In the previous post, I discussed the story arc, and how it relates to what E.M. Forster said about the plot: that plot is the cause-and-effect relationship between events in a story. The story arc is a visual description of where events should occur in a story. For me, knowing where they should happen is good, but it doesn’t tell me what those events are.
Planning what events your protagonist will face is called plotting, and I make an outline for that.
“Pantsing it,” or writing using stream-of consciousness, can produce some amazing work. That works well when we’re inspired, as ideas seem to flow from us. But for me, that sort of creativity is short-lived.
Participating in nanowrimo has really helped me grow in that ability, and one nanowrimo joke-solution often bandied about at write-ins is, “When your’re stuck, it’s time for someone to die.” But we all know that in reality, assassinating beloved characters whenever we run out of ideas is not a feasible option because soon we will run out of characters.
As devotees of Game of Thrones will agree, readers (or TV viewers) get to know characters, and bond with them. When cherished characters are too regularly killed off, the story loses good people, and we have to introduce new characters to fill the void. The reader may decide not to waste his time getting invested in a new character, feeling that you will only break their heart again.
The death of a character should be reserved to create a pivotal event that alters the lives of every member of the cast, and is best reserved for either the inciting incident at the first plot point or as the terrible event of the third quarter of the book. So instead of assassination, we should resort to creativity.
This is where the outline can provide some structure, and keep you moving forward. I will know what should happen in the first quarter, the middle, and the third quarter of the story. Also, because I know how it should end, I can more easily write to those plot points by filling in the blanks between, and the story will have cohesion.
Think about what launches a great story:
The protagonist has a problem.
You have placed them in a setting, within a given moment, and shown the environment in which they live.
You have unveiled the inciting incident.
Now you need to decide what hinders the protagonist and prevents them from resolving the problem. While you are laying the groundwork for this keep in mind that we want to evoke three things:
- Empathy/identification with the protagonist
We want the protagonist to be a sympathetic character whom the reader can identify with; one who the reader can immerse themselves in, living the story through his/her adventures.
Also, we want the hindrances and barriers the protagonist faces to feel real to the reader. They must be believable so that the reader says, “Yeah, that could happen.” Within every scene, you must develop setups for the central events of that moment in their lives and show the payoffs (either negative or positive) to advance the story: action and reaction.
Each scene propels the characters further along, each act closing at a higher point on the story arc, which is where the next one launches from.
Some authors resort to “idle conversation writing” when they are temporarily out of ideas. Resist the temptation—it’s fatal to an otherwise good story. Save all your random think-writing off-stage in a background file, if giving your characters a few haphazard, pointless exchanges helps jar an idea loose.
Don’t introduce random things into a scene unless they are important. What if you had a walk-on character who was looking for her/his cat just before or just after the inciting incident? If the loss of the cat is to demonstrate the dangers in a particular area, make it clear that it is window dressing or remove it.
If the cat has no purpose it needs to be cut from the scene. To show the reader something is to foreshadow it, and the reader will wonder why the cat and the person looking for it were so important that they had to be foreshadowed.
Every memorable element in a fictional story must be necessary and irreplaceable. In creative writing, this concept is referred to as “Chekhov’s Gun,” as it is a principal formally attributed to the great Russian playwright, Anton Chekhov.
Finally, we want to keep the goal just out of reach, to maintain the tension, and keep the reader reading to find out what will happen next. Readers are fickle, and always want what they can’t have. The chase is everything, so don’t give them the final reward until the end of the story.
But do have the story end with most threads and subplots wrapped up, along with the central story-line. Nothing aggravates readers more than going to all the trouble of reading a book to the end, only to be given no reward for their investment of time.