30 March 2010

How Many Plot-lines Does Your Story Have?

After nearly 10 years of providing Plot Consultations to writers all over the world, I have come to appreciate the varied ways writers approach the writing process and write. Last week and this, I have had the honor of working with a writer with a unique approach.

He has at least five plot lines going on (nothing unusual there):
  • Character Emotional Development = inner
  • Dramatic Action = murder mystery = outer
  • Thematic Significance
  • Orphan story
  • Romance 
I first consulted with this writer nearly a year and a half ago. Then, he had a strong character emotional development or internal plot line with very little in terms of the external murder mystery plot. Since then, he has worked non-stop developing well-thought out plot lines for each of the elements most important to his story. For each of the six suspects, he developed complex back stories, motives, and alibis. The pre-work he has done is awe-inspiring.

So why come to me? He needed help weaving all the plot lines together into a suspenseful and exciting, poignant and emotional story.

His Plot Planner is likely the longest one I have ever created for another writer -- my personal Plot Planners always tend to be on the loooong side.

This writer has a two-week vacation coming up in a week. With the plan in front of him, he has only to write each next scene as they appear on the Plot Planner. No need to use his linear, logical, critical side of his brain at all. He's done all that.

Now is the time to write.

Simply write what is in front of him.

Get a first draft on the page.

Let it rest.

Rewrite at least once.

Then send out to the waiting agent and editor....

Sounds like heaven to me.

Inspired process. True dedication. Professional approach. Amazing story.

I wish him all the success in the world!!

(For any of you curious about how I come by putting the puzzle pieces together:
Jigsaw Puzzles, Not Everyone Likes Them )

(For a bit about how to create your own Plot Planner with multiple plot lines:
Plot Writing )

25 March 2010

Silence the Beastie Critic in You

Two plot consultations in two days with two writers struggling with the same dilemma I see more than any other and could very well be the deadliest writers' flaw of all. An overzealous critic silences the creative process in general and especially so in the first draft.

2 Bits of Advice: 

1) I encourage you to keep going. Do not go back and start again. Rather, pick up where you left off and write all the way through to the end. Write early in the morning before the critic has awakened -- your beast, so to speak. Do not read what you've written. 

2) Give yourself positive affirmations about your writing. Write them on post-it notes and post all over the house = on your bathroom mirror, the refrig, etc. Tell yourself:
  • I am a great writer
  • I enjoy the creative process of writing my thoughts down on paper for others to enjoy
  • I marvel at my ability to fill up a blank page with valuable information
  • I am grateful for the creative muse to visit me and inspire me and allow words to flow from me to the page. 
Continue with your own messages to yourself.

Reprogram your belief system. Don't give in to the belief that you are not good enough, that you are not a writer or whatever else you are now currently saying to yourself. See yourself sitting down writing and enjoying the process, enjoying seeing the words flow, enjoying seeing your imagination become reality. Visualize this over and over and over again as you're driving, brushing your teeth, hanging out. Believe in yourself as a writer.

At first it will feel false, soon it will be real.

Turn off your critic. Allow yourself to be a true writer which means you appreciate the creative process and that the right words do not always come out the first time, that you cannot always convey what you imagine for your story the first time. Writing is a process. Get the words down. Later you can go back and be brilliant.

Finish first. Remember what you are good at. Forget everything else. Writing is all that matters now.

23 March 2010

Opposite of Foreshadowing

A recent post about Foreshadowing talks how every paragraph, sentence, word in the Beginning (1/4) introduces or foreshadows the character emotional development, dramatic action, thematic significance.

The opposite is also true.

Anything you introduce in the Beginning (1/4), the savvy reader knows on some level is important to the overall story.

Therefore, be careful about every word you use. If you use dark and ominous words in the Beginning, the reader expects the story overall will be dark and ominous. If you introduce a gun, the reader knows violence is coming, likely even death by gunshot. If you introduce sweetness and light, the reader expects the story to reflect the same.

Of course, you can switch things up later and turn the tables, so to speak.

Just make sure you know what you're doing and why.

Make your words count, every single one of them...

For more on Foreshadowing and the importance of the Beginning (1/4):

21 March 2010

Your Truth is Trying to Reveal Itself to You

Listen to yourself. Write the way that feels right to you.

Often comments from others are more an indication that something needs work. In our zeal to support our fellow writers, we come up with all sorts of solutions. However, what's most important is to know something isn't working and for you to come up with what is the best fit.

I just don't want you to get into trying to please everyone else.

Most important is your relationship to the story.

The story will tell you everything you need to know.

Ask the story what is best and then listen...

18 March 2010

Protagonist & Climax

The protagonist is always the character who is the most changed or transformed by the dramatic action in the story.

At the Climax (the scene right before the Resolution at the end), the protagonist does something to "show" the ultimate change or transformation. Whatever she does at the Climax -- the crowning glory of the entire story -- she is unable to do anywhere else in the story. She has to first endure all the dramatic action that comes before in order to gain the abilities and skills and new understanding of herself.

Make sure the action the protagonist takes at the Climax reflects this inner and outer growth and ask yourself if she could have acted in the same way anywhere else in the story.

Yes? Then rethink the Climax.

No? Then you're good to go!

15 March 2010


Whether you have a critique group or simply valued and trusted readers, you may receive feedback about some element not working in your story. Often the readers, in an attempt to be helpful, attempt to come up with reasons why something doesn't work or give advice about how to improve the questionable section(s).

However, I usually find the problem occurs because the element -- plot twist, character reaction, goal, motivation, whatever -- comes out of the blue with no or little warning.

A simple solution: foreshadowing.

If someone is going to die at the Crisis towards the end of the Beginning, make sure you introduce the concept of death as early as possible -- preferably first scene -- either as a metaphor or some sort of death, not necessarily big. Could be as simple as a dead insect or small bird or whatever. 

If the protagonist decides to get a job in the Middle, be sure the idea of no money, need for a job, or the concept of working is introduced in the Beginning (1/4) of the project -- this can be done by some other character and does not have to be obvious. None of what I'm talking about here is blatant, but more subtle = foreshadowing. 

Don't forget. The Beginning (1/4) is in the introductory mode -- introduction of all the characters, setting, theme, concepts that will come later, anything and everything that will be deepened in the story later is introduced up front or foreshadowed in the Beginning. 

Foreshadowing is an essential, yet often overlooked, skill that helps to make the scenes flow and the story feel seamless.

11 March 2010

5 Key Scenes

  1. Scene, moment, conflict, dilemma, loss, fear, etc. that forces protagonist to take immediate action -- Inciting Incident
  2. Scene or event that symbolizes the end of what was. The protagonist's goal shifts or takes on greater meaning and turns the story in a new direction, launching the character into the actual story world itself -- End of the Beginning (*)
  3. The moment the protagonist consciously makes a total commitment to achieving her goal and does something that signifies she has burned all bridges back and thus can only go forward -- Halfway Point
  4. Scene or event that symbolizes an all-is-lost moment -- Crisis (*)
  5. Scene or event that, just as it looks as if all is permanently lost for the protagonist, she saves the day -- Climax (*)

Think of these 3-5 scenes/events as energetically holding more meaning and symbolism than the others.

09 March 2010

Definition of Plot for Writers

Plot integrates dramatic action, a character’s emotional development, and thematic significance in a story.  


To further break down plot: 

PLOT is a series of


deliberately arranged by

cause and effect

to create

dramatic action

 filled with

conflict, tension, suspense, and/or curiosity

 to further the

character’s emotional development

and provide

thematic significance


What does that mean?

A.     Scenes

Plot is a series of scenes that show outward action.  Scenes are in the now, the physical, moment-by-moment.  Action is a scene marker, as is dialogue.  Think of each scene as a little story plot of its own.


B.    Cause and Effect

Plot is a series of scenes deliberately arranged by cause and effect.  Cause and effect means that each scene comes directly from the preceding scene.  One scene causes the next, creating a satisfying story for audiences because each scene is organic. From the seeds you plant in the first scene, the next scene emerges.


C.    Dramatic Action

Plot is a series of scenes deliberately arranged by cause and effect to create dramatic action.  Dramatic action means that the scenes played out moment-by-moment through action and dialogue include tension.


D.   Conflict, Tension, Suspense, and/or Curiosity


Plot is a series of scenes deliberately arranged by cause and effect to create dramatic action filled with conflict, tension, and suspense. Story is conflict shown in scene. Conflict, tension, and suspense force the audience members to the edge of their seats. Conflict, tension, and suspense are built through setbacks, not through good news.


E.    Character’s Emotional Development

Plot is a series of scenes deliberately arranged by cause and effect to create dramatic action filled with conflict, tension, and suspense to further the character’s emotional development.  Authors’ and screenwriters’ develop story plots around the characters. More than anything else, an audience and readers identify most with the character.  Characters in a story show the story through their reactions and emotions to the dramatic action. 

We connect to one another through emotion. A character able to “show” an emotional response to the conflict and action engages the reader, while a character who merely “tells” how she feels about what happened is boring and often unbelievable. A character’s action or behavioral response to conflict, during the event itself and later, in relating the conflict, is most compelling to an audience.  Your audience needs to understand and care about your characters who represent the heart of your story.  Emotional meaning always comes from your characters.


F.    Thematic Significance

Plot is a series of scenes deliberately arranged by cause and effect to create dramatic action filled with conflict, tension, and suspense to further the character’s emotional development and create thematic significance.  Thematic significance ties your entire story together. It is the main thrust of your story and what you hope to prove through your presentation.  The theme is the why: what you want your audience to take away after having read your story. The deeper meaning of the story becomes the thematic significance. 

08 March 2010

5 Reasons Writers Get Stuck

1) Writers Balk at Plot

At the thought of plot and structure, writers’ palms turn sweaty and their hearts race. Why the visceral reaction? The act of creation generally comes from the right side of the brain and the linear, concrete structure of plot comes from the left, making structure for writers inherently counter-intuitive.

At some point, however, every writer, even those who work out their stories on the page, requires some sort of structure in which to present their work. Plot is the interweaving of character emotional development, dramatic action and thematic significance. In other words, someone acts or reacts. In so doing, that someone is changed and something is learned.

2) Writers Concentrate on Their Strengths, Forgetting that Plot is not Merely Action-driven Nor is it Only Character-driven

The rhythm of story telling is in all of us right now, especially for those of us who were read to as youngsters and continue to read fiction today. (PLOT TIP: The best way to becoming a better writer is to become a more voracious reader).

Natural born storyteller tap into this rhythm unconsciously and are able to weave all three plot lines without much conscious thought to structure. For the rest of us who have something to say and long to be heard or, in our case, read, our stories tend to turn out lopsided. Why? Because we get stuck either by concentrating on action only, forgetting that character makes up 70% of good fiction, or by delving into the inner-workings of characters with little regard for conflict, tension and suspense.


3) Writers Forget the Importance of Cause and Effect

The structure of story has remained essentially the same since the beginning of time. The elements that vary are the beat or tempo and the intensity. Take, for example, the current best seller The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown with its break-neck pace of action versus the more leisurely plot pace of the early 19th century classic Emma by Jane Austen. Though the degree of intensity rises at differing speeds, both stories possess a strong element of suspense with cause and effect closely linked.

Without Cause and Effect, Tempo and Intensity a story can bog down and the writer gets stuck.

Of course, writers of today always have the option to give their readers the unexpected and slow things down. But whether you adhere to the current story telling standards or create your own, and whether you write thrillers, memoirs, historical or mainstream fiction, a firm understanding of the essence of plot helps to not only keep you going, but increases your chances of being published and enjoyed by readers.


4) Writers Tell Instead of Show the Story

Show, don’t tell. We’ve all heard it. Nevertheless, writers often get stuck on wanting to tell their story and thus end up writing in summary. Summary sums up or tells what happens over a period of time in your story. Summary is important, but it also puts distance between the reader and the story. Scene shows what happens as the action unfolds moment-to-moment on the page. Scene is immediate and draws the reader in close to the story.

Scene holds the same sort of structure as the overarching plot of a story, beginning with steps toward a goal or desire, followed by some sort of conflict and tension and ending with a cliff-hanger. Each scene has a tiny plot of its own. Understand scene and you begin to understand the essence of plot.

Scene focuses on motion with tension and conflict, and slows down the story speed for maximum effect. Not all scenes have really big events going on in them, but every scene holds layers and layers of information packed into the moment all at once written in detail. If you can convince the reader to trust you the small things up front, they will believe you in the big things to come.

All the high points in a story must be played out in scene on the page, moment-by-moment in real time. The technique of slowing things down forces the stakes in a story ever higher. At the same time, the stakes also rise for you as the writer. Many beginning writers hide from the pressure of creating scenes by relying on summary and narration. These same writers hold the mistaken belief that they can control things better by telling what happens rather than by showing in scene. My contention is if you break down scene to its smallest parts you retain control.

5) Writers Forget that the Craft of Writing Comes in the Deliberate Arrangement of Scenes

The muse flows into our imagination through visions and ideas, dreams and inspiration. However, once all the muse’s wonderful material is on the page, it is then up to the writer to organize the scenes in order to give them the biggest impact.

The first part of getting the story down on the page almost comes from outside of the writer. The biggest hurdles for the writer at this stage to overcome are resistance and the inner critic.

Once the material is on the page, however, is when the writer walks fully into their power as a writer. The biggest hurdle for the writer at this stage is full knowledge about the craft of writing itself.