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Writing a Hot Plot

Plot is one of the most important elements of any story, from picture book to chapter book to middle-grade to young adult. Since Revision-o-Rama is a response mostly to NaNoWriMo, I’ll be tackling novel-length plots. These are quite the tricky kettle of fish. We’ve already talked about character, but characters mostly add internal conflict to a story when left to their own devices. They sit and contemplate how lonely they are, or how unpopular, or how much they want something exciting to happen. So what do we do? We give them external conflict: plot.

I’ve had the tremendous luck to study with MG author Lewis Buzbee in my MFA program. Not only is he a very talented writer but he’s an excellent teacher. This way of looking at plot is cribbed almost entirely from him, because I think it’s just that good. (But he often gives this workshop in person and, if you ever get the chance, do listen to him talk about it… my version will be a pale imitation.)

So, basically, what Lewis teaches and what I believe is that there are only four key points to a plot. This is that “dramatic arc” that you hear so much about. Some writing teachers subscribe to a “three act” structure, some like five acts, some like to choreograph your plot right down to what should happen in a story when. I think these micromanaging techniques miss the point. Put whatever you want in your plot, run your characters through the story that’s in your imagination, but when you’re reading your manuscript over again, make sure it adheres to this very simple arc:

plot

Do you like my lovely drawing? I never said I was visually gifted, mind you. Let me explain what’s going on here, point by point:

  1. Normal: This is your character’s baseline. At the beginning of a story, your character is usually their normal self in their normal circumstances (as much as possible). Something has probably happened to knock them off balance but they are making do. They might even be doing well. Even if they’re starting on their first day at a new school, they’re making a friend or two, they’re not completely failing their classes, they discover a magic shop where the owner seems very interested in them, etc. This leads us to…
  2. The Rise: This, for the near future, is as good as your character is going to get. You want to spend some time, maybe the first quarter of your story, building relationships, exposing your character and their goals and motivations, creating a world and planting all the seeds of plot, story, theme and character that will be important later. If your story is longer, maybe spend only the first 1/5th or 1/6th here. Then get ready for…
  3. The Fall: But things were just moving along so nicely! Oh well. We don’t pick up books to read about nice people in calm, tranquil situations. All that stuff that you’ve established in the first quarter, fifth or sixth of your story… screw it up. Things go from okay to bad, from bad to worse, and from worse to impossible. The character’s relationships get troubled, their goals and aspirations are thwarted at every turn, they make dumb decisions and have to deal with the consequences, etc. The very bottom of this point on the graph is usually the climax of the story, aka. when things seem hopeless or so bad that they can’t get any worse. Then, the character triumphs, and…
  4. The Evening Out: No, not a nice night out on the town with a date. This is the getting back to some kind of equilibrium again. It shouldn’t be the same equilibrium because, hopefully, your character has changed over the course of their journey. It is a new normal, a new way of living and thinking and existing in the world of the story.

There you go. Now, you’ll notice that the graph outlines more of an emotional journey than specific plot points. Unfortunately, I can’t sit here and tell you all the things that must happen in your story. I don’t know. They have to be born from the character who’s starring in your book and the story that you want to tell. But take this four-point structure to heart and make sure that the plot you’re creating puts your character in roughly this emotional state over the duration of your story. How you get them to these emotional highs and lows, to these particular experiences, is up to you, but make sure you’re massaging and revising your story into the above shape. It is the most effective and a great starting place, even if you do want to experiment later.

Subplots don’t need to be quite as dramatic — the highs shouldn’t be so high, the lows shouldn’t be so low — and they don’t have to span the whole length of the book, but do make sure that they follow some semblance of this graph, too. Subplots are usually generated by secondary characters. Let’s say the plot of your book is American Pie-esque… a guy, Joe, trying to get laid before the end of his senior year in high school. That quest will form the main plot. Let’s say, though, that he’s got a best friend, Sam, who can’t seem to stop getting laid, and he’s been hiding all his various girlfriends from each other.

Sam’s subplot is that he wants to simplify his life and get rid of some of his attachments. This subplot could interact with the main plot because Sam might try to pawn off girls on our hero Joe, for example, or one of the girls pretends to like Joe just so she can get back at Sam. So subplots usually belong to other featured characters in your story and have this same trajectory. The moments when they interact with the main plot should serve to move the main plot along.

This brings me to my last consideration about plot. Readers like to be surprised, they like suspense, they like the unexpected. Your plot shouldn’t be so linear. That’s why I like using the emotional highs and lows of your story for guidance. For me, as long as you hit these emotional points, there’s a lot more room and flexibility for an interesting plot. Ally Carter, in a workshop I went to, talked about surprises. They’re characters and plot points that dig into the story you’re telling and spin it around, shooting it off in a completely different direction.

Make sure you’ve got key places in your story where a character or event acts like a bumper car and sends the story in a new or unexpected place. Let’s say Joe, our high school virgin, is about to ask his dream girl to the prom — where he’ll try to seal the deal — but she asks Sam, blissfully unaware of his Hugh Hefner tendencies. Now Joe is caught between his loyalty to Sam and wanting to save Dream Girl from Sam’s clutches. This creates a whole new wrinkle in the story. Complications! Surprise! You don’t have to be zany for the sake of zaniness here, like I have been, but do try to keep the tension and suspense of surprise alive and well in your story.

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  1. Lindsey Himmler’s avatar

    I’m really enjoying these revision posts so far. Even though I’m still drafting, the end is where the plot really has to come together.

  2. Bane’s avatar

    Looks like your drawing skills are on par w/ mine :)

    Perhaps that’s part of my issue — ‘The Normal’ sections usually last all of about 5 pages (max). Usually skip right through ‘The Rise,’ and just keep having my MC ‘Fall’ for a long while (w/ little mini-rises sprinkled in).

    Thanks for another great post.

  3. Mary’s avatar

    Bane — Wow. Sounds depressing! I say that, with everything, there has to be balance. One of my clients has this incredibly dark book full of murder and blood and all sorts of other unsavory things, but it’s also one of the funniest things I’ve ever read! And it has to be, or else it would make its readers want to weep. It’s really an art to make sure you’re hitting the right tone through a careful mix of the light and the dark, the up and the down.

  4. Bane’s avatar

    Ha, not too depressing… more of action ‘Falling’ than emotional. The MC’s pretty resolute and positive despite circumstances. But, yeah, you’re definitely spot on about having to balance the light w/ the dark. Now if only I can find the switch.

  5. Kristi’s avatar

    As someone who has never progressed beyond stick figures, I do find your drawing quite lovely.

    This is a great post and reminds me of a talk I heard Kate Sullivan (Little, Brown) give at an SCBWI conference. She also spoke at length about the dramatic arc of a story as well as within the individual chapters and I’ve kept this in mind throughout my revision process. Thanks for another fabulous post!

  6. Ann Finkelstein’s avatar

    I’m going to think hard about that rise from 1 to 2 as I start the next round of revisions.
    Thanks.

  7. Suzanne Santillan’s avatar

    Great information, it has given me a lot to think about.

    Thanks for a great post.

  8. Susan James’s avatar

    Wow, Mary, thanks. As a total write-by-the-seat-of-my-pantser, who was pushed into a degree in biology, posts like these make me say, “OK, my next novel, I’m going to be so much better organized.”

  9. Mary’s avatar

    Susan — But this is a month of posts about REVISION. When you’re writing, by all means, fly by the seat of your pants! This is for when you have to shape all that into a novel with strong craft and storytelling techniques, not just awesome content and writing.

  10. Geri Kolesar’s avatar

    Thanks! I’m smack in the middle of re-revising and, despite reading tons of material on plotting, your discussion of subplots really clicked. Also, your diagram is actually flipped from some I’ve seen, but makes so much more sense to me, with the climax being the character’s rock bottom, despite it being the “high point” of the book.

  11. Trish’s avatar

    What a great post, Mary. I can tick the boxes again. Sometimes I worry that I’ve started the story in the wrong place and should get straight to the point, so reading this is good. I’ve introduced the MC and the other characters first.

    I always add sub plots, twists and turns to my stories. I love to surprise the reader.

  12. Natalie Aguirre’s avatar

    Thanks for a great post. I spend most of my writing time revising and this is all so helpful.

  13. Karen Collum’s avatar

    Thanks so much for this, Mary. I am still getting my head around the whole structure thing yet this really clarified things for me. I love the focus on the emotional journey of the character rather than defined plot points. I think in the past I’ve focussed too much on what happens to the character rather than how they feel about it or react to it. I like visuals so your diagram will stick with me forever now :) I have a new revision tool now! Yay!

  14. Sherrie Petersen’s avatar

    I have never seen that way of looking at the plot, but I like it! Thanks for your “pale imitation” — it’s very helpful.

  15. Melissa’s avatar

    For me, the hardest parts are the short-term rises and emotional shifts between 3 and 4. Whenever things start going right, I lose all my forward momentum. But if the events only go from wrong to wrong to wrong, it feels relentless.

  16. Anita’s avatar

    I am thoroughly enjoying your revisionorama posts. In particular your explanation of sub plots. Thanks!

  17. Lynn Rush’s avatar

    Hey, this was great. Very helpful. Like how you described it. Thanks.

  18. Jenny Martin’s avatar

    Mary,
    Thanks for addressing subplots. In many of my favorite books, the subplots end up being more crucial than they first appear. I love loose ends tied up neatly together.

    My favorite? Stardust. All the subplots crash into one another for a brilliant climax and ending.

  19. WindyA’s avatar

    Thanks so much for this take on plotting. I’m not much of an outliner, or 3/5-Acter, but as I read through the 4 point description, I found that my current wip actually sort of subscribes to this.

    Thanks for the insight!

  20. KarenC’s avatar

    Thanks for the great explanation of a dramatic arc. You make it easy to understand.

  21. Alison’s avatar

    This is most excellent! Whenever I read or hear talk of plot I often think of the movie Adaptation and that screenwriter guru giving his seminars. Well, I think of the whole movie, too. And the twin’s goofy screenplay The 3.

    But anyway, plot advice is always ALWAYS helpful. Because I certainly do struggle with it.

    And simple diagrams are always best, I say! No judgement from me there.

  22. Bethany Dellinger’s avatar

    Being a visual learner, your diagram really helped! In my MFA program the dramatic arch was drawn more as a curve. But the rise and fall of this line captures the dramatic effect and the length of time the reader should spead in each section much more effectively for me. Thanks for explaining it so well!

  23. Jon B’s avatar

    I’ve read a lot of theories on plot movement, but I’ve never seen it put quite like this. It’s a good way to look at it a little differently and more specifically than the simple set-up, build-up, climax routine. thanks!

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