Tag Archives: the story arc

Structure of the Word-Pond #amwriting

Today we’re winding down my summer blogpost series, The Word-Pond. We’ve explored the myriad aspects of ‘depth,’ the wide inferential layer of Story. Depth isn’t easy to categorize, nor can we point to one aspect and say, “Get this right, and you’ve got a story with depth.”

I’ve described Story as a pond filled with words and discussed the three layers:

Surface: The Literal Layer; the what-you-see-is-what-you-get layer. Characters live, and events happen. These are reflected in the surface of the story. The ways in which we play with the surface layer are by choosing either Realism or Surrealism, or a blend of the two.

Middle: The Inferential Layer, where Inference and Implication come into play. This is an area of unknown quantity filled with cause and effect: the reasons why these lives are portrayed, and why events happened. This is where emotions muddy the waters.

Bottom: The Interpretive Layer. This level is not only foundational; it contains and shapes the story:

  • Themes
  • Commentary
  • Messages
  • Symbolism
  • Archetypes

The words in this pond behave like the waters of a pond in nature. While close scrutiny reveals that the waters of a pond are separated into layers by temperature, salinity, microbial life, or by the sheer weight and pressure of the volume of water, the overall structure is one large, important thing: a hole filled with water.

Without water, a pond is a depression in the ground filled with possibilities only.

In our word pond, the one large thing containing our words is “story.” So now we want to form these layers into a coherent, meaningful story. We need a container for our words, the hole in the ground for the story to flow into.

This container is the story arc.

Many people say they have a book in them, one they’d love to write. They begin, get a chapter or so into it, and lose the thread. They can’t see how to get the story from the beginning, to the crisis, to the resolution.

This is where the skills I’ve developed through my years of participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) has paid off.  If you want to write a novel, it’s best to sit down and get that first draft out of you while the story is fresh in your mind. You’ll spend a year or more rewriting it, but if you don’t get the original ideas down while they’re fresh, you’ll lose them.

A story begins with an idea for a character. That character usually comes to me along with a problem. This is the seed from which the story grows.

I sit down and draft a story plan in four acts. First, I tell myself how I believe the story will go. This only takes half an hour and gives me finite plot points to write to. Once I have the four acts, I know where the turning points are, and what should happen at each. This ensures there is an arc to both the overall story and to the characters’ growth.

I’m going to use the original plot idea for a work in progress as my example. My WIP is a short story, 5000 words in length, but you can plot any length of story.

The story: Our Protagonist is a courier, transporting a valuable artifact. This artifact brings her to the attention of the Antagonist who intends to seize it, no matter the cost.

You must know what the surface of the Story looks like before you can explore the depths. A good way to discover what you are writing is to “think out loud.” Divide the story into four acts:

Act 1: the beginning: We show the setting, the protagonist, and the opening situation.

  1. Setting: a village near a crossroads.
  2. The weather is unseasonably cold.
  3. The protagonist is carrying a jewel reputed to enable a mage to control the weather.
  4. The protagonist must travel alone, as her partner was killed.
  5. Unbeknownst to her, a traitor in her employer’s court has designs on the artifact. By possessing it, the Antagonist will have the power to usurp the throne.
  6. She is wary, knowing the danger of traveling alone. She conceals the artifact by sewing it inside her shirt.

Act 2: First plot point: The inciting incident.

  1. The Antagonist’s hired thugs capture her.
  2. She is thrown into prison.
  3. A fellow prisoner has overheard that her partner was murdered to ensure she would be traveling alone.
  4. This fellow prisoner believes he has a plan to enable their escape.
  5. The protagonist isn’t sure she should trust him but refuses to let the artifact fall into the Antagonist’s hands.

Act 3.: Mid-point: We show their dire condition and how they deal with it.

  1. Seeing no other way, our Protagonist agrees to the Sidekick’s plan.
  2. He is on the verge of managing an escape but needs help with one last thing.
  3. By working together for several days, they manage to complete the escape route.
  4. Timing the rotation of their guards is critical to the success of their plan.
  5. Just as they are about to make their escape, the Antagonist makes a surprise visit to the dungeon and roughs up our Protagonist. He batters her physically and mentally, attempting to force her to tell him the whereabouts of the jewel, but she manages to keep her secret. When he leaves, her shirt is torn, but the jewel is still safe.

Act 4: Resolution:

  1. They must wait for another rotation of the guards, giving the Protagonist a chance to rest. She is injured but can still do what she must.
  2. The two make their escape but find themselves emerging near the kennels.
  3. The Sidekick gives the watchdogs the food he had saved for their journey, distracting the dogs and allowing them to escape over the walls.
  4. The Protagonist and the Sidekick manage to keep ahead of their pursuers and arrive back at court, where she delivers the artifact and reveals the identity of the traitor.
  5. The Employer is grateful, and the Protagonist and her Sidekick are all set for another adventure—perhaps a novel.

You have an idea for a story. Take a moment to analyze and plan what needs to be said by what point in the story arc. This method works for me because I’m a linear thinker.

If you know the length of a book or story you intend to write, you know how many words each act should be. Once you have the map, you can get to the nitty-gritty of turning that far-fetched tale of woe into a good story.

As you write each event and connect the dots, the plot will evolve and change. You begin to explore the deeper aspects of the story. Emotions, both expressed and unexpressed, secrets withheld, truths discovered—all these details that emerge as you write will shape how the characters react to each other. In turn, these interactions will alter the shape of the larger story.

This is why we never really know how a story will go, even if we begin with a plan. The plan serves to keep us on track with length and to ensure the action doesn’t stall.

Draft a short plan for a 50,000 word manuscript. 50,000 words is the industry standard for a novel. Write 1,667 words a day that connect those events together, and in thirty days you will have written a 50,000 word first draft of your novel.

To see more of what National Novel Writing Month is all about, go to: www.nanowrimo.org

I am dragon_fangirl there. Look me up and become a writing buddy!

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How contrasts drive the story #amwriting

The Buddha offered a morsel of wisdom that authors should consider, “There has to be evil so that good can prove its purity above it.”

J.R.R. Tolkien understood this quite clearly.

Written in a style that was popular one-hundred years ago, the Lord of the Rings trilogy is a large reading commitment, one fewer and fewer readers are willing to undertake. Yet, compared to Robert Jordan or Tad Williams’ epic fantasy series, it is short, totaling only 455,175 words over the course of three books.

The story is sprawling, showing a world of plenty, ignorant of the disaster lurking at the edge of their border. Tolkien shows the peace and prosperity that Frodo enjoys and then forces him down a road not of his choosing. He takes the hobbit through personal changes, forces him to question everything. In the final confrontation with Sauron’s evil influence, Tolkien forces Frodo to face the fact he isn’t quite strong enough to destroy the ring. Frodo can’t give it up—he is willing to risk everything to retain possession of it when Gollum amputates his finger and takes the ring.

Frodo and Sam hunting down a case of genuine Canadian beer and spending spring break in Fort Lauderdale wouldn’t make much of a story, although it could have made an awesome straight-to-DVD movie.

Frodo’s story is about good and evil, and the hardships endured in the effort to destroy the One Ring and negate the power of Sauron. Why would ordinary middle-class people, comfortable in their rut, go to so much trouble if Sauron’s evil was no threat?

In both the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Tad Williams epic fantasy Osten Ard series, we have two of the most enduring works of modern fiction. Both feature an epic quest where through it all, we have joy and contentment sharply contrasted with deprivation and loss, drawing us in and inspiring the deepest emotions.

This use of contrast is fundamental to the fables and sagas humans have been telling since before discovering fire. Contrast is why Tolkien’s saga set in Middle Earth is the foundation upon which modern epic fantasy is built. It’s also why Tad Williams’ work in The Dragonbone Chair, first published in 1988, changed the way people saw the genre of epic fantasy, turning it into hard fantasy. The works of these authors inspired a generation of writers: George R.R. Martin and  Patrick Rothfuss, to name just two of the more famous.

My favorite books convey the beauty of life by contrasting joy, companionship, and love with drama, heartache, and violence. No matter the setting, Paris or Middle Earth, these fundamental human experiences are personal to each reader. They have experienced pain and loss, joy and love. When the author does it right, the reader empathizes, feels the emotions written into the story as if they were the protagonist.

Hunger is a fundamental agony that can linger for years. People can survive on very little, and unfortunately, many do. To have only enough food to keep you alive, but never enough to allow you to grow and thrive forms a person in a singular way. Acquiring food becomes your first priority. Having a surplus of food becomes a reason to celebrate. To go without adequate food for any length of time changes you, makes you more determined than ever to never go hungry again.

Thirst is a more immediate pain than hunger. The human animal can survive for up to three weeks without food, but only three to four days without water. Rarely, one can survive up to a week. When one has gone without water for any length of time, even brackish water must taste sweet. And when one is without food, even food they would never normally eat will fill their belly.

War happens because of famine and deprivation. Wars are fought over water. We forget this when we have plenty to eat and never worry if we will have water or not as long as we can pay the bills.

Need drives the human story, which is why we love tales of heroism and great achievements. Love and loss, safety and danger, loyalty and betrayal—contrast provides the story with texture, turning a bland wall of words into something worth reading.  First comes the calm, and then the storm, and then the aftermath. Feast is followed by famine, thirst followed by a flood. War, famine, and flood are followed by a time of peace and plenty. This is our history, and our future, and is how good tales are played out.

Employing contrast gives texture to the fabric of a narrative. When an author makes good use of contrasts to draw the reader in, readers will think about the story and those characters long after it has ended.

I say this regularly, but I must repeat it: education about the craft of writing has many facets. We must learn the basics of grammar, and we must learn how to build a story. We learn the architecture of story by reading novels and short stories written by the masters, both famous and infamous.

We can’t limit our reading to the classics. Those books may be the basis for the way fiction is written today, but the prose and style don’t resonate with the majority of modern readers.

I have a piece of homework for you. You can copy and use the following list of questions as part of your assignment.

We may not love the novels on the NY Times bestseller list, and we may find them hard going, but stay with it. Go to the library or to the bookstore and see what they have from that list that you would be willing to examine. Your local second hand bookstore might have quite a few recent bestsellers in their stock of general fiction. Buy or borrow it and give it a postmortem. Why does—or doesn’t—the piece resonate with you? Why would a book that you dislike be so successful?

As I said at the beginning, the plot is driven by the events and emotions that give it texture. How did they unfold? Did the book have a  distinct plot arc? Did it have:

  • A strong opening to hook you?

  • Was there originality in the way the characters and situations were presented?

  • Did you like the protagonist and other main characters? Why or why not?

  • Were you able to suspend your disbelief?

  • Did the narrative contain enough contrasts to keep things interesting?

  • By the end of the book, did the characters grow and change within their personal arc? How were they changed?

  • What sort of transitions did the author employ that made you want to turn the page? How can you use that kind of transition in your own work?

  • Did you get a satisfying ending? If not, how could it have been made better?

Reading and dissecting the works of successful authors is a necessary component of any education in the craft of writing. Answering these questions will make you think about your own work, and how you deploy the contrasting events that change the lives of your characters.


Credits and Attributions:

Struggle for Survival by Christian Krohg, 1889, oil on canvas.  Now hanging in the National Gallery of Norway.

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Christian Krohg-Kampen for tilværelsen 1889.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Christian_Krohg-Kampen_for_tilv%C3%A6relsen_1889.jpg&oldid=301415583 (accessed February 10, 2019)

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Logic and the Deus Ex Machina #amwriting

I write fantasy novels, but I also write contemporary fiction.  All fiction, literary as well as fantasy, requires world building and a certain amount of planning as any novel or short story must have a logical story arc. Without a fundamental logic to the events, the reader can’t suspend their disbelief.

NaNoWriMo is prime “pantsing it” time. For those who don’t know that term, “pantsing” is writer-speak for “flying by the seat of your pants.” I always begin by writing to an outline, but in the mad rush to the finish, my story goes in directions I never planned for.

I outline in advance because (when writing in any genre) if you are pantsing your way through a story that encompasses 75,000 to 100,000 words, it is easy to get involved in large info dumps and bunny trails to nowhere. A loose outline will tell you what must happen next to arrive at the end of the book with a logical story set in a solidly designed world.

However, I’ve never yet written a story that stuck strictly to the original outline.

Characters develop lives and personalities of their own, and stuff happens that wasn’t planned for. When I finish the first draft, it always makes sense in my head, and I usually feel confident it can pass the logic test.

So, what is the logic test? Once you have the first draft written, let it sit for a few weeks, then come back to it. If I was smart, during my writing process I made notes where the scenes began deviating from the outline.

Screen writers have it right, so the layout of my outline is divided into acts and beats, the same as a screenplay would be listed with a brief description.

Act One

  • Opening scene–characters in “normal” environment–/ Hook
  • Inciting Incident–characters thrown out of “normal” and into new circumstances.
  • End of the Beginning

Act Two takes up 50% of the novel—it is the second quarter and third quarter combined.

  • Pinch Point #1
  • Midpoint
  • Pinch Point #2
  • Crisis

Act Three

  • Climax
  • Final resolution

Each section has a brief description of what occurs there, such as:

Act Three, scene 1

  • Leave Hemsteck
  • First campsite, Alf /Ronan talk. Dex overhears.

If I have made notes of my changes to the story line, I have a guide showing me what those changes were. I know where to go back and check to make sure the events are foreshadowed logically, and not a clumsy Deus Ex Machina. (Pronounced: Day-us ex Mah-kee-nah.) (God from the Machine.)

This is a plot twist that is used to miraculously resolve an issue. (Miraculous is the key word.) A Deus Ex Machina occurs when, toward the end of the narrative, an author inserts a new event, character, ability, or otherwise resolves a seemingly insoluble problem in a sudden, unexpected way.

So, let’s consider an indie novel I tried to read a week ago and didn’t finish. I was in the mood for a trashy  adventure/romance, and for the first few chapters, I was able to overlook some technical annoyances because the characters were hilarious. After thinking about it, I doubt the author intended it to be such a hilarious mockery of 19th century upper class mores, as everything was written so earnestly, so faux Charlotte Bronte.

The setting for the final incident that threw me out of the book completely is a grand ball at a Buckingham Palace. The main character, whom we just spent a chapter dressing in an excessive amount of detail, becomes involved in a quarrel. She draws her sword, and the fight is on.

Where did that weapon come from? Swords aren’t easy to conceal. It wasn’t part of the highly detailed scene where her maid was dressing her one layer at a time. Why was she wearing a sword at a formal event? Do all the ladies go armed at these events? If so, it should have been made a part of the choosing-the-gown scene. Give her a fancy scabbard to keep that handy  rival-stabber in, something that looks all bejeweled and goes with the outfit.

In late Regency/early Victorian times, officers wore ceremonial swords to formal events. Women were never armed openly. Any weapons they had would have been knives, poison, or pistols and would have been concealed, not hanging from their waist in a long scabbard. A pistol in her bodice would have almost logical. So, if you intend for her to draw her sword, there must be a logical reason for these men and women to be armed.

When I look back at my story’s outline, starting from the ending and working forward, does the characters’ journey to the final page make sense? If my characters must show up to a grand ball fully armed, it must be logical, a part of their culture.

Good writers don’t rely on miracles to ensure things work out to the main character’s advantage. They use logic and insert small clues and hints into the narrative, so the reader doesn’t feel cheated. To that end, I suggest keeping an updated outline of what happens in each scene.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Rembrandt – Rembrandt and Saskia in the Scene of the Prodigal Son – Google Art Project.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Rembrandt_-_Rembrandt_and_Saskia_in_the_Scene_of_the_Prodigal_Son_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg&oldid=302686497 (accessed December 16, 2018).

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Crisis and the point of no return #amwriting

In literature what is the “point of no return?” Scott Driscoll, on his blog, says, “This event or act represents the point of maximum risk and exposure for the main character (and precedes the crisis moment and climax).”

Crises, even small ones on the most personal of levels, are the fertile ground from which adventure springs. Most disasters are preceded by one or more points of no return; places where the protagonist could have made a different choice and trouble could have been avoided.

Our task as authors is to identify this plot point and make it subtly clear to the reader, even if only in hindsight.

In life we often find ourselves boxed into a corner, frantically dealing with things we could have avoided if only we had paid attention and not ignored the metaphoric “turn back now” signs.

I’ve used this prompt before, but it’s a good one, so here it is again:

Imagine a road trip where you are sent off on a detour in a city you’re unfamiliar with. What would happen if some of the signs were missing, detour signs telling you the correct way to go? Also missing is a one-way street warning sign.

At some point, before you realized the signs had been removed, there was a place you could have turned back. Unaware of the danger, you passed that stopping point and turned left when you should have turned right. Now you find yourself driving into oncoming traffic on a one-way street.

That place where you could have turned around before you entered the danger zone was the point of no return for your adventure. Fortunately, in our hypothetical road-trip, no one was harmed, although you were honked at and verbally abused by the people who were endangered by your wrong turn. You made it safely out of danger, but you’ll never take a detour again without fearing the worst.

In contemporary fiction, literary fiction, romance—no matter what genre you are writing in, “arcs of action” drive the plot. 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.

Speculative fiction generally features a plot driven by a chain of events, small points of no return, each one progressively forcing the protagonist and his/her companions to their meeting with destiny.

Contemporary and literary fiction is also driven by a chain of small events. In some novels, this takes the protagonist to a confrontation with himself, or a family is forced to deal with long-simmering problems. Many times in literary fiction the point of no return looks like a non-event on the surface. But nevertheless, these events are the impetus of change.

In most literature, these scenes of action form arcs that rise to the Third Plot Point: the event that is either an actual death or a symbolic death. This event forces the protagonist to be greater than they believed they could be, OR it breaks them down to their component parts. Either way, the protagonist is changed by this crisis.

The struggle may have been fraught with hardship, but the final point of no return is the ultimate event that forces the showdown and face-to-face confrontation with the enemy—the climactic event.

No matter the genre, the story arc has certain commonalities—in literary fiction, they will be more subtle and internal than in an action adventure or space opera, but in all novels the characters experience growth/change forced on them by events.

During the build-up to the final point of no return, you must develop your characters’ strengths. You must identify the protagonist’s goals early on and clarify why he/she must struggle to achieve them.

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

Misfortune and struggle create opportunities for your character to grow as a person or to change for the worse. We must place obstacles in our protagonists’ path that will stretch their abilities, and which are believable, so that by the end of the book they are strong enough to face the final event and denouement.

Remember, each time the characters in a book overcome an obstruction, the reader is rewarded with a feeling of satisfaction. That reward keeps the reader turning pages.

It doesn’t matter what genre you are writing in: you could be writing romances, thrillers, paranormal fantasy, or contemporary chick lit—obstacles in the protagonist’s path to happiness make for satisfying conclusions.

The books I love to read are crafted in such a way that we get to know the characters, see them in their environment, and then an incident happens, thrusting the hero down the road to divorce court, or trying to head off a nuclear melt-down.

After all, sometimes a dinner party happens, and the next day our Hobbit finds himself walking to the Misty Mountains with a group of Dwarves he only just met, leaving home with nothing but the clothes on his back. In chasing after them, Bilbo has passed the first point of no return. I say this because after having heard the stories and listened to their song, and after having seen the map, even if he were to turn back and stay home, Bilbo would have been forever changed by regret for what he didn’t have the courage to do.

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Crafting the final act #amwriting

In this series on the construction of the novel, we have discussed creating a strong opening act, and a powerful, electrifying middle. So, let’s talk about the all-important fourth quarter of the story arc—the final act.

At this point, the enemy’s plans are in place. Our protagonists have met the enemy and survived the encounter, but now they know they may not prevail.

If your work is not speculative fiction or fantasy, perhaps they’ve suffered a terrible personal setback.

Regardless of the genre, at the outset of the fourth quarter, the protagonists are at their lowest point both physically and emotionally. From the midpoint crisis forward through the third quarter, major events have funneled the players down the path to the final conflict. Now, they are scrambling, working against time and perhaps, with fewer resources than the antagonist.

In these chapters leading up to the conclusion, the protagonists have been pressed to the breaking point. Now they are at the end of their journey. They must rediscover their courage, find a reason to continue the fight, resolve the loose ends, and appear at the final showdown ready to do battle.

If you were not careful in the setting up the events that form the middle of the narrative, the story could fall apart here. Listen to your beta readers’ comments: even in your third draft, you may have to insert new scenes into the existing narrative to drive the action to the final conflict.

  1. At the outset of the 4th quarter, all subplots are resolved, and the final focus is on the enemy’s move.
  2. The enemy’s plans and their true nature must be shown.
  3. Someone who was previously safe may be in peril. Perhaps their fate hangs on a thread, and the outcome is unclear.
  4. The protagonists must face the fact that their efforts have forced the enemy’s hand in a way they never expected.
  5. Your protagonist may achieve their goal, but they will pay a heavy price for it, and return home changed for good or for ill.

If your editor asks you to write new scenes to get a flat story arc back on track, and you agree it’s needed, your task is to blend the new material into the existing story.

  • You must go back and insert foreshadowing in earlier passages, and some otherwise great passages that now go nowhere will be cut.

This is most important: any event that does not drive the plot to the end is a distraction. All side quests are being wrapped up at this point so don’t introduce any new plot threads. Emotions are key–of course for the characters, but also for the reader.

  • The higher the emotional stakes when the protagonist meets the antagonist for the final showdown, the more emotionally satisfying the final resolution will be for the reader.

The resolution should be final, with no loose threads. Cliffhanger endings aggravate readers who don’t want to wait a year for the rest of the story, so even if your book is the middle volume of a series, give the reader some reward for their faithfulness, and resolve most of the subplots.

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#amwriting: Midpoint in the Character Driven Novel

LOTR advance poster 2Some novels are character-driven, others are event-driven.

ALL novels follow an arc.  For my personal reading pleasure, I prefer literary fantasy, which has a character-driven plot. Events happen, often in a fantasy setting, but the growth of the characters is the central theme, and the events are just the means to enable that growth.

You may have built a great world, created a plausible magic system or, conversely, you may have created an alien world with plausible technologies based on advanced scientific concepts. You may have all sorts of adventures and hiccups for your protagonist to deal with. All that detail may be perfect, but without great, compelling characters, setting and action is not reason enough for a reader to stick with your story.

Despite your amazing setting and the originality of your plot, if you skimp on character development, readers won’t care about your protagonist. You must give them a reason to stick with it.

In a character driven novel, the midpoint is the place where the already-high emotions really intensify, and the action does too. From this point on, the forces driving the plot are a train on a downhill run, picking up speed. There is no  turning back now. The characters continue to be put to the test, and the subplots kick into gear.

Of course, plotting and pacing of your entire story arc is critical, but it is especially so from midpoint to the third plot point.

As you approach midpoint of the story arc, the personal growth for the protagonist and his/her friends begins to drive the plot. These are the events that tear the hero down, break him emotionally and physically so that in the final fourth of the book he can be rebuilt, stronger, and ready to face the villain on equal terms.

How does the protagonist react to the events? What emotions drive him/her to continue toward the goal?

In a character -driven novel, this is the place where the protagonists suffer a loss of faith or have a crisis of conscience. It may be a time when the main character believes they have done something unfair or morally wrong, and they have to learn to live with it.

What personal revelations come out about the protagonist, or conversely what does he discover about himself?

This part of the novel is often difficult to write because the protagonist has been put through a personal death of sorts–his world has been destroyed or shaken to the foundations. You as the author are emotionally invested in the tale and are being put through the wringer as you lay it down on the paper.

What has happened? Remember, the protagonist has suffered a terrible personal loss or setback. Perhaps she no longer has faith in herself or the people she once looked up to.

  • How is she emotionally destroyed by the events?
  • How was her own personal weakness responsible for this turn of events?
  • How does this cause the protagonist to question everything she ever believed in?
  • What makes her pull herself together and just keep on going?
  • How is she different after this personal death and rebirth event

LOTR advance posterThe truth underlying the conflict now emerges. Also, the villain’s weaknesses become apparent. The hero must somehow overcome her own personal crisis and exploit her opponent’s flaws. It’s your task to convey the hard decisions she must make, and show that she truly does have the courage to do the job. The villain has had his/her day in the sun, and they could possibly win.

This low point is a crucial part of the hero’s journey, the place during which she is taken down to her component parts emotionally, and rebuilds herself to be more than she ever believed she could be.

At this point in the novel, if you have done it right, your reader will be sweating bullets, praying that Frodo and Sam can just hold it together long enough to make it to Mt. Doom.

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#amwriting: circumstance, objective, and the story arc

Book- onstruction-sign copyIf you intend to write a novel, especially a fantasy novel, a little pre-planning and at least a smidge of an outline is really beneficial.

Consider the beginning: At the outset of any good story, we find our protagonist, and see him/her in their normal surroundings. An event occurs (the inciting incident) and the hero is thrown out of his comfort zone and into the Situation, which is the core idea of your plot.

This is the circumstance in which your protagonist finds himself at the beginning of the story. Some things for you consider before you you begin writing:

  • How will the story start?
  • What is the hero’s personal condition (strength, health) at the beginning?
  • How will that condition be changed, for better or worse, by the hero himself or by the antagonistic force?
  • What could possibly entice him out of his comfort zone?

Now we come to the core of your story: Objective. Without this, there is no story.

In every class I’ve taken on plot development, the instructors have emphasized that a protagonist has no reason to exist unless he/she has a compelling objective. If your main character doesn’t want something badly enough to do just about anything to achieve it over the next couple hundred pages, then he doesn’t deserve to have a story told about him.

That harsh edict is true because everything you will write from the moment of the inciting incident to the last page will detail that quest. Your protagonist must desire nothing more than to achieve that objective. Every scene and conversation will push the protagonist 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.

In the book, Tower of Bones, Edwin wants to free Marya from captivity in Mal Evol. It’s a mission that begins as a somewhat noble desire to help his friends free a healer he has never met, but along the way he realizes she is the girl he has been dreaming about for several years. Once he realizes that, it becomes personal, and he becomes driven. That is when it becomes a real story.

When writing fantasy, you need a broad outline of your intended story arc, and you really need to know how it will end. If you try to “pants” it, you might end up with a mushy plot that wanders all over the place and a story that may not be commercially viable.

  • What will be your inciting incident?
  • What is the goal/objective?
  • At the beginning of the story, what could the hero possibly want to cause him to risk everything to acquire it?
  • How badly does he want it and why?
  • Who is the antagonist?
  • What moral (or immoral) choice is the protagonist going to have to make in his attempt to gain that objective?
  • What happens at the first pinch point?
  • In what condition do we find the group at the midpoint?
  • Why does the antagonist have the upper hand? What happens at the turning point to change everything for the worse?
  • At the ¾ point, your protagonist should have gathered his resources and companions and should be ready to face the antagonist. How will you choreograph that meeting?

These are just a few things to think about when you are planning to write a fantasy novel, because so much goes into world building and creating magic systems that it is easy to get involved in large info dumps and bunny trails to nowhere.

Some people are able to visualize a story in its entirety and can write a coherent first draft without even a minimal outline.

I am not one of those people, nor are the majority of writers. An outline will tell you what you need to have happen next to arrive at the end of the book in a reasonable number of words: 100,000 to 125,000 for a first epic fantasy novel. You don’t have to go into detail, but if you give yourself a rough outline, you will know how many words you have to accomplish each task within the story line.

The Story Arc

You want to have a smoothly functioning story arc, so you don’t become desperate and resort to killing off characters just to stir things up.  That doesn’t really help, because you run out of characters, and people don’t like it when you kill off someone they liked.

Besides, you might need that character later.

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#amwriting: the point of no return

Epic Fails memeIn life we often find ourselves boxed into a corner, frantically dealing with things we could have avoided if only we had paid attention and not ignored the metaphoric “turn back now” signs.

Imagine a road trip where you are sent off on a detour in a city you’re unfamiliar with. Imagine what would happen if some of the signs were missing, detour signs telling you the correct way to go, and also a one-way street warning sign.

At some point before you realized the signs had been removed, there was a place you could have turned back. Unaware of the danger, you passed that stopping point by and turned left when you should have turned right, and found yourself driving into oncoming traffic on a one-way street.

That safe place where you could have turned around before you entered the danger zone was the point of no return for your adventure. Fortunately, in our hypothetical road-trip no one was harmed, although you were honked at and verbally abused by the people who were endangered by your wrong turn. You made it safely out danger, but you’ll never take a detour again without fearing the worst.

In literature what is the point of no return? Scott Driscoll, on his blog, says, “This event or act represents the point of maximum risk and exposure for the main character (and precedes the crisis moment and climax).”

Epic fantasy, which is what the novels in my Tower of Bones series are, generally features a plot driven by a chain of events, small points of no return, each one progressively forcing the protagonist and his/her companions to their meeting with destiny. These scenes of action form arcs that rise to the Third Plot Point: the event that is either an actual death or a symbolic death, but which forces the hero/heroine to be greater than they believed they could be.

For me, in a gripping story, the struggle may have been fraught with hardship, but the actual point of no return is the event that forces the ultimate showdown and face-to-face confrontation with the enemy.

What if you aren’t writing epic fantasy? This series of “arcs of action” driving the plot 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.

During the build-up to the point of no return, you must develop your characters’ strengths.  Identify the protagonist’s goals early on, and clarify why he/she must struggle to achieve them.

  • How does the hero react to being thwarted in his efforts?
  • How does the villain currently control the situation?
  • How does the hero react to pressure from the villain?
  • How does the struggle deepen the relationships between the hero and his cohorts/romantic interest?
  • What complications (for the hero) arise from a lack of information regarding the conflict, and how will he/she acquire that necessary information?

800px-Singapore_Road_Signs_-_Temporary_Sign_-_Detour.svgCalamity and struggle create opportunities for your character to grow, so it is your task to litter your protagonist’s path with obstacles that stretch his/her abilities and which are believable. Each time he/she overcomes a hair-raising obstruction, the reader is rewarded with a feeling of satisfaction.

It doesn’t matter what genre you are writing in: you could be writing romances, thrillers, paranormal fantasy, or contemporary women’s lit—for all fiction, obstacles in the protagonist’s path make for satisfying conclusions. I say this because the books I love to read the most are crafted in such a way that we get to know the characters, see them in their environment, and …uh ohh…. Calamity happens, thrusting the hero down the road to divorce court, or trying to head off a nuclear melt-down. Sometimes our hero finds himself walking to Naglimund, or to the Misty Mountains with nothing but the clothes on his back.

Calamity is the fertile ground from which adventure springs, and most calamities are preceded by a point of no return. Identify this plot point, and make it subtly clear to the reader, even if only in hindsight.

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#amwriting: advancing the plot

e.m. forster plot memeIn 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:

  1. Empathy/identification with the protagonist
  2. Believability
  3. Tension

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.

imagesDon’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.

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#amwriting: revisiting the story arc

howards endE.M. Forster was one of the great English novelists. He was also a short story writer, essayist, and wrote librettos. Forster was considered a master of creating ironic, well-plotted novels that examined class difference and hypocrisy in early 20th-century British society. He really understood how to structure a novel or short story.

He has been quoted as saying that plot is the cause-and-effect relationship between events in a story. His example was, “‘The king died, and then the queen died,’ is a story, while ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief,’ is a plot.”

That is the absolute truth. You can tell that story baldly, but without a plot, the above story is only a casual commentary on the death of two monarchs.

I am not good at winging it when it comes to plotting a novel. I find it helps me to spend a day or two thinking about the story as a whole, how it begins, how it ends, and why it went that way. While I am brainstorming, I write an outline to use as a framework to guide the story. I may not keep to the outline exactly, but the plot points occurring at each of the four quarters will be met, to maintain momentum and not inadvertently introduce inconsistencies.

Inside every good story that seizes the reader’s imagination, there is an arc to the action within the plot, and when it is graphed out, it forms an arc: the story arc. My outline will provide me with the framework for this story arc.

51i0K3WVpML._SX312_BO1,204,203,200_The story begins with the opening act, where the characters are introduced, and the scene is set. It then kicks into gear with the occurrence of the “inciting incident,” which is the first plot point. It occurs around the ¼ mark and triggers the rest of the story. It is “the problem,” the core conflict of the story. This is where the protagonist is thrown into the action and is also where they first find themselves blocked from achieving the desired goal.

Even if you open the story by dropping the character into the middle of an event, you will need to have a pivotal event at the 1/4 mark that completely rocks his/her world. The event that changes everything is what really launches the story.

Following the inciting incident is the second act: more action occurs which leads to more trouble, rising to a severe crisis. At the midpoint, the protagonist and friends are in grave difficulty and are struggling. Within the overall story arc, there are scenes, each of which propels the plot forward, moving the protagonist and antagonist further along the story arc to the final showdown. Each scene is a small arc of action that illuminates the motives of the characters, allows the reader to learn things as the protagonist does, and offers clues regarding things the characters do not know that will affect the plot.

Those clues are foreshadowing. Through the first half of the book, foreshadowing is important, as it piques the reader’s interest, and makes them want to know how the book will end.

At the midpoint, another serious incident occurs, launching the third act and setting them back even further. Now they are aware that they may not achieve their objectives after all. Bad things have happened, and the protagonists have to get creative and work hard to acquire or accomplish their desired goals. They must overcome their own doubts and make themselves stronger.

Someone may die.

Midpoint is also where we get to know the antagonist and learn what the enemy knows that the protagonists do not. We discover his/her motives and what they may be capable of.

By the end of the third act, the protagonists are getting their acts together. They are finding ways to resolve the conflict and are ready to commence the final, fourth act, where they will embark on the final battle. They will face their enemy and either win or lose.

By the end of the book, all the threads have been drawn together and resolved for better or worse. The ending is finite and wraps the conflict up.

No matter how many or how few words you intend to write, your story arc should work the same way. I do this all the time with short stories, because if you know what has to happen at what point in a narrative, you can develop the characters and write each section to that point.

short story arc

In genre fantasy and science fiction, we often have story arcs that evolve and take place across multiple volumes. If you are writing the first novel in what you plan to be a series, it must have a finite ending, regardless of how many books you plan to follow. Even a famous author should obey this rule.

Out of respect for the time the reader has spent reading your work, do not leave them hanging. A second volume can have a less conclusive ending, but the first and the third books must end well or at least finitely. Readers will want to buy that second book simply because of the characters you have created and the great experience they had reading the book they just finished.

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