Monday, April 28, 2014

If the Plot’s the Thing, then What’s the Plot?

In order to help new writers get started, I’ve been talking about the basic building blocks of the novel. I started with the three “ins” to the story – protagonist, setting/subject matter, and plot. Then there’s the list of characters who populate your fictional world, and the roles they play for your protagonist.

Now it’s time to look at plot points. Plot points should seem obvious, but they’re not. Some writers seem to have trouble differentiating between a plot point and an event. It helps to know exactly what plot is. So what is plot?

Simply stated, the main plot involves the actions your protagonist takes in order to meet her goal. (A subplot is usually something emotional that ties into the main plot.) For example, a typical chick lit plot might be something about a baker who’s working to open her own cupcake shop. The subplot would be something romantic… maybe the owner of the shop next door is driving her crazy. (The subplot usually addresses the protagonist’s emotional needs – maybe she needs to stand up for herself for once in her life.)

For this story, a plot point would be anything that gets our protagonist closer or further away from meeting her goal. Finding the perfect spot for her shop would be a plot point. Losing out on the space to her old rival from high school would be a plot point. Attending a bachelorette party for her brother’s fiancĂ© would not be a plot point (unless something happens there that furthers the cupcake story.)

Unless the protagonist meets a woman with a new icing recipe at the bachelorette party, the party is just an event. It may be funny, it may reveal a side of the protagonist that you’ve never shown before, (but readers need to see she’s great at karaoke!) but it’s not a plot point.

Why is this an important distinction? Why does it matter whether a certain scene or sequence forwards the plot, or if it just amuses the reader?

There’s a popular saying in editing that the writer must “kill your babies.” This saying derives from the fact that scenes like that karaoke bachelorette party tend to be some of the writers’ favorites. But if they don’t forward the plot, they either need to be reworked or deleted. If you have a scene that can be removed without any impact on the rest of the story, it doesn’t belong in the novel.

Novels heavy with events make a book feel disorganized and aimless. The pointless scenes clutter up the book, slow down the pacing, and confuse the reader.

Writers who outline have a better shot at avoiding this trap than “pantsers” do. Because the outline generally only includes scenes that further the plot, karaoke bachelorette parties do not make the list.

Many “pantsers” do not outline because they get overwhelmed. They have a plot and some really good scenes in mind, but that’s it. They start writing because they’re afraid if they don’t get the prose down, they’ll forget those scenes. And they think that the process of writing will reveal the rest of the book to them.

If this is your process, and it works, good for you! If not, check back in next week. I’ll show how to turn a plot idea into a workable outline.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The People in Your Neighborhood (the neighborhood of your new novel, that is)

Last week I talked about the three “ins” to your story – protagonist, setting/subject matter, and plot. Establishing those three factors, along with genre and ending, give new writers a solid, albeit brief, outline for their first work.

Now what?

Although there are some writers (we call them “pantsers” because they write “by the seat of their pants”) who like to dive right into chapter one with only a few of those factors determined, others like to know more about what exactly they’re getting into. The plotting process, especially for new writers, can help get over that nauseated feeling that comes after typing “chapter one” and facing a blinking cursor.

One fun place to start is by coming up with the cast of characters that will populate your novel. This doesn’t mean creating a list of actors who’ll play them in a movie (although that’s also fun, and something some writers like to do in order to get a picture of them in their heads while writing), but the type of people they’ll be interacting with as they pursue their goals.

Who’s first? Every protagonist has to have an antagonist – the person whose goal it is to stop your protagonist from reaching his goal. So if your protagonist’s goal is to win the PTA election, the antagonist can be the other person who’s running for PTA president. It can be. It could also be the protagonist’s child, who hates the idea of his dad being PTA president and deliberately works to sabotage the election.

The antagonist can also fill other roles in the protagonist’s life. She can be the best friend, the mom, the love interest as well. A protagonist who’s trying to get pregnant but married to a guy who doesn’t want to have kids has the love interest and antagonist all in one person. Of course in this case you might want to add an additional love interest – maybe the hunky fertility doctor who is just dying to get her pregnant. Still, it gives the writer more characters by having an antagonist who only performs that one role.

Other characters can be determined by looking at the genre of the novel. The protagonist’s best friend is a necessity in comedic fiction, but not necessarily in mysteries or thrillers. Is the protagonist young enough that her parents are still living? Are they independent, or do they need care? Does the protagonist have children? Family tends to be more important in dramas and comedies, but even in mysteries and thrillers, having an established family raises the stakes for the protagonist.

A love interest, though, is important in any genre. Even if the protagonist is married, the relationship with the spouse figures into the plot. Some lucky protagonists get more than one.

The list so far: the protagonist, the antagonist, the best friend, the love interest, possible family members. These are the stars of the novel. But a novel with just four to seven characters isn’t a novel; it’s a short story. So who else is out there?

There’s the “mentor” character popular in “hero’s journey” type stories. The most famous mentor was Obi-Wan Kenobi to Luke Skywalker. There might not be a place for a man with a white beard and flowing brown cape in your novel, though. But any person in your protagonist’s life who has struggled with and achieved similar goals can be a mentor. A boss at work? His son’s teacher? Look at the characters who populate your protagonist’s world, and see who can be promoted from just filling a function to actually making a difference in your protagonist’s life.

On the opposite end of the “mentor” spectrum is the “shadow” character. The shadow is the person who took one of the paths your protagonist is contemplating, and is much the worse for wear because of it. If your protagonist is married but flirting with, say, that hunky fertility doctor, the shadow character is the one who is having a series of affairs. Since your protagonist has more than one possible choice, there can be more than one shadow character. (If you’re too obvious about what you’re doing here, though… well, it’ll just be too obvious.)

Each of these characters are the protagonists in their own lives. That means they have their own antagonists, love interests, families, mentors, etc. These characters can also play a role in your protagonist’s life.

The building blocks for that first project are the protagonist, plot, setting/subject matter, and cast of characters. Once the new writer has sketched out a brief list of these supporting characters, plot points seem more obvious. But what is a plot point, and how do you build it? How do you differentiate a plot point from just another event? That’s next week’s subject.