Tag Archives: how to develop a plot for a story

Do the research before you do the murder #amwriting

I recently began reading a murder mystery where the author used a mushroom to kill the first victim. That’s where this book fell apart—the idea was good, but the facts and execution weren’t.

Using a mushroom stroganoff to poison him was a poor choice because fungi is an undependable weapon unless you are an expert. Also, individually, one mushroom may be more or less poisonous than another of the same kind, rather like people are. Judging how many one would need to kill a three-hundred-pound man takes more thought than I am capable of plotting out.

Also, it was stroganoff, which is basically beef and mushrooms in a sour cream sauce. This author danced over the fact that serving the food at this dinner party would have been a tactical nightmare. It would have been nearly impossible to ensure the intended victim got the poison mushrooms and no one else did, which is how this murder was written.

Agatha Christie knew that and regularly poisoned entire dinner parties, literarily speaking. Her murderers made everyone at the table sick but only the intended victim actually died.

This particular mystery was set in Scotland, and I don’t know how poisonous their mushrooms are, but I think that logic would hold true there as well as it does here in the Pacific Northwest.

If I hadn’t been on several nature walks with Ellen King Rice, a wildlife biologist and amateur mycologist who writes well-plotted mushroom thrillers, I would have accepted the slightly contrived fatal dinner as written and focused on the other failings of this novel.

This experience reinforced my belief that readers are often more knowledgeable than we authors are. E-readers can do the research just by highlighting the word and hitting search.

For this reason, having a solid base of information to back up what we are writing is critical.

My disappointment as a reader could have been avoided if the author had gone out to several mushroom hunter websites or even if she had found a local person to talk with. With only a small amount of effort, she could have made her plot a little less flimsy.

Targeted research is essential if you want your fiction to convey a feeling of truth. Identify what you want to know, use the internet, ask an expert, and create a searchable file or database of information that backs up your assertions.

Once you establish the technological era you are writing in, you know what you need to research and how theoretical you may have to get.

Here are some of my go-to sources of information:

If you seek information about low-tech societies (the past) :

My best source of information on low-tech agrarian (farm) life and culture comes from a book I found at a second-hand book store in Olympia in the mid-to-late-1980s. Lost Country Life by Dorothy Hartley is still available as a second-hand book and can be found on Amazon. This textbook was meticulously researched and illustrated by a historian who personally knew the people she wrote about.

I also find a lot of information on how people lived from Wikimedia Commons.  Under the heading  Category: Painters from the Northern Netherlands (before 1830), you will find the brilliant works of the Dutch Masters, artists living in what is now The Netherlands.

These painters created accurate records of ordinary people going about everyday life. Their genre art depicts how they dressed, and what was important to them.

Talk to police, talk to doctors, talk to lawyers–many are willing to help you with your quest for accuracy about their professions. Also, you can Google just about anything. Fads, fashion, phone tech, current robotics tech, automobile tech—it’s all out there.

Looking things up on the internet can suck up an enormous amount of your writing time. Do yourself a favor and bookmark your resources so all you have to do is click on a link to get the information you want. Then you can quickly get back to writing.

Resources to bookmark in general:

www.Thesaurus.Com (What’s another word that means the same as this but isn’t repetitive?)

Oxford Dictionary (What does this word mean? Am I using it correctly?)

Wikipedia (The font of all knowledge. I did not know that.)

TED Talks are a fantastic resource for information on current and cutting edge technology.

ZDNet Innovation is an excellent source of current tech and future tech that may become current in 25 years.

Tech Times is also a great source of ideas.

Nerds on Earth has useful information about swords and how they were used historically.

If you want to know what interests the people in the many different layers of our society, go to the magazine rack at your grocery store or the local Big Name Bookstore, and look at the many publications available to the reading public. You can find everything from mushroom hunting, to culinary, to survivalist, to organic gardening. If people are interested in it, there is a magazine for it.

We can only extrapolate how societies will look in the future by taking what we know is possible today and mixing it with a heavy dose of what we wish were possible.

SpaceX

NASA

Digital Trends

If you write sci-fi, you must read sci-fi as that is where the ideas are. Much of what was considered highly futuristic in the era of classic science fiction is today’s current tech.

Ion drive, space stations—these are our reality but were only a dream when science fiction was in its infancy.

Think about it: your Star Trek communicator is never far from your side, and your teenagers won’t put theirs down long enough to eat dinner.

MAPS: If you are writing a story set in our real world and your characters will be traveling, walking a particular city, or visiting landmarks, bookmark google maps for that area and refer back to it regularly to make sure you are writing it correctly.

USE GOOGLE EARTH!

If you are writing about a fantasy world and your characters will be traveling, quickly sketch a rough map. Refer back to it to ensure the town names and places remain the same from the first page to the last. Update it as new locations are added.

Do the right research, target it to your needs, and don’t allow yourself to be sidetracked by the many bunny trails that lead you away from actually writing. And for the love of Agatha Christie, make sure your literary murders are done in a way that doesn’t fly in the face of logic.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Jan Steen, Dutch (active Leiden, Haarlem, and The Hague) – Rhetoricians at a Window – Google Art Project.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Jan_Steen,_Dutch_(active_Leiden,_Haarlem,_and_The_Hague)_-_Rhetoricians_at_a_Window_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg&oldid=355150081 (accessed September 10, 2020).

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The Antagonist’s Story Arc – part 2 #amwriting #nanowrimo2020

In Monday’s post, The Antagonist’s Story Arc, I explained how I organized my notes for each book or series using a workbook from a spreadsheet program, such as Excel or Google Sheets. Today I am continuing to plot out the opposition’s story arc to dovetail with what has already been established in the protagonist’s storyline.

So now, I go back to the notes on my protagonist, Alf, and look at my calendar of events. What clues have I inserted about the antagonist, Daryk, from Alf’s point of view? I need to make sure those are noted on Daryk’s timeline.

At this point, Daryk is only partially formed in my mind. I see him as he was before he triggered the mage trap, which is how Alf sees him. Daryk was a close companion, a canny adversary in any competition, and especially at the game of stones. He was a dedicated Sword of Aeos, deeply committed to rooting out the Bull God’s secret covens. Strategy and battle tactics were second nature to him. His best skill was how well prepared he was for every turn of events. He and Alf had worked together successfully since becoming hunters.

Alf only wants to remember him that way but knows he will be forced into a direct confrontation at some point. I have written the book’s opening chapter, where the event that changes everything occurs.

Since NaNoWriMo ended last year, I’ve gotten the first draft of most of Alf’s story arc written to the point where these two characters must face their destinies.

But only the protagonist has been fleshed out.

One thing that occurred to hold up this aspect of the first draft was the protracted illness and death of my good friend and structural editor, Dave Cantrell. Dave was an integral part of my writing posse, giving me the male perspective, which helped to round out my characters.

Now I need to decide how many chapters will be devoted to Daryk, and what events are important enough to be highlighted from his view. First, I need to identify his quest.

In a good novel, characters aren’t evil for no reason. Perhaps what the protagonist perceives as evil is merely a radically different way of living, a cultural difference. Or maybe they’re under pressure from some external force. In Daryk’s case, it is both.

While battling a mindbender and his coven, Daryk is separated from the Swords of Aeos. He enters the enemy’s altar room and finds a statue cut from amethyst crystal. This is a trap set to snare mages serving Aeos, Goddess of Hearth and Home.

The moment he touches it, Tauron, the Bull God, seizes Daryk’s mind. No mere mortal can withstand the personal attention of a god, and Daryk is now set on a collision path with destiny. Tauron is the God of War, jealous, paranoid, and insecure. He demands abject worship, extreme sacrifices, and harshly punishes those who fail. Success is rewarded richly, and the strongest rise to the top to rule over the weak.

Steeped in the lore of his warrior culture, Daryk is easily bent to the Bull God’s path. He is now convinced that he is the rightful heir to be the War Leader. He sees Alf as serving a weak and feeble deity, and that the tribes have lost their strength. His goal is to seize power and use the tribes to conquer Neveyah for the Bull God.

Tauron gives Daryk new gifts, one of which is the ability to sway large gatherings of people. Since he has no empathic magic, he needs to find and snare an empathically gifted healer to project his compulsions.

To do this, Daryk must accomplish several things from the outset:

  1. He must find the crystal cave and undertake a vision quest. The Bull God doesn’t know how Barbarian shamans are trained, so this quest is very different. The high trial Alf undertakes is vastly different from his first shamanic quest. Daryk was not trained to be a shaman, so he doesn’t know what the true trial entails. Since only the strongest are fit to rule, the test the Bull God sets before him is a much darker journey, one of overcoming and bending demons to his will.
  2. Having survived the trial, his first task is to find an empathically gifted healer and bind her to him. He uses Helene to project his spells of compelling and takes over her village to make his small army.
  3. Daryk needs a base of operations, so he must acquire a citadel. He and his new wife go to a lesser known place, Kyrano, as it isn’t somewhere Alf would look for him. Using compulsions to present themselves as distant relatives and charming the elderly baron, they are officially named his heirs. The old man dies that night in his sleep.
  4. Daryk needs to conceal the fact he is a rogue-mage, or he will have enemies on all sides, and he isn’t ready for that yet. He acquires a coven of elemental mages, binding them to him and using them to have a greater chi reserve to draw on when casting spells. They conceal from the population at large the fact that their new baron is a rogue mage.
  5. He must gather the resources to lay siege on Aeoven. Everything is at stake here: if he can’t defeat Alf on his home turf, Daryk will never bring Neveyah to the Bull God.

By charting his story arc, I’m laying the framework for what I will begin writing in November. Those weeks will be spent writing backstory and building Daryk’s world. I will connect Daryk’s timeline to Alf’s.

This kind of work is mind wandering, in a way. By writing this out, I am cementing Daryk and Helene’s characters and passionate commitment to their struggle in my mind.

Certain scenes showing critical information that Alf doesn’t have will be included in the final draft, but only those essential to the advancement of the plot. This is so the reader knows what is happening in the enemy’s camp.

For the reader, this knowledge raises the tension. Daryk must be shown to have a stronger position and better resources.

I intend to write about 30,000 words detailing Daryk’s story. Little of what I write will find its way into the final manuscript. My hope is that it will be there in how solidly I show these characters, their deities, and why they do what they must.

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The Antagonist’s Story Arc #amwriting #nanowrimo2020

We’re already approaching the middle of October. This is prime NaNo prep season for me. A few weeks ago, I shared that one of my projects was writing the final chapters to Bleakbourne on Heath, a novel that began life in 2015 as a weekly serial. I have the outline all written for that, and the ending is now firmly established. Finishing that should cover about 20,000 – to 25,000 words.

My second project is for my new duology set in Neveyah. I need to write the chapters that show my antagonist’s storyline. For my protagonist’s story to make sense and be compelling, I must show why my antagonist opposes Alf, and why we should have compassion for him and his struggle.

To that end, I must spend the next few days outlining what needs to happen for him at each point in the overall two-book story arc.

I also have three short stories and a novella to fill in on those days when I can’t focus on the tasks at hand, so I’ll be well set up with ideas.

So, let’s take a look at what I have to accomplish on Heaven’s Altar before November 1st.

The first hurdle I must leap is a trap of my own devising.

The calendar.

Neveyah Calendar © 2015 Connie J. Jasperson

In 2008 when we were designing the world of Neveyah as an RPG and before the story had been written, I had the bright idea to make a calendar where each month has

  1. 28 days
  2. The months are named after astrological signs and the days are sort of named like the Julian calendar.
  3. The 13th month is called Holy Month and is between Harvest and winter, but belongs to no season. It’s set aside for religious observances and family events.
  4. The 365th day of the year falls on the Winter Solstice and is called Holy Day. A day of feasting, it stands alone between Holy Month and Caprica, the first month of the new year. Every 4 years you have a double Holy Day, and the community throws a big party.

Was I out of my mind?

Yes! I suggest you stick to the common Julian calendar we know today, as it makes things a lot easier for you.

However, six books later, it’s canon in that world, so I have to roll with it. Fortunately, I was smart enough to make a visual calendar in an Excel workbook. I can cut and paste easily, note changes, and move events around if need be. This workbook covers all of the books set in the Tower of Bones world of Neveyah.

I was a bookkeeper for many years, so I use an Excel workbook to keep the stylesheet, plot outline, pertinent back history, and worldbuilding in one logical place. The tabs across the bottom show the different sheets detailing each aspect I need know for that world and that story.

I do this for every project or series, and you can do the same. If you don’t have Excel, you can use any free spread-sheeting program, such as Google Sheets. It’s just a visual way to keep things organized and avoid introducing conflicting elements.

The process of writing out my antagonist’s storyline is essential. At the outset, from Alf’s storyline, we know that Daryk has powerful earth-magic. However, Tauron, the Bull God, gives him new gifts, one of which is called “compelling.” Since he has no empathic magic, he needs to find and snare an empathically gifted healer to project his compulsions. He also needs to enslave a coven of elemental mages to have a greater chi reserve to draw on when casting spells.

So, there are five people with whom he has close relationships and conversations. The backstory of each of these characters must be created and added to both Daryk’s storyline and the overall cast of characters.

This is so I don’t inadvertently give two characters the same (or ludicrously similar) name.

I have already designed the magic systems for both sides of this conflict, and the world has been established. I have comprehensive maps that I use in conjunction with the calendar for plotting my events.

I’m fallible, but I do try to take everything into account when plotting my events. This way, when I begin writing I can concentrate on laying down the opposition’s story as if he were the hero and maybe generate a little sympathy for him.

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Plot and Theme #amwriting

The basic premise of any story I want to write can be explained by answering eight questions. Each answer is simply one or two lines, guideposts for when I draft the outline.

A plot idea I’ve used before as an example is an idea I’ve had rolling around for a while. I hope to write it as a novella (about 12,000 words) in November. This little tale features a pair of thieves-for-hire, set in an alternate renaissance reality.

  1. Who are the players? Pip and Scuttle. Two orphaned brothers who grew up on the streets of Venetta, a medieval city, but who have a strong moral code. When the story opens, they are adults. The pair has become what is known as “Discreet Thieves,” professional retrievers-for-hire who reunite their clients with their lost or stolen valuables.
  2. Who is the POV character? Scuttle, the older brother.
  3. Where does the story open? In a pawn shop.
  4. What does the protagonist have to say about their story? Scuttle swears they aren’t thieves. They are believers in God and the laws of the Church. They only retrieve items belonging to noble clients with impeccable reputations and do it with no fuss or drama.
  5. What is the inciting incident? A highly placed Cardinal has hired them to retrieve an item, neglecting to tell them:
  • It is equipped with a curse that affects all who would steal it from the rightful owner. (Haven’t figured out what the curse is yet.)
  • It didn’t belong to the Cardinal in the first place.
  • He intends to use it to depose the true Pope and become the ruler of both the Church and Venetta.
  1. At the midpoint, what do the protagonists want and what are they willing to do to get it? They will do anything to get the curse removed from themselves and prevent the evil Cardinal from using the object against the Good Pope.
  2. What hinders them? The Cardinal has kidnapped Mari, Scuttle’s wife, and holds her in his dungeon, forcing Scuttle to do his bidding.
  3. How does the story end? Not sure. Is there more than one way this could go? Yes. I list each possible ending as they occur to me.

At the beginning of the story, what does our protagonist want that causes them to risk everything to acquire it? How badly do they want it, and why? The answer to that question must be that they want whatever it is desperately.

Question number six is an important question to consider. What ethical dilemma will the protagonist be faced with in their attempt to overcome the odds and achieve their objective?

In this story, one hard moral choice I could write would be to have Scuttle pressured to become a spy for the Cardinal.

Or, he could be pressured to sell out Pip.

How would he respond to either of these situations? I could write both and choose the one that works best. If I do that, I’ll make a note of the divergent path on my outline.

The answer to question number seven is vitally important because the story hinges on how the protagonist overcomes adversity. What hinders them? Is there an antagonist? If so, who are they, and why are they the villain of the piece?

“There has to be evil so that good can prove its purity above it.” The Buddha said it, but it’s a fundamental truth we writers of genre fantasy must consider when devising plots. J.R.R. Tolkien understood this need for a hero quite clearly.

Answering question eight is crucial if I want to have a complete novel with a beginning, middle, and end.

Endings are hard and complicated to write because I can see so many different outcomes. I write as many endings as I need to and save them in separate files.

Sometimes, even if we have plotted in advance, we can’t identify the central theme of the story. Theme is what the story is about on a deeper level than what is seen on the surface. It’s the big meaning, a thread that is woven through the entire story, and sometimes it is an unstated moral for the reader to infer.

Many final objectives don’t concern issues of morality. However, if you are writing genre fiction, achieving all final objectives should have consequences and should involve a struggle.

Regardless of the theme, the struggle must be personal. Why would Frodo and Sam go to the depths of Mordor and suffer the hardships they endured in their effort to destroy the One Ring and negate the power of Sauron?

Frodo and Sam saved the world because it was the only way to save The Shire and the people they loved from Sauron, who was the embodiment of evil.

No matter how careful I am when building my outline, there is always a point where I am writing by the seat of my pants. I am usually a linear plotter, but things come along that change the direction a tale goes in.

This is where making use of scene breaks can be your friend. In the NaNoWriMo manuscript, I simply head that section (in bolded font) with the words Possible Ending 1 or 2, or however many endings I have come up with.

No matter if you are writing a NaNoWriMo novel or not, your finished novel will look vastly different from the block of stone you carved it from. Yet, it will be the core of the stone, the hidden story that was waiting for you to bring it to light.

Many times, I find myself re-evaluating a nearly complete manuscript because the story isn’t working. I go back and ask myself the same eight questions. If the story has gone in a new direction by midpoint, a different roadmap to the final scene can help you keep things logical.

However, a plot is just the frame upon which the themes of a story are supported. Knowing the main theme at the outset makes writing the first draft much easier.

When your writing mind has temporarily lost its momentum, and you are stretching the boundaries of common sense, it’s time to stop and consider the central themes. It helps to remind myself of the elements that really drive a plot.

Subthemes help keep the story interesting. The image at the bottom of this post is a visual tool, a circular list of themes and subthemes that I made a few years ago.

It’s a picture that you can save (right click>save as>png or jpeg) print out and tape to your desk. Whenever you have lost your way, rather than resort to a sudden influx of something far-fetched, feel free to refer back to this picture and see if a better idea presents itself.

Hopefully, you won’t have to resort to killing anyone you might need later.

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Devising a Plot in 8 Questions #NaNoWriMo2019 #amwriting

Sometimes I have these random ideas and think, “Wow! What a great idea for a story – if I had the time to write it.” I keep a document pinned to my desktop, one that I write down topics and ideas for stories on.

Good news! November is National Novel Writing Month, and that’s the time to pick one of those ideas and build the first draft of a novel.

Let’s say one of the plot ideas is for a pair of characters who are thieves-for-hire, set in an alternate renaissance reality.

I will list eight questions: the basic premise of the story will be answered in these eight questions.

Each answer is simply one or two lines, guideposts for when I draft the outline (next post).

1. Who are the players? Pip and Scuttle. Two orphaned brothers who grew up on the streets of Venetta, a medieval city, but who have a strong moral code. Now adults, they have become what is known as “Discreet Thieves,” professional retrievers-for-hire who reunite their clients with their lost or stolen valuables.

2. Who is the POV character? Scuttle, the older brother.

3. Where does the story open? In a pawn shop.

4. What does the protagonist have to say about their story? Scuttle swears they aren’t thieves. They are believers in God and the laws of the Church. They only retrieve items belonging to noble clients with impeccable reputations and do it with no fuss or drama.

5. How did they arrive at the point of no return? A highly placed Cardinal has hired them to retrieve an item, neglecting to tell them:

  • It is equipped with a curse that affects all who would steal it from the rightful owner. (Haven’t figured out what the curse is yet.)
  • It didn’t belong to him in the first place.
  • He intends to use it to depose the true Pope, and become the ruler of both the Church and Venetta.

6. What do they want and what are they willing to do to get it? They will do anything to get the curse removed from themselves and prevent the evil Cardinal from using the object against the Good Pope.

7. What hinders them? The Cardinal has kidnapped Mari, Scuttle’s lady, and holds her in his dungeon, forcing Scuttle to do his bidding.

8. How does the story end? Not sure. Is there more than one way this could go? Yes, so I’ll list them as they occur to me.

Even if I choose not to outline, the answers to those questions make writing a novel go faster because I know what happened, what the goal is, and why the goal is difficult to achieve. I may not know how the story ends exactly, but I will by the time I get there.

At the beginning of the story, what does our protagonist want that causes them to risk everything to acquire it? How badly do they want it, and why? The answer to that question must be that they want whatever it is desperately. In this case, Scuttle wants his lady released from the Cardinal’s dungeon. He’s terrified that she’s being abused, and fears she’ll die before he can rescue her.

Question number six is an important question to consider. What moral (or immoral) choice is the protagonist going to have to make in their attempt to overcome the odds and achieve their objective? Will Scuttle be forced to become a spy for the cardinal? Will he be pushed to sell out Pip? I don’t know yet, exactly. This is a spot where I can write the outcome in several different ways.

Many final objectives don’t concern issues of morality. However, if you are writing genre fiction, all final objectives should have consequences and should involve a struggle.

The answer to question number seven is vitally important because the story hinges on how the protagonist overcomes adversity. What hinders them? Is there an antagonist? If so, who are they, and why are they the villain of the piece?

Answering question eight is crucial if I want to have a complete novel with a beginning, middle and end by the 30th of November. Endings are frequently difficult to write because I can see so many different outcomes. Because it is NaNoWriMo, and every new word I write counts toward my goal, I write as many endings as I need to.

This is where making use of scene breaks can be your friend. In the NANoWriMo manuscript, I simply head that section (in bolded font) with the words Possible Ending 1 or 2, or however many endings I have come up with.

In the next blog post, we will take these eight questions and draft a loose outline for our novel. I say loose because nothing I write ever follows the original outline.

Writing is like the art of the sculptor; we sculpt and reshape the story as we go.

The finished piece looks nothing like the block of stone we carved it from.


Credits and Attributions:

Portrait of German-American sculptor Elisabeth Ney with a bust of King George V of Hanover, 1860, by Friedrich Kaulbach. PD|100. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Elisabeth Ney by Friedrich Kaulbach.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Elisabeth_Ney_by_Friedrich_Kaulbach.jpg&oldid=286953027 (accessed November 27, 2018).

 

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