Archive for the 'Plotting' Category

Plotting a Novel (part 2)

by Kate Forsyth

The Forsyth Triangle

I have developed a diagram to help my writing students understand the basic narrative arc of stories and I’m going to share it with you all today – though if you are going to share it with anyone else please make sure you credit me!

It is based on Freytag’s Triangle, developed by the German dramatist Gustav Freytag who studied Aristotle’s Poetics. Freytag divided a drama into five parts which he named:

Exposition – Rising Action – Climax – Falling Action – Denouement

I have combined his theories with the idea of a three-act structure often used by playwrights and screenwriters.

Some definitions:

  • Expositionbackground information – characters, scene, & situation – a scene that shows the normal life of the protagonist
  • Inciting Incident the catalyst that begins the major conflict – a problem or complication to be solved – the point at which normal life is changed
  • Rising Actiona series of conflicts and crises – obstacles to overcome, ordeals to undergo, lessons to be learnt, revelations to be understood
  • Crisis – a crucial or decisive moment in the story that has a powerful effect on the protagonist – a turning point
  • Midpoint Reversal the middle of the story, where it seems all is lost and the hero cannot go on – it often marks a movement from one place to another, whether physical, spiritual or emotional
  • Climaxthe turning point of the action, when tension reaches its height. The point in which the hero must not only face – and defeat – his enemy, but also his greatest fear
  • Resolutionthe final stage, where questions are answered and problems solved
  • Falling Action the action following the climax that moves the story towards its end – it is usually much shorter than the previous series of events
  • Denouement comes from the old French, and means to ‘untie the knot’.  The final scene when all is well – ‘the feast scene’

Understanding the basic narrative arc of a story can help you make sure your story does not sag in the middle, fizzle out at the end or drone on for too long at the beginning (the most common mistakes I see in manuscripts!)

Plotting a Novel (part 1)

by Kate Forsyth

To plot, or not to plot – that is the question …

To me, there are two parts of writing. There’s the wonderful enchantment that overcomes me sometimes, when words tumble through my head faster than I can write, when every word rings true as soon as I catch it in my net. And then there’s the hard slog of writing when every word is dug out of obstinate rock.

To me, good writing seems so effortless, it is as if the reader was making it up as they go along, as if every word and every happening in the story is inevitable. I never want to be seen striving for effect – I want the architectural girders of the story to be invisible.

However, to write that well is hard. It is all too easy to lose your way, which is why having a plan of what you are writing can help you be a more focused and effective writer. I have two mantras that I teach my students:

  • To write without a plan is like going on a journey without a map
  • Never start a novel with a blank page

There are basically two methods of writing.

The Intuitive Approach

Sometimes called ‘free associative writing’.

You set off on a journey with no idea where you are going, allowing the words to carry you along as they will.

Every time you get stuck, which you will be often, you can use a form of brainstorming to get you going again. Ask yourself questions – where are my characters? What are they doing? Why did that happen? What can my character hear, see, smell, taste, feel? What am I trying to express or communicate with this story?

The main problems with this method is getting so stuck you can’t get going again, or ending up with a lot of material that cannot be used, thereby wasting time and energy.

The Analytical Approach

Some writers plot out the entire story before they write a word, complete with characters sketches, chapter-by-chapter and scene-by-scene breakdowns, and thematic conclusions.

Such planning can help with both the actual writing process (you know what you are writing about) and with the tying up of any loose ends. However, it can also limit you to only writing what was planned and so not leaving room for any of those great leaps of the imagination that can take you in all sorts of surprising directions.

What I do is use a combination of both of these methods – I develop a plot-line where I know my beginning and my end and a number of key scenes along the way. Then, as I am writing, I develop this plot-line further as new ideas come. I also do a fairly comprehensive outline before I write each chapter so I know exactly what I want to have happen in that scene.

So what exactly is a plot?

A Plot is a series of events which is driven by the protagonist’s attempt to RESOLVE a source of CONFLICT. The plot is therefore driven by the protagonist’s actions and reactions to a set of problems or obstacles or ordeals.

You could also describe this as a causal sequence of events in a story.

  • This means a plot works in two ways – what is happening (the sequence of events) and why it is happening (cause and effect of what is happening)
  • Character and plot are therefore inextricably entwined, because the personality of your characters will determine how they react to any given situation

The Basic Formula Of All Stories

Protagonist + Objective + Obstacles = Story

Another way to put it:

Character + Desire + Conflict = Story

i.e. someone wants something that is hard to get 

Once you understand this, it is much easier to plan your story.

The Benefits of Being Mean

Being mean isn’t something I’m naturally good at. I try to be a good person. Try to be thoughtful of others and unselfish. In my writing pursuits I expected this would always serve me well, but not so. It turns out that being mean is a core requirement of writing. Why? Because if you’re always nice to your characters, nothing interesting will ever happen.

If J.K.Rowling was nice to Harry Potter, Voldemort would never have been born, Harry’s parents would still be alive and Malfoy would have been a delightful young chap. If J.K was kind, when Harry was invited to a school of Wizardry it would have been one big, joyous adventure with no danger or teen angst or Trolls/Werewolves/Deatheaters/’insert scary thing here’. If J.K was a generous soul, Harry would have had a very pleasant time at school, graduated and lived Happily Ever After. Sound boring to you? I’m putting myself to sleep just contemplating it.

As writers, we need to drag our characters through hell and back before the story is through. We need to create tension, drama, action, tough choices – more so than tends to exist in real life. I think this is why I enjoy fantasy so much, as there is such potential to raise the stakes beyond anything we experience in our own world. But being mean is harder than it sounds. I get incredibly attached to my characters – even protective of them – so without realising it I often let them avoid the tough stuff.

I’ve been using the ‘three act structure’ to outline the urban fantasy I’m currently developing (something Robert McKee discusses in Story and Alexandra Sokoloff studies over on her blog). I had a number of scenes I knew would feature in the book, and had written them onto story cards. I was then working out how they would work across the three acts – where they would fit, what would work as each act’s turning point and how each event would interact with the others. In doing this I realised parts of the story were severely lacking. Know why? Because I was being too kind to my characters. I had to up the stakes, make their choices harder, create greater consequences. Would this character really adjust so well to this turning point? No! They’d rail against it and make things harder for my protagonist. Would this piece of information be so easy to track down? No! My protagonist should have to prove himself before he can discover that pearler.

With this done, my story has filled out significantly, and as you can see my storyboard is nearly complete. Although I’m not sure how I’ll sleep tonight. I’ve done enough mean things to these characters to earn a lifetime of damnation…

Stand-Alone Vs Series

There are so many decisions to make when planning a new novel. Sometimes you can let the story or the characters drive these decisions, but sometimes you’re faced with two (or more) paths you could follow that would severely alter the direction of your story. When this happens, it all comes down to you. As the head of your story’s world you have to be prepared to make some tough choices.

I was recently faced with one of these with the new urban fantasy I’m plotting. The more I uncovered about this story, and the more I understood its characters and their history, the more I realised just how big it was. Possibly too big for one novel. However I’d never intended it to be a series. I have planned two series in the past, and with both I always knew they would be and they naturally evolved that way. So my tough decision with this new story became:

  • Tackle it as one big book (can anyone say sprawling fantasy?) OR
  • Create a new series

Although I secretly knew it was too big for one book, I still wasn’t sure it could work as several. The story had always been a single story in my head – it didn’t feel episodic. As a reader I get a little frustrated by series where the books end with a massive cliffhanger, as if it was one book split into several, so I didn’t want to create one of those. I prefer a series where each book has a distinct feel, even if there is an overarching ‘quest’ linking them all. I turned to my agent and writing friends for advice, who all felt I could tackle it either way, but ultimately the decision came down to me. I thought I’d share with you how I tackled the problem:

First step: brainstorming. I put a timeline across the middle of a large sheet of butcher’s paper. At the beginning of the line I wrote a summary of the Inciting Incident, and at the end I detailed the Final Showdown. Then I filled the page with every big climax point from the story. I linked these all up to the timeline, working out how each revelation and point of action jigsawed together. Once I had the timeline complete, I could see whether there were clear sections of it that could split into individual stories. It turns out there were two perfect turning points that could serve as the end of story one and two, while the Final Showdown would be story 3’s climax.

I think it may just work. I hope it will work. I still have to more thoroughly plot out each book before I’ll know for sure (as you can see below I’ve already started for book one). This might all seem incredibly anal, but the story is complex, and I need to know where each story is going before I can start writing the first. I’m really keen to get writing, as the scenes are unrolling and the characters are all talking to each other and I’m already on the roller-coaster ride that is their triumphs and failures. So if you’ll excuse me – I’d better get back to plotting…

New Novel & World Domination

For the last few weeks I have been plotting. Not the ‘world domination’ kind, but the ‘new novel’ kind. That said, when creating a new story world you need to dominate it – as its creator you must understand every angle of your world and its people in order to write it convincingly. This is especially true when, like me, you are writing fantasy.

This new novel has me super excited, because…

  1. Firstly, I’ve been wanting to write something a little darker for a while now. This will be a mid-grade urban fantasy about a cursed bloodline, 17th century beasts, some kick ass supernatural bounty hunters and one scary immortal dude
  2. Secondly, I’m plotting it in a whole new way

When I say ‘new’, I mean entirely new to me. When I first tried writing a novel, like a lot of newbies, plotting was something I knew nothing about. As I’ve grown as a writer I’ve naturally started planning my stories and have become more aware of the value of plotting. Kate Forsyth also instilled its importance in me through the mentorship.

This will be the fourth novel I’ve written. The first was free written and terrible – it’s happily a bottom drawer manuscript. The second was only slightly more planned, and would have been another bottom drawer ms if Kate hadn’t swooped in to help me resurrect it. The third required more planning and the first draft was certainly the cleanest I’ve produced yet, but still I’ve learnt more about structure since then.

With my fourth novel, I want to go a few steps further. I want to focus on getting to know my characters intimately before I start. I want to work at weaving in each story arc and building the tension towards the climax. Ultimately I want to break the story down scene by scene, all before I start writing. I’ve never done anything like this before and I couldn’t do it alone, so I’m equipped with Robert McKee’s book on the principles of screenwriting, called Story. It’s a bible on the craft of plot – one you’ll hear a lot of writers mention. He talks about breaking a story down into acts, sequences, scenes and moments, and analysing each one as to how it’s driving the story. He’s also the king of the three act structure, something I’ve been interested in studying for a while. He opens the book with an awesome quote:

Anxious, inexperienced writers obey rules; rebellious, unschooled writers break rules; an artist masters the form

Robert, I’m not sure I’ll do you proud, but I’ll certainly do my best. The only way to learn is to push yourself out into new territory – challenge yourself to something new. I’m certainly doing that, and loving every terrifying moment. Wish me luck!

Writing Mojo

I’ve lost my writing mojo. It’s gone. I’ve looked in all the usual places: under the bed, in the space below the fridge, beneath my pup’s cushion. In fact it’s so far gone, even writing this blog post is hard. But how did I lose my writing mojo, and even tougher, how do I get it back? It’s certainly not as easy as it was for Austin Powers, who only had to fight a few bad guys to win back his glass vial of mojo.

Losing your writing mojo is sadly easy. I’ve talked before about how writing is a rhythm, and anything that interrupts this rhythm can be the cause. For me it was moving interstate, which meant several weeks of having everything packed in boxes, living out of suitcases and being in unfamiliar houses. Finally my new office is set up, my computer is booted up and ready … but still I can’t write.

What I’ve discovered in the last few years is that writing is really about thinking. If you’re not thinking about your story, you wont be able to write about it. So when your rhythm is interrupted, by stress or change, other things fill your head that can evict your story. When your story isn’t in your head, ideas stop bumping into each other, your characters stop speaking to you and your subconscious stops working on those little bursts of inspiration. Knowing this, the answer to getting my writing mojo back is clear:

  1. Get my story back in my head
  2. Get back into my rhythm

To tackle number 1, first I have to decide what project I’d like to work on. Then I read what I’ve got – a first draft, character profiles, even just a few scratchy notes on the back of an envelope. Whatever it is, it gets me thinking about the story again. At first, when I’m just getting back into the flow, I find I have to remind myself to be thinking about the story. But after a few days my subconscious is doing it for me, ticking over characters interactions whenever I have a moment to think or even at night while I’m asleep.

Tackling number 2 is all about routine. I start back into those daily activities that remind my mind and body that I’m getting back into my writing rhythm. For me that’s getting up early and going to the gym, doing a few little chores in the morning, blogging regularly and taking my pup for a walk in the afternoon. These are things that make me feel good and productive, but also give me time and space to be thinking about my story.

Sometimes it can take days. Sometimes it can take a week or so. Either way, I just have to be patient. I know it will come back. Soon ideas will be bursting at the seams and you wont be able to pry me from the computer. But you’ll have to excuse me for now – it’s time to take my pup for a walk…

Planning or Pantsing

Rabbit - runI’m updating my website: a slow and laborious process, but I’m getting there. Looking at the ‘writing’ section makes me realise that my writing methods have changed. It’s nice to have those moments in life – a yard stick where you can look back and realise how far you’ve come. I wrote that section 18 months ago, and a few novels on, I’m amazed at just how differently I do things.

I used to be a pantser. I didn’t plot or plan my stories – I used freewriting to muddle my way through a first draft, flying by the seat of my pants. I enjoyed this immensely – the thrill of the chase, the adrenalin at the discovery of a new plot point. I always felt that planning would take this away from me. But in the end it left a mudpit of a manuscript I had to attempt to save in the second draft: characters that were still figuring out who they were, worlds only partly explored, tangled story arcs.

I used to just think this was the way I did things (that it was my ‘style’ of writing), but now I can see that fear was driving it. I was terrified at the thought of planning. What if the ideas didn’t come? What if I sat down to plan and couldn’t think of anything? My inner writing critic (that awful voice that tells you your writing is no good) was strong back then, and could only be silenced when I wrote fast enough to leave it behind. If I stopped to plan, it could paralyse me in an instant. So I was running fast to keep ahead of my fear.

So much has changed. I now trust myself enough that I no longer need to run. After writing so many stories, I know that the ideas will come if I give them time. I trust that I can solve the plot problems that will arise and that the characters will talk to me if I give them space. The biggest epiphany happened about a week ago: I’m now so good at silencing my inner writing critic that he rarely bothers to show up. With my fear now contained to a minimum, I’m free to plan. I love letting the ideas move around my mind for months, asking questions, identifying the plot holes to fill and studying the story arcs. I love prodding the characters to learn their vulnerabilities and determining how the story can best reveal these. I love the intricacies of putting the puzzle together, all before putting pen to paper. I suppose I now understand the demands of ‘story’ more intimately.

Early on in my ASA mentorship, Kate said something that made me think about all this. She commented that you can still experience the thrill of discovery during the first draft when you have planned it. Planning doesn’t take that away, it just makes the process less messy. But I’m still hesitant to describe myself as a planner just yet. I’ve worked out how tricksy this writing process is – just when I think I have myself pinned, I start a fresh project that demands a completely new approach.

So you never know. In a few years time I may be back here saying: “Move over planning, I’m back in the pants”.


About this Blog…

A blog of ramblings about the world of writing and illustrating for children, by an author / illustrator who might just have a thing for rabbits.

Katherine's picture books, 'Squish Rabbit' and 'Brave Squish Rabbit', are out with Viking (Penguin, US) and UQP (Australia). Please e-mail if you would like her to blog about something in particular.

All text & images  Katherine Battersby

Released Sept 2012:

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