Last movie watched: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
What’s playing on the iPod right now: Belly of the Steel Beast by John Williams (from the Indiana Jones soundtrack)
I hope everyone has been thinking hard about their characters and jotting down notes! This week we turn our hand to plot.
What is plot? And how does it differ from story? About.com describes it as this: “Plot concerns the organization of the main events of a work of fiction. Plot differs from story in that plot is concerned with how events are related, how they are structured, and how they enact change in the major characters. Most plots will trace some process of change in which characters are caught up in a conflict that is eventually resolved. Plots may be fully integrated or “tightly knit,” or episodic in nature. e.g. In a movie such as Pulp Fiction, the plot and the story are two very different things.”
For me, sometimes a new story forms from just one major plot point. Sometimes it stems from my characters and sometimes my characters form around where the plot heads. It’s important to now that you may approach every story from a different angle, starting first with characters, sometimes with the first meeting, sometimes the theme or sometimes plot. My second book, Boardrooms & A Billionaire Heir started with plot. My first and third books, with characters. My fourth (The Billionaire Baby Bombshell, out in June) is a combination of both.
Some people are not plotters – they’re write-by-the-seat-of-their-pansters. Or they’re organic writers, those who do a bit of plotting, a bit of pantsing. And then there’s sceners, those who write out a whole bunch of scenes then string them together to make a story. The best way to work out your own process is to go right ahead and try them all out. You’ll soon realize which way works best for you. Me, I’m a bit organic, a bit of a scener. So for this exercise, I’m going to give you a few plotting methods I’ve used that have helped me enormously.
Just imagine a great big letter W on your page… actually, don’t imagine it – write it. Then at the top starting point of the W, write ‘trouble starts’. Coming down to the bottom of the page, at that point write, ‘change of plan’. Now, coming up into the second high point, write ‘point of no return’. Coming down again to the second low point, write ‘major setback’. Then, on the last upward point, write ‘climax, HEA’. So, for the explanations:
- Trouble Starts – this is the introduction of characters, conflict and tension.
- Change of Plan – The characters’ comfort zones are breached; they reassess their feelings/ life/attitudes.
- Point of No Return – No turning back now, they are both involved in the situation and with each other.
- Major Setback (the Black Moment) – Will they both end up together? Will they overcome the hurdles? Discover the truth? Solve the mystery?
- Climax & HEA – The hero and heroine pledge their love for each other, the killer is caught in time, the baby is saved from the burning building. All reader worries are set aside in a final, satisfying scene.
Now, notice the angle of the strokes on the W. Slowly going downhill. Slowly going uphill. That’s the build up of your story, where you add little bits, piece by piece to achieve the high or low point. And as soon as you hit that, you about-face and head off in the opposite direction.
Plotting #2 – The Jenny Crusie Method
When Jenny Crusie was out here for our conference a few years back, she outlined her 7-point method of writing a story. Here’s what I could decipher from my notes (and yes, I realize there’s eight there!):
- trouble starts
- character plans to solve trouble
- trouble gets worse (tension goes up)
- character regroups
- point of no return (tension goes up)
- pushed to the brink (tension goes up)
- boiling point/black moment
- Happy ever after
This is my favorite plotting device! This is a mythical structure of story writing based on the popular techniques of screen writer Christopher Vogler, which in turn is based on Joseph Campbell’s A Hero With A Thousand Faces. Analyze your favorite movie and you can see the stages of this plotting method quite clearly. You can find an excellent summary here, but here’s a brief overview with my explanations, plus examples from National Treasure (warning: spoilers abound!):
- Ordinary World – most stories involve our characters being thrust from their ordinary world into a new, alien one. To highlight that, you must show them in their ordinary world. e.g. in National Treasure, we see Ben Gates, treasure hunter, in pursuit of his dream of finding the mythical Templar treasure.
- Call To Adventure – your character is presented by a challenge, a problem or adventure to undertake. Once presented with this they cannot go back to their Ordinary World. It can also be the “call to love” or “call to relationship stage” Example: after realizing the next clue is on the back of the Declaration of Independence, Ben’s partner Ian Howe says they have to steal it.
- Refusal of the Call -a character may not want to take that challenge, to step out of their comfort zone. The heroine may refuse the hero’s marriage of convenience proposal. The hero may not want to take on that high-profile murder case. Example: when Ben Gates refuses to steal the Declaration, thereby prompting Ian’s response: “from now on, all you’re going to be is a hindrance,” Ian and Ben, once colleagues, are now enemies. Ben then goes to the FBI, the CIA, the DHS to tell them what Ian is planning, but is laughed at.
- The Mentor – a wise person appears to help your hero mentally prepare for the journey. Obi-Wan Kenobi is a prime example. Others can include colleagues, family, the best friend. The ‘mentor’ may also be a form of inner talk, with the character convincing themselves to take the next step. Example: while Riley Poole is more an ally then a mentor, his aim to convince Ben it’s impossible to steal the Declaration only shows Ben it is possible.
- Crossing the Threshold – the hero commits to the journey, taking that step into the unknown. Example: Ben Gates finally makes the decision to steal the Declaration to protect it.
- Tests, Allies, Enemies – this is a test of our character’s faith, belief system, physical or mental strength. Through these challenges, we see how our character acts and reacts and we become more emotionally involved in the journey. Example: Ben encounters Abigail Chase, FBI agent Sadusky, his father Thomas Gates who, despite outwardly wanting to stop Ben, eventually become his allies. How Ben also handles Ian and the bad guy’s threats is an indication of his character.
- Approaching the Innermost Cave – your hero has his destination in sight, finally. They may pause or rethink, which ups the tension. In a romance, this is where I’d put my ‘prior to first love scene’ doubts.
- Crossing the second threshold to the cave – the character is in it, boots and all, overcoming their reluctance. This could mean another love scene. Example: In the scene where Ben Gates and Abigail are buying new clothes, we see Abigail’s attraction to Ben and her fascination with the treasure overcome all her doubts. And she gets to this point by seeing Ben under pressure, and watching him making choices based not on greed or glory, but from his love and respect of history, something she shares.
- Supreme Ordeal – our hero hits rock bottom. Also called “the Black moment” it seems all is lost, that the death of their goal, quest or ideal is imminent. But they get through it by strength and cunning. National Treasure is littered with mini-black moments, from Ben’s capture by the FBI, to Ian finally seizing the Declaration, to Ian kidnapping Ben’s father and finally making their way to Trinity Church, to where the Templar treasure may (or may not) be.
- Seizing the Reward – Having survived the Supreme Ordeal, the hero takes possession of the treasure they’ve been seeking, their Reward. This can be something physical (treasure, a new planet) or intangible (knowledge and experience that leads to greater understanding, a reconciliation with hostile forces). In a romance, this could also mean the heroine throwing caution to the winds and reveling in lovemaking.
- Pursuit on the Way Back – I like to think of this as the ‘oh, crap’ moment 🙂 where the character wants to return to their Ordinary World. But of course, they cannot, as things have irrevocably changed forever and they have to deal with the consequences of confronting the dark forces. If they haven’t reconciled with a parent, the gods or an enemy, they may come after after him. Quite often, this can be the hero and heroine doing what it takes to make the other one happy.
- Death and Resurrection – This is often a second life and death situation, almost a replay of the death and rebirth of the Supreme Ordeal. It’s a kind of final exam for the hero, who must be tested once more to see if he has learned the lessons of the Supreme Ordeal. At this point, the hero might say the big “I love you” and be prepared for rejection or non-reciprocation of the feelings. Whatever the task, he is transformed by these moments of death and rebirth, reborn as a new being with new insights. Example: when Ben, Riley, Abigail and Thomas are stuck underground, no way of escape and are confronted by what seems is an empty room where the treasure used to be. Ben slowly realizes that his whole life has been spent chasing a non-existent treasure. The resurrection is, of course, a couple of simple clues that prove that the treasure really does exist.
- Return with the Elixir – The hero returns to the Ordinary World, but the journey is meaningless unless they brings back some Elixir, or lesson from the Special World. In National Treasure it literally is the treasure, but in other stories it could be a healing potion, love, freedom or even just knowledge, wisdom or experience. In a romance, the heroine’s Elixir is the hero and his love.
Important things to remember about the Hero’s Journey:
- it’s a framework that should be fleshed out with the details and surprises of the individual story.
- The structure should not call attention to itself, nor should it be followed too precisely.
- The order of the stages are only one of many possible variations.
- You don’t have to give equal page space to each stage. You may find your “refusal of the call” runs just a couple of paragraphs and “Approach to the innermost cave” is a chapter. That’s up to you.
- the stages can be deleted, added to and drastically shuffled without losing any of their power.
- The values of the Journey are what’s important.
So, you can chose your method here to give you some solid idea of where your story is going. I normally use The Hero’s Journey, but only as a comparison after I’ve fleshed out the basic idea of my story, to ensure I’ve hit the important points. And my basic story is around 5 pages of synopsis, starting with the who/what/why/where/when for both the hero and heroine, then just a cause and effect: ‘this happens, then this happens, which causes the character to do this.’ I then go back in and follow the romance thread, ensuring I foreshadow the attraction, the conflict and the growth of the romantic relationship. Third pass and I check to make sure any gaping holes have been addressed e.g. if the heroine is estranged from her parents, do I need to mention their return. Fourth pass and I ensure all the emotional questions have been resolved, things like the hero coming to terms with his brother’s death, bitter first divorce or an emotional scar that had first impacted on him at the beginning of the story.
Whew! That’s it for now. Later in the week, I’ll talk about how I actually write down the basic plot.