Tag Archives: story structure

Ooh, plot device!

Some of you know that I’m a pretty critical reader.

Some of you are chuckling at my gift for understatement.

It’s been many years since I started reading fiction with the intention of learning how to write. The longer this goes on, the more I learn. The more I can see. The more OMFG pickier I become.

To the point where I’m actually a really good editor. Not only can I see snags, but I can see what to do about them and make suggestions.

To the point where I’m so jammed up about doing anything wrong that it’s hard to work.

But that can be for another whiny-ass post. This is about something else, actually.

[insert audible relief sighs here]

I’m reworking some of the first act of Heroes Under Siege this week and it’s getting better, so I wanted to talk about something I learned about Act 1.

Back to me being the super critical reader.

I hate the beginnings of lots of books.

Not the first lines or the first scenes, but the slog-fest that the first few chapters become. And I’m not just talking about self-pub here, there are plenty of trad books that leave me wondering when we’re going to start getting this story started.

But Susan, according to the rules of story architecture to which you claim to ascribe (OMG, whose butt am I talking out of right now?), the story really doesn’t become The Story until the First Plot Point at the end of Act 1. Act 1 is setup and introduction of all the elements we need to know about. What. Do.  You. Expect?

There are a lot of things that can and do go wrong in Act 1– with some regularity, but one of the things I long for when reading is to feel like I’m being led by a competent hand. And that’s something that may be hard to explain.

Sometimes it’s obvious when it’s not happening. Like those books where information just keeps getting dumped on you because it’s important to the author that you know this stuff so she can use it later. But the author hasn’t found a way to make it important and interesting to you now, so you kind of want to claw your eyes out and go all stabbity on the narrator.

Or when you find yourself aimlessly wandering about through descriptions and scenes of actions that don’t seem to connect, and you’re thinking, OMG what the hell does this all mean and is this EVER Going Anywhere??

So a few months ago I was reading Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone. There was a first act that really pulled me right through. I remember enjoying it so much that I actually said to Kait, “This. This is how it’s done.

Wait? How was it done?

So I had to sit back and think about that, and there’s a device which I think worked…

(First there was a prologue. And it was an excellent prologue. Attached me right to those characters as a children. Great job there. But that wasn’t what pulled me through act 1 so easily. That was just a part of what was done right.)

The characters had a goal from Chapter 1.

See, I think this is the thing that I responded to.

But wait! You can’t go introducing the story goal in chapter 1! That doesn’t happen until–

I didn’t say story goal. Did I say story goal? Pipe down.

In chapter one, years after the prologue, the main character, Alina, is on the march with her military unit. They’re going to a place where they can cross the Fold in order to get somewhere else, and this crossing will be fraught with danger. (And, as Tigger says, you just can’t argue with a word like fraught.)

So I knew where we were going! I don’t know why that would be such a relief to me, but it just was.

In terms of structure, I’d say that the crossing of the Fold contained the inciting incident.  What happened there, what Alina did there, started a sequence of events that led to the First Plot Point and dragged her into the next phase of the story.

Despite knowing where we were going (wherever the crossing point was) and why (to cross the Fold because the leaders said we have to), I still had plenty of questions to keep me interested in the story. I was getting a lot of worldbuilding information, but because there was already a story going on, there was something to hang that on, so it wasn’t just floating about in the atmosphere.

A novel is often comprised of stories within a story. This “getting to the Fold” mini-plot was a very small portion of the whole, but it grounded all the introductory material, gave it a purpose in the now of the reader.

So. There’s something I saw and why I think it worked. If your act 1 is like Alice’s slow fall down a rabbit hole filled with floating worldbuilding paraphernalia, there’s an idea for you.

Now get off the Internets and go write something.

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Filed under writing

2010 in review: The story of Hush Money

So I need to do the look back at the year thing. I’ve kind of been waiting to see what the end of the year numbers were. When the month rolled over, it seemed like I lost some PubIt sales. They finally showed up again, and then they found a few more stragglers over the next few days. I mean, I realize the report itself is always 2 days behind and you have to add those separately, but mine kept changing after that. This makes me a little nervous about them…

But that’s neither here nor there. It’s been a really big year for me, so I thought I’d try to talk about where I started and where I ended up. Be warned, this post is incredibly long.

Prologue

Some of you know that, when I started Hush Money, it was after a period of not having seriously written for a lot time. The only thing in my idea file that really interested me was my Talents, but even though I worked some on their stories and new characters showed up all the time, I couldn’t really bring myself to get a real story going. Part of that was a matter of motivation. Even if I finished one book of the Talent Chronicles, the idea of shopping it didn’t appeal to me, for a lot of reasons. I thought about, maybe, just starting to write it myself and putting it up on a website somewhere. You know, for fun. But writing is pretty emotional for me. I love creating this stuff, but most days…it is not fun. That idea wasn’t motivation enough.

Act 1: The world before

But Kait, my writing buddy and best friend going on, what, four years now? kept after me. Because of her, part of my mind was always in the writing world. She’d send me articles, talk about writing and bookish topics, and of course we worked a lot on her various writing projects.

And then, of course, there were books. I’d run of out room for books, had to feel guilty about any new book I brought into the house, but ebooks bought me back to book-buying and collecting big-time. I found myself getting passionately pissed off about availability issues, format incompatibilities, and DRM, and did a lot of reading and research on ebooks. Part of that was reading some of the stuff that Konrath was saying about ebooks vs. paperback; ebooks, DRM, and piracy; and then he was talking about his ventures in self-publishing.

Which was really interesting because Kait’s friend Zoe was also self-publishing. I was one who thought self-publishing was great for niche-markets and how-to books, I’ve got a bunch of self-pubbed how-tos, but I had been less than impressed with some of the fiction I’d read, and my opinion had been pretty negative. However, the more I read about it from the writer’s perspective, the more I started to think about it the same way I thought about crafting.

I’d had a good run selling intricate and pricey items on Etsy, and I was burnt out on that. But for a while there, I’d been having a blast, being creative and having my work sought after and appreciated. (I really thrive on that shit, but who doesn’t?) Etsy took crafting for money to a whole different level. It no longer mattered if there was a market for what I wanted to make in the place I live. I wasn’t going to have to try to make a bunch of inventory to try to sell batches to local shops or try to do shows to reach more customers. I could just do what I wanted, at my own pace, in my own home, and reach that niche of customers around the world who were interested. Freakin’ awesome.

I started to see indie publishing as the exact same thing. And, for the first time in a long time, I started to get excited about the idea of writing a novel.

Kait decided she was going to go ahead and do it. I was totally encouraging because, hey, she’s good at learning all the stuff, and if it went well, I could totally benefit from her knowledge later. Kait published Foraken by Shadow at the end of March. And people bought it. With money! And it was freakin’ awesome.

I really wanted to do it too.

Act 2: Into the story world

I got my outline together. I’d been studying story structure via Larry Brooks’ Storyfix blog, and suddenly, planning a story from beginning to end seemed so much easier! In fact, all the writing books and articles I’d been reading over the last few years seemed to be coming together in my head, like everything was just there waiting for me to get started.

I had a startlingly positive attitude going into Hush Money, that if I would just sit down to do the work, of course the words would come. Words had never been a problem for me, unless it was having too many of them. I was going to start the book, I was going to finish it. I was going to make it good, and then I was going to see what I could do with it.

But I was up against a ticking clock. It was already May, after all, and there weren’t that many more days of school. Soon my daughter would be with me to destroy any hope of concentration or immersion in character and world. I had get moving.

I wrote the first draft of Hush Money in 30 days. That last week or so, school was out, but Vacation Bible School filled the gap. When I might have gotten scared of the end and stuck in a slump, I pushed forward, knowing I only had a few hours a day for one, more, week. I would drop her off at the church, rush home, write like a maniac. Then go pick her up, go to McDonald’s, wolf down a double cheeseburger and write at least another one or two thousand words while she played on the playland with other kids.

After that week, I was almost at the end. I wrote the last several scenes in one day. I asked my mom to have my daughter over to play so that I could work on getting my first draft finished before my upcoming visit to Kait’s house. I wrote thousands of words that day.

I’m still very happy with the way the book ends, but the biggest criticism of the story is that the ending is somewhat abrupt. Maybe I was just exhausted.

Act 3: In which the Wanderer becomes a Warrior

Well, I’m not sure Susan as a protag will ever be considered a warrior, but certainly there was a lot of self-doubt to be overcome. I had to get 11 beta readers with overwhelmingly positive responses on Hush Money, before I started to believe that it was good enough to put a price tag on it.

I was editing a manuscript, something I’d never really done before. I’d finished a few things, but nothing I’d ever loved enough to want to make it better. And I was learning about formatting and all the other stuff that goes into publishing an ebook.

During this time, I’d finally hooked up with Zoe Winters one-on-one instead of going through Kait. It was fun and exciting to talk to her. She was in the crazy period of having released Claimed and Mated and having incredible success with those. Kait was having record sales of Forsaken by Shadow. Evenings would go by, with both of them in separate chat windows, both of them giving me their stats, rankings by the hour, in stereo.

And I was waiting for Hush Money to return from 11 betas and feeling absolutely desperate to join this party. By the time I had to leave my original cover artist and hire a new one at the end of July, I was crazy obsessed with getting my work out there to see how it would do.

Act 4: The exciting climax sequence

Finally, at the beginning of August, I was finally ready to get this thing out there! I uploaded on August 2nd, and the book started to go live all that week. First on Smashwords on the 3rd, then I think the Amazon listing started show up on 4th, with a buy button by the 5th.

And then commenced the crazy. I had to start doing that which I had dreaded. Marketing. I had to go back to blogging. I had to active on Twitter. I had to try to learn Facebook. And it was hard to find the time for all that because I had to check my stats EVERY. FREAKIN’. HOUR.

The week after Hush Money was released, I went to Disney World. While I was there, Kait sent me a text to let me know I’d made my first Amazon bestseller chart.

I had to check out Goodreads. I did the ebook giveaway event there, got great response, and had people reading my book.

In August, I “sold” a total of 113 copies.

36 of those I gave away.

I was also very busy researching print-on-demand and trying to figure out the best method for doing that for my non-existent budget and attention span. I chose Createspace. The print version of Hush Money was released on September 24th.

Hush Money was finally finished, I was getting started on Heroes ‘Til Curfew, and by the time the second month was over, I’d sold four times what I’d sold in the first month.

Epilogue

Five months later, I still struggle with making this sequel happen. Just like I’d never liked anything enough to do serious edits (though at least I’d edited for others!), I’d also never tried to write a sequel.

Hush Money continues to do incredibly well. I went into this with no idea what to expect, hoping, perhaps, to reach 1000 copies by this time. I’m astounded to be able to tell you that I was able to reach well over 6000 copies by the end of this year.

I can’t begin to tell you the joy that sharing this story has brought me. I’ve met so many incredible people this year, made so many wonderful friends. At least a few times a week I experience the wonder of finding that someone has taken the time to contact me, by email, or by leaving a comment on my About Me or Talent Chronicles pages, or somewhere else, just to tell me how much they enjoyed Hush Money. I get fan mail! Internationally!! I have been thanked countless times for doing something that I loved doing. And I’ve been damned, numerous times, for the sins of keeping someone up past their bedtime or making them remember how it feels to be a teen.

This will probably be the last time I talk about numbers for a while. Certainly, for me, the subject will always inspire excitement and a measure of awe. In the beginning, I really did believe that sharing these numbers was helpful for those who might be considering indie publishing and might want some ideas what to expect. But sometimes more is just more, and I don’t want to invite negativity into my life by having anyone take my sharing of this information in a different spirit than it’s intended.

What I hope I have managed to express, in this post and in this year, is the profound sense of gratitude I feel for everyone who’s helped me. Toward everyone who has (in no particular order) reviewed the book at a retail site, left a review on Goodreads, talked about it in a forum, voted for it in a poll, tweeted about it, blogged about it, told a friend, written to me, asked me a question about it, longed for the sequel, encouraged me during the many times I get nervous and feel like I’m losing my mind, bought it for someone else, sent me interview questions, and, hey, bought it and read the freakin’ thing.

Thank you all for making 2010 an absolutely amazing year for me.

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Filed under Hush Money, Talent Chronicles

This, That, Stuff, and Things

I used to have this social studies teacher who absolutely hated “stuff and things.” Use either of those words in an essay question at your peril. So now I often say them, just to say them, because I’m just ornery like that.

I’m also constantly behind. Everything’s just late, crazy, and overdue.

Take the 1000 Sales Giveaway. I was supposed to draw that on Monday. Just did it now.

It has been such a week. Sales started a random upswing over the weekend and then just exploded. It was all very exciting, finally slowing back down again, but I’ve been so obnoxious this week that I’m lucky I have any friends left at all, and you’re all lucky I forgot to blog.

So I’m not going to bore you with a play by play, but I’ll just record that my highest rank in the Kindle store was #327, and at B&N, where there is less competition right now, I think the highest I got was #140. Don’t know how that happened, and I think I’m pretty much going to have to retire from trying to figure this stuff out because I haven’t got a clue.

Ok, I know, tell us the winner already. I’m just messing with you. The winner of the signed paperback of Hush Money is Marta! Because Random.org thought to itself: which number feels like international postage?? Hahaha. That’s awesome, though, and Marta, I am very excited to send this to you.

Speaking of contests, I think Robin and I have settled on a cover concept and images for Heroes ‘Til Curfew. Last night I sent her a bunch of spew, descriptions of Dylan, some recurrent themes and imagery from the new book, that kind of crap. What she came up with is pretty awesome on the first try.

It’s not ready yet. I have to buy the stock images, she has to play with the color and make some adjustments, and I apologize for just teasing you like this with nothing to show. But I’m sure we’ll have it ready for you soon. I already feel so much pressure about this sequel that, to be honest, I’m sort of afraid of the cover reveal. Because I just think Robin’s work is so awesome it’s going to make a mob come to my house and chain me to this machine until I finish the story to go with it.

Which Kait suggested might not be a bad thing.

Smartass.

Anyway, I asked Robin if she was inspired by any of the responses in the Find My Dylan contest, and it seemed that her image selection came mainly from what I told her about the story. We agreed that it’s probably best to go with random selection on that too. So when we’re 100% on everything, and ready to reveal the cover, I’ll announce the winner on that as well. Thanks to everyone who helped look for Dylan.

In other news, my husband and I celebrated our 19th wedding anniversary on Tuesday. I’ve now been married half my life. Whew.

NaNoWriMo is going pretty slowly. November is always a bear for me. Just in this week I had my attention sucked away by the awesome upswing of sales, our anniversary, election day means a day of no school, I should have had my knitting day but got sick, then doll club with my mom today, and tomorrow I have a bazillion errands and a social commitment I should honor. So that’s all interfering a bit with my whole BICHOK program, but most of what interferes with that program is me. I got 1230 words today of what is mainly note-form to be turned into proper prose later (well, as proper as we get in the Talent Chronicles), which brought me up just over 4100, I guess. I forget, but I updated it at the website, so it’s probably in the sidebar. The stats tell me I’m behind. Big surprise.

How is everyone else doing?

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Filed under Contests, Heroes 'Til Curfew, Hush Money, love, me me me, nano, NaNoWriMo, progress update, romance, self-publishing, Talent Chronicles, word count, writing

Setups, Flawed Characters, Ginger or Maryann?

Last night I finally got my files uploaded for the print version. They’ve been reviewed, and I had a problem with my title page, so I have to get that fixed this morning, and then upload the interior file again. But it seems like that was the only issue, so I might be able to order a proof copy tonight.

This morning I’m doing some thinking about first acts, how I understand them, and how I approach them. What follows may be a lot of me talking to myself, so don’t let all the yous get to you.

For me, the first part of a book is all setup. The actual story, the thing your characters are going to have to work through—you’re not into that yet. In fact, the point where you actually get into that doesn’t even happen until the end of this section.

Now, you can’t just do nothing here. You can’t just go about describing the characters, their environs, their backstories, etc, and not having anything going on to engage the reader. That’s about as much fun as watching someone else play Barbies. There should be something going on, something the reader is going to want to know more about.

So you’ve got a character (or characters) and a something going on. And part of what the reader wants to know is: how is this something going to affect the character? When is she going to a) either become aware of what’s really going on, and/or b) have to deal with this? And then what’s going to happen? While she’s reading on, to get to that moment when things come together and you come to that point of shoving your character through the door into the story world, you’re feeding her lots of important information about the world and the people in it, you’re planting seeds, doing a little foreshadowing, but, most importantly to me, you’re setting up your character arc.

The stories I love best are those in which a character learns and grows, is changed by the events of the story. I think I probably especially love characters who seem a little hard to love when they’re first introduced.

Take Lost’s Sawyer as an example. (Oh, I’d like to.) He’s not a nice man. In fact, he’s a criminal. Not only is he nasty to everyone on the island with the name-calling and the constant lashing out, he also does things like gathering up and “claiming” as many supplies as he can so that he can profit from everyone’s plight. I think there’s a part of Sawyer that remains inherently selfish at the core, which keeps his character consistent. But in a show in which the challenges presented by the island transform many characters, helping them find the inner hero that may lie within all of us, I think Sawyer is the one whose change is the most dramatic, and therefore the most moving. (Or I could be just blinded by the dimple. It happens.)

Spike is another example of this kind of character. Someone who starts off really enjoying the killing, especially of slayers. Until he falls in love with one, and is changed by that love, and by his story into someone who ultimately—does something spoilery that’s pretty selfless. You know what I’m talking about.

So yeah, I guess I’m into that. Characters need to have a starting off point in which they are somehow less that they’re going to be at the end point. And in a series, in which they’re going to appear in more than one story, that means they’ll need even more room to grow.

They have got to be likable in some way, and often, with flawed characters, that’s a matter of empathy. When a reader talks about characters that seem real, what they’re saying is that they felt empathy, they recognized something that they’ve felt, or at least something that they understand, in something that your character feels. There has to be something they connect to. This is why they tell us to make the character care about something.

Spike had Drusilla, for example, showing that he was capable of some kind of love, even if it wasn’t the nicest relationship to watch. Later, he formed the same kind of obsessive attachment to Buffy. And we really got to see how it hurt him, to be so constantly rejected by her, to feel that she was so unattainable, because he was so unworthy. To feel the hopelessness of that obsession, even if one hasn’t been a vampire obsessed with a slayer who won’t have them–a lot of people can still relate to, and be moved by, those kinds of feelings. And that’s what keeps them tied to Spike as he waits for his moment, his opportunities for growth (internal, not always conscious), and to win the Slayer’s affections (external).

But be advised, it doesn’t work for all readers all the time. If you present flawed characters, not everyone is going to connect, empathize, or wait around for them to get better. Sometimes a reader will be so turned off by something your flawed character did or said that, not only will she give up on them, but the book, and you as an author. Our different tastes, experiences, the issues that can pull us in or make us throw the book at the wall, that’s all part of what it is to be human and sentient, and makes all these varied stories possible.

After all, it’s this variation in taste that makes possible questions like:

  • Angel or Spike?
  • Sawyer/Kate or Sawyer/Juliette?
  • Marvel or DC?
  • Ginger or Maryann?

And where would the internet be without that?

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Filed under books, characters, Hush Money, ideas, love, romance, story structure, Talent Chronicles, tips, writing

Blueprint Series part 13: Battling Threads

Now that we’ve learned how to plot from beginning to end, I’m going to talk about what to do with the subplots and other threads you might have hanging around in your story. (For Part 1 in this series, click here.)

I’m calling these threads because sometimes “subplot” feels like too much word for these. So we might be talking about subplots in the way you think of them, or we might be talking about themes, or just things you want to develop and remember to follow.

A friend recently had a specular, freak-out meltdown over her WIP because she went to look at her outline, and there were points there that didn’t make sense, things that seemed left out or left hanging, and the outline itself was no longer a treasure map but sort of an encyclopedia of Huh?

There were a number of reasons why this happened, but essentially it all came down to her not having spent the time to understand her threads, work them through, and tie them into the plot. Consequently, when she had thrown an idea onto the outline that made sense when she thought of it, she later had no idea how to relate it to the story. And this story was an intrigue that really grew in terms of having a lot of different threads to follow. Complexity is great, scary fields of tangled threads and seeming randomness are not.

It took hours of talk therapy to get all the information out of her. It was all there, and it was mostly all good, it just took a long time to straighten it all out, tie it all together, and show her what she really had. On the bright side, it taught me stuff about the process.

But after all this work, and getting to The End, I don’t think you’re going to like it…

Step 13: Battling Threads

  1. List different the different threads/subplots in the story.
  2. For each thread, list its major plot points, and/or how it relates to the plot point moments in the central plot as described above.

Things you might list as threads:

subplots

themes

the constant battle against the inner demon

your romantic relationship

another relationship the character has, like a friendship

a mystery

something a secondary character is doing that will affect your main plot later in an important way

something going on in the background, like events in the town that enhance the setting

Like some of the things we talked about with regard to characters and setting apply here. Namely relevancy and connections. While you’re working through these threads, trying to build them as plotlines, look for ways to tie them back in to the main story. When the main plot points in your main storyline take place, how are these threads affected? How can you use what you already have to build on these ideas? If you need a distraction for your main characters or a red herring to distract the reader, choose from threads you’re already using rather than making up an unrelated incident.

Not all threads will have all their major plots–or at least, if they do, those won’t necessarily happen on the page. It’s probably not true for all stories that plotlines should interweave. I’m sure there are some that keep seemingly independent storylines going without tying them together until some shocking reveal at the end. If that’s how you roll, more power to ya.

I’d guess the important thing is just to be aware of your plans. Keep good notes for yourself, so that you don’t lose any of those great ideas, and you’re not letting threads slip and lie half developed and forgotten as you work.

After this, the only thing left to do is to actually outline. I continue to do this in Word, just making a list of scenes with brief descriptions or bullets of what needs to be shown and why. I then work through the writing of each of the four parts, stopping in between to make notes on changes or new things that developed during the writing.

After all this, I think I need a bit of a break to finish up my own outline for my current project. If you’ve followed the series, I want to say a special thank you. I hope you’ve found it useful. Please feel free to come back and comment (any ol’ where) and tell me how it’s going.

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Filed under Blueprint, story structure, tips, tools, writing

Blueprint Series Part 11: Fleshing Out Part 3

I hope yesterday’s post helped you start to think through what my CP calls “The Valley of the Shadow of the Middle.” Middles are hard for a lot of writers. Today we’ll be working our way through the second half of this often desolate landscape. (If you’d like to start from the beginning, check out part 1 here.)

Part 3 of the story takes us from the MP (midpoint), which changed everything yet again by providing us with a whole new picture of what’s going on, to the SPP (second plot point), the event that will send your characters hurtling toward the story’s climactic end. Smack in the middle of those two points we’ll place PP2 (pinch point two), a reminder of the antagonistic force that’s more terrifying than ever.

Step 11: Fleshing out part 3

  1. How does the hero react to the Midpoint event? What’s different now?
  2. How does the heroine react to the Midpoint event? What’s different now?
  3. How do the characters take proactive action?
  4. How are the characters fighting their inner demons? How will you show that?
  5. What is Pinch Point 2? How will you show the evolution of the antagonistic force?
  6. How do the characters react to PP2?
  7. Is there a Black Moment in the sense of a break-up or break down of relations between the hero and heroine?
  8. Is there an all is lost moment where everything seems impossible for your characters? How do they react to that?
  9. How does the SPP come about?

In part 3, your protag is a different person than the one we’ve seen before. She’s not doing this for the same consequence avoidance reasons that dragged her into this mess. She’s in it now, and she’s becoming the Warrior we always knew she could be. If she could just learn that lesson, fix that skewed world view that would let her get past her inner demon, you know she’d be kicking some serious antagonist tail. But she’s not quite there yet.

So yesterday we talked about what a big deal the MP was. Something happened that really changed things in the story. How? What’s different now? How does it change your characters, and how will you show that?

Now that your characters have survived the the first half of the story, they’re hardly the wilting pansies they once were. They’re done running and hiding and trying to avoid conflict. What’s their plan of action now?

Remember how I said your protag wasn’t quite ready to win because she has to overcome her inner demon first? Remember to remind the reader about that too. Because this flaw she has is probably going to cause her problems come PP2…

Know who else has survived the story this long? Your antagonist. Remember that you’re keeping the odds stacked against your protag team and as they evolve, so does your antagonist. He’s bigger, meaner, and more bad-ass than ever. And he shows that by whooping your characters’ butts at PP2.

This may lead to an all is lost moment for your protagonist. I know I’m often very moved by those story moments in which the protagonist has taken such a beating, the odds seems so impossible, you almost want them to give up and go home, to stop taking all this punishment in a battle that seems hopeless. But that’s not who your protag is. It’s just not in them to give up (because you’ve got a fabulous climactic ending planned!), so they’re going to have to pick themselves up. Give them a story moment to wallow first, if you want to.

Note to romance writers: So much of romance now is action-oriented. Back in the day, we had a lot of historical and contemporary tales that were mostly two people moving through a story together, and much of their conflict was with each other. Today, with the huge popularity of subgenres like romantic suspense and paranormal romance, it seems wise to follow the advice of those who write in the thriller and suspense genres. But to do it with the kind of character depth, interpersonal drama, and loads of sexual tension that make romance what we love.

The “Black Moment” in romance, is something that happens that breaks your two characters apart, at least for a time. It is often followed by a “dark period” in which the characters brood separately and secretly long to patch things up. If you’re writing romance and working with this popular construction, your Black Moment and dark period will probably happen through this second half of part 3.

And now the SPP. In this scene, we turn that last corner that sends us into the sequence of events that make up your climax. In roller coaster terms, we’re at the top of the big rise, and the SPP is the thing that’s going to push us into a downhill sequence of terrifying and exciting events over which we have no control. (Ok, we do, but this is what a good part 4 often feels like for a reader.)

So what is the Second Plot Point? One way I like to think of it is as the delivery of the missing piece of the puzzle. After PP2, your characters are pretty defeated. It doesn’t seem like they’ll be able to go on. But the SPP brings some information that allows them to act. And through acting, they bring about the story’s final showdown.

And look! A middle! As someone who’s wandered the Dreaded Valley many times, there’s not much that’s more satisfying than laying out a rich middle and seeing my characters’ path running through it. I hope this helps you map out yours. And if you get bogged down and depressed listen to The Middle for a pick me up.

The last of the 4 main parts tomorrow! We’ll be filling in some of the detail that lead us to The End.

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Blueprint Series Part 10: Fleshing Out Part 2

If you’re like me, you have some solid ideas for the beginning and ending of your story, but the middle is a little bit mushy. I’ve found that there’s nothing like a little story architecture to help you set up some intermediate supports and start getting inspired. (If you’d like to see how we got to this point of story development, click here for part 1 of the series.)

Looking at my Blueprint, I can see that this pretty much all comes out of what I learned from author, Larry Brooks. If you haven’t checked out his Story Structure series, bought the ebook, and subscribed to his blog, let me just suggest those steps again. I don’t get anything for mentioning it, Larry doesn’t even know who I am. I just recommend this because it made a huge difference for me in terms of how I work and my ability to finish things. Also, if you don’t know what these terms mean, you might want to read for that, or at least check back to part 5 of this series.

Part 2 starts in the aftermath of the FPP (first plot point) and ends with the MP (midpoint). Halfway between those two points is PP1 (pinch point one). So here’s what we’ve got:

Step 10: Fleshing out part 2

  1. How does the hero react to the FPP event?
  2. How does the heroine react to the FPP event?
  3. What are the characters’ new goals?
  4. What is their retreat and regrouping?
  5. What is their plan to take action and how is it doomed?
  6. What is Pinch Point 1? How does the antagonist force take center stage in this scene of Part 2?
  7. How are the main characters affected by PP1?
  8. How will you move into the Midpoint scene or sequence?

Part 2a might come together fairly quickly for you, once you get these questions answered. Something big happened at the FPP, something so big that it forced your characters into the story world. And because of the stakes you set up in part 1, there’s no going back for these guys. So now what do they do?

Well, first they react to what just happened, because, in some way and to some extent, it was life-altering. So how do your main characters react to the FPP event? Do they pack everything up and leave on their quest? Do they go into hiding? Do they turn to someone for help? Do they do something really stupid? Do they seek out a guru to teach them karate or some other skill that will help them defeat the antagonistic force?

Sometimes, this part of the story is about the protagonist gathering forces. That could mean seeking out a mentor to learn a new skill, going on a quest for an important magical item, finding and assembling a team and possibly training them…

At the FPP, your antagonistic force was really revealed. It shook up your protag’s life. Now she’s got to pull it together, so she pulls back from the situation to think a bit. Write out whatever you can think of about this process of reacting, retreating, and regrouping.

Your protagonist, being a proactive character, then comes up with some sort of plan. Whatever it is, that alone isn’t going to do it. She just doesn’t know enough yet, doesn’t have the experience, doesn’t have what it takes. Because really, if she did, this story would be way short. So where the flaw? How do you see this failing?

Now get ready to put the smackdown on your protag, but here comes PP1. The antagonistic force shows itself once again. Even if your heroine has retreated to the mountains to learn kung fu and recruit ninjas, the reader will still benefit from being reminded how badass the antagonist is, and so will your characters. Be afraid. Be very afraid. We always admire people who are afraid, with reason, and move forward anyway. So right in the middle of part 2, plan how to remind us of your antagonistic force and highlight the weakness of your protagonist.

What does this do to your protag and her team (if she has one)? She might have to do some damage control to keep people from leaving. She might have to get a new idea or new direction. She might have to find her way back from the alternate dimension to which the antagonist flicked her like lint off his robe.

The second half of part 2 is building the sequence of events that will lead to your midpoint. At the MP, something is learned or revealed that changes everything. Maybe it just changes it for reader, or maybe everyone’s in on it. But whatever it is, it puts this whole situation in a different light. The MP brings in the element that turns your protag from a Wanderer into a Warrior. Up until the midpoint, she’s probably been governed more by the avoidance of consequences than anything else. What happens at your midpoint that makes her go, Oh, honey, it’s on now.

Figure out what that is, how to show it, and the sequence of events and scenes that will get you there, and part 2 will complete itself. (Just add writing.)

Tomorrow we’re on to part 3, the second half of the middle. Hope you’ll join me.

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Blueprint Series Part 9: Fleshing Out Part 1

Thanks for visiting part 9 of the series. We’re really going to start fleshing out your story this week. In keeping with the 4-part structure we’ve been discussing, we’ll be going over one story section each day and working on some of the things that will help you build your outline. I’ve added a section into the Blueprint that deals with following up with your different threads and subplots. Check the download page to get the latest version. And if you’re just finding the series, click here for part 1.

Step 9: Part 1

  1. What is the hook or question that happens within the first few scenes?
  2. How will you introduce the hero? What will allow the reader to connect with the hero?
  3. How will you introduce the heroine? What will allow the reader to connect with the heroine?
  4. When and how do the hero and heroine meet?
  5. What is the theme(s) of the story?
  6. How will you allude to the theme(s) in Part 1?
  7. What events will you foreshadow and how?
  8. What are the hero’s inner demons? How will you show that?
  9. What are the heroine’s inner demons? How will you show that?
  10. What’s at stake for the hero? When the FPP happens what does he have to gain and lose?
  11. What’s at stake for the heroine? When the FPP happens what does she have to gain and lose?
  12. Are there other characters introduced in Part 1 who will continue through the story? List them, their relationships to the characters, their functions in the story.
  13. How does the FPP come about?
  14. How does the FPP unveil the antagonistic force?

Part one of your story is all about setup. It’s showing us what your character’s life is like before everything changes and she is pulled into the story proper. This is the place where you’re really doing a lot of planting and foreshadowing. You’re showing us what your characters want and need, what they’re afraid of. You’re planting elements that seem like background now, but may become oh-so-important later. When the FPP comes around at the end of part 1, a lot of these pieces will take on new significance for the reader, as she will automatically be in a position to understand how the FPP changes everything. She’ll know, without having it spelled out in exposition, what your character has to gain, what she’s afraid to lose, and why she must move forward into her story. Because you’ve shown all that in your setup.

Opening Hooks: Questions are important to me at the beginning of a story. What will happen next? Will she or won’t she? Why does she feel that way? How did this circumstance come about? What kind of a world is this, where things like this are possible? … Whatever it is, the books that really draw me into a story are the ones that give me some kind of a question that makes me want to turn the page and find out more.

Perversely, nothing turns me off of a story like feeling strung along and left in the dark. There’s a balance between creating intrigue and creating reader confusion. Good critique partners and beta readers will be invaluable to you in deciding if you’ve done your job right. For now, just remember throw the reader some breadcrumbs and answer some of these questions while you create others.

Getting readers invested: Readers follow your story by identifying with, and investing emotionally in, you characters in some way. Figure out what it is about your characters that will make your reader root for them and want them to succeed, whether it’s some need or trait we all tend to have in common, or something compelling that your character really cares about and needs to accomplish. Once you’ve figured out what that is, remember to find a way to show (not tell) it in your setup.

Theme: Some people hate the idea of theme. I love it. I believe in it. And no, I don’t believe writers always have a theme when writing or planning, but theme emerges all the same. I can usually find one in anything that’s been worth reading. It’s really about the question What is this story about? and the answer that doesn’t just summarize the plot. It could be about finding your place, discovering or embracing who you are, the places where Truth hides–this is the place to think a bit dramatically, I suppose. It’s about what you’re saying, beyond simply telling a series of events. It’s about why you’re passionate about telling this story. You may not know what your theme is at this point, but once you find it, you’ll be able to craft details and dialog to enrich the thematic experience for the reader.

Inner Demons: This goes back to your character arc stuff. These are the things your character needs to get over in order to win at the end of the story. In your setup, you can choose to show us what the character is afraid of and why, or you can save the why for later. You can present us someone who’s so distrustful of others that he’s never going be able to be the kind of team player your characters need to achieve the story goal. You can show us someone who is so beaten down by past failures that they can’t even conceive of trying again. Lots of different kinds of demons to slay out there.

Stakes: FPP’s Happen. Should be a bumper sticker. When yours happens, what’s at stake for the character? She must move forward. Why? What will happen if she doesn’t? What will she gain if she succeeds in gaining the story goal? Of course, she’s reluctant to go forward. Why? What will she lose if she tries and fails? Set it up and show us, so you don’t have to tell us.

Other Characters: Since these are notes you’ll be using to develop your part 1 scenes, it’s a good idea to list all the players you need to introduce, so that you can start thinking about at least giving them a mention or a walk-on in your setup.

FPP: If you don’t have some kind of an idea of how your First Plot Point happens by now, you really should. This is the most important moment of your story. The moment that makes it a story. If you’ve got no idea how it happens, make figuring that out a priority.

You might have introduced your villainous character somewhere in your setup. At the FPP, something else is revealed about him. He’s not just the mean, he’s evil. He’s not just greedy, he’s a demon (literally). He doesn’t just casually hate your main character, he actually has a plan in place to destroy her.  What new thing about the antagonistic force are you going to show the reader through the FPP?

There are a lot of questions to think through here, but that’s what makes Part 1 the easiest chunk to put together. By the time you get all of this stuff answered, it pretty much builds itself. Good luck with it.

Tomorrow, we’ll be on to fleshing out the first half of the middle.

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Blueprint Series Part 5: Main Plot Points

(I’m not sure what happened with the scheduling of this post, but I apologize for the delay and for the fact that it’ll be two today with another one this afternoon.)

If you’ve been following, you’re totally bored with the following:

If you’ve just arrived, I’m doing this series explaining the story blueprint I use. I’ve got a link to the file on my download page–see tab above. Click here for Part 1.

But now it’s over and we can move on to our focus today:

Step 5: Main Plot Points

  1. What is the Second Plot Point?
  2. How does the SPP event or sequence of events force the main character into the climax of the story?
  3. What is the First Plot Point? What is the event or sequence of events that brings the characters into the story world?
  4. What is the Midpoint of the story?
  5. How does the MP change everything? How does it put your characters into attack mode?

That’s it. I’m just asking you to come up with 3 things today. But they’re really important things.

This all comes out of a brilliant series of articles on Story Structure by author, Larry Brooks. Click here for Part 1. Read the whole series, then buy his book on the subject and read some more. If you want to know how to make a series of unfortunate events that makes a story, rather than a pile of them that makes a mess of dreck, reading Larry is great place to start.

Ok, so there’s no sense in me repeating everything I just linked to. So to boil down what you need to know for this part, I’ll explain that we’re talking about a classic 3-Act structure, in which the middle act is broken down into two parts, separated by the midpoint. Because that’s awkward to talk about, for now until the end of time, we’ll be talking about the story in terms of 4 parts. These parts will be separated by 3 key plot points. So the story goes like this:

  • Part 1
  • First Plot Point (FPP)
  • Part 2
  • Midpoint (MP)
  • Part 3
  • Second Plot Point (SPP)
  • Part 4

Now, especially since these are out of order, you’ll probably have a much easier time understanding what I’m asking of you if you go read through the Storyfix series and come back. But I’ll do my best to explain what these things are and include.

Part 1 is the setup of your story. While it will have a something that hooks the reader, things will happen in there that are important, etc, the story hasn’t actually started in part 1. Grasping this, by the way, has been huge for me. In part 1 you’ll need to be introducing most or all of your characters. You’re giving us a sense of where your protagonist is, both in terms of place and place in the world. What is his life like now, before everything changes? What does he need? What does he want? What does he have to lose?

Did I mention that everything changes? That’s your FPP, and it’s the most important moment in the story. This is the thing that pulls your character from where he is and sets him on the path toward his destiny (which is the story’s end). And it’s probably going to be something your character is reluctant to do because, hey, scary, plus there are probably things in his life he doesn’t want to risk. But whatever happens at the FPP is such that he MUST move forward into the story world.

After the FPP, your hero and your story move into Part 2 in which your hero makes an effort but…let’s face it: if he were man enough to take this on, the story would be over. He’s got a lot of work to do. There are some different ways to approach part 2, as failed attempts to deal with the problem, as avoidance, as gathering a team to combat the problem or focusing on training…

Part 2 ends at the MP. And this is a big turning point in your story. There’s something that happens here that puts a different spin on things, shows everything in a new light, changes everything again. Again, endless options and you’ll want to go and read more about midpoint elsewhere. But it’s something that really changes things for your character and puts him into attack mode.

Because that’s what part 3 is about. Your hero really stepping up his game and approaching this problem with a new outlook or commitment or whatever.

Part 3 ends with the SPP. The Second Plot Point is the thing that sets the wheels in motion for the sequence of events that lead to the climax. Sometimes it’s the last piece of the puzzle falling to place. That bit of information the hero was lacking to really go after the villain, whether that’s knowing the villain’s location, discovering his weakness, or the hero finally getting the right size gear to finish his giant mecha warrior robot beast. I don’t know. You figure it out.

I do this backward because, like I talked about in the last post, I need to know that where I started is going to get me to where I’m going in an effective way. I probably either know the FPP or have a good idea of what kind of FPP I need. So I focus on the SPP first, trying to figure out what kind of scene I will need to plunge these characters into the series of scenes that leads to and makes up my climax. From there I can sort of refine whatever idea I had about the FPP to give me a starting point. Then I can work on the MP and try to figure out how things escalate, what big deal will happen in the middle, and how it will change my characters.

The order in which you choose to do this doesn’t really matter. I think it’s really something you work on all at once and keep refining as you work deeper into the story.

If, after reading the Story Structure Series over at Storyfix, you still feel a little unsure of how that works and need more examples, poke around at the site some more. Larry’s also been doing deconstructions of movies as examples of how the structure works and how to recognize the main points. (Then get his book and read it.)

By now you’re getting a good, solid idea about what your story is and how it’s going to play out. You might want to take a little time to let that marinate. Meantime, since you know what it’s about enough to talk about it now, we’re going to go on to some Pitch and Blurb stuff next time.

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