Saturday, April 16, 2011

Scaling Mt. Plot Line

In my April 13, 2011 blog, I addressed/suggested ways to create compelling characters.  In this blog, I've elected to focus on crafting an interesting plot.

An interesting plot or compelling characters; which is more important in writing? Obviously, this is/should be a rhetorical question as a writer should painstakingly focus on BOTH aspects while crafting works of fiction (unless of course you're a certain author of vampires who's somehow successfully managed to completely throw the whole concept of a plot line under the bus, repeatedly running it over until it's rendered a flat, mutilated mess).  Unfortunately, SM isn't the only author out there with a limited attention span only allowing them to focus on one aspect of composing a novel.  Many authors believe that the charaters in the story are what carries it and that their readers will completely ignore the absence of any real, tangible plot or one that is so insipid a text book would be more interesting.  This phenomenon is seen quite a bit in the Young Adult genre. 

On the other side of the coin, still many authors tend to focus on plot lines more than the characters for fear their audience, mainly adults in this case, will surely scrutinize a poorly constructed plot over lackluster characters.  Very rarely do you find an author who writes with both aspects in mind and with obvioulsy equal time and attention devoted to each one.  J.K. Rowling, for example, is one of those authors.

Here are some ways that authors can go about creating a captivating plot:

1.  Graphs, Charts and Outlines-This is a clear case where I should be taking my own advice. Personally, I hate composing these.  Yet, despite this fact, I must conceded they are extremely helpful.  Outline, outline, outline.  An outline (or chart or graph whichever floats your boat) is a tool used to figure out where you want your story to begin, climax and end.  It includes all the key elements in your story as well as pertinent sub-elements that form the stepping stones to take you where you're going. Essentially, your entire story is laid out naked before your eyes ready for scrutiny and the discovery of any potential plot holes.  Your first set of revisions can actually also be done at this stage with simple nips, tucks or all out plastic surgery saving you a heap of grief in the long run.

2.  Imagination-This is one of those "duh" examples but I'm using it anyway.  We all have an imagination.  Some of us just harness it better than others. In developing a plot line, let your imagination run rampant.  Don't be afraid to try new things and live a little (cough *Nicholas Sparks* cough). After all, when else will you be able to sail across the Pacific, journey to a mythological land, or have conversations with animals all while completely sober?

3.  Be open minded-Don't close yourself off to revisions or possibilities that weren't conceived with your original plot idea.  Consider your initial idea a lump of soft clay.  Initially, you decided to mold a flower pot, but half-way through, you notice it's sagging off to one side and it's becoming painfully obvious that it will never hold any water.  Do you keep molding the pot, say screw it and let it hardended into an ugly, deformed pile of junk?  Of course not.  The flower pot idea isn't working so you change plans and mold a cute little tea cup instead.  The same should be done with your plot lines.  If they don't work, fix them. 

4.  Reality Novel Writing-Have you ever heard the saying "real life is stranger than fiction"?  Well, sometimes there's a hint of truth to that (except if it involves sitting on your ass, with your hand in a bag of Cheetos watching Ghost Adventures--don't judge).  Take some of the more devastating, humorous, or important events of your life and write about them.  Now, change the characters' names and the setting.  Shazam, you now have the makings of a plot line for a novel.   See how easy that was.

5.  Fix or Adapt an Existing Story-For example, how many variations of Romeo and Juliet are there?  Answer:  A crapton (yes, that's an actual unit of measurement).  Recently, the story of Little Red Riding Hood was re-written, re-tooled and re-made to be much more interesting and relevant to the 21st Century with the movie/book Red Riding Hood.  Just because a story has been written before doesn't mean it can't be rewritten and improved upon.  Of course, if  you're going to do this, just make sure it's an original storyline and that you're only borrowing concepts and not committing all out plagiarism.

6.  Play God-Make your character's lives a living hell.  Keep lovers from reuniting; maintain a never ending conflict; give your characters impossible obstacles to overcome.  I've read many articles that have stated that an author should ask themselves "how can I make this situation worse"?  Find a way and do it.  You'll not only build up to an explosive climax, but you'll also take your readers on one hell of a ride in the process; a ride of which will take them a while to recover from.

7. Know your plot-Do not create a plot you're not going to be able to carry out.  The beautiful thing about fiction is that it's, well, fiction.  There's no truth to it and you can bend the hell out of facts in the process.  However, there's a fine line between genius and ridiculous and facts can only bend so much until they break into pieces. Don't let your story break apart on you.  If you find that you  have a somewhat complicated plot, do your research.  For example, if you're writing a story that takes place in the Prohibition era, research the Prohibition era. Chances are your reader already has.

Building a Plot Line is Like Scaling a Mountain

The very basic of plots are much like scaling a mountain.  In the beginning, you start out level with both feet firmly on the ground.  The higher you climb, the more the tension builds until you reach the climax, or peak of the mountain. As you begin to descend the mountain, the conflict slowly winds down until resolution is reached back where you started on the ground.

Plot Lines are essentially broken down into six levels:

1.  Exposition-This level gives the readers the basic information they need to carry with them throughout the entirety of the novel.  It includes all the background information on the characters, the setting and sets the plot into motion.  As important as this level is, it's even more important not to dwell on it as too much information can bog the entire story down.

2.  Inciting Moment-This is probably the most important level as it connects the situation the charactes are part of in the beginning of the story to the end of the story.  The inciting moment begins the action and sets in motion the events that carry out the plot focussing on character and audience suspense. In Romeo and Juliet, the inciting moment occurs when the two meet for the first time.

3.  Rising Action-The basic conflict is complicated by related secondary conflicts (sub-plots) all of which serve to make the protagonist's life a living hell.

4.  Climax-The climax is the culmination of levels 1-3.  It's where the shit hits the fan and the characters' lives are altered in irreparable ways--at least they should be.  For an example of anti-climatic, read Breaking Dawn.

5.  Falling Action-Any conflict(s) between the protagonist and the antagonist (villian, pain in the ass)  slowly unravels with the protagonist having either won or lost.  A final moment of suspense may be added to fog the final outcome making the reader doubtful as to who came out on top, forcing them to read through to the resolution. In a series, this event may be dragged out with no final resolution being reached until later installments.  Therefore, instead of a mountain, you'll be faced with several large hills.

6.  Resolution-The End.  All conflicts have, hopefully, been resolved leaving the author with very little, if any, questions.  Sometimes an author, to be an asshole, will completely end at a cliff-hanger leaving the readers to guess what the hell happened (think Sopranos finale).

In my next blog, I'll address the differences and advantages of writing in third person vs. first person point of view.

Finally, I'd like to give a shout-out to my Denmark reader(s).  I have absolutely no idea who you are or how you found me, but I'm happy you did.  Hell, I almost have as many views from you as I do from my own country which in some ways is kind of sad.

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