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Writing Fiction

Plot and Structure

Putting the Big Lie to Sleep #

The big lie is writing is a purely natural talent. The truth is fiction writing can be taught and learned. It needs:

  1. Get Motivated. Get a ritual to keep your writing motivation strong.
  2. Try Stuff. Research, take notes, and always look for new things to try.
  3. Stay Loose. Relax, since too much anxiety in your writing makes you freeze up.
  4. "First Get It Written, Then Get It Right." The first draft will not be perfect. Most of the work comes with fixing it.
  5. Set a Quota. Set a word goal to hit every day, and track how often you hit that quota in a spreadsheet.
  6. Don't Give Up. Persistence trumps talent.

What's a Plot, Anyway? #

The plot is obviously what happens. You only need to care about the plot if you want to connect with readers, who will be asking:

Great characters and word choice ultimately falter and won't shine without a strong plot beneath them. This plot should pull the characters into another world or experience, and keep them there.

There are foundational rules that always result in a solid plot. Making it a great plot depends on the author. These can be summed up by the LOCK acronym for Lead, Objective, Confrontation, Knockout

L - Lead #

A lead character should be compelling since we watch them for the whole story. That doesn't mean they're perfect or too sympathetic and should have imperfections too. They need an interesting internal dynamic, such as conflicting values or trying to untangle messes they themselves got them into.

O - Objective #

A character's objectives, wants, and desires are the driving forces of fiction, pushing the plot forward. Can take two forms:

The Lead's main Objective forms the story question: will they get what they want? The main objective must always be essential to the Lead's well-being.

C - Confrontation #

Opposition from other characters and outside forces gives the story more life. This concern for their well-being intensifies emotional involvement. Don't be afraid to put your Lead through some hell.

K - Knockout #

An ending should a knockout victory or loss, not a muddled draw. The knockout works because it has power and is satisfying, like a massive finishing blow in boxing.

No matter how complex the plot becomes, it should always have the base LOCK setup with the Lead character at its core. This makes writing seem formulaic, but it's a formula because it works. Authors can add all their personal spices and touches to the formula to make it their own. These spices are characters, settings, and dialogue. These are where an author's imagination can truly shine.

For dialogue:

Structure: What Holds Your Plot Together #

The plot is the elements, and structure is the timing of when and where to mix them together.

The Three-Act Structure #

  1. Act I is being confronted with and reacting to a problem
  2. Act II is trying to solve the problem
  3. Act II is where we (hopefully) get a resolution and answer

The further you deviate from this structure, the harder it is to keep engaging readers.

Remember: a good novel is a real life with the dull parts taken out.

Beginnings #

Introduce the Lead and connect them to the reader as fast as possible

Middles #

A series of confrontations and battles between the lead and the opposition. Blossoming subplots that mix in complexity and deeper meaning.

Ends #

Gives the resolution, who won and who lost.

A Disturbance and Two Doorways of No Return #

The story starts with the Lead in an ordinary life until something forces a change, disturbing the status quo. Something must make the reader feel there's a threat, even if it's not huge. It promises an interesting story.

The first doorway of no return is after the disturbance. After the disturbance, the Lead can continue with their normal life if they want. They no longer can after passing through the first doorway. The conflict begins and keeps the character there. For example, learning a secret that the enemy seeks to hide by killing them. The Lead will need to dig deep and develop in order to survive.

The second doorway sets your Lead on a confrontation with the enemy, where neither can back out anymore. The true point of no return. Can be a crucial piece of info about the enemy, or a huge setback directly threatening the Lead. Without the second doorway, the struggles after the first doorway will continue indefinitely. Passing through the second doorway means one side has to win while the other loses, and the story must end.

How to Explode with Plot Ideas #

Write from who you are more than simply what you know. You can get inspiration by asking yourself questions like:

For finding good ideas, come up with hundreds of ideas and toss the ones that don't grab you. Nurture and develop what's left. Have a self-brainstorming session and do not censor yourself, just write it all down and have fun. Then assess and keep the ones you like.

Ways to Get Ideas #

Don't rely on drugs, alcohol, or stress.

Nurturing Your Ideas #

Give the idea a hook (the big idea that intrigues readers), a line (a brief, intriguing description), and a sinker (look at the potential negatives)

Narrow down your plot ideas by starting with ones you're passionate about, seeking the ones with the most potential, and trim away any blockers to that potential with precision.

Beginning Strong #

This is an expansion on all the previous points of strong beginnings. Also, be sure to avoid:

Hooking the Reader #

Establish a Bond Between the Reader and the Lead #

Tap into your own emotional memories helps you find the core of your characters. Creating the bond itself requires four dynamics:

Present the Story World #

Show the world and the character's current place in it. Goals related to the story world too.

Set the Tone #

Tones should have some variety throughout the story, but the dominant one should be established early on.

Compel the Reader to Move to the Middle #

By the time the Lead passes through the first doorway, an opposition of some must be established. Even if it's not that specifically known yet. Make the opposition strong, formidable, and still sympathetic to some degree.

Avoid Exposition Dumps #

Don't tell readers something simply because they need it for what happens next.

Middles #

The middle is composed of scenes that gradually ramp up the tension and raise the stakes until the second doorway.

Death #

Good middles can include a form of death constantly threatening the Lead. Can be physical, psychological, or professional.

The Opposition #

The Opposition doesn't need to be evil, it merely opposes the main character.

Adhesive #

An adhesive is a reason for the Lead to stick around, continue fighting the opposition, and a reason for them to fight. Why the Lead and Opposition can't withdraw from the action. The result of this is a middle being full of scenes where the Lead handles setbacks and keeps fighting back against the opposition.

Good sources of adhesive are:

ARM Yourself for Confrontation #

ARM stands for Action, Reaction, More Action.

Each scene needs an action, something for the Lead to pursue which has an obstacle. All scenes can be spiced up with some form of conflict or tension, especially from other characters. It's good for scenes to end with a setback that makes things worse for the character in some way.

The characters then react emotionally (showing it in their own way). They come to a decision and then take more action, otherwise, the plot ends there.

Stretching the Tension #

Dragging out thrilling or emotional moments for all they're worth always hooks readers.

Stretching the Emotional #

Stretch scenes as much as possible in the first draft, don't worry about overdoing it. Revisions can scale them back as needed, which is easier than ramping it up afterward.

Any scene can be stretched, but not every scene can be big and suspenseful. Save that for the most important ones.

Raising the Stakes #

Something important has to be on the line that matters. Why should the reader care? Start with a good Lead and a problem to solve, and ramp up the stakes higher. Three basic stakes come from plot, character, and society.

Plot Stakes #

An outside threat to the lead, like a character seeking to harm them.

Are there physical threats? New forces that join in and make things worse in new ways? Is there a professional duty at stake? What's the absolute worse thing that could befall the lead?

Character Stakes #

What stress the character deals with, the emotional toll it takes on them, and the psychological costs they'll have to bear.

Societal Stakes #

Actions or reactions in society can easily raise personal stakes for the character, and make accomplishing their goals harder.

Get a big list of all the different stakes you can think of in this category. Line them up from least worse to most worse, and aim to have them happen in roughly that order. That way the stakes find ways to keep going up.

Energize a Lethargic Middle #

Trim an Overweight Middle #

Endings #

Endings can make or break any novel. They should feel perfect but still surprise the reader. You need to tie up all the moving threads with the right flourish, and in a way that isn't too obvious.

Knockout Endings have fights that seem to show one side winning, but the other side comes back with a sudden comeback. They often call on moral or physical courage to do so.

The Ah! and the Uh-Oh! #

The Ah! is the Lead's personal resolution once the main story has been wrapped up. It can just be a sign the emotional healing has begun for real.

The Uh Oh! is the opposite, a sense of foreboding. It should foreshadow something horrible beginning all over again and let the reader's imagination fill in the blanks.

Choose Your Ending #

A more complex ending makes it less clear. A good ending could come at a terrible price, or a bad ending could show the Lead on the way to getting something better.

Sacrifice is a powerful theme for endings, especially for a greater moral purpose or for those around them.

For twist endings, quickly think of at least ten twisty endings. Narrow them down, letting them develop in your mind and choosing the best one.

Tying up Loose Information #

Wrap up important loose ends, but don't worry about unimportant ones. But important threads need to be tidied up, even if it takes a few scenes to do so. Resolving less important threads can be fixed by characters explained how it happened. A good way to catch them is having people read the story and see if they have questions.

Last-Page Resonance #

Resonant endings stick with readers afterward. The last impression is the one readers remember most, so it's worth the effort.

Consider the language especially carefully. If you end on dialogue, use an ironic echo or something planted earlier. Otherwise, the final line will feel tacked on. Same thing for a description ending, such as familiar gestures or haunting reminders. You can also sum up a character's feelings in the end but still end on an emotional note.

Avoid the Rush #

Don't rush through an ending out of anxiety to finish the novel, especially with a deadline. Avoid this by:

Scenes #

Scenes are the story's building blocks and are only as strong as the weakest one. They dramatize the disturbances rippling through the characters' lives.

Beats are smaller units within a scene and must be composed together.

Scenes are not summaries. Summaries are shortcuts taken between different scenes and beats. They're never the focus of a scene.

The Scene's Four Chords #

Major Chord: Action Scene #

Action is what the character does to achieve their objective, giving the scene purpose. The purpose is usually a step towards the story goal.

Action always needs obstacles and conflict, which keep the character from their objective. So this scene focuses on the back and forth between the character's actions and the obstacles they face. Each one typically takes the form of a scene's beat.

Action scenes typically end with a setback, or something damaging or disadvantageous to the character later on.

Major Chord: Reaction Scene #

Reaction scenes are the character's emotional reactions to a (likely bad) event. It ends with a decision based on their reaction, which leads to another action scene. Each beat is often a stage in their reaction and deliberation, like internal questions or justifying their decision.

Reaction beats may be mixed into action scenes as well.

Minor Chord: Setup Scene #

Setup scenes and beats are used when needed to following scenes make sense, which is always needed to some extent. It's often in the start and may be added throughout the story too.

To keep setups from being boring, integrate a small problem that must be solved during the setup. It can be an anxious feeling, a fight, or a sudden if small danger.

Minor Chord: Deepening Scene #

Deepening beats (rarely scenes) deepen understandings of characters or settings. Adding it helps, but must not be overdone.

These beats specifically serve to flesh out parts of the novel, showing hidden depths or building relationships. A straight narrative rarely does this.

Get HIP to Scenes #

HIP stands for Hook, Intensity, and Prompt. Having these keeps all scenes strong.

Hook #

The hook snags the reader into the scene and keeps them there. Leading with description and setup damages the hook, even though it feels right to start with this. Begin with the intriguing beats early for the hook, then add the background after. Good hooks include:

Intensity #

The intensity keeps readers in the scene. The root of the intensity is some form of conflict. If not that, tension.

This comes in several forms:

Prompt #

The prompt makes the reader go to the next scene. Don't be afraid to cut the scene down, even if it ends slightly illogically. Sometimes this just makes it more interesting.

The Intensity Scale #

Showing and telling in scenes needs to be balanced, since constantly showing exhausts the reader. The most intensive, stand-out scenes must contrast with the other scenes most in terms of intensity.

Measure intensity on a scale from 0 (none) to 10 (too much). Scenes are never a 0, rarely a 10, and mostly somewhere in between. The intensity level gradually ramps up throughout a scene, and the average intensity rises as the story progresses (with some variation).

Show as much as possible when a scene goes above a 5. When at or below it, lean more on telling than showing (but not entirely). Less intense scenes should focus more on bring readers back to the more intense moments.

The Intensity Scale helps balance a novel, for example, so readers can catch their breath between thrills. It also helps manage the novel's intensity around the key scenes with the highest intensity (usually 4-8 scenes, depending on the length). Get those scenes ramped up fast to the 8-10 range, with transitions a touch below that.

Complex Plots #

Complex plots, when done well, make the plot hit hard.

Know the Theme #

Write your book's take-home value or message in one line. All sub-messages should stem from this. Don't force the theme, and let the characters carry the theme instead through their values and conflicts.

Subplots #

Subplots should be based on the main theme, but be separate from the key narrative. They usually relate to a more personal matter and can end on a good or bad note. This adds depth to the story by showing another layer to the main theme. It makes a statement without the character needing to preach it.

Symbols and Motifs #

These help in moderation and if organically woven into the story, not just stuck there with a "this is a symbol!" sign. They can often appear through writing scenes normally in rich detail, and seeing which pieces stand out.

The Character Arc In Plot #

The parts of character related most to the plot are character development. It's memorable by seeing how much the character(s) have changed. A characters positive change (or negative change that makes them suffer) comes back to deepening the story's theme.

The Character Arc #

This describes changes in the character throughout the story. They should be someone else by the end, a different type of person due to a lesson they now learned. This can be broken down in several parts

The Beginning Point #

This establishes the character's initial state. It doesn't hint at how they will change but should establish the traits that will change in some way.

The Layers #

A character's core self, the part that will likely change in some way, resists change in the following layers (moving outward):

  1. Beliefs
  2. Values
  3. Dominant Attitudes
  4. Opinions

The outer layers are easiest to change and usually change first, creating a ripple effect. This eventually trickles down to affect core beliefs and values, which automatically changes all the others. The outside pressures of the plot create this change, such as Scrooge's varying reactions and defenses against the Ghosts of Xmas.

Impacting Incidents #

These are events and scenes revealing a deeper change within themselves, such as unexpected emotional reactions. They could see references to past words or ideas and reveal how their acceptance of them has changed (keep it subtle though).

Deeping Disturbancess #

This is the final, most brutal and impactful disturbance on the character. More visible signs of their development come through, as they're likely shaken to the core.

Aftermath #

It's not enough to have said they've changed, they need to show actions as a result of this change. How will they act for the remainder of the story as this new character?

The Epiphany #

The epiphany moment of character change shouldn't be overplayed and risk being melodramatic. It's often best to keep them subtle and underplayed, or even not visible played and only revealed in the Aftermath. The nature and extent of the change can be played out to increase the suspense and further hook the reader.

All this can be best managed by plotting out major events in your character's development arc, and their current state/feelings of change during those events.

Plotting Systems #

Two basic approaches to writing a novel are OP (outline people) and NOP (no outline people). NOPs tend to create more original, character-driven stories but also run the risk of running with stories that wind up scattered and empty. OPs have more security in creating solidly structured plots but run the risk of less original plots that limit their characters.

The author advises mixing both approaches together based on what your preferred approach is. OPs could approach their initial outlines with more freedom and risk before introducing more planning and structure later on. Create crazy scenes and see if they can be worked into the story later on.

Regardless of the approach, the author recommends two things to always do:

  1. Check your story against the LOCK method.
  2. Write the back cover copy to help maintain your excitement

Systems for OPs #

Index Card Method #

Focus your creative bursts into writing different scenes onto index cards that you can play with in different ways.

  1. Come up with scenes in random order. Give yourself complete creative freedom
  2. Give yourself a climactic ending scene to shoot for start working your scenes towards that
  3. Figure out what the major scenes are
  4. Start laying out your scenes in order to structure the basic plot. Any story gaps should be represented with blank cards
    • Consider labeling cards relevant to specific threads by color, such as read for character arcs and blue for plotlines
  5. When you get a tentative order together, shuffle the cards and look at them randomly in pairs for a fresh perspective

The David Morrell Method #

This method gets deeper into your reasons why you want to write a story, continually asking "why" about everything from the characters, plotlines, and your reasons for bothering with any of it.

The Snowflake Method #

Google it.

Revising Your Plot #

The first draft exists to be rewritten.

Write the First Draft #

Set a word quota and focus more on letting your imagination guide your hands in the writing. Don't worry about getting it exactly right and fine-tuning as you write. Explore more and let yourself go in different directions. At most, let yourself edit a little of what you wrote the previous day. Celebrate once you're done even if it looks like a mess. Then follow these editing steps:

1. Let it Cool #

Focus on writing other things for 2-3 weeks.

2. Get Mentally Prepared #

Remind yourself rewriting will make your novel better each time you do it. Strategic rewriting is what the pros do. Print out the novel on paper to recreate how readers experience it,

3. Read it Through #

Read it as fast as possible, taking little to no notes. Focus on getting an impression of the story. Try a system to know what to come back and change without getting caught up in details. An example system is:

The first read-through is about finding bigger questions about your novel.

Think of new plot summaries based on any resonating points. Then double-check all the points on the narrative structure this book has already discussed.

4. Brood Over Your Review #

Take 5-7 days to reflect on all the questions you asked and plot changes you've played with. Take brief on your brooding as you go.

5. Write a Second Draft #

You may write it all from scratch or cut and paste sections of content. Find what works for you.

6. Refine #

Walk away for another week before starting to tighten up all the details relating to plot, characters, and the like. At this point the story is solid, and these steps help all the elements shine through.

Some lines you may love so much, even if they're less about serving the story and instead make the reader aware of the author. If so, kill your darlings and cut these lines.

7. Polish #

Go through more of the granular details one more time for extra shine.

Common Plot Problems and Cures #

Problem: Scenes Fall Flat #

All scenes need the external tension of action or internal tension from characters. Even quiet scenes need an undercurrent "it's not what it seems" tension.

A solution is The Hot Spot. Every scene needs a moment or exchange that's the focal point. Otherwise, cut it. Then make sure all preceding paragraphs contribute to this hot spot in some way.

Problem: Mishandling Flashbacks #

Flashbacks can disrupt a book's forward momentum, making the reader impatient.

You can use alternatives to flashbacks called "back flashes." These can be in the form of dialogue or thoughts. These are a more subtle, stronger choice for smaller flashbacks.

Problem: The Tangent #

Your writing may grind to a halt because you're unsure of what you're writing and want to go in another direction. It can be ignored, or you can chase the tangent down in a new document. Visualize them to see if they're worth chasing, and stick with a summary version of it in the start. Then walk away and come back to them later to see if they're worth keeping.

Problem: Resisting Characters for the Story #

Imagine your characters in different situations with their own plot twists and see how it plays out for them. Imagine they're going for a night on the town, arrive somewhere (where exactly?), and at some point, they hit an obstacle like a drink in the face. How does the scene play out? What happens when they go home after? What is it like in their home?

Let your characters drive these mini-stories, and immerse yourself in as many details and sensations as possible. Fleshing out your characters in this way helps you see when they may genuinely be pushing the plot in another direction.

Problem: Slogging #

Writing feels like a muddy slog.

Go Back #

See if there are parts you've already written you feel you need to improve. Edit down and replace shaky scenes. Or take plot points that aren't sitting right (a character surviving an accident) and changing it entirely (they die).

Jump Cut #

Jump to a future part of the story, whether you planned it or not, and start writing from there. Then jump back to the present and fill in the gaps.

Open a Dictionary at Random #

Pick two random, interesting words from the dictionary. Write something that puts those words together. Get the mind moving again and channel that inspiration into your story.

Problem: Shut Down #

Your mind and imagination shut down entirely.

Recharge Your Battery #

Let yourself write badly, and you can edit things to be better later. Know you'll likely feel like crap writing the first draft, as all authors do, so you're not really a fraud.

Relive Your Scenes #

Put yourself in the shoes of the characters living the scenes. Imagine you're one of them and feel their emotions. Let the characters improvise naturally. Double check the scene beginnings and endings.

Recapture Your Vision #

Think about your broader vision and goals for this novel. What change you want it to have. Keep it in mind as a motivator.

Tips and Tools for Plot and Structure #

Show and Tell #

Showing is virtually always better, although it does take balance depending on how intense the scene is. Avoid a common mistake of "telling in the form of a list."

Soap Opera Technique #

Work in different soap opera plot techniques:

  1. Never resolve anything too fast. Raise questions and delay answers.
  2. Cut away from scenes in a way that leaves readers hanging onto it, cut away from the next scene the same way, and so on to infinity.

The Plot Journal #

Write a journal entry walking through potential plot events. Raise questions to possibly answer later. Ask about potential plot branches.

The Raymond Chandler Guy-with-a-Gun Move #

If a scene slogs down, send in someone with a gun (or any other surprising element). Injecting a surprise help disrupt when an author is trying to control the story too much. You may remove the surprise, but it at least makes you see the story fresh again.

Keep a list of possible surprise elements to inject into the story when needed.

The Chapter Two Switcheroo #

If the first chapter is full of exposition, drop it entirely and start with chapter two. Drop in info from the previous first chapter only as needed.

The Step-Back Technique #

After finishing writing up to the end of Act 1 (the first doorway), step back and see all the current elements. The rest of the story is driven by the elements you've set up so far. Punch them up if needed, otherwise, they may not be enough to get you through the book.

Unanticipate #

People anticipate cliches, so your first instinctual plotline will likely fall for them. Write 3-5 plot alternatives and keep brainstorming from there, even if they're stupid. They could lead to something good anyway.

Invert the "Rifle Rule" #

Anything used as a crucial plot point should be planted earlier in the story, perhaps much earlier. It's better done when subtle, so when the reveal is done it's more surprising.

Stampeding Buffalo Technique #

Let your thoughts and plot ideas run wild like stampeding buffalo. You don't need to precisely control their direction, but hollering from the side to prod them in the general direction you want them. Mostly just watch them go.

A Writer's Notebook #

Keep free-form notes on plot ideas, character descriptions and names, potentially useful research, plot summaries, and any important questions about your story. You can work on one or many stories without actually writing them.

Genre Tips #

Mystery #

Thriller #

Romance #

Sci-fi and Fantasy #

Resources