Monday, February 6, 2012

The Baby Steps of Writing #6: Laying Down the Highlights

Starting a novel can be intimidating. Finishing even more so. It is my hope that this series will help other soon-to-be or wanna-be writers find a place to begin a novel and better yet, empower them to finish. Here you will find all the advice I wish someone would have given me when I first started writing fiction.

Today is the day! For those of you who like discovering your story as you go (pantsters), this is the last step you should take in preparing a plot for your novel. Granted, some of you might think this is too much structure, but I think this format still leaves a lot of room for surprises. There are many formats out there, but I like this one because it highlights each major point of your story:

Inciting incident (II)
This incident (usually a full scene) should grip your reader and not let them go. The general rule of this scene is an eruption in your character’s normal life. We see action or trouble brewing. We see how the character responds to the trouble as they are now, before they change throughout the story. This scene doesn’t have to be a full-on explosion, but it should have undertones or overtones of unease in the character’s regular world. Also, the sooner you start your inciting incident, the more exciting your story will be. And the sooner you will hook the reader in.

First Plot Point (PP1)
The difference between the first plot point (PP1) and the inciting incident (II) is sometimes confusing. The PP1 has everything to do with the plot while the II doesn’t necessarily have to be. I could go on and on about PP1s, but I’ll just say that they are the point where the main character chooses to move forward from what their world once was to what it has become. This can be a huge and dramatic change or a quieter, “okay, I’m going to do this”. In a typical hero’s quest story, the hero’s main world has been turned upside down. In the first novel I ever wrote, the main character climbs a ridge and looks down either side of the ridge: the direction she is going and the direction she has been. She dithers about pushing forward or going back. (Cliché, I know.) But I tell you this because at the time I wrote the scene, I didn’t know I was putting in a classic PP1 because I didn’t know what a PP1 was. I did it instinctively. Some of you might find you have been doing the same thing: writing classic elements into your story with out consciously putting them in there. Once you are aware of the elements, the chances of them being clean and purposeful (vs. sloppy and over-the-top like mine was) are better.

Second Plot Point (PP2)
Now that your character has made the decision to move forward, he is going to have some growing pains. Growing pains mean hard things are in the future. Hard things mean conflict, which makes a story a story. As the first big obstacle, PP2 escalates the conflict between the hero and the villain, the hero and himself, or the hero and their unrequited love. Or all three. Each story is unique enough that you’ll need to find where the first big obstacle is and how it’s going to kick your story into a higher gear.

Middle Point (MP)
When I think of the middle, I think of chucking on my backpack and preparing to hoof it up a mountain. It is the gear up for the intensity about to come at the end. The middle point is where you hinge the beginning to the end and sometimes it can be the hardest part to write. Like a clothes line, the story may slouch right there in the middle. It happens to even great authors. The best way to evaluate your middle point is to see if it feels like a “deep breath before the plunge,” as Gandalf would say. (Yeah, I know I’m a nerd.)

Third Plot Point (PP3)
This is the all-is-lost scene. Here is the point where we wonder how in the world the character is going to recover from the blow you have just given him. The character is brought lower than low. Readers need to feel a sense of hopelessness to some degree. It will make the ending all the more satisfying.

Circle the Wagons (CTW)
As soon as the character limps away from the all-is-lost scene, it’s time to circle the wagons and start seeing with new eyes. The character develops a new desire to conquer and they have a new approach to see it through. Hang on to your hats because now the character is planning and things are going to get intense.

Climax A (XA)
Now it’s time to light the fuse. Some event needs to ignite the big blow coming between the character and their adversary (whether internal or external).

Climax B (XB)
Things are about to explode and you need to build up the suspense so that the reader won’t put the book down and go to bed. The fuse it lit and it’s burning down the wire.

Climax C (XC)
Kaboom! The biggest, most intense event of the book needs to occur here. The dynamite explodes and most of the time, you know what the event will be before you even sit down to write. However, before you write it, ask yourself, “What is the worst, most dramatic thing that can happen to the character(s) here?” and “What biggest obstacle can he/she conquer?” Then evaluate if you have done this scene the justice it deserves.

The ride has been fun, but now give the reader a short breather. This is the section where Dumbledore explains some things to Harry. Here is where all the loose ends are tied up and we understand things we did not before.

End the story. Nicely. Swiftly. Satisfyingly. A good ending is the deal maker if the reader is going to tell their friends about your book or not. There really is nothing else to say except that if the end satisfies you, hopefully it will satisfy others. It may be happy or it may be bittersweet, but it should always end hopeful in some way. Get a second reader and see if they agree with your satisfaction.

So what do you think? Is this a helpful way to think of the major elements of your book?

Last weekend I went to a Young Adult writer’s workshop in Phoenix. It was wonderful to be there in the presence of so many authors I admire. One thing I heard from many of them was that they used to be fond of just sitting down and writing a book. Now they have learned the value of preparation, whether in outline form or in a 40 page or so synopsis. I am learning this too.  And oh, man! How I wish I would have done more outlining in the book I’m revising now because I’m so slow at revisions. When I don’t plan well, I find that I have to rewrite more. That is okay for some people but I struggle with revision because I am a perfectionist. Plus I want to write so many books that I just want to get them out into the world.

So, if you want to outline more, stay tuned for scene by scene outlining and other TBA baby steps of writing. Happy Monday!

P. S. If you need more help seeing how these elements fit into your book specifically, I would be happy to help you. Just email me. My address is on the side. Over there. ------------------->