synthroid kidney


You are currently browsing articles tagged Plot.

This first line comes by way of a freelance editorial client and is used with her permission. It’s not often that I showcase client work but I just had to talk about this line and what makes it such a grabber:

If a tree falls in the woods…Zeke backed his bike into a stand of mountain laurel… and no one hears it….He stood motionless…is it still a crime?

First, some context. This is a MG story dealing with some environmental topics. In this scene, the main character, Zeke, witnesses some vandals felling a very old tree with an active eagle’s nest on top. You get some of this in the line itself, but since you don’t have the benefit of a query or synopsis, I wanted to fill in the rest. Also, for the sake of clarity, italics indicate verbatim thoughts. You can see here that we’re in third person but we’re still getting interiority (thoughts, feelings, reactions) from Zeke because the writer has chosen to interject them. The italics keep everything from running together.

What works here for me? First lines need to grab. One way to do that is to turn something familiar on its head. This is done here with the old “If a tree falls in the forest” phrase. Instead of being a serene mind puzzle, this cliché becomes new and edgy by introducing the idea of a crime happening. Great!

There’s also tension in what Zeke is doing. It’s obvious from how he backs away from the scene and stands motionless that he’s not supposed to be there. Whether he’s a participant regretting his involvement and attempting to run or whether he’s a passerby stumbling onto something sinister, we don’t know yet, but there’s certainly an element of added danger: He is not like the people committing the crime, and that makes him vulnerable. The stakes rise.

Finally, there’s the simple idea of starting in action. We’re right there in the moment. We get the character’s thoughts (internal conflict) and the character’s physical situation (external conflict) in one sentence. There’s no introduction, no easing into the moment. (“Zeke did what he always did when he couldn’t sleep: he snuck away to visit the eagle’s nest. But this early morning, something was different. He drew nearer and heard a peculiar sound. Chainsaws. He peeked through the underbrush to find…” blah blah blah blah blah) Instead we are thrust into things and we have to catch up but–and this is important–without being disoriented. There’s a mystery (Who is doing this? Why? What’s he doing there?) but we have enough information still that we can attach ourselves to an instant story.

Great stuff, overall! There’s one way this misses, though, and it’s in the follow-up. I use the next line in the manuscript with the author’s permission as well:

But he’d heard it. The sounds of the ruckus – the chainsaw, the muffled cheers, and the thud of the tree – still sent reverberations from his brain to his spine.

If a tree falls in the woods, let us actually hear it in the moment instead of introducing the event, skipping past it, and giving us the protagonist recalling it in compressed narration. Instead of The Event that we’ve been primed to expect, the tree falling is reduced to a list of fleeting images. The reaction to the event is till there but…no event. You should never make a big deal about something (making it the subject of your first line is an Automatic Big Deal) only to discount it soon after. This client doesn’t lose all the tension she created for herself but there’s an automatic deflation when we go from “in the moment” to “wow, that moment was intense but we skipped right over it.”

The bottom line: Grab the reader but make sure you have the follow-through to capitalize on what you’ve created. Otherwise, it’s like setting the stage and turning the lights on only to have the curtain fall. My thanks to Debbie for letting me use her as a guinea pig. A lot to unpack in two short sentences!

Tags: , , ,

This post relates to notes I’ve found myself giving to writers and it’s along the lines of my Pimp Your Premise post last month. The theme is the same: You’ve done all this work, created this thing, so why not get the most out of it?

The note that originally elicited this response was a scene with high emotional potential that, for some reason, didn’t live up to its potential. Rather than becoming a sensitive life wire of emotion, the character drifted through, basically, the climax of the story with all of the interiority and sensitivity of a crash test dummy. (For all those who are new to my story theory rhetoric, I define interiority as having access to your character’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions. This is possible to accomplish in either first or third person.) The emotions were definitely possible in this intense scene, but the writer wasn’t going there.

More and more, my advice to writers can be summed up as: GO THERE. If you set up a premise with a really unique element, exploit that element to the fullest and design as many plot points around it. If you’re writing a grief story and there’s a lot of potential for your protagonist to hit rock bottom, have them crash into it at high speeds. If you’re writing a love story, give us that moment when he loses himself in her eyes entirely and becomes vulnerable for the first time ever. There are a million story opportunities for your characters to become a raw nerve.

As a group, writers–and don’t think I’m insulting writers here, this sentence could just as easily read “humans”–like to play it safe. They have their pet storytelling techniques, their favorite plot twists, their go-to phrases, their easy physical clichés that they deploy instead of having to write about the messy world of emotions. But the writer’s role job isn’t to play it safe. It isn’t to tread the familiar path, because the familiar path isn’t going to electrify readers. Artists in general search for the truth of the human condition by getting out of their comfort zones…and by taking their audiences with them.

If you yourself are unwilling to GO THERE, your reader’s potential to suffer, triumph, and understand diminishes. I’m constantly impressed by how many manuscripts scratch the surface in precisely those moments when they should be plunging in. Interiority flourishes during a boring classroom scene but is oddly silent when it’s time to visit Dad in the hospice, for example. Or we spend a lot of time on happy emotions but completely sidestep anything negative. (Reverse this dynamic for a dystopian manuscript!)

Let me get down to it: The scene that feels the hollowest in your manuscript should either be cut or you should screw your courage to the sticking place and GO THERE with it. Especially when the events transpiring call for high, noble, intense, painful, or otherwise uncomfortable emotions.

To call upon a book outside the kidlit canon, this was my biggest problem with THE MEMORY KEEPER’S DAUGHTER, an insanely successful adult novel by Kim Edwards that came out in 2005 and was incredibly successful. (SPOILERS) While it is a very emotional story, there is one glaring missed opportunity, a moment begging the author to GO THERE that was never realized. Briefly, the story is about a husband who immediately realizes that one of his newborn twins has Down’s syndrome. This is another era and he quickly spirits the girl away to a nurse, then lies to his wife, saying the second child died. Flash forward many years and the secret is close to coming out. Just as I was expecting the BLISTERING reveal and ensuing confrontation between husband and wife, the husband dies suddenly. The wife finds out another way and rages at his memory.

I know plenty of people who loved this book. But I really, really, really would’ve loved to see the scene where husband and wife stand naked before the truth. It’s one thing to rage at someone’s memory, it’s another to confront him in the flesh. And not just him, but the pastand the future. I would never call this author a coward, but I wondered what kept her from GOING THERE and giving us this highly emotional scene using both characters, not just one.

So if you’ve got a premise that’s locked and loaded with the high-stakes potential for emotion, don’t just skirt around it or do the next best thing. It’s going to be challenging, because you have a lot wrapped up in these characters and part of you probably wants to protect them, but you have to think of the most emotional points in your plot as an invitation to unleash those feelings without holding back. GO THERE.

Tags: , , , , ,

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.

Tags: , ,

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 cliché 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.

Tags: ,

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.


Tags: , ,

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.

Tags: ,

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.

Tags: ,

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!

Tags: , ,

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.

Tags: ,

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.


« Older entries § Newer entries »