It’s time to get back to business with a craft-related post. I’ve been reading some manuscripts where the writers lapse into what I always call “play-by-play narration.” It’s the narrative equivalent of a chronological grocery list of events:
First we did this. Then we did that. He did this, and then he did that. After that, we did this. And then, that. A little bit later, we went and did such and such.
As a writer, it’s not just your job to transcribe what you imagine happens in a character’s day and think that you have yourself a plot. That’s not how it works. A large part of narration and storytelling is acting as a curator of the story. You’re supposed to maximize what’s important and minimize what’s not and keep directing your reader’s attention from paragraph to paragraph and page to page. When you’re filling up your pages with play-by-play narration, you’re giving us dull descriptions of nonessential events, like:
Anna went into the kitchen. She opened up the refrigerator and got out some mayonnaise, some mustard, and a head of lettuce from the crisper. The tomatoes and white bread were already on the counter. She got out two slices of bread and put them on a dinner plate, then spread one slice with the mayonnaise, the other with the mustard. Halfway through making her sandwich, she realized she’s forgotten the cheese and sliced deli meat in the fridge. Huffing to herself and blowing her bangs out of her eyes, she turned on a heel and headed back to get the rest of her fixins.
Or, you know, you could just say, “Anna made a sandwich” and then move on to describing the actions that actually matter to your plot. If it’s not important, it doesn’t need to be described in such painstaking detail. You only have about 300 pages to work with in the average novel. Don’t waste any time detailing the mundane. If you need your characters to do something inconsequential, just sum it up in compressed narration, as I did in the first sentence of this paragraph.
How do writers get stuck in this pattern? I think there’s a tendency, when you don’t know better, to take the reader through a character’s day from dawn (probably why so many manuscripts start with a character waking up) to dusk. Why? Because that’s the pattern we’ve followed every day of our lives. Our days go this familiar route, so we send our characters through the same paces. This is a trap, and it makes for deadly dull reading. Break your characters out of play-by-play narration and get them moving on to the next plot point in your story. We don’t really care how Anna makes her sandwich. In fact, we don’t really need to read about her eating at all. The same goes with her bathroom routine, her shower, her picking out clothes, her driving to school, etc.
If you feel like you may be guilty of giving your readers the “play-by-play,” ask yourself about the actions you’re describing. Are they absolutely essential information for your reader? Do they factor into your plot? If not, maybe cut those passages and refocus on action that does move the story forward.
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.
Writing a plot pitch for a query letter is tough. What makes it tougher is that plot can sometimes be mistaken for situation. There’s a big difference between the two, especially in a query letter or pitch. Here’s a thought that I’ve been meaning to post about for a while.
Examples of Plot Pitches that Include Situation
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.
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?
Writing a Plot Pitch Means Focusing on Specific Plot Points
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.
Situation Is Important, But It’s What You Do With It That Matters
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.
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.
Many writers get stuck on how to write a novel plot. How do I know? I’ve seen thousands of plots, and very few that worked well enough to sell. Plot is one of the most important elements of any story, from picture book to chapter book to middle grade to young adult.
Novels 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.
How to Write a Novel Plot in Four Key Points
I’ve had the tremendous luck to study with middle grade 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.
All The Novel Structure Your Need, With None of the Gimmicks
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:
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:
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…
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…
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…
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.
Focus on Character Emotions to Get the Most Out of Your Plot
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.
How to Write a Novel Subplot
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.
Leave Room for Tension, Mystery, and Surprise
This brings me to my last consideration about how to write a novel 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.
Wondering what to do with your specific novel plot? Get one-on-one, in-depth feedback on your manuscript when you hire me as a fiction editor. I can look at your synopsis, a partial, or your whole novel to really drill into how you’re using plot.
This is the question I got the other week from Elan:
How do you feel about authors querying about a series? Is it important to mention that in the initial query letter, or is that something that can be discussed once an author/agent relationship is established? Let’s say the first book is complete but the others in the series are not.
Good question, Elan. This is something a lot of writers should be researching before they query because — if you’ve been under a rock for the last year or so and haven’t heard — the rules in publishing have changed a little bit since the economy tanked. This might not be my answer forever, but this is my answer right now.
Series have been snapped up left and right by the big houses in the recent past, ever since Harry Potter proved that you could keep the cash flowing for many, many books. A few years ago, it wasn’t uncommon to see two, three or even four-book deals right out of the gate, a healthy number of these going to debut authors. Fantasy, sci-fi and paranormal are three genres that lend themselves especially well to series and, if you asked the blogs a little while ago, they’d all say that writing “This project has strong series potential and I’m currently writing books two through five” in your query could very well be melodious to an agent’s ear.
Now houses are taking fewer risks. The average debut author is lucky if they can secure two books with their first contract. I was talking to an editor recently and she outlined the way her house has been approaching series: they buy the first book, maybe in a two-book deal but maybe as a stand-alone, release it, see how it does, and only then do they consider turning it into a series. If they do, they’ll commit through probably a trilogy (so two more books) or more. I like this model, maybe not from a bank account or a prestige standpoint but from an intellectual one. It’s cautious. It’s logical. It’s practical. It doesn’t assume the risk of a series right away, it makes the author and their debut earn the subsequent books. Intimidating thought, I know, but are you really in the writing gig for the easy money? 🙂 Didn’t think so.
This isn’t fun to hear for all the fantasy and paranormal and sci-fi writers who have planned seven-book story arcs. But it’s smart. Publishing can’t really be handing out four-book deals like candy anymore. It’s bad for the house because they’re spending a lot of money on untested talent and will have to compete in a very crowded fantasy/paranormal/sci-fi marketplace. It’s bad for the author, too, because the last thing you want people saying about you is: “Wow, poor writer, Publishing House gave her a four-book deal and the first book didn’t even sell that well. Now she’s stuck, her editor isn’t enthusiastic about the project anymore and the house lost a ton money. Bummer.”
It’ll be that much harder to get a new contract for future work from your publisher — why invest more in a product that doesn’t leave the shelves? — or attract a new house because everyone can see your dismal sales numbers. The conventional wisdom of “If a house pays more for a book or series, they’ll do more to promote it” isn’t necessarily true anymore. Big books and series still tank and, when they do, they tank big.
So, when you’re imagining a series in all its shiny, multi-book glory, the best thing you can do with the first book is make it a complete, stand-alone story. There’s definitely a pattern with series, in terms of what function each book serves. A trilogy, for example, will sometimes go like this:
Book One: set-up and background and initiation
Book Two: exploration and character development
Book Three: showdown!
But if you send an agent a book that’s all set-up and background info and initiation, it doesn’t stand alone. I’m going to say: “Well, that’s great, but what actually happens? This all seems like prologue…” There has to be a full and compelling plot, rich character development, a climax and a denouement for this manuscript, and it has to be satisfying, even if there are other books planned. And why wouldn’t you put all of your best work and your best effort into this first book? Don’t hold on to the good stuff for Book Six. You might never get there. If the market can only bear your debut, you should still feel good that you’ve created a wonderful story. Even if GRACELING didn’t have two other books attached to it, it would still have stood alone and been a perfect, utterly satisfying fantasy novel. That’s what it takes in today’s market.
I’d also warn unagented, unpublished writers away from developing an entire series and finishing all those manuscripts a) before querying and b) before landing a publishing contract for your first book(s). The most painful thing to see is seven completed series manuscripts that are gathering dust because the author couldn’t attract an agent for or sell the first one.
So when you query, do let me know if you’ve got a series in mind. But now, instead of hearing about how you’re working on Book Twenty-Nine, the following sentence would be music to my ears: “This project has strong series potential but this manuscript tells a complete tale and stands alone.*”
Writers, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, of all people, about dramatic arc. But maybe I will, just so we’re clear. Dramatic arc looks like, well, an upside down check-mark, actually, more so than an arc, with the pointy part making a mountain near the end.
The story starts off on ground level, then slopes up nicely until the climax (the mountain) and then slopes quickly downward to a nice resolution.
A large part of this nice, inverted-check-mark shape, is the sloping. As the novel builds and builds, the tension and the stakes and the action rises toward a climax. Yes? Yes. Then, after an exciting climax, things decelerate quickly and we have a satisfying conclusion.
The key point of getting that great building action in your story is that the reader is aware of what’s at stake. They know what the characters want and they know, pretty much, what is going to turn into a dangerous situation near the end. In other words, they have an idea where your story is going and what your climax is going to be about, pretty much after the first 50 pages. Some people would ask: “Doesn’t this make your novel predictable?”
No. It gives the reader something to fear, something to anticipate, and something to care about. And if they know what could possibly be at stake and what kind of danger could possibly transpire, they’ll be that much more eager to read and find out exactly how it all goes down for the characters that they’ve grown to empathize with.
This brings me to the one thing you never do in a manuscript (there might be more of these, but so far, this is the high and exalted One Thing).
Do not introduce an event or person or thing or consequence in the last 50 pages (or so) of your manuscript if that event/person/thing/consequence will become instrumental to the climax. (The only viable exception to this is introducing a villain who has, up to this point, remained hidden or shadowed or otherwise dark and creepy.)
Ideally, the same stakes and goals and characters and threats that you build from the very beginning of the manuscript should be the forces involved in the climax. The whole point of the climax is that you bring everything that you’ve worked so hard developing and making irresistible together…and that comes from the reader having spent a whole book with these things and really, really caring about what happens to them.
If you introduce something a few pages away from the climax and hinge the climax on that thing, you’re going to lose some readers because they simply don’t care. For example, if you’ve been building up to a battle for the main character to avenge their father’s death for the whole book, then you interrupt the story ten pages before the battle with some bad guys who burst on the scene and want to steal the Magical Decanter of Shmegoo (that we’ve never heard of before in the book, or only heard in passing once or twice) and then make the battle about the Decanter instead of the hero’s father, you’re shooting yourself in the foot.
By all means, introduce new complications, villains, conflicts as your book develops. But don’t introduce something that becomes instrumental in the climax near the end of the book and expect us to care about it. More often than not, your readers will be let down in a big way.
I just read a MS where the author’s answer seemed to be an emphatic: NO!
My answer? An emphatic: YES!
This question is much bigger than I have time for right now. I’ll do a longer post later. In short, though, I’ll leave you with a quote. My MFA professor, Lewis Buzbee, is probably not the first man to say this. But he said it again last night in class and it couldn’t be more applicable to what I read today:
“A story is a character’s journey from innocence to experience.”
Dunk that in your morning coffee. And no, I don’t think we’re just talking about Adam-and-Eve-style innocence here. More to come later!
Every once in a while, I stumble upon a dead scene. One where, technically, nothing happens. It usually involves either an author who is brimming with information or really loves writing witty banter.
In two manuscripts I’ve read recently, I’ve encountered dead scenes. These dead scenes occurred for two completely different reasons. For one, the author felt compelled to outline the bulk of a fantasy world in the form of a more-experienced person filling a newbie in. The second MS, the author had established some good tension and a compelling plot with potential danger, then spent about 40 or 50 pages writing: witty banter at a family dinner, a witty scene at the best friend’s house, witty banter at another family dinner, witty banter at the coffee house, witty banter by the lockers at school.
Are you getting my drift? What do the two above mss. have in common? What’s that? Did you say “lot’s o’ blabbing”? Ding, ding, ding! We have a winner!
When you find large places in your MS with nothing but dialogue, you’re most likely in trouble. *cue wails of distress, cries of “but my MS is different!”* That very well might be, but editors and agents are looking for story, they’re looking for plot. In most cases, even a literary, character-driven masterpiece will only be half the package.
I’ve never met a publishing professional who wouldn’t also want to know: “What happens next?”
Authors usually either write long conversation scenes to serve as a) an info-dump (about a world, a situation, a threat, a character, etc.), or b) to bask in their own wit/wordplay/writing.
Both of these pose huge revision problems. Huge. Make-you-want-to-eat-a-sheet-of-tiramisu-from-Costco huge (I know from experience… I can still taste the powdered chocolate dusting my tear-stained cheeks). The first author wails: “But how else do I introduce all that information??? It’s the crux of my story!!!”
The answer is: you layer it. Introduce one thing. Then add another layer to it. Add some backstory in another conversation. Better yet, make your explanation triggered by something. Your characters find something and it starts a story. Or something happens and a character explains something. Instead of having a conversation triggered by your urge to world-build and spill the framework of your concept, have it be triggered by action. And don’t give it to us all at once. Put the pieces together as they arise naturally through plot.
The second writer will balk at this advice: “But this is hilarious. It’s so fun to read!” Sure, you wrote some funny stuff. And I’ll probably enjoy reading it. But most writers can’t keep a book in suspended plot animation for long before a reader gets antsy. If you want to showcase your wit, punctuate it with action. Have a witty moment discussing something that happened. De-stress after a long day of ACTION by hanging out with your BFF and bantering. Don’t let the witty banter be the entire book, though. That’s the grave mistake.
As you can see, the answer to both situations is action. Something happening. Plot. Every scene and every chapter must not only develop character and story and world, they must also move the plot forward. Another reason to avoid long dialogue scenes without plot is that dialogue leads toward telling, not showing.
Are you worried about this? Good. If you’re the fantasy writer in my examples, start with the chapters you loathe re-reading the most. The ones dense with info you already know, the ones you tend to skim in revisions. That’s where your problem lies. If you’re the second writer, start with the chapters you love the most. The ones that make you feel the most satisfied. The ones where you’re showing off. My guess is that they’re the witty banter ones.
Neither is easy. But when you’re revising, ask yourself about every scene, every chapter: “What happens here?”
Honesty is important. If your honest answer is: “Two characters walk into a room, sit down at the table and talk,” that’s trouble.