I’ve not done a post yet about standard plotting because it is something you can read about in many places. I’ve always found it easier to understand something if I know why I’m doing it, so I’d rather discuss the ideas behind good writing in terms of what you are trying to achieve than simply prescribing what to do.
Here are some links to places you can read about plotting:
Three Act Plot Structure – A basic introduction to the three act structure and links to more advice.
Elements of a Novel – Structure and Plot – This article has some good emphasis on character conflict and the relationship between plot and character, plus some good diagrams if you like visual aids.
Classic story structure begins with plot – Adam Sexton – A look at plotting in a slightly different way as an alternative to the three act structure concept.
Story Structure Architect – Victoria Lynn Schmidt – A thorough look at plot structure and all the many devices you can use. (Also available for Kindle)
Plus everyone will tell you to read Stephen King’s On Writing. I’ve not read it yet, but I think I will have to eventually to see what everyone is talking about, like I did with Twilight.
Last time I looked at how to engage a reader with the opening of your story. Once you have your reader hooked you need to keep them immersed and invested in the story to keep them turning the pages.
Imagine your story is a casino. Your goal is to give your readers a gambling addiction. It is important to establish the value of the prize – the main character’s goal – and the price of failing to win it – the stakes.
Once again it comes back to immersion and believability. If your characters are going to struggle through adversity and setbacks in pursuit of their goal then the reader needs to find it believable that they would go to all that trouble. As soon as the reader starts wondering why the character is bothering to put themselves through hell, you’ve lost them.
Firstly the goal must be worth the risk. You want your readers to identify with the character and want them to succeed. The goal could be anything from getting the girl to saving the world, so long as the readers want it too.
Secondly the stakes should motivate the character to try. Failure should have consequences which make the reader cringe, laugh or cry. The prize should never seem completely out of reach though, otherwise what’s the point of trying again?
Like a gambler at the blackjack table, you want each setback only to encourage the reader to bet more on the next hand in the hopes of winning big.
Establishing the stakes gives your story tension. But, how do you establish the stakes? You don’t want to undermine the impact of your scenes by explaining everything that is going to happen before it happens, but dropping hints and laying groundwork creates a sense of anticipation in the reader. This is a matter of establishing precedent for future events.
Precedent can be subtle, so subtle you might not even know it was there. It might be built into the character or the setting. Resist the urge to keep returning to it. If the stakes are sufficiently high, once you establish them they will stay in the reader’s mind.
The other important reason for establishing precedent is, you guessed it, believability. If solutions to setbacks appear without warning you make the reader think you’re cheating; just making up unlikely things to suit you. By building in precedent it is possible to make the arrival of the totally unexpected seem totally plausible.
Pace is a tricky thing to define. In an effort to put it simply, it’s about the speed of the flow of events. But this is more than just how many hours or days the events take place over, it’s about how much time/detail you spend on each moment, how continuous your narrative is, the language you use, and how you use that pace to create emotional responses in your reader.
It’s a complicated subject to say the least, but some general approaches are quite straight forward. As with the previous post about scenes and narrative summary, the pace of your story should work to focus on the elements that are important to the plot.
The pace does not need to be constant, but wild changes in a short period of time can feel quite jarring. This may in some cases be an effect you want to use on purpose, but you should be aware of doing it unintentionally.
Pace is not linked to the number of words on the page and only partially linked to the time and events covered in those words. Three pages of narrative summary covering a couple of weeks of events will feel slow to the reader compared to three pages of scene covering a few minutes. Meanwhile a sedate conversation will feel slow compared to a frantic action scene even if the two cover the same length of time in the same amount of words. The same scene with more descriptive detail will feel slower than if you focus on the actions.
Pace should ebb and flow to keep the reader turning the pages. You never want them to get bored or start skipping pages so you should be mindful of the length of your slower paced sections. Equally, if every second of the story is set at a frantic pace they may start to question how your characters have the energy. Consider slowing the pace down from time to time to keep the story believable.
Image credits – Click individual images.