Plot

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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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I’ve been seeing a lot of picture book manuscripts that are what I’ll call Flight of Imagination. A kid is either dreaming or out playing and the plot of the book deals with them having an adventure based largely in their imagination. An example would be something like:

Johnny headed out into his backyard…

…only it turned into a swamp full of menacing alligators!

And this continues for the duration of the manuscript, until Johnny is safe and snug at last, back in the real world.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with this type of story. In fact, my brilliant client Bethanie Murguia makes great use of a child’s active imagination in her upcoming picture book ZOE GETS READY, out from Scholastic in a few weeks. But one child’s imagination and the fruits of it can’t be the entire picture book. Imagination is a sales hook and a universal element for picture books, but it shouldn’t be the only one.

Most of the stories I see have great whimsy–Johnny’s backyard may turn first into a swamp, then into an ancient Egyptian tomb, then into a spaceship–but that’s almost a problem. They tend to be too specific. One kid’s imagination played out. A character who, other than his big imagination, is not well-defined. And they tend to invite clichés in terms of illustration because you’re practically forcing your art talent to illustrate the imagined scenes as if they were illustrating the contents of thought bubbles, which is a tired old trope.

This is basically how I like to explain my problem with these stories: Other people’s dreams are not interesting. Imagine your best friend calling you up one morning and telling you about this crazy, whimsical dream she had. It’s full of crazy adventures and really specific fantastical creatures and it is a thrill ride…for her. I find my own dreams interesting, but that’s because they’re specific to me. I am not nearly as captivated by a purely imaginative thrill ride through another person’s subconscious. If that’s all there is, then I’m less likely to be interested.

Now, it’s not like you can’t have a story that centers around a child’s journey through a land of imagination. We’d lose brilliant books like WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE if that were the case. But there need to be other layers in play, and an actual story within the imagined landscape, not just an episodic barrage of images or crazy adventures. Characters need to be fleshed out. A plot needs to be in motion, with sequential events that go from conflict to climax. Other themes and universal childhood experiences need to be embedded within the manuscript.

For this reason, Flight of Imagination picture books are a tougher row to hoe than most. Just like A Day in the Life picture books, that follow a kid from morning to bedtime and showcase the family, pets, and favorite toys. Neither has an inherent plot and, in this market, that’s a losing proposition. Look at your story objectively and see if it suffers from this colorful–but nonetheless problematic–issue.

ETA: Wendy’s comment, below, is particularly astute. And a lot more succinct than this blog post. Go read that instead! :)

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Bad Obstacles

I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes a good character obstacle lately. What kinds of things should your character butt up against in the pursuit of their objective? What kinds of things make for less-than-stellar hurdles to jump over? Well, if your reader is meant to be emotionally invested in your protagonist’s journey to the climax of the story, they will need to struggle. A lot. They will need to pursue a very important goal and get shot down as often as possible. In fact, the only time they should really succeed is during the climactic action of the novel (or picture book, though obviously goals, obstacles, and attempts at achieving the objective are appropriately scaled down, and the failures aren’t as catastrophic).

Whether your obstacles are smaller frustrations or major roadblocks, some things just don’t work. One is the internal obstacle of “I can’t.” “Can’t” is a four-letter word in fiction, when uttered by both character and writer. When a character says “I can’t,” my first instinct is to ask, “Why not?” Sometimes it’s valid. In ALCHEMY AND MEGGY SWANN by Karen Cushman, Meggy’s legs are maimed. When she says she can’t go up stairs, I believe her. Or if your worldbuilding dictates that characters can’t fly, it’s good that you’re keeping it consistent. But when a character flat-out refuses to do something, there must be a real reason behind it (like a fear of heights precluding them from climbing the Eiffel Tower that has been established in the book for a long time as crucially important), or the obstacle will feel flimsy. It’s one thing for a character to say they can’t. Writers often stop there. But if the reader is to understand their position, there should be real motivation there, or it’s a nonstarter.

On a side note, it really irks me on a logical level when writers say “can’t.” This often happens when I give them food for thought during a critique and they have the knee-jerk reaction of, “Oh, that would take too much revision and I simply can’t.” Why not? You are making everything up. If the way you’ve made something up precludes you from trying something new, simply dream your way out of the old rules and come up with another framework. “Can’t” has no place in fiction. (I often hear it for what it most likely is: “Don’t wanna.”)

Another flimsy character obstacle is one that depends entirely on another character’s will. This is often a true non-starter. If your plot is riding on your character borrowing their big brother’s car, and they ask their brother, and the brother says, “No,” well…you’re SOL, aren’t you? You’re at an impasse. There should always be other avenues to reach the objective, other actions your character can play, etc. Plus, it’s frustrating to read a situation when the other character’s refusal seems arbitrary. Just like with “can’t,” if I feel like they could easily change their minds, then I’m not buying that it’s a real obstacle.

So just like your characters, objectives, and motivations, your obstacles should be more dynamic.

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This is something that I’ve started saying at each conference I attend. For those of you who’ve heard it in person or during a critique, I apologize for being redundant. But listen to it anyway because it’s important:

I believe that all writing is a balance of action and information.

Imagine scales in your head. On one end is action: what keeps plot driving forward and teaches us about character as our fictional people advance through the present moments of the story. On the other end is information: what gives us context about the fictional world and also fleshes out the characters we’ve created with need-to-know tidbits that exist outside the present moment.

Both are necessary. Both need to be in balance so that a story can continue. The biggest place where this matters is in a novel’s beginning. Imagine you are trying to read a dystopian that’s in a completely other world–you open the book and it’s strange, you don’t know much about it. Worse, your main character has been whacked in the head before the start of the story and is just groggily waking up. She doesn’t remember who she is or where she is. When she does come to, she realizes she’s in an underground maze, being chased by…something. Whatever it is, it has sharp teeth, it reeks of death, and it’s after her. She doesn’t have anything to defend herself with, so she must start running.

We open immediately to action. It’s great. There’s danger, the stakes are high, her life hangs in the balance. But is this a compelling beginning for fiction? I’d argue that it isn’t, really. Because we have action, but that’s all we have. We don’t know anything about this world in which people get clubbed on the head and maze monsters seem to be just a regular part of life. We don’t know anything about this character because she’s recently suffered a head injury and doesn’t know enough to tell us herself. The stakes here are high, yes, but generic “life and death” versus specific. Since we don’t know the world or the character, we don’t know exactly what’s at risk (other than some random broad’s life) or why we should care. This beginning has too much action and not enough information so it fails to ground the reader and provide a foothold for us to access the story.

On the other end of the scale is information. It’s great to have because, once we know stuff (and, ideally, we pick it up through showing, not telling), we care. It’s not enough to know that there are millions of children starving in the world. Those charity commercials tug at our heartstrings because they show us one child, tell us one story, and they make the problem concrete enough and specific enough that we start to care. But you can go overboard on information, too. Let’s say I open another book. It’s a character who is sitting in their room the night before the first day of school, thinking about his crappy life. He has no friends, his parents are too strict (and definitely uncool) and his sister is a brat. He looks over at his closet, where he’s hidden his skateboard — it causes him even more pain that he hurt his knee over the summer and hasn’t been able to get to the skate park, further alienating himself. He looks around at his clothes, hoping they’re cool enough, and at the rock posters on the walls, grumbling that his favorite bands never come through to tour in his small, miserable town. He thinks for a while about how much he loves his dog, and maybe about the girl that he has a crush on that he’s never spoken to.

What’s wrong with this picture? Let me ask you, instead: What has happened so far? Nothing. A kid is sitting and thinking. It’s a completely static beginning with no action. Sure, we learn a lot about his life, but it is all telling, no showing. We care less about the girl he loves because we’ve never seen her reject him in scene. We know he is upset about skateboarding but we are not emotionally invested until we see him limp out of the half-pipe after a failed trick. And do we really need to know about the family pet or the sister right now? I’m guessing not.

You have all this great information in your head about your character or your world, but you can never dump it all on your reader (an “info-dump”) at once, especially at the beginning. Information must emerge organically, usually in the context of action. When we meet the dream girl, it’s okay to have him think about how long he’s been in love with her. That’s information. But then, Home Skillet must march on over there and get his heart crushed. That’s action. Like this, the two work very well together. Too much of either one, and your pacing gets all off, characterization starts to feel flat, and your reader’s emotional investment in the story starts to drag.

This doesn’t just happen in the beginning of your work, either. The balance of action and information is something you must always be vigilant about. I love this additional way of thinking about the fiction craft and I hope you do, too.

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by Ingrid Sundberg, current VCFA student

We can all agree that Aristotle is the granddaddy of plot. Aristotle’s goal-oriented or action plot is nothing new to shout about. In fact, at this very moment, we are all busy giving our protagonists goals (like saving their families from flesh eating zombies), building up obstacles of increasing intensity, crafting the perfect climax, an emotional resolution, eating zombie brains, blah, blah, blah…yes we’ve heard it before. When we talk about plot, 99% of the time it’s going to be Aristotle’s action plot that we’re referring to.

But is this the only plot available?

In my own writing, I’ve often found myself trying to pound my round-shaped story into this square-shaped Aristotelian idea of plot. I’ve done this because it’s the only type of plot anyone talks about. However, I had an Ah-ha! moment at my first Vermont College of Fine Arts residency last January (an intense 10-day lecture and learning extravaganza). During a group discussion with visiting author M.T. Anderson, he challenged concepts of plot and encouraged us to discover what works for our own writing and to not simply accept what others have said on the subject. This inspired me to start collecting alternative plot structures – and guess what – there are lots of them!

The following is a short list of some of the alternative plots I’ve come across. Of course, this is only a small sample:

The Repeated Action Plot

This plot follows a character who repeats an action multiple times until he or she “gets it right.” The classic movie example of this plot is the Billy Murray film Groundhog Day. We also see this plot structure in Lauren Oliver’s young adult novel BEFORE I FALL, where the protagonist repeats a crucial day of her life multiple times.

The Daisy Chain Plot

There is no central protagonist in a Daisy Chain Plot. Instead the plot follows a chain of characters or an object as it’s passed from one character to the next. Each character’s story is told in whole, but their story is short and often self-contained. Examples of this type of plot include the films The Red Violin, Twenty Bucks, and Slacker. Even though Jay Asher’s THIRTEEN REASONS WHY follows a single protagonist there is an element of the Daisy Chain Plot in the device that brings out the chain of characters in the story.

The Ensemble Plot

This plot concerns a variety of protagonists where no character is more dominant than another. The plot explores multiple voices, consciousnesses, and takes place within a single location. Character storylines can interweave or be independent. This often becomes a portrait of a place rather than a portrait of a person with a particular goal. Film examples include: The Big Chill, Crash, and Dazed and Confused. JUMPED by Newberry Winner, Rita Williams-Garcia is a great example of the Ensemble Plot in a young adult book.

The Emotional Plot

This plot is similar to the Aristotelian action plot, but all of the “action” is internal rather than external. This plot explores the moral or emotional development of a character and much of the story is told through the characters thoughts rather than their actions. Sometimes an emotional plot will follow or mirror an action plot as well, but some don’t have an action plot at all.

There are plenty of plots out there to choose from, not to mention structures (but that’s a whole different blog post). Remember, there is merit to Aristotle’s goal-oriented plot and many agents and editors are looking for that type of plot in a novel. However, one must be true to the story he or she is telling and be purposeful and honest in that telling. If you’re struggling with plot, you may find an alternative form of plot is just the ticket you’ve been searching for.

Ingrid Sundberg will graduate from the Vermont College of Fine art in January 2013. She also has an MFA in Screenwriting from Chapman University, and a BFA in Illustration from the Massachusetts College of Art. She likes to look at storytelling from all angles – artistic, cinematic, or word by word – and loves how VCFA has helped her to integrate these various points of view. Ingrid writes young adult novels, picture books, screenplays, and illustrates for children’s magazines. She is very active in the Kidlit community and blogs about writing craft on her blog Ingrid’s Notes.

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