Having Problems with Your Plot?

question marks man in circlePlot problems?

Here is a tool that may prove helpful. Steven James presented this material at an intensive novel writing retreat I attended.

Whether you’re an outliner or an organic author, these simple yet intriguing questions will get your creative juices flowing.

The questions open doors into areas of our story we may not have explored before and will lead us to more compelling stories.

What would this character naturally do in this situation?

Believability is the first priority. If our character does something he would not naturally do, it will the strain the reader’s investment in him and in our story.

For example, say our character is an inspector with the National Transportation Safety Board. What’s the first thing he would do at the scene of a plane crash? Would he ask where is the nearest Starbucks? Or would he ask if the black box has been found or if there are any survivors?

Or, he’s an ER doctor and the paramedics have brought in a victim of a gunshot wound. Would he ask when the next available tee time is? Or, would he assess the patient’s need for immediate surgery?

If the reader notices our character is acting unbelievably, another character must also notice it and comment on it. Otherwise, our story loses credibility.

How can I make things worse?writer's block 2

Escalate the tension by throwing more obstacles at our character. Increase the tension to keep the reader interested. It has to be believable.

Say my story involves terrorists taking over a nuclear power plant and holding the staff hostage. How can I make things worse? Here are some examples:

They strap bombs to the core.

There is a group of school kids there on a field trip.

They start killing the hostages.

The daughter of the chief government negotiator works at the plant.

She’s aiding the terrorists.

The key is to avoid coincidence because this will destroy believability. Everything must build on something that happened before.

ShockHow can I end this in a way that’s unexpected and inevitable?

Readers don’t want endings to come out of nowhere. The ending needs to be natural and inherent to the story. We want the reader to be surprised and satisfied.

In my novel, Journey to Riverbend, I established throughout the novel that my protagonist believed he killed his father and that he would never kill again. At the end of the story, I put him in the position where, to save someone, he has to kill the villain. The ending was inevitable yet surprising and satisfying to the readers. It was also believable because of the foreshadowing I layered in.

Steven James writes, “The first question will help focus your believability. The second will keep it escalating toward an unforgettable climax. The third will help build your story, scene by twisting, turning scene.”

What are some techniques you use to make sure your reader is engaged in your plot?

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Layer Your Cakes

Lately, God has been speaking to me quite clearly. He keeps repeating the word “miracles”. As I am currently dealing with some tough life stuff, this word is especially meaningful. Obviously, God speaks to each person differently, and He reveals truth in many ways; although, His truth always remains the same. One way that God speaks to me is by repeating a particular word, idea, or theme. In this particular instance, the word “miracle” has come through several different people, one email, and the book of Matthew which I am currently reading through for my devotions.

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As I read through new manuscripts, something that always makes me take another look is a tightly layered story. For example, let’s say that you are writing a story about a family provider. In what ways could you show that character as a provider? Perhaps you could give him/her the last name of “Baker”. You would definitely show that character actually providing for the family: buying groceries, cooking meals, earning money. You might highlight the antagonist doing something in direct opposition to your main character, so he or she, instead of providing, would take away: steal money, ruin a relationship, work as a tax collector (no offense to any tax collectors out there).

Beyond emphasizing a particular character, you also want to pay attention to the language that you use. Perhaps choose a word or two, or an idea, to repeat throughout your story. Trace that word/idea over the course of your story during significant moments that will move your manuscript forward.

Also, integrating key setting elements is important. You might focus in on a particular building, almost making it a character. Then, destruction could come to that building during the climax of your story. Or the building could undergo a transformation, again, highlighting the character of it.

And layering plot throughout story is important as well. Create scenes that build on each other and move the reader forward in exciting ways.

Finally, when you have done several revisions on your story, then the layering part becomes fun. Include your audience! If you are in a critique group, pay attention to their likes and dislikes: reference their favorite TV show, name a character after one of their children, reference something from their current WIP. Doing this last part really only speaks to one or two people, but I have always found it to be the most enjoyable part of story writing. Plus, it will make certain readers think that you are only writing for them which is one of the amazing wonders of story writing.

When you have worked through so many drafts, however, there comes a time when you must stop layering. Yes, it is fun to trace a theme throughout your novel, read it from start to finish, and come to the end and think, “Wow, I am good!” However, you don’t want to overemphasize a particular theme. Your readers are smart. Encourage them to dig for the themes within your story.

Layered cake tastes good as long as their is only so much frosting separating the layers. Don’t make it too sweet.

Question for you: What layers do you currently have in your WIP? Are there others that you could add?