27 July 2010


When the Dramatic Action changes the Character Emotional Development at depth over time, a story becomes Thematically Significant. These three threads: Dramatic Action, Character Emotional Development and Thematic Significance, hold the core dynamic of plot.

But if one broadens the definition of plot to include it as a verb -- what a writer does in deliberately arranging scenes by cause and effect, then there are a multitude of story elements a writer is able to plot. An excellent source to plot out in your stories is the vast array of antagonists* (see below for a list of the Six Standard Antagonists).

Antagonists work well because Dramatic Action caused by an antagonist always creates conflict, tension, suspense and/or curiosity, thus placing those scenes above the line of your Plot Planner. (For more information on the development of a Plot Planner for your individual project, watch one of the Plot DVDs or read the second part of Blockbuster Plots Pure and Simple.)

Think of a story as the shifting of power back and forth between the protagonist and the antagonist. Or, in other words, the protagonist pushes toward something, while forces internal and external (the antagonists) attempt to thwart her progress. A story is the struggle between a protagonist who wants something enough to take action against all the antagonists or forces within and without who work against her. The Plot Planner is merely a line that separates the scenes into those where the energy or power is with the antagonist(s) (above the Plot Planner line) and those where the protagonist is in control or holds the power over the antagonist (below the Plot Planner line).

Scenes with conflict, tension, suspense and/or curiosity test the protagonist and show the reader or moviegoer what the character is made of. Since most people read and go to the movies 70% for the Character Emotional Development, it makes sense to employ as many antagonists as you need to in order to create heightened conflict, tension, suspense and curiosity.

Remember, not all antagonists are people.

A prime example is when the protagonist goes up against nature. Nature as an antagonist can be as monumental as a flood, a hurricane, or an earthquake. Nature can also work on a more subtle level by helping to create mood and add depth to the conflict, tension and suspense. Plot out these nature elements and you will be better able to control the effect intended in each and every scene, and in the overall story itself.

Nature unfolds according to the four seasons. The first of the 7 Essential Elements of Scene is to establish (explicit or implied) right up front in each scene the date and setting. This includes the time of the year, the day of the week, and the time of day. Each of these time factors of nature has the potential to create mood and/or conflict, tension and suspense.

For instance, dawn and dusk are often considered the "between times" when there is a thinning of the veils between the physical and the spiritual, the past and the future. These times often create a sense of poignancy, melancholy, or imbalance in people. Throw in the haunting cry of a mourning dove and the feeling intensifies.

The antagonist of nature often collides with the antagonist of society. For instance, if a character is facing the holidays at the end of the year alone, that scene has the potential to evoke loneliness in the reader or moviegoer in a way no other time of the year is able to without having to say or show anything more. This bleak feeling intensifies if the weather that year is exceptionally violent with torrential winds blowing and rain or snow falling, covering the land in ice.

Date night is customarily considered as Saturday night. What is worse for a character who is alone than to be thrust out on a Saturday night in a lonely city watching couples walk hand-in-hand?

By plotting out nature elements such as the time of the year, the weather, and/or seasons, a writer is better able to create more depth than if these elements play out as random occurrences. If you have not already done so, indicate on your Plot Planner scene-by-scene the time of the year or days of the week, and see what you find hidden there.

*The Six Standard Antagonists:
1) Protagonist against another person
2) Protagonist against nature
3) Protagonist against society
4) Protagonist against machine
5) Protagonist against God
6) Protagonist against him or herself

22 July 2010

Cause and Effect in Plot

Without cause and effect there is no plot. Without cause and effect, events are simply episodic happenings.

Writers who write by the seat of their pants, or pantsers, versus plotters, those writers who pre-plot before and during writing, are able to craft entire stories through cause and effect.

This past weekend at the SCBWI retreat in Northern California, I met a classic pantser, Kathleen Duey an outrageously generous and creative and successful author of more than 50 books for children, middle graders, and young adults. She, and others like her, are able to write scene after scene by asking: because that happens in this scene, what does the character do next? Because of that, what does she after that?

I used to say simply, because that happens, what happens next? Kathleen's more focused strategy is even better. Because of what just happened in that scene, what does the character do next?

Not all scenes can be or need to be linked by cause and effect, but the more scenes that are causally driven, organically rising up from the action that takes place from one scene to the next, the better.

21 July 2010

Donna Levin Interviews Me

I was introduced to plot in my very first writing workshop which I took from Donna Levin more than 15 years ago. Then she had long straight hair below her waist and was pregnant, intelligent, generous and kind. I left the workshop starry-eyed and inspired.

That we are both still writing and now both of us teaching gives me joy.

She recently interviewed me. Take a stroll over to her new site and say hi for me!

18 July 2010

All Writers Need Plot

On my way to this weekend's SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) writers retreat, I stopped by my sister's house in Mill Valley. She then followed me to San Rafael and took me to Sol Food for lunch. Our waitress was a gorgeous, young woman who sported a tattoo that ran from her wrist to nearly the crook of her arm. The stick figure, obviously a girl by the triangle skirt she wore, had a star over her head and was a copy of the cover of Jerry Spinelli's book, Stargirl (I use this as a book example in the Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master).

When asked, the waitress explained that the protagonist of the book was her best friend as a child (the book first came out in 2000). Her emotional affection even after all these years for the character in a 50 page book was a poignant reminder of the power of the work we put out into the world and a wonderful prelude to the retreat for children's writers.

Every genre of fiction and memoir writing needs a good plot. Thus, I have had the honor teaching plot at every kind of writers conference, chapter and branch meetings, and universities, and have found every group has its own special "vib".

Keep in mind the following are generalizations and are based on the writers who attend my plot workshops. Okay, okay. They are gross generalizations and are by no means meant to offend anyone!

1) RWA or Romance Writers of America writers as a whole are stylishly coiffured women, manicured and neatly dressed. They ask polite questions and withhold judgment.

2) Literary writers tend toward wearing black clothes and their hair long and straight. They often challenge ideas offered and have a tendency to frown.

3) Memoir writers are often rumpled and disheveled. They scribble notes and wear an air of expectancy.

4) Mystery writers are usually quiet, a bit solitary, and keep their ideas to themselves.

5) Fantasy writers wear whimsical and brightly colored clothes. They tend to laugh a lot.

6) Screenwriters fidget and their eyes wander. They seem to prefer information flowing fast and furiously.

After this past weekend's retreat in San Rafael offered by SCBWI, I was again reminded of how special children's book writers are and how they belong in a class of their own.

This group of writers was similar to others in the SCBWI organization I have taught plot to in the past in that many of the writers who attended my plot workshop were elementary and secondary teachers, parents of young children, and/or employed in the creative arts. These writers, too, were similar in their unabashed warmth and enthusiasm and support of my plot ideas and me, even those more right-brained learners who struggled mightily with the concepts but never gave up.

I left the retreat yesterday wrapped in a feeling of joy and hope for the future. The stories these writers craft have the potential to do for young people what Jerry Spinelli did for our young waitress, provide a safe haven for those who feel painfully different, offer a feeling of hope for the future, and a sense of belonging in this great wide world of ours, one that is filled with as many different kinds of people as there are people.

15 July 2010

Plot Planner

Plot your story using the universal story form for structure and impact.

A Plot Planner mimics the universal story and is the framework for developing a gripping story. Rather than creating a dry, episodic list of scenes to cover, arrange your story by cause and effect to best engage the reader.

Think of the Plot Planner as the route or map of the journey you envision for your story. When you first plan your plot, your route is likely to be sketchy with lots of gaps and dead ends. These gaps will smooth over and fill in as you come to know your story and characters better. Along your story's route, the plot elements of dramatic action, characters, and thematic significance will rise and fall, like waves cresting. The flow of these elements is like the flow of energy the Chinese call “qi” (pronounced “chi”). The qi is the mainstay of life force, inherently present in all things.

Within your story, the energy undulates. Although every story has its own energy, a universal pattern of energy rising and falling repeats itself. The greater your understanding of this stable format, the better able you are to determine where and when to allow the energy to crest, to make your story most compelling to the reader. Allow the energy of your story to direct the flow of your scenes. The closer you can re-create this pattern in your presentation to the reader, the stronger and more compelling your story. A plot planner helps you map your story's energy and direction.


All great stories have a beginning, middle and end.

1. The Beginning

The beginning usually encompasses one quarter of the entire story. Most of us start out strong in the beginning, but struggle to keep the momentum going.

2. The Middle

The middle is the longest portion of the project – one half of the entire story. It commands the most scenes, and is where many writers fall short. When the allure of the beginning is over, the story starts getting messy. Writers often know the beginning and the end of their story, but bog down in creating the middle. Crisis is the meat of the middle.

Place crisis – the scene of greatest intensity and highest energy in your story thus far – around the three-quarter point in your story, when your audience needs a recharge to combat fatigue, frustration, and irritation. Crisis is where tension and conflict peak – it is a turning point in your story. Crisis is developed through the scenes to provide the greatest impact in the energy flow of your story.

The crisis is the false summit of your case, where the audience can perceive the true summit. Here, your story’s energy drops after the drama of the crisis, giving your audience the opportunity to rebuild energy in anticipation of reaching the climax.

3. The End

The final quarter of your presentation represents the end, which comprises three parts: the build-up to the climax, the climax itself, and the resolution. The build-up to the climax represents the steps you take to lead the reader to envision how the story should end. The climax is the point of highest drama in your story, the crowning moment when the thematic significance of your story becomes clear to the reader. The resolution is your opportunity to fully tie together that significance and make your story complete.


A Plot Planner helps you visualize your story. Use a Plot Planner to place your ideas and sequence your scenes to greatest effect. A plot planner allows you to experiment with changes in the storyline or presentation to evoke stronger reaction and interest from the reader, and gives you a sense for how the story may be paced. A plot planner also allows you to collaborate with others to generate ideas for better developing your story and to solidify your understanding of the story's core elements, and helps ensure that you understand the story you are presenting. Importantly, the plot planner enables you to keep the larger picture of your story in full view as you concentrate on creating the story’s individual parts, helping you maintain paramount focus on crafting a story that will convey your core message to reader or audience in a compelling way.


I recommend building your Plot Planner on big pieces of banner paper, running horizontally. It takes up quite a bit of space, but serves as a continual visual reminder of the entire project.

The Plot Planner is merely a line that separates scenes filled with conflict and excitement (above the plot planner line) from those that are passive, filled with summary and back story, or heavy with information (below the plot planner line). Scenes are where the story plays out, where the action happens moment-by-moment in your presentation.

The external dramatic action of stories told in scene and filled with conflict belongs above the line, like the white caps on the sea’s surface as a wave swells toward the shore. Scenes that show complications, conflicts, tension, dilemmas, and suspense belong above the line. Any scene that slows the story’s energy belongs below the line.

By placing ideas above and below the line, you create a visual map for analyzing critical story information, presentation flow, and weaknesses in your story’s overall sequence.

The Plot Planner line is not flat – it moves steadily higher, building your story slowly and methodically as tension increases. Each scene delivers more tension and conflict than the preceding scene, with intensity building to your story's climax.

13 July 2010

When to Use a Flashback

Watch your delivery of backstory ~ the story of what, in the past, made the character who they are today (in story time).

Writers want to cram everything right up front.

"I know all their history, why would I want to withhold it from the reader?"
"I wrote it that way."
"It's the good part."

Writers spend lots of time imagining and writing every little detail about a character's past, be it for a child or an adult. So, of course, writers want to tell everything right away. Perhaps, in the process, even show off a bit how clever they are. Until, one understands how curiosity works.

Not telling everything makes the reader curious. Curiosity draws the reader deeper into the story world. The reader wants to fill in the "who," "what," "how" (the "where" and "when" have already been clearly established right up front to ground the reader). They keep reading. This is good.

Tell the reader only what they need to know to inform that particular scene. This is especially true in the Beginning (1/4 mark). During the first quarter of the project, the character can have a memory. But, if you feel you just must inject a full-blown flashback, where you take the reader back in time in scene, wait until the Middle.

(PLOT TIP: If you're absolutely sure you absolutely have to include the flashback, try using one when you're bogged down in the middle of the middle.)

04 July 2010

What Now?

Q: I'm done! Too exhausted to type more. What now?

A: Congratulations! 

I'm so impressed with how you kept your head down and your spirits high throughout the writing of the first draft of your story. You did it in two months. You are amazing!

You're on a high. The best way to protect yourself from a letdown is to know that what goes up must come down and take care of yourself. Sleep, eat well, take long walks  -- preferably to all the locations in your story: the cemetery, the martial arts studio, the school, the church. Wander and sleep and straighten up your writing area, purge and organize notes but whatever you do DO NOT READ your manuscript for at least a week to 10 days. 

I apologize for the caps but I cannot stress the importance of this element enough. You need a bit of distance and objectivity before reading your story.

DO NOT READ your manuscript for at least a week to 10 days.

Oops, there I go again. Just wanting to make sure you understand the importance.

DO NOT READ your manuscript for at least a week to 10 days.

Okay, enough is enough.

Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Feel the accomplishment in the depth of your being. You did it!! You wrote a novel from the beginning to the end. You did that. Feel it. Wallow in the good feelings. Be here now.

In a week, you begin the shift from writing the first draft to preparing for the next one.

For now, you are on safely ensconced on the threshold between two worlds. Revel in the splendor of yourself!!!!

03 July 2010

Antagonists in Stories and in Life

We make up stories in our minds about events in our lives. Are the stories real? Real only to us and only as far as our perception is capable of seeing at the time.  The stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the world around us have a direct impact on how we react to new events in our lives.

That is the only explanation I have for why one writer is slain by the antagonists that pop up in the middle of her writing journey. While, another writer faced with the exact same problems is able to effortlessly make her way forward. 

Or, perhaps, the answer lies in the understanding one has of the task itself.

The writer who is slain may have heard rumors about the meddlesome, messy, sagging middle but when confronted with the reality of writing her way through the middle, takes the challenge personally, surrenders all her power and gives up (either for the day or for months or even years).

Another writer has researched not only the setting and authentic details needed for her story but also the craft of writing itself enough to understand that the antagonists that arise in the middle are not to be feared or felled by or taken personally but part of the process itself. 

I'm not explaining myself well here and the reason could be because this more informed writer is an anomaly to me. She has only been writing for two years and is well beyond the halfway point to creating a compelling novel. Though slowed down by the antagonists in the middle, rather than create resistance by judging herself as the problem and throwing herself against the wall or curling up in a ball for years before seeking help, she reaches out almost immediately and is now off and flying again.

Replace the story you tell yourself about writing the middle of your novel, memoir, screenplay from one of threat and opposition to a story of strength and determination. Antagonists are self-created and have power over you only so long as you give away your own personal power first.