
So ponder things like this: How can things get more emotionally wrenching for my Lead? Is there someone the Lead cares about who can get caught up in the trouble? Are there dark secrets from the past that can be revealed?
Do that with your novel. Maintain the tension in the story until the last possible moment. As you near the end, it should look as if the opposition is the one who will win. He has everything going for him. The Lead is up against the ropes. Only when the Lead reaches deep within and makes her move will the knockout blow be thrown.
In the final choice type of ending, the hero is on the horns of a terrible dilemma. He can choose a course that gets him to his objective, but at a moral cost. Or he can “do the right thing” but lose the most important goal, the thing he’s hoped for throughout the novel.
But as you get closer to the end of your first draft, pause and come up with ten alternative endings. Yes, I said ten. And I don’t mean take four weeks to do this. It should take less than thirty minutes. Brainstorm. The quicker the better. Let yourself go, and don’t worry about justifying every one of them. Once you’ve got your list, let your imagination cook the possibilities for a day or two. Come back to your list and take the top four. Deepen them a little bit. Let them cook some more. Finally, choose the one alternative ending that seems to work best as a twist — not an alternative ending at all, but an added surprise. Figure out how to work that into your ending, and then go back into your novel and justify it somehow by planting little clues here and there. There is your twist ending.
Working to make your last page like that is worth every ounce of your effort. It’s the last impression, what psychologists call the recency effect. Your audience will judge your book largely by the feeling they have most recently, namely, the end. Leave a lasting impression and you will build a readership.
What sort of ending do you have in mind for your novel? Try writing the climactic scene. This does not have to be the scene you’ll actually use, but it may be. At the very least it will get your writer’s mind working on the end and allow yourself to understand your characters more deeply. Use this information in your writing. EXERCISE 3 Come up with two or three alternative endings. List as many as ten one-line possibilities. Then choose the two or three most promising, and sketch out the scenes in summary form (250 words maximum). If an alternative seems stronger than the one you’ve had in mind, use it. Keep the old ending as a possible twist at the end. Or keep your original ending, and use
Readers may be willing to forgive other writing sins if they are reading scenes that plop them down on an emotional roller coaster. On the other hand, flat scenes are like the trams that take us to and from the park — slow, crowded, and hardly worth the ride. And readers aren’t likely to take a ride like that more than once. So make your scenes count, every one.
Most often, the best way to create an unforgettable scene is to intensify the clash. Two characters oppose each other. They have the strongest possible reasons to do so.
Setup Setup scenes, or beats, are those units that must occur in order for subsequent scenes to make sense. All novels need a certain amount of setup. We have to know who the Lead character is, what he does, and why he does it. We have to see how he gets into whatever predicament is going to dominate the book. Further, there may need to be some setup beats in the course of the story. How, then, do you do this without writing dull exposition? You simply build in a problem, however slight, to the setup scene. It can be anything from the character feeling anxious, to an argument, to a problem that must be dealt with immediately. Setup scenes are minor chords, and should be kept to an absolute minimum. Usually they occur early in the book.
The hook is what grabs the reader’s attention from the start and gets him pulled into the narrative. And here is where many a writer stumbles. Feeling there needs to be an adequate description of the location first, then the characters, a writer may tend to start his scenes slowly. This is, of course, a logical choice. We think in a linear fashion, and figure we have to get the readers seeing the location, then the characters in the location, before we can get to the good stuff, like action and dialogue. Don’t fall into this trap. Readers don’t care about the natural order if they are intrigued.
Always go over the scenes you’ve written with an eye for intensity level. If it isn’t strong enough, try to ratchet it up. Even a relatively quiet scene (which you use to modulate the pace of your novel) can give us the thoughts of the viewpoint character, showing us her worries or anxieties, thus allowing for emotional intensity.
Finally, you need to end scenes with a prompt, something to make readers turn the page. So often new writers let their scenes fizzle out, ending on a boring note: People walk out of rooms, drive off in cars, or offer dull parting phrases like “Good-bye” and “Nice talking with you.” Don’t ever let your scenes droop at the end. You have many ways to move the reader along.
A mysterious line of dialogue A secret suddenly revealed A major decision or vow Announcement of a shattering event Reversal or surprise — new information that turns the story around A question left hanging in the air If a scene seems to sputter to a close and you’re not sure what to do, here’s a great tip: try cutting the last paragraph or two. You don’t have to write every scene to its logical conclusion. In fact, it’s often the best choice not to. Cutting creates interest, a feeling of something left hanging — and that makes readers want to find out why.
DEVELOPING YOUR THEME At some point in your plotting, ask yourself what the take-home value of your story is going to be. What is the lesson or insight — the new way of seeing things — that you want the reader to glean? Put it into one line. This will be your theme.
Themes deepen fiction, but you must beware of a common danger. It is tempting for a writer to take a theme and force a story into it. This results in a host of problems, including cardboard characters, a preachy tone, a lack of subtlety, and story clichés.
> atlas shrugged?
In a parallel-plot novel, you switch back and forth between the plot lines. If you can manage to end each section in a fashion that makes readers want to read on, you’re going to achieve that magical effect — I couldn’t put it down!
> Game of thrones
Make three columns on a sheet of paper. In the first column, record the rich details that stand out in your scenes. In the middle column, list your main characters. In the last column, catalogue the significant settings. Now look for connections between the columns. Connect a detail with a character and place. Or work the other way, from place to character to detail. Pick the strongest two or three connections, and see if you can weave them into your plot as motifs or symbols.
Determine the take-home value for your novel, and put it into one line. This can be done at any stage of your plotting. If you do it early, keep it in mind as you develop your scenes. But be careful of heavy-handedness when you do. The message must come out naturally.
What makes a plot truly memorable is not all of the action, but what the action does to the character. We respond to the character who changes, who endures the crucible of the story only to emerge a different person at the end.
What deepens a plot is when characters grow. Events happen and should have impact on the characters.
Write a short profile about your Lead character’s personality at the beginning of your plot. Describe his: Beliefs Values Dominant attitudes Opinions Now ask what things will happen in the course of the plot to change or challenge these elements.
Here is one suggested method. Spend a few hours coming up with vivid scenes in your mind and recording these scenes on index cards. You don’t have to do this all in one sitting. In fact, it’s better if you don’t. You’ll find as you start collecting scenes that your writer-mind will work in the background, and when you come back to the cards, you’ll have ideas bubbling up to the surface that will be exciting to you. A scene card can be as simple as this: Monica drives to John’s house; chased by bikers. Saved by Fireman Dan.
I believe it was E.L. Doctorow who compared his plotting to driving at night with the headlights on. You have an idea as to your direction, but you can see only as far as the headlights. When you drive to that point you can see a little farther. And so on, until you reach your destination.
write it as quickly as you comfortably can. This means you don’t spend hours, Proust-like, laboring over pages and words. You can do that later. Oh, you can linger a little, looking for just the right style, but keep pushing ahead. Set a good-sized word quota for each day, and then write on through to the end. This is the “what’s happening” draft.
The reason you press on is that your heart will be eager to take your imagination in hand and explore fictional possibilities. If you stop and get too technical, too concerned with getting it exactly right, you may never find the most original parts of your story.
Finally, move on to the polish. As the name suggests, you go through and give everything that last bit of shine. Do a scene read-through, and ask yourself the following questions: Are you hooking the reader from the beginning? Are suspenseful scenes drawn out for the ultimate tension? Can any information be delayed? This creates tension in the reader, always a good thing. Are there enough surprises? Are character-reaction scenes deep and interesting? Read chapter endings for read-on prompts. Are there places you can replace describing how a character feels with actions? Do I use visual, sensory-laden words?
Dialogue is almost always strengthened by cutting words within the lines. For example: “I do not want to go in there now because it looks too scary” becomes “I don’t want to go in. Too scary.” In dialogue, be fair to both sides. Don’t give one character all the good lines. Great dialogue surprises the reader and creates tension. View it like a game, where the players are trying to outfox each other. Can you get more conflict into dialogue, even among allies?
it’s a good one for generating new plot material based on getting to know your character better. Close your eyes and see your character vividly. Dress her up for a night on the town. Have her go to a social event where she will see a number of old friends as well as some of the most powerful people in her world. She opens the door, steps into the party, and then what happens? Watch this scene in your mind. Hear the sounds, smells the smells, make it as real as possible. At some point have someone come over to your Lead and throw a drink in her face. What does she do? What do the others around her do or say? Let the scene go on of its own accord. Then take your character back home, have her getting ready for bed. She’s talking to someone she lives with, or her dog, about what happened. What is she feeling? Get into her emotions.
Sometimes you can jump ahead in your story, come up with the scene, and then think about how to connect your story up to that scene. Do a scene that has a lot of conflict or otherwise grabs you. This can get the juices flowing again.
Often after I’ve written a scene, I’ll go back and try to live the emotions. I’ll act out the parts I’ve created. Almost always what I feel “in character” will make me add to or change the scene.
Showing is like watching a scene in a movie. All you have is what is on the screen before you. What the characters do or say reveals who they are and what they’re feeling. Telling, on the other hand, merely explains what is going on in the scene, or inside the characters. It’s like you are recounting the movie to a friend.
If your plot allows you to, cut away from one scene that leaves the reader hanging to another scene, then leave that scene the same way.
You do the opposite of what they expect. You “unanticipate.” Here’s how it works. You conceive your scene or plotline. You put down the first thing that comes to your mind. It will most likely be something that’s been done because you are part of that vast audience of readers you are appealing to. Our minds jump to clichés. That’s probably what you’ll come up with first. Then you make a list of three, four, or five alternatives to your original conception. You brainstorm. Say you’re working on a scene where a husband bursts in to find his wife in the arms of his best friend. What does he do? One answer might be this: He goes to the bedroom to get a gun and shoot the two of them. We’ve seen that before. It’s a cliché. Readers anticipate something like this. What can we do to throw a little unanticipation into the mix? Let’s brainstorm on the reaction part. Instead of the usual, the husband might: Welcome his friend. “Hey, nice to see you.” Walk out without a word. Run and jump out the window.