Posts Tagged 'Plotting'

Baking Your Ideas

Ideas are wonderful and wily things. We chase them around, trying to catch their tails so we can pull them to us and write them down – capture them on the page. Creating a new story involves not just one idea, but many. Hundreds (if not thousands) of them must be woven together seamlessly to create the many-coloured threads of a novel.

I’ve discussed before that ideas don’t just pop into existence fully formed, but must be cultivated over a long period of time. Some people let them come together naturally in their mind. Some people do writing exercises to draw them out. Today I decided to bake them into existence.

Many of you may recall that baking is often a bad sign for me – a clear indicator that I’m having a bad day and need cheering up – but not today. For me, ideas best come together when my body is engaged in an activity but my mind is left free to wander. I find if I pose myself a question at the beginning of the task, by the end it tends to be answered. So…

  • The Challenge: To create lemon and ricotta baked doughnuts (with the help of my new lipstick-red Kitchen Aid)
  • The Goal: To get to know several of my characters better (I’m working on a young adult urban fantasy, and have two ‘bad guys’ that I know in name alone)

I thought I’d share with you the recipe I followed for my idea chasing:

  1. While I combined the batter ingredients, I considered what I already knew about my two bad guys
  2. While I kneaded the dough, I realised one wasn’t a guy at all and readjusted my thoughts on her (a sex change takes a while to get your head around)
  3. While I creamed the ricotta and lemon filling, I considered what they wanted in life and the motivations that could drive them through the story
  4. While I cut out the dough rounds and stuffed them with filling, I wondered about their childhoods and how their experiences had shaped them as people
  5. While I watched the dough rise and brown in the oven, I considered the consequences of their choices and how they would carry the weight of them
  6. And finally, while I dipped the cooked batter in butter and rolled them in lemon sugar, I realised these two characters were more interconnected than I’d initially realised

And the outcome of all this baking and thinking? I came away with:

  1. Two nuanced characters that I’ve discovered I actually care about (bad bits and all)
  2. An appreciation for bought doughnuts (this recipe took me a good part of the day)
  3. A happy but very full stomach

Care to join me in a sticky lemon doughnut?

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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.

Guest Blogger: Kate Forsyth

I’m excited to announce that the bubbly and talented Kate Forsyth will be a guest on this blog over the next week.

About Kate Forsyth: Kate has written more than twenty books for children and adults, including The Puzzle RingThe Gypsy Crown, and The Starthorn Tree. Her books have been sold to twelve different countries and she has been shortlisted for numerous awards, including a CYBIL Award in the US. In 2007, she was awarded five Aurealis awards for the Chain of Charms series, with Book 5: The Lightning Bolt also being named a CBCA Notable Book. Not only am I a huge fan of her work, but many of you will also know that I had the fortune of being mentored by Kate through an ASA mentorship over 2008/2009.

Kate is currently touring with her latest release, The Wildkin’s Curse. It is a tale of true love and high adventure, set in a world of magic and monsters, valiant heroes and wicked villains. It tells the story of two boys and a girl who undertake the impossible task of rescuing a wildkin princess imprisoned in a crystal tower. A fantasy novel for readers aged 12+, The Wildkin’s Curse tells of the power of stories to change the world. It is the second book in the Chronicles of Estelliana, which began with The Starthorn Tree.

Guest Blog Details:

  1. Day one: Kate will join us to discuss plotting a novel, including ‘to plot or not to plot’, ‘what is plot?’ and the basic formula of all stories
  2. Day two: Kate will finish off her discussion on plotting by revealing ‘The Forsyth Triangle’ (a clever way of understanding narrative arc)
  3. Day three: I’ve been lucky enough to receive a review copy of The Wildkin’s Curse. I’m about half way through and it’s everything it promises to be. Once I’m done I’ll be putting up a review

Now, are you ready to be enchanted? Watch The Wilkin’s Curse book trailer below, then head off and grab yourself a copy…

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!


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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