Plotting Your Story.
Every story, be it a 500-word short-short story of a 200,000 word epic, has -
This is known as classical novel structure when the book is divided into these three parts with the following 'weighting' -
This structure was first defined by no less a person than Arisitotle and has remained the classic structure for a novel ever since. So, now we have given names to these three parts, what do they in fact contain?
The Beginning: In this section of the book you should introduce all your main characters, set the scene as far as geographical location and period, include all necessary background information. Most important of all, you should start the story. This might sound obvious but many novels written by beginners tend to focus almost solely on background information at the start, often going on for many pages. It is essential in your book that you get the 'hook' in as soon as possible - or you risk losing the reader's interest altogether and they will never find out just what happened in the rest of it!
So get the story going. Define your lead character, introduce his or her crisis and let the reader know what your lead's story goal is as soon as possible - I'd say in any event no more than two thousand words in - sooner if practical.
The Middle: Dreaded by many writers, the middle portion of your book is the longest at around half the total length. It is essential in this portion to keep the story progressing by driving the lead's storyline forward and introducing obstacles, complications and surprises to throw your lead character into turmoil. In this section your book should develop all characters and, by the end of the section, be ready for the events to happen that will lead to your book's conclusion.
Concentrate in this section on maintaining tension in your storyline and thoroughly developing sub-plots. You're setting the stage for the grand finale so this section must convince the reader that the ride will be worth it!
The End: In this, the last quarter of your book, your storyline must reach its conclusion. This of course is the success of your lead character in attaining his or her goal and resolving the crisis that occurred right at the start - the villain is caught, the bomb defused, the kidnapped girl is rescued - or whatever your crisis has been.
These three sections should flow seamlessly into each other as your story progresses. It would be a bad fault if your book literally had three distinct parts, noticeable as being so by your readers. These three sections exist only to assist your in structuring your story and for no other reason.
A very important part of the plotting process is deciding how long your book is going to be. You may wonder why - or indeed if - this matters. After all, a book is a book, isn't it? Well, yes it is but - remember I was talking about writing books you like to read? Do this for me: next time you visit the bookstore, have a look at new books in your chosen field. Chances are that they will all be about the same thickness. Try this out as well: do a rough word count. To do this, count the number of words on a few lines of randomly-chosen pages and get an average. Let's suppose that number is 14. Then count the number of lines per page (even blank ones). Say this is 30. Then multiply this by the number of pages in the book - say 300. That gives you a word count of 14 x 30 x 300 = 126,000 words. Quite a doorstopper! Numbers of course will vary with genre. Try to do this with at least half a dozen books within your genre, add up the total word count and divide it by the number of books you have looked at. This gives you a very good idea of the length of your book.
What's the reason for doing this? Answer: publishers a) know this length of book sells well within its genre b) this length of book will fit neatly into store racks and bulk cartons and c) readers of this genre have come to expect books of about this length.
Now I know this seems in some ways crass and pretty much opposed to the whole idea of artistic creativity. Tough. We live in the real world and I did say this ebook was about How To Be A Writer - not just how to write. Publishing is a tough business and you must be businesslike in your approach to giving publishers a product that they can sell. If they feel they can't sell it, they won't publish it - no matter how good it is. Period.
It's also a good idea to send a letter to publishers within your chosen genre asking for their requirements. They often offer guidelines - for example, Mills & Boon are very specific in their requirements and will send you them quite happily. After all, they don't want you to waste their time - or yours! If all else fails, give them a call. It may take a bit of getting through to the right person but it's worth it.
Right. Now you know about novel structure and how long your book should be. Time now to plot it out!
Plotting methods vary greatly. Some writers do it 'on the fly' - literally making it up as they go along. These writers tend to fall into two polarised groups - the experienced and highly successful or the inexperienced and very unsuccessful. Why? Answer: to write like this and do a good job of it takes monster talent and a lot of experience. However, if you're not Tom Clancy, Robert Ludlum or Wilbur Smith - forget it. Writers such as these have had decades of experience. You have not. Trust me on this one.
So if you can't just 'write your book', what do you do?
Let's look at a house. What is a house? It's a pile of bricks, timber, pipes and wiring. That's it, more or less. Yet if someone presented you with this conglomeration of bits and pieces and said 'there's you house' - you'd think they were either crazy or playing a rather bad joke. However, if you had a plan to work from, tradesmen to call on - you'd get your house. Point? A story plotted out (as it were) brick by brick is a) easy to write and b) something you will actually finish. And that's the important thing. Don't believe me? Go ahead and give it a go. Then come back when you're bogged down somewhere around the middle or have so many plot flaws you chuck the thing in the bin.
Hello again! Right, wasn't I? Now I'll show you how I do it. It's not the only way but it works for me and countless others.
This method of plotting relies on breaking your story down into easily manageable parts - a bit like scenes in a play. Each 'scene' is written as a working piece where you tell yourself what is going on, so that when you come to the actual writing you have your storyline all plotted out before you. If you are using viewpoint writing (see the included articles below), each scene is written from that character's viewpoint - i.e., through their eyes. It's handy also to write down where this particular piece of your story is taking place, and when. How it works is like this:
Scene '#' - Jim (lead character) learns that Ben (opposition) is trying to get him fired from his job so that he can be promoted. Jim faces up to Ben about this and an argument ensues resulting in a fight between the two. Jim beats Ben badly but is stopped by Alan, his boss, who fires him on the spot. Jim storms out in a frustrated rage.
Place '#' Time'#' Day '#' (replace '#' with your own date and timeline etc.)
What has been achieved here is an outline of the action that takes place between Jim and Ben, together with the result. It seems that Ben has succeeded in his aims, albeit in a roundabout way! When writing the scene, it will be 'viewed' from Jim's standpoint alone and the action described as it happens.
So there's a piece of action. If your next 'scene' stays with Jim, you can then write about his reaction to the first 'scene':
Scene '#' - Jim arrives back home to find Penny (romantic involvement) waiting for him. Hew tells her what has happened and how he fears that Ben will take further action against him for the beating he has received. He asks Penny what she thinks he should do about this.
Place '#' Time '#' Day '#'
There's no need to type in 'lead character' and so on - I've just done this for purposes of clarity. In your next 'scene' you could either continue with Jim's viewpoint as he takes action to try to sort things out, or you could shift viewpoint to show, say, Ben gloating at his success and nursing his bruises!
These are the two basic types of 'scene'. One is active, the other reflective, or 'action' and 'reaction'. Each active scene should show the viewpoint character aiming to complete a short-term objective - in the case of the above, it was Jim's determination to find out what Ben was up to. He failed in this - badly - resulting in him being fired. Once the active sequence is complete, the reflective 'scene' can start. Jim will, in this 'scene', reflect on what has happened and decide on his next course of action. Simple!
Of course it's not that simple. The above sequence is a very basic way of showing how this type of plotting works - your story will have to be a bit 'deeper' than this if it is to succeed! However, this method works excellently and I would advise plotting the whole book in this fashion - do not start the actual 'writing' until you have your book completely plotted in this way. The two main advantages to this are:
You can leave off work at any time and restart from the 'scene' you had been working on with only the briefest of recaps.
Any plotting errors - timelines, character flaws, factual bloopers and so forth - are much easier to recognise when working this way.
This method of working may seem long-winded - after all, you're plotting your entire book before you have written a creative word. Again, all I can say is -trust me. I have used this method. I know it works! I also know it can seem a drag plotting out each little 'scene' and you certainly will heave a sigh of relief when it's done but - just wait until you start actually writing . . .
Believe me, the words will flow from your pen like magic. Instead of having to think all the time about 'what happens next' and so on, you'll simply write it as you already know, in detail, exactly what happens next! No mental 'ums' or 'ahs' - your creative writing will hit top gear, with nothing to stand in its way. Believe me, it's amazing how fluent your writing becomes when you know exactly what to write about!
Articles on Viewpoint Writing
Below are a couple of articles I wrote not too long ago on the subject of viewpoint writing. As they are recent and the method doesn't change, I saw little point in re-writing them for the sake of it. Please read them through - you should find them most helpful.
Viewpoint Writing 1: Seeing Through Your Character's Eyes.
Of the many different writing styles, viewpoint writing is probably the one that works best for aspiring writers - but what is it?
Viewpoint writing is used extensively in modern novels, especially ones that contain fast-paced action. As its name suggests, it's written from the active character's viewpoint, telling the reader what the character sees, how they feel, what they know, and so on. It's also quite a large subject and for this reason I'm splitting it over several articles. In this first section we look at seeing through your character's eyes.
Maybe you think this is easy. Well, it is - up to a point. It's surprising, though, just how many writers unconsciously lose control of what they are writing and wander off into other writing forms. In viewpoint writing it is essential that you, the author, are 'not present' in the scene you are describing. What does that mean? Put simply, you must never, ever use phrases like 'little did he know that later...' or 'he had no way of knowing that the killer was just next door'. Why?
By writing intrusive sentences like the ones above, the illusion of experiencing the story through the character's eyes - as it happens - is shattered. You're reminding the reader that you, the author, know exactly what's going to happen and that this is, after all, just as story. When readers pick up a work of fiction, even though they know full well that it is just that - make-believe - they enter into what's called a 'state of suspended disbelief'. Now this isn't some weird mental condition. It just means that, while reading your book or short story, they're quite happy to accept that Captain Jake 'shoot-'em-on-sight' Bullet of the 6th. Precinct is indeed a real person. Why else do people happily read fantasy fiction? They know it's not real but are willing to forget that in order to enjoy the story. The last thing they want is to be reminded that it's not real - hence viewpoint writing.
Let's run with Jake Bullet. He's just about to enter a bar where he goes on a regular basis. What he doesn't know is that there's a gunman waiting for him. How can this be written? Well, for a start you don't describe the bar. Jake knows it well and he would only really pick up on something different. So this is wrong -
'Jake walked into the bar and took a seat at one of the barstools. He looked at Henry, the barman, who was a big guy and looked as if he'd been in a few brawls. The mirror behind Henry revealed the other drinkers who sat at the tables Jake knew so well. Looking up and down the length of the bar Jake thought how polished it was, as usual. Then he saw the man standing at the end. Little did Jake know that this man was one of Big Mike's torpedoes, sent to shoot him.'
What's wrong with it? Well, Jake goes in the bar every day. He wouldn't notice, on a conscious level, Henry's appearance, the tables or the polished bar. He'd just see the man, who is a stranger and have no idea who he was. Compare it to -
'Jake walked into Henry's and sat down on one of the barstools. 'Give me a beer, Henry.' He tossed a bill to the barman. Glancing up the bar has saw a heavyset guy watching him. He saw the guy suddenly pull out a gun from inside his jacket.'
Jake only sees what he sees and only knows what he knows. All he knows in this scene is that a stranger sat at the end of the bar has suddenly pulled out a gun. What happens next is up to you!
It would have been fair for Jake to look around and describe what he saw if he had never been in that bar before. As it is, it's his favourite bar, a place he knows well, so there's no need - from his viewpoint - to describe it. Maybe the previous scene was written from the gunman's viewpoint. In that case, you could have 'introduced' Henry's bar to the reader through the gunman's eyes - it would be new to him and you can bet he would be looking around pretty carefully.
By writing these two scenes you would have accomplished the introduction of the bar, the entrance of the gunman and, in the next scene, Jake's entrance, setting the stage for what is to follow - but the really important thing is that your reader will be immersed in the action without your intrusion.
In the next article we'll take a look at using the character's 'voice' in viewpoint writing.
Viewpoint Writing 2: How To Use Your Character's 'Voice'
There are some simple rules to remember when writing form a character's viewpoint, yet many forget them. Here's a rundown of some to remember . . .
No matter what language you speak, regional accents and dialect always give away your origin - unless of course you have had voice coaching. In the UK accent differences can be very subtle - for example, I can tell if someone is from my home town or a town just ten miles away. You can probably do this too.
When 'building' a character for your story, their 'voice' is very important - and not just accent or local patois. Listen to your friends. Let's say for the sake of convenience you all grew up in the same part of town. You therefore all have the same accent and probably use much the same slang words and idiom. So what sets you apart?
It's the way you talk. Some people talk rapidly, some are slow and thoughtful. Some have little speech mannerisms that mark them out. All these things add up to them being an individual, a real, live, talking person. Using your character's 'voice' is therefore a powerful tool that helps your reader to identify with that character and so makes them much more real.
Let's take an example. Three people are sat watching TV - grandmother, mother and daughter. They're watching a movie. Suppose it's 'Pulp Fiction'. Now how do you think they would speak if asked to describe that movie? Maybe the grandmother would be scandalised by the sex and violence. Maybe the mother would be uncomfortable about her daughter seeing it. Perhaps the daughter just loves it.
So they all have different attitudes to the movie - but how do you think they would summarise it? Let's see how this sounds.
Grandmother: I thought it a good movie but really, is all that bad language and shooting necessary?
Mother: Yes it was a good film but I thought it was rather violent and I was concerned about my daughter seeing it.
Daughter: I really enjoyed the movie - it was very thrilling and full of action.
Garbage, isn't it? It all sounds the same - as if one person was saying all three lines. Maybe this is better:
Grandmother: I thought it a good movie but really, is all that bad language and shooting necessary?
Mother: I kind of liked it but, you know, I was a bit worried about my daughter being exposed to all that bloodshed and goings-on.
Daughter: A really cool movie - it was just so laid-back yet full of go at the same time, you know?
Now I'm not pretending that they would really speak like that - it's just an illustration of 'voice'. In this instance I kept the way the grandmother might speak as that was they style I used for all three in the first run-through. Have a bit of fun - rewrite it as if the daughter was the 'voice' for all three - it comes out just as bad as my first attempt did!
This extends into all your writing. In a previous article I mentioned our all-action hero, Jake Bullet, as he enters a bar where a gunman is waiting for him. Here in a few lines is the same scene from Jake's viewpoint and that of his adversary.
As he turned and saw the guy heave a pistol our from beneath his coat, Jake exploded into action, leaping the length of the bar and crashing a fist into the gunman's chin. Stood over the guy Jake turned to Henry. 'That's one thing he won't try again. If he gets up I'm gonna bust his face.'
Pulling the pistol from under his jacket, Sam thought what a posing daisy this famous slick cop looked in his fancy suit. He was going to be easy. Then he froze as his mark jumped toward him. He just had time to think what a bum story his boss had given him about this creep cop before he saw stars and hit the floor. Bummer.
Again, it's not a finished piece! It just gives an idea of how using a slightly different 'delivery' can help to identify the character. A point to note also is that the character's 'voice' goes beyond dialogue. Sam's way of thinking and some of his character comes out in the way he is described as seeing the scene. This is another aspect of viewpoint writing and 'voice' - describing the action as would the character - not you. Keep to this as your scene unfolds - remember, it's your character who is doing the seeing and talking!
Hope you enjoyed those! Now let's move on to our next topic - self-editing and the final draft.
Index page 1. Necessary equipment. 2. The importance of the workplace 3. Choosing the right book for you to write. 4. Ideas and how to get them. 5. How to plan a story. 6. How to make characters come to life. 8. Self-editing and the final draft. 9. Agents and Publishers 10. Writers' groups. 11. Writing competitions. 12. Reference works.