A Novel Idea: Constructing the Plot

The PLOT or storyline is a series of events in the order they happen for the reader. “Hook” your reader’s interest by giving them just enough information at first. They will read on because they need to know what will happen next. Tease them from time to time with another complication that must be dealt with or an unanswered question that is a necessary part of the puzzle. Pieces of the puzzle will include both events as they occur and flashbacks to the past.


As a new writer mapping out a plan for your story, it may help think back on memories that stand out in your own life. Use an event you have experienced yourself for the basis of your tale. This will give your story authenticity. Of course, you may change the time, setting, character names and ages, position, etc., to make it a work of fiction. Even as a fictional character, you may write as the narrator, exclusively from your point of view. If you choose to write in the third person and develop motives of other characters, you will need to *step back* from the limits of your own perspective and become empathetic. How would you feel if you were in their shoes, with their background experience? Why do they act as they do? What drives them?

Begin your story in the middle of a problem or impending problem. Craft the structure based on genre. The reader will identify most closely with the hero as they face an obstacle and seek to overcome it. The action rises and falls throughout the tale but the intensity should build to the climax of the story. At that point, the main character achieves their goal and all unresolved matters are satisfied. In the end, all the pieces should make sense, as the pieces of a puzzle coming together create a whole picture!


There are two ways I used to construct a story. One is outlining and the other is Plot Mapping. If a story is linear and the end is understood when the writer begins, an outline works well. You have your character facing a problem, the building difficulties, the moment of salvation and resolution. However, if you have an idea for a story and it’s characters but don’t know how it will end yet, you need to build a plot map. Have you ever watched a detective story where either the criminal or the cop has a bulletin board with photos and newspaper clippings on it, with threads connecting various parts to each other? This is a great way to get the big picture of all the back stories and how they fit together. As I’ve said in a past chapter, at first, keep it to three or four main characters as far as detail goes. But the plot at first can look a bit confusing to the reader, like pieces of tangled thread. As the story progresses, the threads need to connect and make sense. It the end all threads tie together in one conclusion. If you physically do this, with a storyboard, you can keep track of the threads you have yet to connect. This is one way you can think through the process of the unwinding tale as you write it.

One note of caution. Writers that begin a tale not knowing where it will take them often have to rewrite whole sections. JRR Tolkien did this when writing The Lord of the Rings. It is time-consuming! This may be daunting to a beginner, but it is a great exercise. Still, for someone just starting out with story writing, it will be easier to take the perspective of one of the main characters and narrate from your point of view. It will be easier to keep track of the plot and remain consistent, “keeping in character.”

A great way to practice plot development is to base it on a well-known story, such as a parable, fable, or other classic tale. Keep the characters and setting but change the starting point or the story the direction takes. You could also write from a different character’s viewpoint. This kind of parody has been successfully done in recent years in “Wicked,” a Broadway play. It is the story of the Wicked Witch of the West (from the Wizard of Oz), telling her own story.  Also, “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, as Told by the Wolf” is a best-selling children’s story! Because these stories are loved and familiar, the new perspective lends itself well to humor.

After rewriting some well-known stories, you will have a better feel for how the plot unfolds. The longer the story is, the more complicated it can be. If you are writing a short story, you’ll want to limit the problems your hero has to one or two. Difficulties from without (a bad circumstance or impending danger) can be overcome at the same time as your hero faces inner flaws (such as insecurity or a bad temper) and rises above them! Struggle with them. Rejoice with them. The more you let the reader see their hero overcome character flaws that they wrestle with, the more your story will resonate. These are some of the “universal truths” I mentioned previously.

In Summary:

– Outline your story.
– Introduce the problem within the first page.
-Resolve the problem bit by bit, with some drawbacks along the way, to increase tension and keep the reader turning pages.
– Make the moment of salvation from their problem definitive and satisfying.
– End the story shortly after the pinnacle of victory by resolving all unanswered questions.


As you prepare to write it helps to read stories that delight you, and take note of how they develop their plot. What is the problem at the beginning? How did the writer “hook” your attention? How did they bring all the problems to a climax and save the main character? How are the loose ends tied up?

Be assured that while there are guidelines for writing an effective story, these are not hard and fast rules. Creative writing is called that for a reason. Just keep your audience in mind and be sure to bring them out of confusion to understanding by the end of the story. They will be coming back for more!

A Novel Idea – Crafting Characters

One mistake young writers often make, is introducing too many characters without developing their background or reasons why they do what they do. We can only closely follow a few people’s lives closely, without losing track of who we are talking about. So, it’s best to keep main characters at three or four. Have others come and go from the scenes as supporting cast – without extensive detail about them. In fact, some of the people in the background don’t even need names.

Of our few main characters, the most likely candidates are:

1. The Protagonist.
This is our hero or heroine. The protagonist is facing a problem as the story opens, and we root for them as they struggle to overcome it! We will need to know the personality, the background, the motives, strengths, and weaknesses of this main character.

2. The Antagonist. The antagonist can either be another person (in which case, he/she is the villain), an organization, an inner fear or hatred that must be overcome, or some other obstacle standing in the way of the protagonist. Depending on the sort of problem you choose for your story, the Antagonist may have motives or not. But, if not an inanimate object, the antagonist needs to be understood.

3. The Side-Kick
This character can be helping the protagonist or the villain. He/she will bring either wisdom and assistance to the hero, or make the main character’s efforts more difficult. This role is often a catalyst, not directly but indirectly causing things to occur. In the role of assistant, the side-kick can be a lovable but bumbling idiot or a quiet genius. The side-kick should not steal the spotlight from the main characters but is just as important in their role.

4. The Love Interest
This character could be the problem to overcome such as when both the hero and villain love the same person. This could also be the side-kick to one of them. Whether you use this character depends on the genre of your story.

Your plot will determine how you develop characters. Once you decide on the type of story you want to tell, your characters need to be the kind of people that will make this story happen. Their personalities can be crafted to bring about the behaviors you want in the plot.

So, choose your plot first, before designing your characters.

Once your plot is outlined, create character sketches for each of the main characters.

In your own life, you play the main character. Probably the hero. Those who step in and out of your world are either assisting in your quest or hindering you. Some come and go without much influence. But a few people in your life have a huge impact. The first stories we write often have a bit of autobiography in them. But it is important when you write a fictional story, not to retell real-life incidents too closely or use real names. That can get you into trouble! We will discuss plot more in the next chapter and address how to safely navigate this aspect.

The character sketch for your hero, villain, sidekick or love interest will include:

Full name
Age as the story begins
Era of time they lived
Family members?
Personality traits
Talents
Weaknesses
Odd habits or mannerisms
Country of origin
Accent or manner of speaking
Who do they love/hate?
What drives them to do what they do (background for motivation).

Nobody can know everything about another person, but if you are writing about the main character in the first person… using the personal pronouns of “I” or “me” when referring to the hero/heroine, you will have full knowledge of their thoughts and motivations. So, the reader will too. You will not be able to know the inner thoughts of those around you. You want your reader to believe your character is a real person and real people don’t read minds. Of course, unless your hero happens to have this superpower… then, it’s fine.

You will want to make something about your main character, very relatable to your audience. They should find things in common with themselves, or someone they know. However, there can be aspects that are quite different or extreme. An odd habit can bring comedy to your story. A personality trait can go to an extreme, making your character more dangerous or vulnerable, raising tension or anticipation as the story unfolds. Whatever you decide, be consistent throughout the story, unless the obstacle to be overcome changes this aspect of who they are.

Next time, we’ll discuss PLOT! The driving force behind the story.

 

A Novel Idea – Setting

Books written in the 19th and early 20th Century often had extensive description of setting at the beginning of the story, sometimes before the plot was introduced. Today’s readers tend to leave such tomes on dusty shelves, instead choosing novels and short stories of all genres that blend description seamlessly into the unfolding of the story.  The “hook” that engages a reader will not be the way a pond looks early in the morning from the front porch. So, don’t waste your first page on it.

However, setting is still just as important as it was to the 19th Century reader. Before weaving the tale, the writer needs to understand the place it happens, the age and culture. Time of day and weather will also add dimension to the story. It may be helpful to map out the plot with setting details. Storyboarding is a good technique for this as it will help you “see” the story before actually writing it.

Storyboarding is a bit like creating a comic strip, with the general outline of events. It shows mood and environment. It is difficult to say which should come first, setting, character, or plot. You have to have a bit of an idea about all three to proceed very far. As you are writing, you may wish to change one aspect and rewrite it, to make sense of your story. Stories do evolve in the writing, so don’t be afraid of that! But we need to begin somewhere.

Is your story a mystery or horror story? The setting should reflect the mood you want to create. Perhaps a deserted house, a dark woods or deep pond with strange noises coming from it. Things are out of place or not as they should be. Show the reader what seems wrong instead of telling them something seems wrong, using your descriptions and the character’s reaction (widened eyes or turning suddenly pale, etc.). Use changes in the setting to build suspense and set the mood for what is coming. Sometimes a tense setting can lead to comic relief if you find the thing you feared was really a cat whose head got stuck in a can and is bumping into the wall.

Perhaps you want to set your story for a romance or adventure. The setting will create an expectation from the reader, building the mood. Like violins in an orchestra, the setting will not draw attention to itself, distracting from the story, but support the whole by giving fullness and support to the players.  It is important to note that the actual time and place do not have to be mentioned in the first paragraphs of the story. We can meet the main character first and discover his problem, then find as he begins his journey, whether he is poor or rich, in his hometown or traveling abroad, and what era he lives in. These details can be mentioned in passing to help create the picture in the reader’s eye.

“Show me don’t tell me.”  You will often hear this quote used in creative writing instruction, and rightly so.  “It began to rain hard.” only tells me the weather.

Take the rain experience through your five senses. What does it sound like? Is it like the erratic tapping of fingers on the table or a soft rhythmic drumming that soothes you to sleep?  Does it smell like clean grass or does the dampness bring out the smell of old books (musty)? Is it washing away dirt or creating mud? Does the rain surprise you with a cold smack on the face or perhaps it’s a welcome, cool mist after a heated argument – as you breathe in peace and sweet silence?  Maybe it whips against you driving you to the next destination of the story, or causes you to pull over on the road, after nearly hitting another car.  Here is an example of adding setting to action, and showing instead of telling.

      “I can’t see!” she cried as the semi passed –  too close – spraying her overworked wipers with another wave. Marilyn gripped the wheel tightly, heart pounding with the torrent as her tires lifted from the pavement, sliding toward the ditch.

Look through some of your favorite stories. How do they use setting to set a mood? How does it enhance the action or bring out another aspect of the character’s personality?

What if you could change the setting of a familiar story? Would it necessarily change the actions of the characters? It certainly could! Some characters do not fit easily into certain settings. It is possible, though. Sherlock Holmes seems to belong in an atmosphere of tension and suspense, in London, England. But what if he was at a children’s party with clowns? That could actually be quite terrifying to a man who seems so in control, all the time.

What if Hansel and Gretel lived in Maine, by the ocean and ran away to sea instead of into the woods? Why not try to experiment with a story you know well, and play with the setting. The possibilities are endless!

When thinking about setting, answer the following questions, not just for the beginning of the story, but each “scene.”

1. What era does this take place?
2. What time of year?
3. What is the exact location?
4. Time of day – or range of times.
5. Economic/status situation the character finds himself/herself in.
6. Weather conditions
7. Is this scene happening now, or is it a flashback? (Since flashbacks are a memory, it will only contain the images seen by the character having it. It may have a different perspective than someone else who was also there.)

In my next post, I’ll deal with the creation of main and supporting characters.

A Novel Idea – Genre

What Is Genre?
It’s a category.  In stories, they would be broken down into the type of story. Here are some examples:

1. Mystery – Something is out of place. A crime has been committed. A person is missing. A character or object suspiciously appears. Someone is not who they appear to be! Whatever the source of the mystery, it is a problem requiring detective work. The main character/hero/protagonist will be the detective and look for clues, interview suspects, and search until the answer is discovered.

To keep the sense of mystery, don’t tell the reader what is happening behind the scenes. Let them discover clues along with the main character. To keep your readers wondering and turning pages, use misdirection. Bring in something or someone who seems important but isn’t. Or someone who seems guiltier than they are! Your reader will sometimes guess correctly, sometimes be surprised, but they will be intrigued by the process. These false leads, or misdirection, are called “red herrings.” That term comes from when hunters would train dogs to follow a trail. They dragged herrings (fish) across the fox trail to teach hunting dogs not to be distracted by other interesting scents, but to keep pursuing the fox! Your reader doesn’t know which trail is the right one, so they are kept guessing!

Plot twists are a great tool for mystery writing. You were sure the story was going in a certain direction and suddenly, a new piece of information comes to light. What you suspected is proven to be impossible. Maybe your reader isn’t back to square one, but their curiosity is refueled! In the end, a good explanation of “who done it” finally comes out, and the pieces of the puzzle fall together.

You can go back to your draft and insert little clues that may help the detective, once you have figured out the end. Rewrites are as important as the first writing, and maybe more so! As you write your first draft, you are just thinking it through. Changes and modifications will bring your story together when you have all the pieces of the puzzle in front of you.

Don’t make your clues too obvious, or give too much information early on. To keep a mystery a page-turner, let every chapter bring a new question that must be answered. You will want to “map out” your plot in advance of writing the story. There are way too many details in a good mystery to try to keep them all in your head while you write. Because it’s important that all loose ends are neatly tied up by the conclusion, you’ll need to be able to see what threads you’ve left for the reader. Before your final copy goes to the presses, be sure there are no questions left unanswered.

2. The Narrative may relate a personal story or be told as a biography of a real or fictional character. This can be as simple as what happened on a walk home from the park, afternoon tea with Grandma, or an adventure. It can take place in a police station or courtroom, a living room or a hospital emergency room; anywhere. This genre has many subcategories.

a. One is a “Coming-of-Age” story, where the protagonist goes from childhood to maturity through life experiences and lessons. It often involves overcoming a weakness from within that is reflected in a change in their character. Overcoming may take the form of learning to be compassionate to others, bravery in the face of fear, or finding that through hard work they can achieve what seemed impossible. There may be external victories but the key achievements in a coming-of-age book are the ones that happen in the heart of the main character.

b. Fables often have animals playing the part of humans. These are usually quite short and have a point that is obvious.  Aesop is famous for these! Rudyard Kipling also used this method in his Just-So-Stories.

c. Parables use an illustration from life, even of inanimate objects, to teach a meaningful lesson. Jesus used these story-illustrations frequently, in the Bible. One example is the Prodigal Son. The young son didn’t want to submit to his father but wished to make his own way in the world. He left home with his inheritance and lived a wild life, wasting all his money. He ended up homeless and starving before coming to his senses. When the prodigal returned to his father to beg forgiveness he was welcomed home with open arms! This parable shows how we often make foolish choices, but that God, our Father is always waiting for our return, willing to forgive us.

d. Allegories are stories that can be interpreted to find a hidden meaning. Examples of allegory are: “A Pilgrim’s Progress,” by John Bunyan which is an allegory of the Christian’s journey to salvation, and “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe,” by C.S. Lewis.

e. Satire is a type of allegory, but according to the dictionary, uses humor, irony, exaggeration or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity, vices, or show corruption in government. An example of satire in literature is Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift and Animal Farm by George Orwell.

f.  Parody is another subgroup of the narrative genre that could be allegorical or a fable. Parody takes something that was already written and changes the story around for comedic effect. An example of this would be Shakespeare’s supposed version of The Three Little Pigs, as told by comedian, John Branyan. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OxoUUbMii7Q

3. Historical Fiction. While it could be argued that this is also a kind of narrative, it requires much more research to do. You will need to understand the times you write about. Your characters will need to act in accordance with the culture and speak as they would have in that time and place. Clothing, speech, and custom need to be consistent unless you have time travelers involved. Until you have familiarized yourself with the time, place of your story, and customs of that era, you probably shouldn’t write a piece of historical fiction.

4. Science Fiction and Fantasy can also be a mystery, coming of age story, romance, or action-adventure tale. Because Science Fiction or Fantasy go beyond reality, into different times and worlds, it is all the more important to create an emotional bond and common ideals with the characters. If the personalities of the main characters are too foreign, the story will not be relatable. If the players in your tale have personalities or issues that your reader can identify with, your audience will be able to suspend their disbelief at the peculiar circumstances and surroundings. Just remember to be consistent. As they say in theater, “keep in character.” The difficulty in these genres is creating a believable alternate world. It may involve studying science and technology or other ancient cultures and languages for inspiration. JRR Tolkien, who created entire worlds and new languages, was an expert in ancient language. In order to prepare for such writing, begin by reading books of the same genre to get a feel for what is needed. It is important not to copy someone else’s world too closely, so take notes of new ideas you come up with while reading. You can practice by writing shorter scenes and illustrating them. As you “see” your world unfold you can add more detail in the rewrite and add chapters.

In each of these, stories that create an impact and resonate with the audience contain universal truths. Hidden in the best stories, these gems are not expressed blatantly. The reader comes to realize these things, as if on their own. Allowing the reader to find the truth for themselves without preaching to them, has a greater impact. Universal truths will be evident in the plot and conclusion of the story. Look for themes that many can identify with. Examples are: Pain of rejection, hope, loss, desire to win and tenacity, overcoming, love returned and love unrequited, curiosity and fear – getting yourself in too deep and wondering how you’ll get yourself out again. Write from what you know and have experienced. It’s okay to weep over your writing or get angry at the characters as they play out. Laugh along with them, too! As Hemingway said, “Write one true thing.”

A Novel Idea – Introduction to Creative Writing

As we begin, we meet in the middle.

Have you thought about writing a book or short story? Stories represent a snippet of life taken from the most interesting or meaningful moments. But if you have ever tried to sit down to write “the Great American Novel,” or a short story and found yourself staring at an empty page, not knowing how to begin, try beginning in the middle. Something devastating or exciting has just occurred or is happening as we meet our hero. In the modern story, the reader needs to be drawn in by the first page, or you have lost them. So, compel them to continue!

Each character we meet has a past. As we meet them, we don’t know what that is yet or what motivates them to behave as they do. Learning about the heart and mind of your characters is part of what drives the story.  Besides their individual histories, the situation they find themselves in when the tale begins is the hook, line, and sinker to reel in your audience.  A crisis or difficulty presents itself that they must overcome. The crisis may be internal or external. The enemy might be a force from without, or “inner demons.” As the plot unwinds we discover these personalities as they interact to either cause trouble or overcome it.

The best stories are described well by sidekick, Sam Gamgee, in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings – The Two Towers.  “It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end… because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing… this shadow. Even darkness must pass.”

What elements do we need to create such a story? Below is a brief overview of the essential ingredients in a great tale. Each will be covered at length, in future posts.

1.  Genre
The genre ( the type of story) you choose to write will greatly influence your setting, your plot and your character development. Will you choose historical or science fiction, action, drama, or mystery?  And as a subset of those, will it be a romance, a coming-of-age story, or an epic, heroic tale? There are more choices than these, of course – but it should get you thinking about how you want to relate your story. Once you decide the genre, you will need to determine the “voice.”  Will you speak as a narrator who sees all and knows all, or as one of the people in the story – telling your own tale? Will you speak objectively in the third person about something that happened to others or tells the tale as it is happening (present tense) or as a series of past events? Try each of these and see which may fit better for your purposes.

2.  Setting
This includes not only the location and a description of our opening scene, but the year/month/time of day, atmosphere (not merely weather but mood), and the economic, political and social situation the character finds themselves in when the story begins.

3.  Plot
The sequence of events in our tale is what makes the plot – which is not necessarily chronological. As the story unfolds it may revert to a back-story about a particular character somewhere along the narrative to give us greater understanding or context. The plot includes the situation the character finds themselves in, their problem, and the steps they take to resolve it. The plot has a beginning, a middle and an end. The plot of the story may be over a period of hours, days or years. Of course, the more pages you write, the more detail you can have to your plot and the more time you can easily cover. But a greater number of words do not necessarily make a better tale. As Mary Poppins used to say, “Enough is as good as a feast.” We do not want to become tiresome in the telling! The pace of the story and need for detail will depend in part on the genre.

THE PLOT involves:
a. The Problem
b. The Plan to overcome the problem
c. The Predicament: Things get worse before they get better.
d. The Pinnacle: The problem is overcome!
e. The Peaceful Resolution – a satisfactory tying up of loose ends (unless of course, you are writing a sequel).

Each of these aspects will be examined in detail in a future post.

4. Character Development
We must care enough about our main character to be rooting for them throughout the story and cheer for them as they overcome their struggle! Creating a realistic character involves a working knowledge of them – as if they were real people to you. They can be based on living people that you know or have heard about, or you may make them up entirely from your imagination, or even create a new character as a mixture of aspects of a few people. Characters can even be elements that are not physical. Inner “voices,” memories of people that are no longer around or internal fears can become as much of a character as one represented with a name. “Tell-Tale Heart,” a short story by Edgar Alan Poe, is a good example of this. Because the story is a horror tale, the ending is not a happy one and the voice that haunts the main character defeats him in the end.

Each aspect of the character needs to be explored. This is done by creating character sketches, which will be explained in a future post.

5. Dialogue
Conversations may be within the heart of the main character or between two or more individuals. You may also choose to speak directly to the reader of your story. Whatever you decide to do, you must be consistent throughout. The setting, the culture, the age, and the genre will all affect how characters speak to one another. More details and options on how to do this effectively will follow.

6. Theme
This is optional. Not all stories have a message but all stories come from a certain world-view. The theme is a deeper truth that is relayed through the telling of the story. Stories can have a world-changing effect, convincing the reader or even a nation, to change their beliefs or behaviors. The abolitionist movement during the Civil War was spurred on by a little book called, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”  Have you ever read a book that profoundly influenced what you thought about a subject or changed your life? The great books will move our hearts and the best ones change us forever, for the better. What books have most influenced you? What kind of influence would you like to have on the world, through your writing?

There is no better time to begin!