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Posts Tagged ‘plots’

Each event in a story takes place within a scene, showing the reader the action as it happens.

Short stories typically consist of only one or two scenes, while novels contain many. They vary in length, with some only a few paragraphs long and others covering many pages. However, most scenes follow a pattern similar to the typical story arc, beginning with a hook, building conflict or tension in the middle, and ending with a change in time/place, or a suspenseful moment (cliffhanger).

Each scene should serve a purpose in the story. It might:

  •   introduce or develop a conflict, theme, or character
  •   establish the setting (time period or place)
  •   create atmosphere (romantic, suspenseful, etc.)
  •   provide information that moves the plot forward

An author may use exposition to summarize what’s going on rather than including scenes to show all of the action as it happens. This provides a transition between scenes, and helps adjust the pacing of the story.

  

 

How do you determine if a scene is necessary? Do you like scenes that end on cliffhangers?

 

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A homeless dog showed up this weekend and started camping out on my patio furniture. We’re trying to find him a good home, and in the meantime we’re meeting his most basic, and apparently insatiable, need: food.

Looking for a Good Home

The last few nights have been chilly, so yesterday I decided to make a temporary shelter for the little guy. I gathered up a laundry basket, towels, and blankets to construct a cozy den. I imagined him snuggling into it, looking at me with adoring eyes as I gave him the pièce de résistance—a beef flavored rawhide chew toy to help him occupy his time. I grabbed my video camera so I could record this touching scene to send my daughter, who fell in love with the beagley vagabond this weekend when she was visiting us (to get her birthday presents!).

The dog was blocking the patio door, so I trundled out the front door with my supplies, barely able to keep from dropping everything. As I rounded the house, Beagle Boy raced toward me, knocked the basket out of my hand, grabbed the rawhide, and disappeared into the weeds I call a flowerbed. I raced after him with my video camera, desperate to record his enjoyment of the only treat I’d bought him. Thinking I was trying to take it from him (yes, that’s a break in point of view—but I’m sure that’s what he thought), he ran into the woods and hid it.

He came back in a few minutes to watch me finish his shelter, and even crawled inside it. For several minutes I filmed him laying there, staring into the woods. The odd part of that is that when I wanted a still picture to email everyone I know, I had to take 45 pictures to get one that wasn’t blurred by movement. Now I have a 3 minute video of him not moving so much as a muscle.

So, you’re probably wondering how I could possibly relate this to writing. Fortunately, nearly everything I see or do reminds me of writing, so I can make that transition quite smoothly.

As we prepare our manuscripts, we gather our ideas and supplies, and work hard to reach that final, fantastic climax. We anticipate the finished product being worthy of our efforts, providing us deep satisfaction—possibly even winning us the adoration of agents, publishers, and countless fans. Then reality takes over.

No matter how wonderful the ending is, how cleverly written or exciting the final climax may be, it can’t sustain the whole story on its own. Like the rawhide chew toy, it can get buried in the woods and remain unappreciated if everything leading up to it doesn’t work out right.

Start with a great hook and end with a satisfying resolution, but don’t forget that the middle must do the brunt of the work. When the hook you’ve polished so hard isn’t followed by an enticing middle, with rising action and/or tension, you may lose readers. When the story threads unravel, when the writing is disorganized, readers will notice. They may not continue on to that fantastic ending you’ve planned.

Go ahead and save the best for last, but make sure you’ve got something good to offer throughout the whole story.  

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How do you keep the middle of a story from sagging? How do you add interest or tension without getting to the main climax too early? How many chapters or pages do you think are suitable for tying up the ending, after the major climax has occurred? Are you a dog person, or do you prefer cats—or neither?

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Just between you and me, I was about to call it a day, but at the last minute I decided there’s no time like the present to write a post about clichés. I thought this would be a piece of cake, a slam dunk, a no brainer. However, the more I bat the idea around, the more I feel like I’m between a rock and a hard place. Now I’m grasping at straws, but hope springs eternal so keep your fingers crossed that I can get all the bits and pieces of this topic in order and not have to go back to the drawing board.

I could go on forever, but I’m sure you’ve heard all this before—after all, that’s what it means to be a cliché.  

Cliché: overused expressiona phrase or word that has lost its original effectiveness or power from overuse  (Encarta dictionary)

As writers, our job is to choose words that will effectively convey the image we have in our mind to our readers’ minds. There may be occasions when a cliché is the best way to say what we mean, and sometimes using one can help make the dialog more realistic. If we use them too often, though, our writing will be boring and ineffective. We need to avoid clichés and develop our own writing voice.

We also need to be aware of plot clichés. For example, there’s the mystery where “the butler did it;” the villain who delays killing the hero so he can brag about how much smarter he is, why he did whatever it was, etc., giving the hero time to escape; and the ugly duckling that turns into the beautiful swan story. When people have seen a plot device so often that they can anticipate what will happen next, they may not care enough about the story to keep reading. We’ll increase our chance of success as writers if our stories include a unique twist, memorable characters, and a distinctive voice.

To help you identify them in your writing, here are some links to sites listing clichés:

http://clichesite.com/categories.asp   lists of clichés

http://www.westegg.com/cliche/    lists of clichés

http://www.writing-world.com/romance/cliches.shtml   clichés in romance novels

http://www.amethyst-angel.com/cliche.html   Clichés in fantasy stories

Edit March 2, 2012:  Today on his blog, Agent Nathan Bransford wrote a helpful post on plot clichés vs archetypes. http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2010/03/archetype-vs-cliche.html

 

What clichés drive you stark raving mad? What’s your favorite cliché?

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Every story has a rhythm. If it’s a monotonous one, readers may lose interest. Pacing the rhythm can build tension, emphasize important events, stir the reader’s emotions, and move the action forward. As the story progresses, the tension builds with each new conflict, and ebbs slightly as minor conflicts are resolved. As the climax approaches, the tension increases.

Proper pacing will keep the reader moving forward but allows the action to slow down when appropriate to emphasize the importance of certain things along the way.

 

To increase the pace:

Use shorter paragraphs, shorter sentences, and occasional sentence fragments.

Use less description, more dialogue.

Use active verbs and fewer modifiers (adjectives and adverbs).

Focus on the events that move the action forward rather than switching to subplots.

Have something important happen in each chapter, and keep the chapters short.

Cover periods of inaction with a transitional sentence rather than going into details about what happened.

 

To slow the pace:

Use longer sentences, longer paragraphs.

Include more narrative and less dialogue.

Use more modifiers, less active verbs, and passive sentence structure.

Switch to subplots between chapters high in tension.

Layer in significant details to emphasize their importance (foreshadowing) .

Use flashbacks.

 

The type of story will dictate the appropriate pace. For example, a mystery will generally have more action and a faster pace than a romance. But every story needs a rhythm that keeps the reader interested enough to keep turning the pages. Pacing sets the rhythm.

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I feel like I’ve been cheated. I just spent 3 days reading a book, and when I finished it I was left thinking, that’s it?

The beginning intrigued me, made me want to know more about the main characters. The words were so beautifully put together that the sentences flowed into each other. For the first hundred pages or so I kept thinking, I want to write like this. The author broke conventions and it added to the tone and pace of the story. He used more adjectives and adverbs in one page than some authors use in their entire novel. Many sentences were not only compound and/or complex, but run-on. And I loved it—for a while.

The middle of the book continued in the same fascinating manner as the beginning, and eventually my brain got tired of wading through the flowery exposition. I was hooked on the characters, involved in the plot, and I wanted to find out what happened. So I started skimming the long, descriptive passages to get to the good stuff.

Somewhere around page 570, the climax arrived. It lasted about 20 pages and was pretty good, but there were still lots of unanswered questions in my mind. Eight pages later the book was done. And I was mad.

A story arc consists of exposition, conflict, climax, falling action, and the denouement (resolution). The denouement is where the loose ends get tied together and the reader is left satisfied that the story ended the way it should. The story I read did not do that in a believable way.

Instead of everyone getting their lives together after six hundred pages of never-ending conflict, a very minor character from one scene early in the book wrote out a check to pay for all the other characters to buy motor homes and travel around the country spreading a message of hope that would save the world. No one resolved their own problems; they got bailed out. The last 8 pages told what happened to all the characters, including one so minor I had to go back to the beginning to figure out who he was, and I didn’t believe any of it.

How can conflict covering six hundred pages be satisfactorily resolved, and 10 people’s lives be forever changed, in 8 pages? Although the climax is the high point that all the rising action leads to, there should be some falling action to bring the plot to a resolution that rounds out and concludes the story. Failing to provide a reasonable, satisfying ending can leave readers wishing they’d not wasted their time on the book.

 

Do you ever feel let down by the way a story ends? How do you deal with it—write the author, throw the book in the trash, or what?

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A story has many elements. One of them is the plot, which provides the basis for the events and situations that occur, determines how they are structured, and holds everything together. It explains why characters behave the way they do.

A plot’s structure basically consists of the following:

a. Exposition introduces the characters, setting, and other facts needed to understand the story.

b. Conflict, or rising action, builds tension and leads up to the climax.

c. The climax is the turning point of the story. It is the high point for the reader and often results from a crisis.

d. Falling action occurs after the climax, when the events come together to explain what went on.

e. Resolution, or denouement, is the final outcome of the conflict and climax. Loose ends get tied up and the reader should feel satisfied that the story is complete. They may not like the ending, but it must be believable based on the circumstances the characters faced.

The structure of the plot varies with the needs of the story. Some may start with lots of exposition and build to the climax; others may start with the conflict and weave in the exposition. The climax tends to be close to the end of the story since everything after it ties together the events that led up to that point.

Although there are probably an infinite number of stories we could write, there are not an infinite number of plots. No matter how unique we think our writing is, there are other stories that use similar ideas. Here are a few sites that list common types of plots:

http://midwestwg.com/plots20.htm   A list of 20 basic plots

http://www.strangehorizons.com/guidelines/fiction-common.shtml Plots (non-horror) Strange Horizons has seen too often; they have a separate list for horror stories.

http://www.writingforward.com/creative-writing/fiction-writing/character-fiction-writing  General plot categories

 Edit July 21, 2010: Editor Lynn Price gave a good explanation of exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denoument on her blog yesterday: http://behlerblog.wordpress.com/2010/07/20/the-basics/

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What type of plot do you enjoy most—adventure, quest, rags-to-riches, or something else? Do you like for the plot to drive the story, or prefer those where character development is the main focus?

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Today is my birthday! To keep to my blog’s writing-related theme, I will point out that author Ian Fleming was born on May 28, 1908, and Noah Webster died on May 28, 1843.

Other interesting facts: there are only 211 shopping days left until Christmas; this is the 148th day of the current year; it’s been 4 days since the last new moon; Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn was validated on May 28, 1533.

None of those things seems significant now, but I’ve come to the conclusion that even the most trivial events have an impact on the world. For instance, I bought a new kind of dishwasher detergent last week rather than the one I’ve used for years. This one is supposed to be eco-friendly, and comes in a lovely white container—symbolizing cleanliness, purity, etc. My kids decided to surprise me by cleaning up the house while I was gone last night, and my daughter did the dishes. She knew I always used “that yellow stuff” in the dishwasher, and unfortunately the only yellow dish detergent she found was Joy.

Did you know that if you put Joy in a dishwasher, it will make so many bubbles that the dishwasher will leak and flood your kitchen? It will continue making bubbles through at least 8 rinse cycles even if you scoop them all out and dry the inside of the dishwasher with a towel—repeatedly.

Who would have thought changing something as insignificant as the type of dish detergent we use would have an impact on our lives? Yet, it took up hours of time that could have been used productively—or at least pleasantly—and inspired this post. Now you’re reading about trivial events in my life instead of learning anything useful or socializing with your family. But don’t despair! I’m segueing into a writing-related subject now—making every scene, character, or action in your writing serve a purpose.

As you see from this post, everything can impact something else, so in a way is significant. However, that doesn’t mean it’s interesting or appropriate to include in a story. We need to focus on the things that will keep the reader turning the pages, events that are relevant to the story, setting, plot, or the development of the characters. Too much information is usually just as bad as too little; using the right amount of description is as important as using the right detergent. 😉

 

Anyone else have a birthday today?

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