Tag Archives: Plot

Revisions and Plotting the End #amwriting

Many authors who finished NaNoWriMo with a complete story are now beginning the revision process. This year, I wrote most of an unplanned novel, one I had no intention of writing, and therefore I had no outline.

In the rush of laying down those ideas, I wrote many scenes that will need to be moved to a more logical place in the story arc or cut altogether. Still other scenes don’t yet exist and will need to be written so that the ultimate outcome makes sense.

For me, working on the outline is a form of brainstorming. If you haven’t already done so, this is an excellent time to draw up a brief outline that shows you at a glance what you have written. If you are beginning from scratch, writing this outline will take the better part of a day.

However, having an outline to work with will speed the revision process up by a month or so.

I did make an outline in an Excel Workbook as I went, so I have the basics done, but many things didn’t get noted. I have two major events to plan and write, and then the first draft will be complete.

I know what has to happen, but I’m not sure how to begin this push to the end. So, this week I’m planning what needs to be done next to carry this tale to its conclusion.

Using a spreadsheet program like Excel, or the free program, Google Sheets, allows you to cut and paste events, moving and rearranging scenes up and down the story arc, so they flow logically. There are programs like Scrivener out there that also help you do this, but I’ve never been able to figure out how to use them. I stick with the simple, cost-free options.

When I make the decisions first on a small, easily manageable scale rather than the larger manuscript, I don’t get confused. This makes cutting and moving scenes forward or back along the timeline a lot easier.

So, what do I need to look at first? In this case, it is the timeline: as I wrote, I noted most of the decisions my protagonist and the antagonist made on their way to this point, such as this scene in my antagonist’s thread:

  • Kellan shares relic w/Eriann.
  • Eriann possessed, goes mad.
  • Kellan terrified, casts sleep. Not sure what to do when she wakes.

In the rush to write during NaNo, some scenes didn’t get noted. I’m adding them now, and this is how I will brainstorm the chapters leading to the final scenes.

If you choose to do this, I recommend that you list every decision they made that triggers an event. You need to see the ripple effect of how their actions affect the other characters’ storylines.

Ivan, Marta, and Kellan all made decisions that affected their journey to this point. I need to ensure that I have written them in a way that follows a logical connective evolution. My mind sometimes thinks too far ahead while I am writing.

So, if these choices don’t seem to follow a logical path, I will use my spreadsheet program’s cut and paste function to rearrange the order of events. Then I will go to the manuscript and move or delete them.

Are the choices they made all necessary to achieve the final goal? Does every scene move the plot forward? Does the action reveal aspects of the characters to the reader that were hidden before?

We all write fluff, but it can be hard to recognize it. Are the scenes you wrote background or word-wandering for word count? If so, they don’t advance the plot. I will cut them and save them in a file labeled as background.

Next, I will look at the outline of the story structure again. In every second draft, I ask these questions:

  • Who is the story about now? Are the main characters still the original protagonist and antagonist, or have side characters stolen the show? If so, I would need to rewrite it so that the characters who best serve the story are the center of focus.
  • How high are the stakes if the protagonist fails? Why should we care?
  • How high are the stakes for the antagonist, and why should we care?
  • What do these two characters want most now that they have had a chance to evolve? Did the quest remain the same, or has a new goal emerged?
  • Did the protagonist grow and evolve as a person? If not, why not? Or did they turn to the dark side, becoming an antihero or an antagonist? Is there a new hero?
  • Where are the pivotal places where something important to the logic is missing?

I am going to examine my outline to see what doesn’t need to be included. What should I remove to make the ultimate ending feel more logical? I will write new scenes into the outline, events that push the plot to its conclusion.

I have read many stories that weren’t told in chronological order. Some were successful, but others failed.

Suppose you are going out of chronological order. The plot should still be the same logical chain, but the story might contain flashbacks or memories. I suggest you make a note on your timeline of where these occur so that you don’t repeat information the reader already knows.

Some authors use “flash-forwards,” which can easily make the story arc feel clumsy and unbelievable. I don’t use them myself but have read plenty of books that employ them.

I will tell you now that inserting a flash-forward requires good planning to fit seamlessly into the story and not ruin the mystery.

Good foreshadowing doesn’t tell the story in advance. It offers small clues hidden in the overall picture, hints in the scenery that all is not what it seems. It tantalizes the reader and makes them curious.

Many authors reject the outline process in the first draft because they prefer to “wing it.” The novel I am working on right now was written that way and was fun to write. However, my story has wandered and skipped its way to this point, and now I need to drag it to the conclusion. I will find many places to cut and other areas that need expansion.

This will require more work than if I had planned it and written to an outline, but I am glad I wrote it the way I did. NaNoWriMo 2020 was a good experience. It’s been a long time since I had a novel that insisted on writing itself.

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Murder and the Dry Well of Inspiration #amwriting

We have arrived at week three of 2020’s NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). I’m still zooming along in my accidental novel. However, this is the place in the month where many writers will fall by the way, as they lose the plot and then lose momentum.

The well of inspiration has gone dry.

When we are writing a story that encompasses 50,000 to 100,000 words, these mental stopping places are how we end up with bunny trails to nowhere. We’re trying to force getting our word count, so we go a bit off the rails.

There are ways around that.

If your employment isn’t a work-from-home kind of job, using the note-taking app on your cellphone to take down notes during business hours will be frowned on. In that case, I suggest keeping a pocket-sized notebook and pen to write those ideas down as they come to you.

This is an old-school solution but will enable you to discreetly make notes whenever you have an idea that would work well in your story. The best part is, you don’t appear to be distracted or off-task.

For me, ideas occur when I stop “pressing my brain” to work when it’s on its last legs. Trust me, pounding out 1,667 or more new words a day severely tests both your creativity and endurance.

We know that arcs of action drive the plot. However, random, disconnected events inserted for shock value can derail the best story. Therefore, when I am brainstorming where to go next in my plot, I keep both the ending and overall logic of how to get there in mind.

At the outset of the story, we find our protagonist and see him/her in their familiar surroundings. Once we have met them and seen them in their comfort zone, the inciting incident occurs.

This is the first point of no return and is often where an author’s ideas run out.

They had only visualized the character and the problem but hadn’t thought beyond that point.

A point of no return comes into play in every novel to some degree. The protagonists are in danger of losing everything because they didn’t recognize the warning signs, and they are pushed to the final confrontation, whether they are ready for it or not.

I’m writing a fantasy, and I know what must happen next in the novel because it’s an origin story. I’m writing it from a historical view. I see how this tale ends and am merely writing the motivations for that ending.

Try to identify the protagonist’s goals early on. The words will come as you clarify why the protagonist must struggle to achieve them.

  • How does the protagonist react to being thwarted in their efforts?
  • How does the antagonist currently control the situation?
  • How does the protagonist react to pressure from the antagonist?
  • How does the struggle deepen the relationships between the protagonist and their cohorts/romantic interest?
  • What complications arise from a lack of information regarding the conflict?
  • How will the characters acquire that necessary information?

Suppose your main character doesn’t want something bad enough to do just about anything to achieve it over the next couple hundred pages. In that case, they don’t deserve to have a story told about them.

At the inciting incident, our hero just wants to go back to their comfort zone. They want that desperately, but things happen that prevent it.

  1. What are the events that keep the main characters slogging through the roadblocks to happiness?
  2. Why should the reader care? Every scene and conversation will push the characters closer to either achieving that goal or failing, so if you make it a deeply personal quest, the reader will become as invested in it as you are.

Everything you write from the inciting incident to the last page will detail the quest and answer that second question. Your protagonist and antagonist must both desire nothing more than to achieve that objective.

If they care about the outcome, the reader will too.

I find it helps to have some idea of what the ending will be. Now, as I write my current unplanned novel, a broad outline of my intended story arc is evolving. As I’ve mentioned before, I keep my notes in an Excel workbook. It contains maps, calendars, and everything pertaining to any novel set in that world, keeping it in one easy to find place.

When logic forces things to change as I am writing, as it always does, I make notes to the growing outline and update my maps.

If you are stuck, it sometimes helps to go back to the beginning and consider these questions:

  • What is the goal/objective?
  • Is the objective compelling enough to warrant risking everything to acquire it?
  • What choices will the protagonist have to make that challenge their moral values and sense of personal honor?
  • Who is the antagonist? What do they want, and what are they willing to do to achieve it? Are they facing ethical quandaries too?

Every obstacle we throw in the path to happiness for both the protagonists and their opposition forces change and shapes the direction of our narrative.

When your creative mind needs a rest, step away from the keyboard, and do something else for a while.  I find that when I take a break to cook or clean out a corner, random ideas for what to do next in my novel will occur to me.

Sometimes, these little flashes of inspiration are what I need to carry me a few chapters further into the novel.

Finally, let’s talk about murder as a way to kickstart your inspiration.

I suggest you don’t resort to suddenly killing off characters just to get your mind working. Readers become frustrated with authors who randomly kill off characters they have grown to like.

When a particular death was planned all along, it is one thing, but developing characters is a lot of work. If you kill off someone with an important role, who or what will you replace them with?

You may need to replace that character later, so plan your deaths accordingly.

in the meantime, happy writing! May the words flow freely for you and may you never run out of new ideas to write.

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The derailed plot #amwriting

You’re a pantser, not a plotter–you like to wing it when you write, just let the ideas flow freely. This can be liberating, but sometimes in the course of writing the first draft, we realize our manuscript has gone way off track and is no longer fun to write.

At this point, we must go back and find the point where the story stops working. We cut everything back to there and make an outline to build some structure into the manuscript.

Let’s say we are working on a manuscript titled “Dog Days of Summer.” We wrote most of it during November and are sixty thousand words in, but we aren’t even a third of the way to the finish. When we look back, the first twenty thousand words are exactly what we wanted the story to be. But at that point we became a little desperate to get our daily word count, and now we don’t know what to do or how to bring the story to its intended conclusion.

When this happens to me, I stop floundering and (literally) cut my losses. It needs to be cut back to the place where it dissolved into chaos. This is good – it’s called rewriting. Nearly every published novel has entire sections that had to be rewritten at least once before it got to the editing stage.

Much of what you cut out can be recycled, reshaped, and reused, so never just delete weeks of work.

  1. Save everything you cut to a new document, labeled, and dated: “OutTakes_DDoS_rewrite1_09-19-2018.” (Out Takes, Dog Days of Summer, rewrite 1, 09-19-2018)

Now, you must consider what will be the most logical way to get the plot back on track.

Sit down with a notebook (or in my case a spreadsheet) and make a list of what events must happen between the place where the plot was derailed and the end—a list of chapters with each the keywords for each scene noted:

15 Aeddie sick – Mendric can’t repair his heart-take him to Hemsteck 
16 Three days into the journey Elgar and Raj battle Thunder lizard
17 Star stone falls outside Waterston
18 Aeddie sick, nearly dies, Mendric nearly burns out gift keeping him alive
19 South of Kyran, water wraith
20 North of Kyran, mob attack
21 Nola – inn
22 Maldon, highwaymen, and William

You can go even farther and color code your scenes to show who the POV characters are, as was noted in my previous post, Author Simon Wood on Plotting.

What is the core conflict? Make a large note to remind yourself of what the central conflict is so that you won’t go off track again.

Pay close attention to the story arc. Make a “blueprint” of the intended story arc, an outline.

  1. Where does the inciting incident occur?
  2. Where does the first pinch point occur?
  3. What is happening at the midpoint? Are the events of the middle section fraught with uncertainty but still moving the protagonist toward their goal? If not, cut them and insert events that propel the story forward.
  4. Where does the third plot point occur?

What does each character desire? List each character and make a note of what they want at the beginning, what stands in their way at the middle, and what they get at the end.

  1. At the outset, what do the characters want?
  2. What are they willing to sacrifice to get it?
  3. How are their attempts to achieve it frustrated?
  4. Do they get it in the end, or do their desires evolve away from that goal as the story progresses?

Everything you write from the point of the inciting incident to the last page will detail that quest for the unobtainable something. At the outset, your protagonist must desire nothing more than to achieve that objective. Use whatever you can of the material you cut, and write new prose where you must.

By the end of the book, the internal growth of the characters may have caused them to change their personal goals, but something big and important must be achieved in the final chapters.

Where are they going? If they are traveling in a created world, draw a simple map for your own reference. Otherwise, use an atlas or Google Earth to keep your story on track.

Don’t be afraid to rewrite what isn’t working. Save everything you cut, because I guarantee you will want to reuse some of that prose later, at a place where it makes more sense. Not having to reinvent those useful sections will greatly speed things up, which is why I urge you to save them with a file name that clearly labels them.

Finally, don’t feel that, just because you wrote a wonderful section, it has to stay in the manuscript. If the story is stronger without that great scene, cut it. Use it as fodder for a short story or novella set in that world.

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Reblog: A Question of Quests, by Stephen Swartz #amwriting

My good friend, Stephen Swartz had an excellent blogpost on Sunday. (He usually does, but don’t tell him I said so.) Anyway, since I accidentally hit “publish” instead of “schedule,” thereby posting today’s post yesterday (DOH!) I offer for your reading pleasure:

A Question of Quests

by Stephen Swartz.

 >>>—<<<

swartz_efwd1_frontcvr6x9_bw_670_cs-3_thbA little more than a year ago, I set out on a quest, pushed by fellow writers who encouraged me to try my hand at writing an epic fantasy. Well, good folks, I did that. I typed every day of the year with a story firmly in mind. On good days in the summer I wrote for a full eight hours. I actually wrote a novel following a hero’s quest. Then I wrote a novella about a little princess in another part of the realm. Then I merged the two stories. The result is a 235,000 word tale of daring-do chocked full of all the epic wisdom I could stuff into it–which, I am learning, may be relevant in our heated political season.*

stephen-swartzBy “quest” I mean a journey of some kinda hero’s journey, in Joseph Campbell parlance. However, in writing an epic fantasy, a quest could be a hero going in search of something of value, or a hero simply trying to travel home from far away, perhaps from a place of tribulation. A quest could mean a bubbly travelogue, much like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Or, a quest could be a hero going to a particular place where he intends to do something important. This last option is the pattern I adopted for my epic fantasy. (e.g., A man with a plan, out getting a tan, and learning to pan the jokes of his sidekick Tam.) My model for a quest was Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, although I bent over backwards to avoid borrowing anything from it. Likewise, I started reading George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, but I deliberately avoided any dragon references which my readers might tease were similar to Martin’s use of dragons.

Then, much to my chagrin, I discovered a problem. A fatal flaw. An underlying faux pas. A fundamental error. So…what to do with a 235,000-word tale of rousing adventure that falls short of being an epic fantasy? Maybe call it epic sci-fi? That just might be crazy enough to work! You see, there are some rules….


For the rest of the story, continue on to A Question of Quests, Deconstruction of the Sekuatean Empire.

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#amwriting: the struggle is the story

A point that was raised on another blog I follow is something many authors struggle with: devising the complicating events that raise levels of risk for the protagonist, and also for the antagonist. A compelling story evolves when the antagonist is strong, but not omnipotent. The protagonist must also be stronger than she thought she was, but still not omnipotent.

Small hindrances must occur between the larger events, frustrating the journey. These things delay the protagonist, and sometimes send them down the wrong path, but as each is overcome the reader feels a small sense of satisfaction. Following the protagonist as he/she is negotiating these detours is what makes the story captivating, in my opinion.

If you have a story of any length, short or long, you can’t have people sitting around idly chit-chatting. Conversations must have a purpose, and be designed to advance the plot. Information emerges that the protagonist (or antagonist) must know. The reader discovers this at the same time as the characters.

Better You Go Home Scott DriscollIn the literary novel Better You Go Home by Scott Driscoll, Chico Lenoch, a Seattle attorney, is desperately ill and needs a family member to donate a kidney. None of his family members here locally are suitable donors. He has always wondered about his family in the Czech Republic, which his father won’t discuss, and has recently discovered he has a half-sister still living there. He journeys there to find his sister, and in the process, he unearths the secrets his father and mother left behind. As each terrible secret is revealed, hindrances arise. Danger, political fallout, personal vendettas, and a growing concern for his sister conspire with Chico’s failing health to keep him from achieving his goal.

If the path had been easy, Chico’s story would have been an exploration of a man with a problem, but not real exciting. Because of the roadblocks, it’s a taut thriller, and his journey comes to an unexpected and electrifying conclusion.

TA patch of Dry Skin, Stephen Swartzhis notion of making the path difficult is explored well in  Stephen Swartz’s literary fantasy, A Dry Patch of Skin. The story opens in Croatia but moves to Oklahoma. This tale is a fantasy in the sense it’s an exploration of vampirism, but is literary and gripping in its plausibility. Two of my favorite lines of all time are in the opening chapters of this novel:

Mirrors are such odd devices, and whoever invented them should have been killed. They purport to show us the true state of affairs and yet everything is distorted.

The protagonist, a man of Hungarian descent, named Stefan Székely, has a disturbing genetic skin condition and embarks on a quest to find a cure, desperate to somehow salvage his relationship with Penny. He has a job as a phlebotomist, which allows him to conceal his ailment, but eventually he is unable to hide it. Many roadblocks arise, interfering with Stefan’s success, forcing him to seek a cure in Budapest, but even that trip is fraught with frustrations. Because of those hindrances, the tension builds toward the end, making for a gripping read. The novel ends in an unexpected fashion and is one that stayed with me for a long time after.

Both these novels detail a seemingly ordinary thing—a person dealing with a life-threatening illness, both seeking a cure that seems like it should be easy but which becomes virtually impossible. In both novels, the roadblocks and detours along the journey create compelling narratives I found impossible to put down.

e.m. forster plot memeBoth are set in a contemporary setting, and both have surprising endings that could only have been arrived at because of the roadblocks and hindrances placed in the paths of the protagonists.

This is why we can’t make it easy for our characters. The struggle is the story.

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