Monday, June 14, 2010

Driving Around Looking for Trouble

Have you ever read a book where the character seems to meander through the plot, not really stopping or thinking until the big finish?  They're like teenagers driving around seeking out adventure in whatever way possible only to end up sneaking a smoke behind the 7-Eleven and complaining about how boring their life is.

I've written stories like this...we probably all have. I hit a point in my book where I wondered why I started the story in the first place. My problem was that I didn't think of my book as a series of scenes, and that was a structure issue that lead to more problems down the road.

Because I am a total computer nerd, I sought help from other blogs about writing.  There are some great resources out there to help with story structure and pacing. Its important to find the one that fits with your style and method of writing.

My favorite approach is found at Randy Ingermanson's Advanced Fiction Writing website. In it, he describes the basic structure of a scene and its purpose.  I will try to paraphrase it below, but I urge to check out his website for a more detailed explanation.

In Randy's approach, you try to imagine the scenes in your book strung together like beads on a chain. The chain in its entirety is the plot. Your character has to hop from one bead to the next in a logical, timely, and interesting way or you lose the reader. 

To do that, each scene can have only one of two reasons for being there: either the scene pushes the story forward, or it shows how the character reacts to the plot point you just revealed. 

Thats it. Anything else just eats up time and patience. You don't want your reader wondering why you're taking the time to describe your MC's morning routine. Toothbrushing isn't fascinating in real life. It won't be on the page.

Easy right? Well the beads, or scenes, have to have structure in themselves.

The plot-pusher bead has three parts:
  • There has to be a reason for your character to be in the scene - a conversation, action sequence, internal monologue, etc.
  • Something that goes wrong or gets in the way of what they wanted to accomplish in the scene - get information, compel someone into action, stop a disaster, etc.
  • The outcome - disaster, disappointment, confusion, danger, etc. This propels the character into the next scene as they react to what just occured.
The reaction bead has three parts:
  • Your character changes because of what just happened - either their thinking, their goal, their motivation, etc.
  • A new conflict shows up - how do they deal with what just happened or learned?
  • They form a plan and act on it - this leads them to the next scene and provides you with a cliff hanger or hook into your next chapter.
With a novel, time is a commodity.  The clock is ticking down on your reader's patience. To incorporate all the elements of a story: set up, conflict, back story, worse conflict, red herring, climax and have to move along at the right pace.  Too fast, and the story reads like a frantic, jumbled race. Too slow, and your book gets put down halfway through. 

With bit of structure, however, you can incorporate all of your creative and original ideas while cutting out unnecessary fillers that slow down the pace.

What about you?  How do you structure your book? Do you have an outcome in your head and work backwards?  Are you more of a 'see where it goes' type of person?  How do you keep your story on track?

Oh! And don't forget to read the great entries for the Character Interview Contest tomorrow at Echoes of a Wayward Mind. Great idea, Sangu!

Until next time, my friends, Go Write!

Photograph by mshades. Photograph by horiavarlan. Photograph by sk_vel.


Eric W. Trant said...

I have such a hard time with plot. I write in this order: Character; Story; Plot.

I don't know if this is the right or wrong way to do it, but that's how my brain works. I want the reader to see and know my characters and their story, not just follow a plot from start-to-finish.

I don't see it as a chain so much as a winding trail to explore, and nothing's more boring than a straight-line trail with no sidetracks.

If the writing is interesting, I will indulge the author with story-scenes that have nothing to do with plot.

- Eric

Janet Johnson said...

Great post. Plot is my weakness, too. I work just like Eric . . . Character, story, then plot.

Perhaps not the best way to write but . . . anyway, the structure and reasoning you give is a great way to check out our reasons for each chapter.

Raquel Byrnes said...

Janet - Glad the post made you think. Like I said, though, you have to find the process that works best for you or it'll suck no matter the structure.

And Eric, from what I've read of your work, whatever you're doing works.Don't change a thing.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

A plot is like a quest - it'll take you many places while still moving toward the goal.
And I can see most of my story, including the ending, before I begin.

Raquel Byrnes said...

So great to see everyone's vision and path to a finished novel. I've read a lot of you through blogfests and I see that what you're doing produces great results.

Thanks for sharing you techniques and tips!

Mary McDonald said...

I think you nailed the problem I'm having with my WIP. I just book-marked the Advanced Fiction writing site. Thanks so much for that.

Watery Tart said...

Great post, Raquel--I actually copied some of it off into my 'think about when editing' doc. (don't do that often, which means you hit some good stuff!)

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. When I'm writing, I visualize the scenes like a television show or movie. Sometimes I walk and "daydream" the characters through their parts. Then when I get back to the writing it falls into place.

Jill Kemerer said...

Love your round-up of scene and sequels. I've also tweaked Randy I.'s snowflake method of plotting to fit my needs. He's a genius!

Erin Kane Spock said...

I outline a book before I start writing, and then I see where it goes. I like to think that the characters take the story wherever it goes, so that's where it was supposed to be. Sort of an organic experience.
And then I look back at my outline and laugh.
That said, I find myself drifting from time to time or trying to get from point A to point B too quickly -- which makes me appreciate outlines.
You are so organized. It's amazing you put up with me. lol

Lilah Pierce said...

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