Wednesday, May 25, 2011

BASIC PLOT PRINCIPLES


Hi folks,
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Going back to some basics today--often, it helps to be reminded occasionally of things we already know, but have forgotten...

Thirteen Plot Principles
        
1. Plausible plotting starts with cause and effect. Make sure each step in your plot has a causative event, and one or more effects. Character actions should be caused by motivation, and should have effect on the plot.

2. Your protagonist should save the day (or destroy it). Protagonist is the "first actor,” the character most active in the story. Most importantly, he/she should be the one who resolves the conflict in the climactic scene. No one else should solve the mystery, or discover the secret, or arrive just in time to save the day. The plot should force the protagonist to make choices and take actions, and the course of plot events should change in response to those choices and actions.

3. Give the protagonist a goal, then take it away. The goal-driven protagonist is an active protagonist, but if you just let the protagonist achieve his goal, you'll have a linear or two-dimensional plot.  Have him lose the goal, or sacrifice it, or achieve it and realize he doesn't really want it, and you'll add the complication that makes this a real story.

4. The point of plot is change. The events should cause a change in the protagonist's inner life, to trade her original goal for a more worthy one, to face a personal issue she's ignored before, or to resolve a longstanding internal conflict.

5. Lead readers to the story, but don't drag them. Set up your opening scenes so readers are led to ask story questions like "Who killed the film director?" or "What will happen to John and Sue's  love when Sue learns that John has been lying to her?" The posing of the questions, and the desire to find the answers, keeps readers turning pages. That's called narrative drive. The story question is also an excellent tool to help the writer keep on track.

6. Make the internal come external. Explore your protagonist's internal needs and values, and consider, how will this affect her actions? The external events will cause internal change... and the internal change will cause new external events.

7. Twist a cliché. Do something new with the tried and the true. Use the clichéd plot not as something to reproduce faithfully, but as a classic human drama to explore in a new way.  Show the human depth under the stereotype: the blonde bombshell who walks into the private eye's office is worried because her elderly neighbor won't answer the door.

8. Coincidence kills plausibility. Don't let a one-in-a-million event rescue your protagonist from trouble, or readers will stop believing that this person is truly affecting the course of events.

9. "Exposition is ammunition." Tell the readers what they need to know, but only when they need to know it, and in the most powerful way. Make them beg for it.  An essential question for all plots, but especially mystery/suspense plots, is "What should the readers know, and when should they know it?" Ask that every time you're set to impart some extra information about the characters or events.  Don't tell so much so early that the reader has no reason to keep on reading.

10. Less is more. Don't dilute the power of your story by layering on too many conflicts and motivations, or featuring too many secondary characters and viewpoints. Instead, focus on strengthening what you have.

11. Center each scene. Build it around some irrevocable event that changes the plot, and your pacing problems will vanish; readers won't be able to skip because they'll miss something important.

12. Find the excitement in every scene. Aim for the strongest, most dramatic events that are plausible within the world of your plot and your characters. For example, your protagonist breaking in to an office and reading a file is more dramatic than her just overhearing the same information– but use this only if your protagonist is the sort who would, under these extreme circumstances, break into an office.

13. Always go back to character. The plot should show how these particular people with these particular strengths and values and conflicts react under stress or when pursuing a goal. You'll lose readers as soon as they sense you're forcing your characters to behave in a way that fits the plot instead of their personalities and needs.

Hope this helps remind some of us of basic principles we may have neglected or forgotten!

This has been a busy week! Having just placed three new novels, the hard work is beginning. I've got a tentative release date (in five weeks) for the two novels Stonegate Publishing is publishing--THE PERFECT CRIME and JUST LIKE THAT. Originally, we'd contracted for another novel, THE BITCH, but have replaced it with Stonegate with a road noir novel, JUST LIKE THAT. Portions of this novel have been previously published as short stories, appearing in MURDALAND and FLATMANCROOKED and one was both in HIGH PLAINS LITERARY REVIEW, and nominated for a Pushcart Prize and also included in Houghton-Mifflin's "Best American Mystery Stories, 2001." The other, THE PERFECT CRIME, was originally sold in auction to Random House, and alas, was cut when Bertlesmann purchased RH. Now, it finally gets published! I think readers are going to enjoy both of these, unless they're expecting THE BOBBSEY TWINS--these ain't one of those...

And, I'm deep in edits on the noir novel THE RAPIST, being offered by the new press, BARE KNUCKLES PRESS. I'm  working with the publisher, Cort McMeel and the editor, Eddie Vega, and these guys are fantastic! I've shared early editing notes here from Eddie, and he's a tough one! I'm also getting blurbs for this one already from some real heavyweights. Eddie and Cort and some other folks are also starring up a really exciting magazine, NOIR NATION, and I think I'll have a short story in the first issue. Even if I don't, glom onto a copy, as noir master Paul D. Brazill does have one in it for sure and you don't want to miss anything by this guy!

And, lastly, I've been getting all kinds of emails from those who listened to the radio interview last week with Jennifer Wilkov on her program, Your Book is Your Hook, on WomensRadio. Meeting all kinds of really cool people, mostly writers. Thanks, Jennifer!

Anyway, it's been tres busy! No time for many Jack and waters, alas... In fact, this week we had to forgo our weekly Friday night romantic tryst where I shave my wife Mary's back while we sip Barq's root beer and nibble on Hostess Ho-Hos...

Hope the writers out there who visit here are busy in the same kinds of ways. As that sage philosopher, Red Green, says: "I'm pullin' for ya. We're all in this together. Keep your stick on the ice."

Blue skies,
Les

20 comments:

Paul D. Brazill said...

Les, first off, ta for the hat tap. You're far too kind! And thank to Cort for letting me into his extravaganza! Oh, and please send you're story advice to Woody Allen.

They love him here in Poland {For nostalgic reasons, I think. He was one of the 1st western film makers commonly shown after communism} but I always think his recent films could be quite good when if actually worked on telling a story!

Les Edgerton said...

Thanks, Paul. I'd love to, but does Woody live on Earth? He's one of my favorites of all time, but I have to confess his last several movies haven't achieved the level he used to, imo. I know he has his investors in place and complete freedom to do whatever he wants and his audience is shrinking. He's my son Mike's favorite filmmaker, even now. I just find I have to work too hard to make sense of his films these days... My favorite scene is (forget the movie) when he's standing in the movie line with (I think, Diane Keaton) and they're talking about Marshall McLuan... and McLuan's standing ahead of them in line! That's one of the things I love about his films--all the "inside" stuff that goes on. I'd love to send him a copy but wouldn't have a clue how to find his address. I think it's on the south side of Mars, right... He's a certified genius so I shouldn't make fun. I do love most of his work.

Paul D. Brazill said...

Les, I still love Woody's old films - funny and not funny - and there is some pleasure in in recent films but, really, not so much. But that;s okay. But when you watch these last few films... good look to him and his holidays with his wife and his life. But I cringe. Especially when I see top actors like Anthony Hopkins or Josh Brolin just dawlding. Maybe it's jus me!

Les Edgerton said...

I know exactly what you mean, Paul. I think they're all pals most likely and just have a good time hanging out when they make a movie.

The Teddy Bear Family said...

Annie Hall - the movie line scene. (I was in college back then learning "The media is the message.) Alas, only favorite scene from Woody Allen movies. I'm not a fan, but then again, I also admit to hating the Three Stooges, Monty Python, Gone with the Wind, Titanic, and the Wizard of Oz, so don't count on me for judging what the rest of the world thinks is good. (Up in Smoke was the funniest movie ever, so I do have some taste. And, no, I haven't inhaled in decades.)

Thanks for the tips. I haven't study, in-depth, plot yet, so this isn't a refresher course, this is the main course. I get these inklings something is wrong with my story line and this post turned large sections of my writing into trash/needs reworking. Good thing to learn that now then waste the rest of my time squishing them in when they should be squished to death instead. New eyeballs on how to see what fit, what doesn't, and why, so thanks much.

Sally Clements said...

excellent post, Les! Am applying it now...
Congrats on all your recent successes, I'm delighted to see you going from strength to strength, and dying to get my hands on these new books!

Writer Pat Newcombe said...

Love your blog and your advice about back to basics is very timely for me! I am a fan of your writing books anyway. Very best of luck with your projects.

Les Edgerton said...

Teddy Bear--I'm with you on Gone With the Wind and the Titanic. Loss of precious hours in my life watching those... To answer the question you pose in your profile, (What happens if you drive your car at the speed of light and turn on the car lights?) Doesn't matter. Modern cars would melt at that speed. Now, if you were driving my first car ('50 Plymouth) that had actual metal in it... it would still melt, but still slower than today's plastic cars...

Thanks, as always, Sally! The first should be coming in about five weeks. All will be ebooks and then print versions--the new publishing universe!

Thanks, Pat! Visited your blog and it cooks!

Shannon O'Donnell said...

First, I have bookmarked this post AND printed myself a copy for handy referencing--thanks for sharing your brilliance!

Second, holy wow, Les! Look at all those upcoming titles! That's awesome. I'm so happy to see you kicking writing butt like that. You know I'm cheering for you! :-)

Les Edgerton said...

Thanks, Shannon. But the "brilliant" part isn't deserved, alas. I can't remember who I got this from, but it was from someone. Problem is, I've got several hundred writer's craft books I've accumulated over almost five decades so sometimes it's difficult to remember whose thoughts I'm passing on belong to! I do have a few original thoughts of my own :), but these came from another. And, whoever it was probably got them from someone him- or herself earlier! Just the way it works--we figure out the stuff that works or makes sense and pass it on just as others passed it on to us. Writers are the most giving people on earth!

Helen Ginger said...

Hey, hey! Don't knock the Bobbsey Twins. They were my favorites as a kid.

So much to learn and do and rewrite. Bleh, you're killing me. Now I've got to do yet another read-through and see what needs to be done.

Les Edgerton said...

Funny, Helen! Did you know the Bobbsey Twins were originally a quintet. One died as was resorbed by another who became Dwight Shroot (of The Office fame) and the family put him up for adoption and pretended there were only two (for publication purposes...). Later, Dwight claimed that he was glad his sibling had died and he'd been able to resorb him, as, in his own words: "I now have superhuman strength--my own adult strength as well as the strength of an infant."

Les Edgerton said...

Wait! Was that a quintet or a quartet? It was four, whatever that is...

Julie Musil said...

Les, I love these important reminders! I'm about to rewrite a manuscript, and this gives me an excellent road map. Thank you.

Author Guy said...

All excellent points. Not sure about number 2, though. The climax of my latest novel is brought about by lots of people set in motion by the hero, but the hero himself is critically injured over there in the corner while they're doing it. It's not impossible, although I will say it was very hard to do.

Brian Elsasser said...

Very pungent points you make here, Les. A plot in which a character achieves a goal, that...she discovers she didn't really want. That sure unpacks lotsa possibilities and directions the more I think about my characters--what's their motivation, but also why's their motivation??? Then, too, we live in a society which seems hell-bent on forcing characters (human beings) to fit into various nefarious plots that aren't, I dare say, good for them...one principle of excellent storytelling is of course the characters must have a, metaphorical at least, hand in creating plots in conflict with others. You do very well to remind us of that basic, which I remember from sophomore English: character drives plot! Thanks, Brian

Les Edgerton said...

Thanks, Julie! Appreciate the comments... and congratulations on finishing the novel you've been working on. You did hit "Send" didn't you?! Now... let us know when it comes out so we can glom onto a copy.

Les Edgerton said...

Thanks, Author Guy. Although, imo, #2 is the most important, but we may be talking about different things. I'm weighing in against those old "John Wayne cavalry rescue" endings in those godawful movies of yesteryear (why they're no longer made) in which at the last minute, the cavalry arrives to save the day.

The thing is, story is always about a protagonist with a compelling problem and how he/she resolves it. Which means, no one else can perform the action to resolve it or I don't see how it can work. It ceases to become a story if that happens, at least according to the definition of story. In fact, if coincidence rears its head, it always has to work against the protagonist and never for his benefit. I suspect we're in agreement but are both just thinking about different things.

I appreciate your comments!

Les Edgerton said...

Thanks, Brian. And, yeah, these are things we should have learned way back in basic English classes... and probsbly did... at least those of us who write... but often we forget those basic rules. At least, I do. Must be my Halfzeimer's...

Thanks so much for your comments!

Kristine Godoy said...

Thanks Les for this post.I was just finding inspiration for a project left on too long. Now I've found it. Thanks again!