Tag Archives: plot points

Basic Plot for the Beginning Writers

If, like many people, you labor under the idea that for “real” writers, plot comes effortlessly, dismiss that illusion now. While some writers were born with a sense of how to tell a story effectively, more of them do study the elements of plot and pay serious attention to how other writers successfully construct a narrative.​

Playwrights have this stuff drilled into them, but fiction writers often get away without basic instruction in what makes something dramatic.

It’s not magic. The elements of a good story can be studied and learned.

In fact, you’ve probably already studied them in your high school literature classes. It doesn’t hurt to review them now, from the perspective of a writer and not a student. They may seem simple, but without them, your other skills as a writer — your ability to imagine believable characters, your talent with dialogue, your exquisite use of language — will come to naught.

Start, of course, with a protagonist, your main character. The protagonist must encounter a conflict — with another character, society, nature, himself, or some combination of these things — and undergo some kind of change as a result.

“Conflict” is also known as the “major dramatic question.” Gotham Writers’ Workshop puts it this way in their guide Writing Fiction: The major dramatic question “is generally a straightforward yes/no question, one that can be answered by the end of the story.” What will happen to King Lear when he divides up his empire and estranges himself from his one faithful daughter?

Will Elizabeth Bennet of Jane Austen‘s Pride and Prejudice get to marry for love, and will she or one of her sisters marry well enough to save the family from financial humiliation?

What sorts of changes do these conflicts bring about? Elizabeth Bennet learns the dangers of letting prejudice interfere with judgment.

King Lear acquires humility and learns to recognize superficiality and sincerity. Both are wiser at the end of the story than they were at the beginning, even if this wisdom, in Lear’s case, comes at a dear cost.

Elements of Plot

A story will hit various landmarks on its way from the story’s beginning to the fulfillment of the dramatic question. The introduction presents the characters, the setting, and the central conflict. Involve your protagonist in that conflict as early as possible. Today’s readers will generally not wade through pages of exposition to get to the point. Don’t make them wonder why they’re reading your story or novel. Hook them in the first page or pages.

From there, the character will face various impediments to the achievement of his or her goal. Known as rising action or development, this is part of the story’s satisfaction. Readers like to see a struggle, like to feel as though the payoff at the end is deserved.

Again, Pride and Prejudice provide an excellent example. If Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy liked each other immediately, and their friends and family immediately approved, their marriage would be much less satisfying, and nothing much would have been learned along the way, except that it’s great to fall in love.

Note how other writers build dramatic tension during this part of their narrative. How do they keep us interested in the outcome of the story? How many impediments are necessary to make the reader feel satisfied at the end? None of these decisions are necessarily easy. Part of your growth as a writer entails developing a feel for a successful story arc.

The rising action leads to the climax, the turning point in the story, which in turn leads to the resolution. The central dramatic question is solved one way or another. Peter Selgin provides a good example in his book By Cunning & Craft:

Climax is the resolution of conflict, the point of no return beyond which the protagonist’s fate — good or bad — is secured. Romeo’s suicide is the climax…not because it’s the most dramatic moment, but because it seals his fate and determines the resolution by preventing him and Juliet from ever living happily ever after.

In the denouement, the author ties up all the loose ends. Elizabeth and Jane Bennet get to live close to each other. Lydia stays far away in the North, where she can’t bother them much, and Kitty’s better qualities are drawn out by frequent visits to her sisters. Everyone we like lives happily ever after, and in a matter-of-fact three pages or so, we get all the necessary details. Likewise, the denouement for Lear takes only part of one scene: all the players of the main plot die, but under Edgar, England is reunited.

Two Disclaimers

First, much successful fiction does not follow these rules exactly. But even works like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, which seem focused more on language than action, introduce dramatic questions to keep us reading. (Will her party come off? What’s up with her and Peter Walsh?) A lot of fiction that doesn’t necessarily seem plot-driven turns out, on closer scrutiny, to depend on tried and true strategies we can trace back (in Western literature, at least) to Aristotle’s Poetics.

Second, these basic elements may not occur in the order listed above. Try to identify them in your reading. Question why the writer decided to tell the story the way he or she did. Note the dramatic decisions. And, of course, think about all of this as you craft your own stories. At the end of the day, something has to happen. It seems elementary, but it can be quite complicated. By all means, experiment, but spend some time on the basics, too.

By
Source: thebalancecareers.com

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The Joys of Writing Tragedy

Tragedy is one of the oldest and most fundamental forms of story-telling. It’s a mode that focuses on suffering, that connects its central character to the wider world, and that is deliberately designed to make audiences consider the fragility of their own lives. It can be a powerful tool for writers in any genre.

In this article, we’ll be looking at what tragedy is, what defines its protagonist, and how to make use of it in your writing.

Defining Tragedy

Tragedy as we now know it emerged from Greek plays around 2500 years ago. It reached its classical golden age in 5th century Athens, but our understanding of its form is most shaped by a book from a century later. In his Poetics, the philosopher Aristotle explained the origins of the form, as he understood it, and its defining features. The points he singled out shaped tragedy from then on, as it was kept alive by the Romans, revived in the Renaissance, and used and adapted by authors, poets, and playwrights ever since.

Tragedy is built around a downward arc. The protagonist experiences an unhappy transformation, ending in death or at the very least disaster. This is how many people identify a tragedy.

But there’s more to a traditional tragedy than this.

For the reader, a tragedy should be an unsettling experience. The story highlights the uncertainties of the world by showing that even the most powerful can fall due to events outside their control. In classical theatre, those events were usually driven by supernatural forces. In modern writing, they are more likely to be about the structures and injustices built into our society.

At its best, tragedy draws a mixture of emotions from the reader. There’s pity for the character experiencing the downfall, but there’s also fear. This fear is partly for the protagonist, but it’s often also fear of them. The rage of Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge creates a mixture of emotions, as the audience is torn between empathising with the character and worrying for the people they harm. It’s a deliberately unsettling experience.

The arc of the story should also evoke mixed emotions. It should feel both unavoidable and unacceptable. This undermines the audience’s sense of the world as a just place.

The character’s fall connects in with a wider sense of destruction. Hamlet’s tragedy is also that of the Kingdom of Denmark, as the royal house and by extension the nation goes into decline.

The face of tragedy has changed in recent centuries. Some of the features that Aristotle considered essential are no longer evoked, and the focus has moved away from supernatural interventions in human lives. But the core of tragedy remains the same – evoking emotions through injustice and the suffering of a central character.

The Tragic Character

If you want to write a tragedy then, as with so much of fiction, you need to start with the central character.

The tragic protagonist is normally a noble figure, one who clearly has good intentions, at least at the start. Walter White from Breaking Bad is a great modern example. He just wants to look after his family and his own medical bills. It’s the path he follows to do this that leads to somewhere far less virtuous.

Even if they aren’t noble, the central character needs to be sympathetic. For the tragedy to work, the audience has to care about your character and want them to avoid their approaching doom. They have to keep caring about them, on some level keep liking them, even as they do terrible things. If we didn’t like Hamlet, then we would stop caring for him as he kills Polonius and drives Ophelia mad.

This draws attention to another important feature of a tragic character – the fatal flaw.

All characters should have some flaws and failings to make them relatable. But for the protagonist of a tragedy, a powerful, fundamental flaw is vital. This is the characteristic that motivates much of their actions and that eventually leads them to disaster.

For Shakespeare’s Macbeth, this flaw is unchecked ambition. He is willing to do anything to achieve power. This leads him to destroy his support base by betraying those closest to him, to offend people more powerful than himself, and to behave so badly that he loses all hope of redemption. The fatal flaw drives his downfall.

It’s the fatal flaw that binds together character and plot in a tragedy, preventing the story from being something that just happens to the character.

The character arc that emerges from a fatal flaw can’t just be that the character ends up dying. In the right circumstances, a character’s death can be noble and heroic, which would rob a tragedy of its unsettling negative emotions. Most tragic characters die, but this isn’t the sum total of their downfall.

In a tragic arc, the character suffers, both physically and emotionally, through the course of their downfall. They lose the things that are important to them, most critically their sense of identity. Hamlet loses his mind, his family, even his reputation. Macbeth descends from national hero to hounded villain. Michael Henchard loses his hard-won position as mayor of Casterbridge and the respect of family and friends. Only when you’ve robbed the tragic protagonist of everything that made them who they were, when you’ve flattened all their achievements and left them in despair, does the time come to kill them off.

To give your character’s arc real tragedy, it should feel inevitable. The way that their fatal flaw interacts with the world means that they cannot avoid disaster. Hamlet’s inaction prevents him from fixing the problems at court but won’t let him step away. Henchard’s pride drives him to success but also to disaster, as he cannot compromise to the needs of others in his life.

But while the character’s downfall should feel inevitable, it should also feel unacceptable. However much we might hate Macbeth, we have followed him for so long, come to feel his fears so much, that we still feel a pang of remorse at his death. When Hamlet falls, we aren’t left feeling that justice is served, but that a greater injustice has been done.

Writing Tragedy

When preparing to write a tragedy, much of your attention should be on the tragic protagonist. But what else can you do to evoke the tropes and tone of tragedy?

Strange as it might sound in a story where defeat is inevitable, uncertainty should also be a feature. Tragedy whips the rug out from under the feet of both the protagonist and the reader. If the world worked the way the protagonist believed then they would be able to thrive despite their tragic flaw. If it was as just and reasonable as readers expect, then tragedy would not unfold.

Uncertainty can also be achieved through varying the outcome of individual situations. Small, unexpected successes create hope rather than a slow grind towards disaster. They help to keep the outcome uncertain, and so increase the impact as disaster looms. A character’s occasional wins make their losses more distressing by contrast.

It’s in the tension between uncertainty and inevitability that tragedies achieve their unsettling effect.

Try to tie the character’s downfall into a broader sense of destruction and despair. If your setting is the modern world, you might set their story against a backdrop of inequality or government failings. In an epic fantasy, it might be the collapse of an empire.

It’s vital to engage readers’ emotions. They need to feel the loss and despair of the character on their way down, as well as the sense of injustice overwhelming them. Think about how you can show this through he protagonist’s actions, through the view from inside their head, and through the way you describe the world around them. At the start, you need to engage the audience’s sympathy. After that, it’s their sense of despair.

This can lead to some unfortunate clichés and toxic tropes. It’s particularly important to avoid falling into these traps. Killing of the female love interest of a male protagonist can increase the sense of disaster around him, but it also perpetuates a world view in which women are robbed of agency and our stories are all about men. Could you find a way to ruin that relationship that is still heart breaking but shows the woman making her own choices? Can you make the people around the protagonist more than just props in his disaster? Showing their lives, feelings, and decisions will make it all he more tragic when the world falls down for them as well.

Tragedy is one of the most powerful tools in a writer’s arsenal. It can be used in any genre or setting. Its structures help you to create a compelling character and a story that will hit readers hard. If you can start from a fatally flawed character, build a wider disaster around them, and avoid tired old clichés, then it can be your path to something compelling.

Just ask Aristotle.

By Andrew Knighton
Source: refiction.com

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Where Should You Begin Your Story? – An Excerpt from Structuring Your Novel

First Edition Design Publishing

Another great writing post by K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

From her Blog “Wordplay: Helping Writers Become Authors”

Just for fun, today I’d thought I’d give you a sneak peek of my upcoming bookStructuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story. The book, available September 1, 2013, x-rays our notion of storycraft to get past the outer aesthetics right on down to the muscular and skeletal systems that make our books work. Once we grasp the mechanics of structure, we’re able to take so much of the guesswork out of crafting a strong story from start to finish.
Today, I’d like to share an excerpt from Chapter 2, which talks about one of the trickiest questions any author is faced with: Where to begin the story?


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Authors are much more likely to begin their stories too soon, rather too late. We feel the pressure of making sure readers are well-informed. They have to understand what’s going on to care about it, right? To some extent, yes, of course they do. But the problem with all this info right at the beginning is that it distracts from what readers find most interesting: the character reacting to his current plight.

What is the first dramatic event?

The question you need to ask yourself is, “What is the first dramatic event in the plot?” Finding this event will help you figure out the first domino in your story’s line of dominoes. In some stories that first domino can take place years before the story proper and therefore will be better told as a part of the backstory. But, nine times out of ten, this will be your best choice for a beginning scene.

What is your first major plot point?

Another thing to keep in mind is the placement of your First Plot Point, which should occur around the 25% mark (we’ll discuss this in more depth in Chapter 6). If you begin your story too soon or too late, you’ll jar the balance of your book and force your major plot points at the 25%, 50%, and 75% marks off schedule.
(We’ll be discussing these plot points and their placements at length later on, but, for now, let me just emphasize that these placements at the quarter marks in the story are general guidelines. Unlike movies, which operate on a much tighter structural timeline, novels have the room to allow long series of scenes to build one into the other to create the plot points as a whole—and thus can occur over long sections, even chapters, rather than smack on the money at the quarter marks.)
Consider your First Plot Point, which will be the first major turning point for your characters and, as a result, often the Inciting or Key Event (which we’ll also discuss in Chapter 6). The setup that occurs prior to these scenes should take no more than a quarter of the book. Anymore than that and you’ll know you’ve begun your story too early and need to do some cutting.

What are the three essentials?

The most important thing to keep in mind is the most obvious: No deadweight. The beginning doesn’t have to be race-’em-chase-’em, particularly since you need to take the time to introduce and set up characters. But it does have to be tight. Otherwise, your readers are gone.
How do you grip readers with can’t-look-away action, while still taking the time to establish character? How do you decide upon the perfect moment to open the scene? How do you balance just the right amount of information to keep from confusing readers, while at same time raising the kind of intriguing questions that make them want to read on? When we come down to it, there are only three integral components necessary to create a successful opening: character, action, and setting.
Barnes and Noble editorial director Liz Scheier offered an anecdote that sums up the necessity of these three elements:

 A professor of mine once posed it to me this way, thumping the podium for emphasis: “It’s not ‘World War II began’! It’s ‘Hitler. Invaded. Poland.’”

Scheier’s professor not only made a sturdy case for the active voice, he also offered a powerful beginning. Let’s take a closer look.