Plot

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Situation Queries

One of my favorite notes to give because it make so much sense to me is “A situation is not a plot.” (Though Stephen King is quick to absolutely disprove me by giving the opposite note here, ha! Proving once and for all how subjective writing advice can be. As the author of a book of writing advice, I’ll be the first to admit it.) This note applies especially to queries and I wanted to remind everyone to concentrate on specific plot points in their pitch letters as 2013 and all the make-your-dreams-come-true querying gets underway.

Here’s an example of a query letter that relies overly on situation instead of plot:

Emma wants to be normal so badly, but she can’t. Between a cheating boyfriend, an abusive father on his way out of the family, and a rivalry with the most talented softball player in school, she has no time at all to discover that the tattoo she got over spring break is giving her secret powers.

Sorry for the lame example, but I rather like the idea of a tramp stamp giving you a little more than you bargained for. Maybe it’s my childhood memory of that one episode of the X-Files when Scully gets that snake tattoo and all hell breaks loose? Wow. Blast from the past. Anyhow…

This query is fine and I see it a lot in the slush. But it’s not the best it can be, and that’s why I’m calling it out here. What’s missing? A specific sense of plot. This query gives us a fine idea of everything that’s going on in Emma’s life, but it doesn’t really do any of the heavy lifting to connect the dots. It’s like dumping the jigsaw puzzle of your plot in front of your reader and saying, “Well, there it is.” In a pitch letter, you’re not just selling the reader on the hook of your story or how marketable it might be, you’re also selling them on your story itself.

Here, we don’t know if the father is going to be the main secondary plot (giving it a darker, more contemporary realistic shade despite the tattoo element), or the boyfriend (giving it a more romance flavor), or the softball rivalry (making me think it’s going to be a school-heavy story). If I’m left to reassemble the pieces of Emma’s situation in my own head, I could find three very different books in there.

That’s a problem. You want to not only give us the elements of your story but arrange them in such a way that your plot shines through, guiding the reader even more into the specific world and events of your unique novel. Something that’s more specific would go like this:

Just as her abusive father is on his way out of the family, Emma discovers an uncomfortable secret: that tattoo she got over spring break is giving her the ability to see people’s futures. And she doesn’t like what it forecasts for her relationship with Rufus when she predicts his cheating on her at prom. From there, it’s one catastrophe after another, especially as she races against time to best her softball rival before the last game of the year determines who gets a coveted scholarship. As her power predicts doom and gloom for everyone around her, Emma has to do everything she can to secure her own future.

Okay, now I know that the father isn’t really going to be a big part of it, and the boyfriend’s cheating is more of an incident for the first third. The main thrust of the plot will probably be the rivalry, ending in a championship at the climax. The story feels much clearer to me now that the query is guiding me along instead of throwing me in the deep end of situation. This is a nuanced distinction, but an important one.

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As a plot moves forward, your characters will gather events, relationships, and memories that will transition from the novel’s present to the novel’s past. Make them matter by making them dynamic. If an event or relationship doesn’t progress from what has already been established, you are not using it to its full potential. For example, you present your reader with a contentious relationship between your protagonist and her main competitor on the track team. They make snappy remarks at one another and always vent their aggression on the track. But if their relationship doesn’t progress from this dynamic (by either getting better or worse), this story element will plateau. It becomes something in your character’s past that drags them down.

By having events and relationships change and evolve and grow in importance over the course of the story, you give each story element a trajectory in the plot. Give things a sense of future direction so that they don’t stagnate. In the track rival example, above, I’d find a way to work this relationship into the plot so we know that this dynamic is going to matter in the future of the story. To use a clichĂ© example, maybe I’d work in an upcoming competition to really put the pressure on their bond. This way, the girls aren’t just snarking at one another in limbo, the relationship is also in forward motion toward something more climactic than we’re seeing in the novel’s present.

Think of every important story element as a line that’s climbing toward your climax. Any plot developments or relationships that plateau (especially in the middle of the novel) are shortchanging the future of your story by staying in lockstep with the past. Why is this such a bad thing? The reader is already familiar with what you’ve established. Without a sense that these elements have a future and are going somewhere, a reader’s investment wanes. Remember, a rising line trending toward the climax, with all elements growing, changing, and weaving together.

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Before a reader will believe your plot and story, they need a good reason to buy in. Plots that have a guess or a misconception at the heart of them are very difficult to pull off because there is not a lot for your reader to hook into and believe in. Let’s say that you’re writing a book where a girl goes after a boy because she thinks he is the serial killer terrorizing the town. Thrillers are more popular on shelves today and this is a premise that’s bound to have some romantic tension. Great.

But the author in this example must do a lot of work at the beginning to make sure that her guess seems reasonable and logical to the reader. “I just knew it in my bones that he was the Shady Pines Strangler” isn’t going to convince your reader to go along for the ride. Telling isn’t going to do it. Something needs to happen in the action of the plot that makes your character–and, by extension, your reader–sure. A tangible event or something seen with one’s own eyes is as close as you can get to concrete facts in fiction. So your audience will need nothing short of that to be convinced that your protagonist is on the right track…and to want to follow her on the plot.

The same goes for misunderstandings and misconceptions. It is very difficult to suspend disbelief and follow a plot that hangs on a misunderstanding (that’s why characters in denial don’t work well). Especially if the reader knows that the character has made a mistake. Let’s just give a quick example here. A girl is in the cafeteria and a boy yells out that she looks like a fat dude in a monkey suit. She spends the rest of the story building a complex revenge scheme to humiliate him…and it turns out that, the entire time, he had been hollering over her head at a fellow basketball player. They laugh about it and, surprise surprise, fall madly in love and wear gorilla suits to their wedding, etc. etc. etc.

Despite the sarcastic ending to this pretend tale, I hope you can see why it wouldn’t be satisfying. The misunderstanding bit is way too weak to pin an entire plot on. This is extremely prevalent in romantic comedy style novels, so if you’re writing one, make sure you’re not relying on this trick too heavily. Weak plot also comes from character guesses that aren’t backed up by concrete evidence via action or something that happens in the physical realm of the story. In a fantasy novel about faeries, you can’t just talk about faeries for the duration of the book, telling over and over again about the magical atmosphere in the woods. If there are faeries, we better see some faeries. If the hot new guy in school is a serial killer, we better see brown traces of dried blood under his fingernails and smell a suspicious odor coming from the trunk of his car.

Otherwise, in both cases, your readers might see your character as jumping to conclusions…and you don’t want to make them feel like they’re going on a wild goose chase. With everything you write, you should make their investment in the plot more, not less.

 

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I’ve had some pushback from writers in critique when I say that something their character is doing doesn’t count as action. “Of course it is!” they say. “My protagonist is DOING STUFF. Look, they are chopping vegetables for a stew!”

It finally struck me that I should probably define action (as I use it) to keep this misunderstanding from happening. Action is NOT busywork (chopping veg, shopping, driving, hanging out). In the world of theatre, this stuff is called “business,” or things that actors do in a scene so that they’re not just sitting around and talking. It’s stuff. But it has no larger meaning, or it might probably happen again in yet another scene where the character needs something to do. If that character didn’t chop those vegetables, the plot wouldn’t fall apart. So, therefore, while the thing is active, it’s not action.

Action means something that has story consequences. Action means that the protagonist either comes into contact with another character or encounters an obstacle or makes an effort to reach a goal or does something in the world of the story that is significant and moves the story forward. Unless they are cutting vegetables for the stew that they will use to poison the king–and this action is the result of a big decision to finally commit treason–then it’s business, not action.

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Don’t get me wrong, when my friends and I do it, I find sitting around and talking fascinating. But I don’t like too much of it in my fiction. You may have heard several writing teachers saying that kitchens, dining rooms, living rooms, airplanes, and cars are especially dangerous settings in fiction. Why? Because they limit action to one of very few things. Mainly, people in these settings tend to…sit around and talk.

Talking in fiction SHOULD accomplish many things. Good dialogue reveals character objective and motivation, characterizes our fictional people and deepens our understanding of them, and it pits them against one another, creating conflict. In the hands of lesser scribes, though, lots of dialogue tends to be one giant info-dump. The writer has realized that their reader doesn’t have all the information necessary to continue the story, so they play catch-up and rationalize to themselves that, just because there are quotation marks around it, it’s not an info-dump or blatant backstory.

“Well, as you know, son, your mother was very ill last year and, at that time, she left you a box of belongings. I know you have been longing to get in there, but…”

Blah blah blah. And I’m putting the manuscript down.

Writing great dialogue is a whole other blog post (or ten). But for this brief reminder, take the following to heart: Dialogue is not a dumping ground for backstory. Scenes where people are sitting around and talking are a minefield for the pacing and action stopping cold. If you have a lot of these scenes, break them up with action in between. If you have an entire plot that is based on an environment conducive to sitting around and talking (the course of the story takes place on an overnight flight to London), I don’t envy you. Find a way to break up the constant conversation with action (think Snakes on a Plane).

Think about it like this: there’s talk, and then there’s action. That’s an old and familiar adage. We tend to want to see action, not just hear talk about it or promises or apologies. Same for your fiction. Find a way to inject action and things actually happening in any plot, but especially one that might be set primarily in a static environment.

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One of my favorite ways of getting really good stakes going is by establishing ramifications for an action way before (ideally) that action takes place. The most obvious example of this that I can cite is the opening to The Hunger Games. Please excuse me of using such an obvious example, but I wanted to pick something that people had a good chance of having read. Suzanne Collins masterfully establishes what “the reaping” ceremony is from the first paragraph on. The ramifications of getting chosen at the reaping are very clear: you will go to the Hunger Games, and you will probably die.

We learn all about the reaping ceremony, and its risks. We hear in detail the lengths that people go to in order to avoid getting reaped. We start to fear the reaping–and, by extension, the Hunger Games–because Katniss fears the reaping and the Hunger Games. (We also start to love Katniss as a protagonist despite her thorny exterior because she fears the reaping and the Hunger Games for her little sister more than she fears it for herself. There’s that compassionate core to her that we see again and again with Peeta and Rue in the arena.)

So by the time the reaping ceremony arrives, we are extremely anxious about it. Not just because the narrator is extremely anxious, but because Suzanne Collins has established the ramifications of getting chosen. She has done her job right and the reader knows exactly what will happen: an Everdeen sister will be chosen in the reaping. Even though we are able to sense and call this inevitable plot twist very early on, I hesitate to call it predictable. Since the stakes our so high and our anxiety is so high, we dread the reaping and yet can’t wait to see how the characters will react and, eventually, get themselves out of this horrifying situation. When Prim is chosen and when Katniss volunteers, our initial anxiety (knowing what’s coming and knowing the ramifications of this plot event) is resolved, because something the author has built up has finally come to fruition, but then we’re shot into a whole new stratosphere of anxiety because now those ramifications are about to happen. Reading the opening to The Hunger Games is a thrill ride precisely because Collins has prepared us so well for the reaping.

Think about establishing ramifications when it comes to your own work. If your character is going to get kicked out of their house should they bring home anything less than a perfect grades (an exaggerated example, perhaps), the anxiety of this ramification has to be in place LONG BEFORE report card day. Then it is your responsibility to make sure the plot takes a turn in the direction of a bad grade. The stakes will be high as a result because the readers knows exactly what to expect, fears it, and is now worried about what will happen. And–it should go without saying–the consequence you established must come to pass. Sure, it may not be nice, and it may not be fun to do to your character, but that’s how you keep that all-important tension high!

If you have a bad report card or a reaping in your story, make sure the ramifications are established long, long before, and then play your reader’s anxieties for all they’re worth!

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Just like there’s a balance between too much action and too much information in fiction (a big cornerstone point that I thought a lot about for my book), a balance between external conflict and internal conflict, and a balance between characterization and plot, there should also be a balance between high-stakes obstacles and easy hurdles.

The best case scenario in any plot is an obstacle that seems just impossible enough, and then is acted upon in a surprising way, bringing about delight and relief in the reader. The two extremes on the scale of obstacles: the wimpy obstacle that is overcome too easily, and the impossible obstacle that kills the reader’s sense of hope.

The first one is bad for an obvious reason: you always want to be playing up your stakes and tension, especially as you move toward the climax of your story. If a bad guy goes down on the first punch or the secret journal that simply can’t be found is…in the attic, well, that’s a bit lame. You don’t lose your reader if you have one or two of these easy obstacles, but if the reader gets the message that no challenge is really all that challenging in your book, you will lose them after a while.

The latter problem is, actually, what I tend to see more: the obstacle that is so impossible, so implausible, so high as a hurdle, that I give up almost before the character tries because it strains my suspension of disbelief. While I applaud writers for making big, high-stakes obstacles and putting them in the paths of their characters, the protagonist must always stand at least a fraction of a snowball’s chance in hell of achieving the objective, or the reader will click off. There are those “impossible dreams” that are darn difficult to achieve, and so the journey of that process is worth sticking around for, and then there are those goals that are simply impossible. Aim for the former. (An off-shoot of this impossible obstacle is the protagonist requiring something of a character, and that character just saying flat-out: “No.” That does not give you much room to strive toward the goal, either, and, in most cases, strikes me as extremely arbitrary.)

To strike this balance: Set the bar high, but give your character a fighting chance.

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There’s something called the Law of Diminishing Returns and I apply it a lot to fiction when I give notes. It has several different applications, but the point behind each is the same: every time something is repeated, it has to be different.

Take, for example, action sequences in a novel or film. They sure are exciting. Until you have five of them in a row and they start feeling boring. That’s the Law of Diminishing Returns in action. Or sex scenes in a romance novel. Or conversations between friends that are meant to be funny. These can all have impact on a reader or viewer, but you have to be very careful with any repeating elements in your story.

The golden ideal in fiction is to have your action, relationships, imagery, tension, stakes–everything–build as you near the climax of your story. Your plot cannot plateau, and it certainly can’t slow down, as you go. Everything must also grow in significance. But if you have some redundant elements, like lots of classroom scenes or several fights between your protagonist and antagonist, those will lose significance and power each time and threaten to drag your plot down.

When you’re doing revision, go through your manuscript and isolate everything that repeats, whether it’s an encounter between characters, a setting, or a plot point. Then make sure that each is different enough from its predecessors and also that you craft its impact slightly differently from all the other times. If it’s a fight with a couple, let this fight plant a seed of doubt in the character’s mind about the future of the relationship. Let the next one inspire the character to stick it out and work through the issue. Let the final fight lead to a bout of the silent treatment, or whatever.

Sometimes you have to have things happen multiple times in a plot. If you can’t change that, change the impact or the significance or the character’s takeaway.

There are lots of ways to manage this issue and keep readers from experiencing Diminishing Returns. Being aware of the problem is the most important step toward fighting it.

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Here’s something to always keep in mind, no matter if you’re writing picture books or full-blown novels: each plot point in your novel should change the course of events in a permanent way. If you have a lot of plot points where the effect isn’t crystal clear, no decision is made, no characters change, and the trajectory of your story seems to bob along rather than follow a very direct line, your plot points are not absolute enough. In plots like this, your characters could likely revert to exactly who they were at the beginning of the book if they wanted to. That’s a problematic novel, to me. Anchor the forward momentum of your story along plot turning points that divide your tale into a clear “before” and “after” with no going back. This will also help you work on the all-important elements of stakes and tension.

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This has a lot to do with Monday’s post about guiding the reader emotionally. It also has to do with ending a chapter. Whenever you plunge your reader into white space (the white space at the end of a chapter, for example), you run the risk of losing them. So a lot of writers employ some smart tactics to keep this from happening.

I always recommend that you end on a cliffhanger, or introduce a new character, piece of information, or plot complication. Anything that will add tension and make your reader compulsively turn the page and start reading your next chapter. In essence, you never want to end a chapter with the character thinking about how tranquil everything is, or the reader will close the book and go play Xbox.

Well, sometimes you do use something drastic, like a cliffhanger, at the end of a chapter, but there’s the potential for a missed opportunity there, as well. Take this example:

And her father–right there in the flesh, after she thought he’d been dead all these years–walked right through the door.

Wow! Cool! I want to find out what happens, don’t you? Well, this could also be very abrupt if it’s the last sentence of your chapter. And if you tend to do this over and over, it will start to feel like your reader hitting a brick wall with each successive instance. Per the Law of Diminishing Returns, the cliffhanger tactic will also start to lose its tension-rich effectiveness.

One way to mitigate this effect, retain the tension, and also give the reader a more complex emotion than just “surprise” is to always button on character. This means to go back to your protagonist for a reaction before abruptly ending the scene. We get the surprise (or whatever tactic you’re using here), but then we’ll also put it in context, get some emotional resonance, and refocus on the protagonist’s experience of the story. If done right, this packs more of a punch than just a shock. So don’t leave your protagonist and their emotional reaction hanging until the beginning of the next chapter every time. A strong character-focused button will still keep readers invested enough to turn the page.

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