Dramatic Arc

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In December, I was feverishly working on finishing my Writer’s Digest webinar critiques from the MG and YA novel presentation (if you missed it or are just joining us, I’m teaching a MG and YA craft intensive webinar again on February 9th, more info to come soon). This experience is always fascinating for me. Not just because I have no idea how it’s possible for me to do over 300 critiques in such a short period of time. It’s interesting because I get to read reams and reams of novel-openings-in-progress.

Now, a novel opening is one of the hardest things in the world to do right. In fact, there’s a whole book about why that is (and how to jump this difficult hurdle) called HOOKED by Les Edgerton (Writer’s Digest Books). I highly recommend it. Anyway. One of the issues I ran into during critiques was the promise of the novel. What do I mean by that?

As readers, we like to telescope into the future a bit when we pick up a book. After reading the first 5 or 10 pages, our imaginations start feverishly working on where the story will take us. Conflict is usually presented in the first chapter, or a world is introduced, or we meet characters, and we think, “Okay. I get it. This will be the central conflict of the plot that I’m reading here,” or, “I’m going to spend the next 350 pages with these people,” or, “I think we’re in some futuristic dystopian society, cool. Can’t wait to learn more.”

This is a natural process and readers do it almost subconsciously. The key for you — the writer — is to know that and to build the right promise into the beginning of your novel. You always want to work with your reader’s imagination, make the right promise, and then deliver it. They’re going to be telescoping forward into your story, so you might as well make them a) excited to read on, and b) at least right about where they think you’re going with your novel. The most common error I see is one of a misguided or misdirected promise.

I wish I could say this has only happened once or twice, but this scenario happens to me at almost every conference. I read a novel opening that takes place in school or with the family or during a sports game. These scenes are introductory and often info-dump-y and they don’t really do much for me, so I say that to the writer. They always look at me and say, “Oh, well, the rest of the story doesn’t even have anything to do with school/family/sports. I just thought I had to put them in a normal setting first and then go off to the good stuff.”

Not kidding. This happens all the time. And I understand it. When we talk about plot, we often talk about a character’s normal and how the inciting incident wrecks it. So, of course, for most kids, “normal” means family and school. But I also talk about prime real estate and directing your reader’s attention. This relates to the promise of the novel like so: if you start your story in school and going through all the usual suspects of introducing the bully and the Queen Bee and the crush, your reader will think (not without good reason), “Ah, I am going to be spending the next four hours reading a school story.”

And if on page 11, aliens descend and suddenly your protagonist is a long-lost space queen, well…your reader might be a bit jarred. If the story is good, they will reset their expectations and forge on, but you don’t want to give them this kind of cognitive dissonance. The same goes for genre. If something reads contemporary realistic for enough pages to make me think that it’s a contemporary realistic novel, don’t toss dragons at me on page 25. My expectations have gelled. I am settling into your tale. I don’t want to suddenly discover that I’ll be reading high fantasy.

If you have to start in a normal setting, at least drop hints. If yours is a ghost story, make your character see eerie shadows that disappear when she looks them head-on. If there are going to be dragons, you better let us know that this is a world that has dragons in it (a news report about dragon shortages playing in the background would be a cliche, but I hope you understand what I mean). If your character will be going on a long journey, drop subtle hints and foreshadowing, like briefly describing walking shoes piled by the door. Whatever. Just think about your story — the core of it, the plot, the arc — and then make sure that the beginning either starts with it or strongly suggests it.

And if any element plays a strong role in your opening, let it play a strong role throughout. No spending 10 pages focusing on a school story if school does not show up ever again. In fiction, you plant seeds from the very beginning and they grow in importance as you hurtle toward the climax. Don’t scatter pumpkin seeds at the beginning of planting season if you’re trying to grow a tomato garden.

You never want to confuse your reader by accident and leave them scratching their heads halfway through your beginning. Save the misdirection for withholding information and crafting suspense and surprise. Instead, make a solemn promise to your audience that you will tell them the story they think they’ve settled down to read. That doesn’t mean make it predictable, but it means build their expectations just so and make them excited to follow you down the path you’ve set up for them from page one.

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My most recent novel, PURPLE DAZE (Running Press Teens), is a novel-in-verse which I conceived while attending MFA Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Is the prevalence of young-adult novels-in-verse in the last decade merely a trend? Or can the novel-in-verse do something traditional prose novels can’t? Is it, in fact, peculiarly suited to the turbulent, but often secret, inner lives of teenagers?

Perhaps publishers, editors and readers have accepted this form because it’s an appropriate platform to showcase the inner drama of adolescence. Indeed, as I was reading scores of novels-in-verse, it became clear to me that poetry can bring readers closer to the consciousness of teens—perhaps even closer than YA novels penned in traditional narrative prose. When should a writer consider this form?

  1. Stories that are better told from more one than one character’s point of view. Mel Glenn’s verse novel WHO KILLED MR. CHIPPENDALE? has more than fifty viewpoint characters. Even if Glenn had used an omniscient viewpoint – in other words, bouncing in an out of others’ minds — it would be confusing to the reader. However, not all verse novels have more than one viewpoint character.
  2. Stories that are predominantly character driven, as opposed to action-driven. Verse novels tend to deal with highly charged emotional issues. Some issues include, incest (FURNITURE by Thalia Chaltas), mental illness (STOP PRETENDING WHAT HAPPENED WHEN MY BIG SISTER WENT CRAZY by Sonya Sones), and teen pregnancy (FIRST PART LAST by Angela Johnson). In each of these novels, what the characters are thinking and feeling is more important than what they are doing.
  3. Stories with poetry as a subplot or theme. In LOCOMOTION, Jacqueline Woodson’s main character Lonnie is exploring poetic forms to help him deal with the untimely death of his parents. In Ron Koertge’s SHAKESPEARE BATS CLEAN UP the main character is bedridden. He’s a bored kid who reads his dad’s poetry books and then begins writing his own poems.
  4. Stories that are best told in short, energetic bursts – instead of traditional margin-to-margin prose. For example, scenes that capture one moment whether it be an emotion or an idea.
  5. Try this exercise: Take a paragraph from any novel. Rewrite it in verse. Concentrate on metaphor, assonance, imagery and cadence. Shouldn’t all good writing contain these elements? Sure. But I find it easier to focus on ‘voice sounds’ and ‘patterns of expression’ when my writing looks like poetry.

Sherry Shahan has 30 children’s books to her credit, fiction and nonfiction. YA novel PURPLE DAZE is set in 1965 Los Angeles where six high school students navigate war, riots, love, rock ‘n’ roll, school, and friendship. She teaches a writing course for UCLA Extension. Feel free to contact Sherry if you have any questions about novels-in-verse or the VCFA MFA writing program. Email: kidbooks [at] thegrid [dot] net. Or visit www.SherryShahan.com

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Reader Rachael asked the following question, on an interesting topic:

I’ve been wondering if a lack of one clear antagonist is a problem if you’re writing YA contemporary (which I am). It seems like it would be a huge problem for fantasy, sf, mystery, etc., but for contemporary, I just don’t know. I can think of several YA contemporary books that don’t seem to have one clear big bad antagonist. Don’t get me wrong, they’re packed with conflict, but the antagonists change throughout the book (usually it’s some combination of the MC’s best friend(s), boyfriend(s), family, and the MC his or herself). So, does that mean it’s okay?

Antagonists in today’s fiction can take many forms. Lord Voldermort (yes, I said it) in HARRY POTTER is a traditional antagonist. He’s a big, bad villain and the entire series is spent tracking Harry as he clashes with Voldermort and his supporters, the Death Eaters. And Rachael is right. In a lot of fantasy, adventure, and sci-fi, there does seem to be a big, bad villain who you can point to and name. This is usually a person, and they are usually as multi-faceted as the main character (or they should be), which gives the story more tension and raises the stakes.

But what do you do if you don’t have a villain in mind? If there’s no shadowy baddie behind the curtain, always threatening danger and doom? Do you still have a story?

I’d say you do. For another complex and fascinating villain, check out Lia, the main character of Laurie Halse Anderson’s WINTERGIRLS. She’s also our point of view narrator, and the hero of the story. But she’s suffering from anorexia and the demons of the disease, not to mention the guilt she feels when her best friend and partner-in-dieting, Cassie, dies. The hero and the villain here are one and the same.

In the highly-anticipated MATCHED, by Allie Condie, there are individual people who are villains, but one might say that the villain itself is the big, bad government (a popular theme in dystopian fiction), which seeks to control its citizens and uses that control for nefarious purposes.

Instead of thinking about this from the is-it-or-isn’t-it-a-villain perspective, I want you to consider your story in terms of conflict. Every story needs a balance of external and internal conflict. Internal conflict is what the character has going on inside them, basically, character’s inner life vs. the world. The story must also have external conflict. In other words, character’s outer life vs. the world and/or character vs. other characters.

An example of internal conflict: I am eating lunch under a table in the library because I am so different from everyone and I feel so alone.

An example of external conflict: Now I’m headed to the principal’s office because the librarian found me. The principal is going to call my parents and I’m going to get in so much trouble.

If your story lacks a central villain in the style of Lord Voldemort, don’t fear. Even if your story does have a baddie with all the evil fixin’s. Your focus should be on developing a rich and complex balance of internal tension and external tension that still carries all the tension and stakes of a story that has a centralized antagonist.

Would HARRY POTTER still have its oomph if Lord Voldermort vanished from the storyline? It would lose a central story engine, sure, but there is still enough going on for Harry internally and externally that the series wouldn’t be totally sunk. I think that’s key. Even if you do have a Lord Voldermort in your cast of characters, that can’t be the only source of conflict. It’s much more important to look at all your sources of conflict and make sure they’re balanced and come into play throughout your plot, not just at the beginning and the climax.

If you forego the villain route, do study writers like Sara Zarr, David Levithan, John Green, Lauren Oliver, and many others. Their worlds are populated by kids who lack a mortal enemy, per se, but who still have plenty of internal and external conflict to give the story fireworks and momentum

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Dana wrote to me a few weeks ago to ask about chapters and scenes:

I would love to hear your take on chapter breaks, long chapters, very short chapters, chapters that start seconds after the previous one ends, chapters that start months later, etc. In a related question, I would also love to have you weigh in on scenes, and how they differ from, but are related to, chapters.

Chapters and scenes can sometimes be related, or the can be completely different. Sometimes, writers who use short chapters have their chapters represent, basically, a scene and some transitional material before and after to string the reader through the plot. Writers who write longer chapters can sometimes go for five or more scenes before giving the reader a chapter break. This, of course, also depends on the length of your scenes. If you have a few short school scenes where your character sees and interacts with people in the halls or in class, you can probably make those into once chapter. If you’re giving readers a climactic battle scene near the end of the book where everything comes together, I’d let that be the only big scene in that chapter.

I can’t give you a definitive answer to this question. Not only is it your choice how you want to structure your story, it also depends on the length of your scenes, the genre you’re writing in, the age audience you’re targeting (younger and reluctant readers do better with shorter chapters), and the overall pacing of your big story arc but also of the section of the novel that you’re working on at that moment.

You ask about transitions, too. If the timing of your story and the passage of time between chapters makes sense, then it’s okay to skip over months between chapters. As long as you ground the reader once you begin the new chapter — so the reader knows exactly how much time has passed and when/where the reader is — you should be fine. But again, as long as it makes sense to the story and to your storytelling style. I, personally, would never leave my characters in limbo for months between chapters, but that’s because most of my stories are set in pretty small chunks of time — a few days to a few weeks — and so there’s not a lot of time to gloss over. Again, it all comes down to the scope of your story and how you’re telling it.

The best thing about this question, in my opinion, is that it shows that chapters and scenes need to be crafted and constructed carefully, just like everything else. Chapter length, pacing, timing, content, and all that other stuff is part of the decisions you must make as a writer, and, ideally, you will have good reasons for each choice.

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I’m not a real estate agent, but I do know there are things that real estate agents do to sell a house: they play up the important features. Their other favorite thing to talk about, if it’s good, is the neighborhood and the location of the property. After all, isn’t it all about location, location, location? Well, these considerations are applicable to novel craft, because once you know the important information features and the prime locations for material in your story, you can play around and really present your reader with important information, in a way that seems important, and in places that will make it seem even more important. Let me explain…

The way you present information impacts the way a reader interprets its importance. For example, if a character goes on and on about the Thanksgiving turkey, describing its crisp brown skin, succulent aroma, the bedding of rosemary twigs upon which it rests, the legs tied together with twine, etc., and completely glosses over the conversation that reveals that the character’s parents are getting a divorce, what do you think will be memorable in that scene? The more descriptive (and scene) space you give something, the more characters think and talk about it, the more important it will become in the reader’s mind.

This can work against you — if you’re not aware of this and spend lots of time describing stuff that will not be important as the novel progresses — or for you — if you are aware of this and use this to craft where your reader’s attention goes. In other words, prime real estate in your novel is anything that takes up a lot of space (it’s good and noteworthy to have acreage, you know?). Readers will automatically equate space and words spent talking/thinking about something with its overall value to the book.

The other consideration is location. The prime real estate in any novel is: the first page of the novel, the first paragraph of a new chapter, and the last paragraph of a chapter. These spaces are special and should not be treated like any others in your manuscript. After all, a real estate agent who has a property with panoramic city views, a Central Park West address, or a location with a private beach, goes above and beyond when listing this special location. The ad is glossier, there is a whole album of pictures, the font is more refined, etc. You should lavish care on your entire manuscript, of course, but pay special attention, after you’ve polished everything, to the prime real estate listed above.

Whatever you put on the first page of your manuscript will seem really important to the rest of it. If you start with something that never appears again (and this is where prologues can get hairy) or if you give the reader all description and no character, that is a missed opportunity. The opening paragraphs of subsequent chapters are your chance to ground the reader in what has just happened or what will happen for the rest of the chapter (a post on “grounding the reader” later). The end of a chapter has one job and one job only, just like that house with the panoramic city view: sell. You need to give your reader a new detail, a cliffhanger, or just enough tension so that they immediately flip to the next page instead of using the chapter break as a natural resting point and putting the book down.

Most novels that have strong narrative really use the prime real estate as a special opportunity. It’s there to keep the reader informed, to highlight important information or characters, to keep the reader hooked, and to otherwise anchor the structure of the novel. Make sure you’re paying special attention to the prime real estate you’re working with, just like a real estate agent would.

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A reader wrote in last week to ask me about family dynamics and wholeness in fiction. Mary said:

Can a manuscript be sold if the main character lives in a traditional nuclear family? Everything I’ve read has either a parent who left or disappeared, went to jail, or died–even in so-called humor novels. Being a single adoptive mother, I don’t object to a single parent household. But EVERY book?

This is a good point, and steals one of my jokes about MG or YA, which is: The parents (often mother) in a middle-grade or YA novel have the highest mortality rate in all of fiction.

And from reading what’s on offer these days, you really do get a sense that it’s true. Parents are always dead or missing or in jail or abusive or otherwise highly dysfunctional. Almost too much so.

Personally, I feel like there’s room for a more peaceful or normal family unit in MG or YA novels. However, fiction thrives on tension and conflict (not melodrama, mind you, or hysterics, but real conflict). Fiction can never be static, or your readers will put the book down (if you even get as far as having a book in the first place).

So you can feature a close-knit, whole or loving family in your novel. And nobody has to die or go on a drug binge or murder anybody. However, you can’t have a whole manuscript of Pollyanna love and family moments. The conflict has to come from somewhere.

There’s one good reason that families usually explode in MG or YA novels, I think. It’s during your teen years that you start to look around and realize that your parents aren’t perfect, as you originally thought when you were a kid. You start to see them as flawed human beings instead of superheroes. You also start to get to know them in new and different ways. Family members are also especially high stakes because they’re people you’ve known the longest and are the closest to, for better or for worse. And since the best fiction reflects universal truths of being alive, writers tend to hone in on family relationships as especially dramatic since…let’s face it…they often are.

A successful novel manuscript has to have two sources of tension: internal and external. Internal tension is the character’s struggle with being themselves and existing in the world around them. (Feeling alone, like a loser, feeling like they have no friends, wanting something really badly, etc.) External conflict is the conflict of a character and their relationships or with a situation in the outside world. (Parents divorcing, sibling rivalry, betrayal by a friend, an impending apocalypse, etc.)

So, even if things are hunky-dory at home, your character must have both external and internal conflict to be a compelling fictional person. Nobody wants to read a book that’s 300 pages of, “Everything is great and awesome!” But the conflict doesn’t 100% have to come from a dysfunctional family, either. In fact, in this market, having a functional family might actually set you apart, as long as there is enough tension and the stakes are high enough elsewhere in the story.

ETA: Of course, as is hinted at in the comments, having a family with missing members in it makes it easier for characters to break out of the house and get into shenanigans! One common complaint about MG and YA is: “How in the sam hill did these kids get into so much trouble? Who was watching them?” That’s easy to get around when you off mom and pop. Of course, murther most foul is not the only way to let your fictional kids have more room to roam.

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Here’s a thought that I’ve been meaning to post about for a while. A lot of people pitch stories to me where they outline a situation and think that implies a plot. For example:

My character is living with her father after his parents’ nasty divorce. Meanwhile, his mother has run off on a meth binge.

Or:

Mine is a coming-of-age story where my main character is gay/Mexican/bulimic/diagnosed with cancer.

That’s all fine and good, but both of these pitches present me with a situation. A broken household. Something about the character that makes them different from their peers. But none of these things are a plot. My next question is always, “And…?”

Your character is gay aaaaaand…? What happens? What’s next? Your character has divorced parents aaaaand…? Where does the plot come in? What else?

A meaty situation or a controversial issue do not a fully fleshed-out manuscript make. It’s not enough. Lots of the most successful “issue books” or books where the character is in a bad situation keep these things in their back pockets but then evolve and build upon these issues or situations with a very rigorous plot.

For example, you can’t just write a book about a character in a broken home and have that be the extent of the story. That’s too spare. You can, however, write a book about a character in a broken home who runs away to find his meth-addicted mother, brings her back, rehabilitates her, then mourns her when she relapses, overdoses and dies. That’s a plot. You can’t just have a book where a character is gay and wanders around talking about how hard it is to be gay. You CAN have a gay character who is in love with her best friend, a friend who has recently broken up with her boyfriend, and now has to decide whether to help her best friend heal or to make a move. (You CAN have a gay character who is in love with her best friend, a friend who has recently broken up with her boyfriend. Your character must now decide whether to help her best friend heal or to make a move before the upcoming prom, because she hears the ex is trying to make a comeback.) That’s a plot.

Keep this in mind when you’re thinking about your book. In today’s market, where editors like to see layers upon layers of conflict, having just a situation in  your story, not a plot, isn’t enough. It’s a very important distinction.

ETA: Peter, in the comments, argued that my second example was, indeed, situation, not plot. He’s right. I’ve changed it in parentheses above, so you can see the first version, and then the more plot-like version. Good catch!

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All good things, as they say, must come to an end (except revision, muah hahahaha!). Even though it doesn’t seem like it now, your WIP is no exception. Endings can be tricky. As we’ve recently discovered in my plot post, they’re part of a dramatic arc and a character’s emotional journey. Ideally, they return the character to an emotional point similar to where they were at the beginning of the story or to a slightly worse or better one. (The character has, of course, changed over the course, it’s just that they’re in a similar place in their arc.)

If you’ve structured your story well and woven in enough internal (with self) and external (with others/world) conflicts for the character, the ending should be fairly easy to write. That’s why, for some, this post will seem like a cop out. But there are others of you out there who may be struggling and wondering why your particular plot is proving so tricky to wrap up.

There are several things involved with a successful ending. One, as mentioned before, is emotional closure. How does the character feel with this ending? Do they return to a new normal? Or are they still way off-balance? A character left with too much discord is unsettling. Another is pacing and timing. Does your ending come too quickly after the climax of the story? Does it drag on too long after the climactic action has finished? In most stories, the climax happens about 1/5th or 1/6th of the way from the end and then things wrap up fairly soon. If you saw my diagram in the plot post, you’d notice that the distance between points 3 and 4 is rather small.

Another consideration is how cleanly things come together. Part of this will stem from the “core emotional experience” you want your reader to walk away with. Is your book a place where you’ve created a fair and right and optimistic word? Or do you want to leave off on a pessimistic or unresolved note? Is your ending of the big-fireworks-silhouetted-against-the-sky variety or the quiet-yet-meaningful-moment-type? Both work, so do many things in-between. I would just make sure the ending matches the tone and voice of your story. Endings, for many reasons, put pressure on people and sometimes force them away from what they’ve established throughout a manuscript. If you’re feeling stressed by your ending, make sure what you’re doing feelings characteristic to the piece you’ve already written. It’s usually trying to do something that resolves too cleanly or not at all or otherwise doesn’t fit your characters or story that’s causing problems.

One problem I frequently see is an ending that gives the reader too little resolution. And I don’t mean a quiet-yet-meaningful-moment-type ending. Those are very effective when done well. I’m talking about manuscripts I’ve finished where I’ve felt the distinct urge to check for more pages hidden somewhere past the last one. The ending feels so rushed and unfinished that I simply can’t believe the author has chosen to end at that point. This is often the case when a writer is leaving their story open for the possibility of a series. However, as I discussed in an earlier post about series, it’s always best to resolve the first story and make sure it stands alone, even if you’ve plotted out Book 2 through Book 22.

Endings are a delicate balance. Make sure yours comes at an appropriate time, isn’t too rushed or too drawn out, and matches the emotional, thematic, character and story tone that you’ve already established. I hear that many writers struggle with endings but, as I already said, I think that might be a symptom of something amiss in the greater manuscript. If you’ve got a story with a dramatic and emotional arc and you’ve chosen the right plot and characters, the end of that winning combination should be one of the easiest things to write. If you’re struggling, maybe go back to the middle and see if the problem isn’t hiding there.

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Mmm… sizzlin’ steaks… Oh! Hello! What? Were we talking about something? (A great example of low tension, BTW.)

Tension and stakes are two absolutely important elements to a novel if you want your readers to keep turning the pages. A lot of stories flounder simply because the author hasn’t thought of adequate stakes for their characters or infused their story with enough tension. Let me quickly define both terms for you. Tension is a feeling of unease, of something unresolved, that usually bubbles under the surface of the story. Sure, there is more overt tension that is contributed by plot — like the gang of roving vampires out for your sweet, sweet blood — but there also has to be tension in every paragraph, on every page, in every scene and chapter. The greater dramatic arc keeps readers engaged on a book-length level but the smaller tensions of characters and relationships are what connect the dots between larger plot points. Stakes are very closely tied to tension. We want to feel like our characters matter, like their choices are important, like they are always on the edge of danger. Stakes — what will or will not happen in a plot, for a character, in a moment — are key to keeping tension high. Without stakes, there is usually low tension. Without tension, there are usually low stakes. Let’s explore both a little more.

Stakes

We’ve all heard of stakes, but where do they come from? What makes for compelling ones? Read on:

  1. Personal Motivation: When a person wants something, they need to have enough motivation behind it to make it compelling. In other words, they have to really want what they want. If they do, it becomes important to the reader, too. And when the character gets thwarted (as they should, nobody wants to read a story about a person who gets everything they want whenever they want it), that setback will ache for the reader. We’ll start to care. We’ll start to want to see the character succeed. We’ll want to avenge them and smite their enemies! High stakes.
  2. Choices… and Consequences: We want to read about characters who make choices. Maybe not always good choices. But the thing that makes choices seem important, that makes moments seem important, is the fear of consequence. All choices in your story should have consequences. Not After School Special consequences, mind you, like Little Abby taking one sip of a wine cooler and ending up pregnant, in jail and pumping gas (all at the same time, somehow) but real consequences. Characters can’t take their choices lightly because they know they might burn bridges, get punished, break the law, ruin friendships, screw up in front of the cute boy, etc. They might make some good choices, sure, but they should make a bad one at least once. They should lose something important at least once. Each choice, then, gets a gravitas to it. High stakes.
  3. Relationships: Relationships between people are never static. This is almost a repeat of the above, but characters do derive stakes in a situation from their relationships with others. When we add friendships, relationships, families, rivalries, enemies, etc. to the mix, involving people who want different things in different moments, the stakes should automatically get higher. So think of all the ways that you can find conflict in a relationship, in people’s wants and needs, in a scene. Whenever two people come together, the stakes should be pretty high. A group of great gal pals getting along swimmingly really doesn’t make for compelling fiction. Not even in picture books.

Tension

Now that you have a slightly better understanding of stakes (I hope), let’s move on to what stakes play into: tension. Here are the biggest sources of tension and areas where tension needs to be high:

  1. Beginnings: As we discussed in my post on beginnings, beginnings are usually best when they start in the middle of action. Each of your chapters (and especially your novel’s actual beginning) should start in a way that puts us in a scene or situation so that the reader hits the ground running. A lot of people begin with description, character sketches, backstory and other “throat clearing” (as it’s usually called in the industry). There’s not a lot of tension in straight telling. Make sure your beginnings have impact and action, then layer in necessary information as the chapter and story continues.
  2. Scenes: Scenes are full of people and people are full of complicated wants, needs, goals, desires and notions. They rub against each other and, more often than not, cause static. Or they should, if you want to keep tension high. I’m not saying you should have a book full of catfight scenes, unnecessary drama, people bitching each other out and otherwise shrilling at the top of their lungs. That’s exhausting to read. But every time you have two or more complex and fleshed out characters in a place together, they’re going to find ways to disagree or pursue different things. And this is where tension is most often subtle. An offhand remark, a gesture, an action that shows a reader which side a character is really on, how they actually feel. The best dialogue has subtext worked into it — the stuff and deeper meaning that runs below the surface — and is truly an art form. If you read a scene in your mss. and feel this nice, complacent pleasantness afterward, then your scene isn’t doing the work it needs to be doing.
  3. Endings: Each chapter has to have at least one thing happen in it that further the plot, shows us something new about our characters or otherwise leaves us in a different place and with a different understanding of the story than we had when that chapter began. That’s why endings are so important, too. You’ve given the reader a great chapter/scene/paragraph and now there’s a natural pause. They could easily stick the bookmark in, wander off to make tea, turn on the TV… and never come back to your story. Life could get in the way. Chapter endings are the worst, because they’re a natural stopping place. So don’t let your reader stop. It’s a careful balance. You don’t want to end each chapter on an insane cliffhanger and give your reader a heart attack every 10 pages, but you have to leave the chapter on such a note that they must turn the page and start another chapter. Does a character get thwarted? Does a plot complication arise? Does a surprise happen? Does a scene get heated? Does the tension simmering underneath the surface finally break wide open? Work your chapter endings, or “buttons” as I call them, until even you, who knows exactly what happens next, want to read on.

So here’s tension. As you can see, it is a perfect mix of how character and plot come together and interact. When you’re revising, you have to keep all of these three things in mind because they are very closely tied together. On Monday, I will tackle a book’s ending. That will then wrap up our main building blocks of the story — plot, character, tension, from beginning to end — and then I’ll start in on other writing mechanics like dialogue, description, showing vs. telling, all that good stuff. If you have any revision questions for me in the meantime, don’t be afraid to ask!

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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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