Tuesday, May 29, 2012

21 ways to make your plot more compelling

This is second of five checklists I've put together to help me in revising my novel. My first checklist, for characterization, is 38 Ways to Check for Character Life-signs. I'm also compiling checklists for Starting your Story (the all important first page and first chapter), Setting/Description, and Voice/Dialogue (coming soon).

To build a compelling plot, start with a tried and true structure. Here are four resources that provide variations on the basic story structure.

1. Four-part story structure (Larry Brooks, Rachel Savage): this pdf shows the four parts using a fun circus tent analogy

2. Emotional Structure (Peter Dunne): Susan Kaye Quinn created a five-point story structure based on this book.

3. The Writer's Journey (Chris Vogler): provides a 12-step story structure called the Hero's Journey

4. Save the Cat (Blake Snyder): Fifteen-point story structure. Laura Pauling shows the structure of How to Train Your Dragon in these 15 elements

I use these resources when I'm prepping and outlining. After writing my first draft, I bring my checklists into play to figure out what I need to revise. Here's my plot checklist:


5. Does your first chapter include a hook that raises a question or sets something in motion? (source: StoryFix: Hook vs. First Plot Point)
In some cases, this can be the same thing as the compelling opening image on the first page, or it can come later in the first chapter.

6. Does the first act of your plot include a major turning point? (StoryFix: the most important point)
This is where everything changes for the main character. It forces him to make a choice. To really make a compelling plot, this first turning point should also move him/her into a new situation where everything is different (or even opposite) of what his normal world used to be.

7. Does your plot have high enough stakes? (source: Janice Hardy: What's at Stake)
There has to be something personal at risk, not just a general danger. The main character(s) can't just walk away from the problem without losing something very important to them.

8. Does your plot include a dilemma?  (source: Cockeyed Caravan)
It's not enough to force your character to make a choice between good and evil. It's got to be more complicated than that. For Clarice in Silence of the Lambs, the only way to catch one serial killer is to give another one what he wants.

9. Does your plot include plants and payoffs? (source: Laura Pauling)
A plant is a symbolic object or an event or in the first part of the story that re-appears in the middle or the end, but with a change that reflects the change in the story.

10. Does the plot include a false goal and a true goal for the character?  (source: Cockeyed Caravan)
In the movie Avatar, Jake Sully wants to be a marine again (false goal). But he ends up fighting the Marines to save the world and people he's fallen in love with (true goal). Instead of a false/true goal, you can use a  micro-problem/macro-problem, or if the problem stays the same then start with the wrong methods to solve it and end up with right ones.


11. Does your plot include a deadline? (source: Cockeyed Caravan)
If you can't impose an actual deadline, you can create the sense of one by having one character challenge another, "You'll never be able to do that!" or "You'll never last."  I put this requirement in the middle act because setting a deadline or a challenge can be a great way to keep your middle from sagging.

12. Does the middle include a part where the hero is forced to face his/her fears or inner demons? 
Often this meeting is NOT successful. (The scene in Empire Strikes Back where Luke Skywalker faces an imaginary Darth Vader during his training and fails the test).

13. Does the middle include a place where the hero makes a mistake? (source: Adventures in Children's Publishing, Plotting Complications Worksheet)
This is often a result of his/her first unsuccessful encounter with facing their fears. Again, in Empire Strikes Back, after failing the test encounter with an imaginary Darth Vader, Luke rushes off before he's ready to "save" his friends and steps into a trap.

14. Does the middle include a revelation? A point where new information is revealed that worsens the situation? (source: StoryFix: 8 moments you must deliver)


15. Does your plot include a moment when all seems lost? (source: StoryFix: 8 moments you must deliver)
This is the point where the hero has tried everything, maybe even conquered his inner demons, and it still looks like the bad guy(s) are going to win. Sometimes this is when the hero actually gives up and turns away or turns back (though we all know something will happen that makes him/her get back into the fight, we just don't know what it is, yet).

16. Does your main character have to sacrifice something to make for everything to turn out okay?  (source: Janice Hardy: What's at Stake)
It's not uncommon to see the personal stakes shift to those larger 'save the world' stakes, but at this point in the story, the larger-scope stakes feel more personal because of this sacrifice.

17. Does your ending leave a few unanswered emotions or questions? (source: Cockeyed Caravan).
A few unanswered questions and unresolved emotions are necessary to really have a profound effect. Great art shouldn’t be entirely satisfying. It has to disquiet us a little bit. It has to have a few holes for us to get stuck in.

18. Does your ending have both a "wow, where did that come from?" element AND a "but of course, it had to happen that way" element? (source: K.M. Weiland).
These may seem contradictory, but both are needed for satisfying ending. A combination of foreshadowing and enough distracting complications is required to pull this off.


19. Does every scene serve some function to move the plot forward?
Sub-plots have to be related to the main plot. Scenes used to develop characters should also be related to the plot.  Avoid tangents that don't serve a plot purpose.

20. Does your plot include reversals? (source: Nathan Bransford)
Star Wars is the classic reversal of fortune, where an unknown farm-boy turns into a save-the-galaxy-hero. It's also full of scene-by-scene reversals or a series of ups and downs that are the essence of a gripping story.

21. Does your plot include unexpected twists? 
A compelling plot includes unexpected events or revelations that change everything we thought we knew and takes it to a whole new level. Janice Hardy provides some ideas for coming up with plot twists.

If you like checklists, then here are two more plotting checklists that I also use:

StoryFix: the single most powerful writing tool you'll ever see that fits on one page

Adventures in Children's Publishing: Plotting made easy - complications worksheet 

What are the stories/movies that come to mind when you think of great plots?

Friday, May 25, 2012

How important is it to read award-winning books?

Should aspiring writers read award-winning fiction in their genre?

(Thanks to Nissa Annakindt for making me think about this intriguing question)

Here's some possible benefits:

~Blazes new territory, either in content or style
~Challenges commonly-held perceptions
~Demonstrates high ideals (e.g. self-sacrifice)

On the other hand, here's some reasons why I sometimes have to force myself to read award-winners:

~May not offer instant gratification. In other words, they take work to read.
~Sometimes they have depressing or tragic endings.
~Older "classics" are harder to read because of older styles of writing
~May impose specific beliefs/worldviews on the reader

If you are writer aspiring to an award-winning status, you should definitely read award-winners. But what if you want to write entertaining stories? Would you be better served reading best-sellers in your genre?

Confession: I have many more best-sellers on my reading list than award-winners. I'm currently writing a young adult science fiction, and I've only read 4 Nebula or Hugo winners.

What do you think?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A better way to rate books?

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, #1)

I'd like to have more options on Amazon or Goodreads to rate books, more than the "choose the number of stars" option.

Years ago I used to submit my work to the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror, and they gave you the option to assign stars to five different categories: character development, plot credibility, dialogue, setting and professionalism of writing. (This was in addition to the written part of the review).

I thought that would be a nice option for reviewing published books, too. Because I've read a lot of books that were beautifully written, exquisitely plotted, but I just never connected with the characters. Or vice versa, I  loved the character development, but the plot left me going "huh?"

But I'm a writer, and I'm not sure if non-writers would like this more complicated system. What about just two categories for rating? Something like 1-5 stars for Quality of Story and 1-5 for Personal Appeal. Because my most common issue with rating books is when you come across a book that is clearly well-written and well received by many others, but it just doesn't jive with your beliefs or feelings or preferences.

A Game of Thrones was such a book for me. Many people rank this series on the same level as Lord of the Rings, and when I read it I could see why. It was riveting, well-written, had excellent world-building, and a whole cast of characters that yanked on your heart strings one way or another.

But I did not like the book because many of its events felt like they happened just for shock value (hey, this seems like a good spot, let's kill a main character!), which kept me from enjoying the book.

Though I fully admit this was a personal thing and I wouldn't expect others to feel the same way.

But I wouldn't give it a one-star because my personal reasons for dislike. I would rank it high in every other category except "personal appeal". In the end I didn't end up ranking it at all, but I think it would tell readers a lot more about a book if the rating system offered more choices.

It might also allow people to identify books that have controversial elements in them... which is a whole other controversial can of worms... Right now if you have a 3 star book, it might mean that it's just a weak book, or it might be a really strong book, like the science fiction book Feed, by M.T. Anderson, that has a lot of really controversial elements in it.

This all might be academic anyway because all these factors can be addressed if you take the time to write or read reviews, rather than just pay attention to the 1-5 star rating.

If you review books, what do you think? Give more options for rating, or stick with the current system?

Sunday, May 13, 2012

My First Loves

The First Loves Blogfest (thank you Alex Cavanaugh) is a chance to share the first movie, first song/band, first book, and first person you fell in love with. 

I almost chickened out on this... I could think of my first loves right away, but they really date me!!! The first three (movie, book, song) all come from 1983 when I was thirteen years old.

 The first movie I really fell in love with was Return of the Jedi. Stars Wars and Empire Strikes Back were fun, but I think was a little young to appreciate them. I loved Return of the Jedi so much that in order to see it a second time, I figured out all by myself how to transfer between two buses to get across town to see it again.

 About the same time, Eurythmics' hit, Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This), mesmerized me when I first saw the video.

Later that year, I broke my arm in a riding accident and since I was stuck in a sling for several weeks, I started reading a lot. The Lord of the Rings became my first love. I think I read it three times in a row, and then all the appendices.

And the most important first love of all... didn't show up until 15 years later! I got attached to a couple guys I dated, but I never felt sure it was really Love, with a capital L. Then I met my husband when I was 28 and we were engaged 3 weeks later. When love with a capital L hits me, it hits hard!

Curious if others will admit the ages when they fell into their first loves! My theory is tweens/early teens (12 or 13 years) are particularly prone to first loves. What age do you think is most prone to falling hard?

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Why you should start your own gang

Fictional gang, that is. Like these famous ones: the nine members of the fellowship of the Ring in J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Luke Skywalker's allies in Star Wars. Or, a more recent example, the gang of superheros in the Avengers movie.

Many famous books/movies feature a "gang". Three Musketeers, the Outsiders, Robin Hood, even Twilight. Just about any sitcom. The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, features an unusual threesome gang. The gang has a broad appeal because we get to see different strengths work together, and see different personalities clash.

I think another reason why we like gangs is that if you have four or five characters thrown together in an adventure, there's a real variety of personalities, and with that variety, a greater chance of us identifying (seeing ourselves) in one or more of the members.

Most of us love archetypes: the hero (Luke Skywalker), his wise mentor (Obi-Wan), his side-kicks (Han Solo and Chewbacca, R2D2 and C3PO), the damsel in distress (Princess Leia in the first movie). With a gang, you get all the archetypes in close proximity, playing off each other - it adds to the fun!

I recently read Scarlet, by A.C. Gaughen, a young adult version of the Robin Hood legend - with an interesting twist. Here's the "gang" members in this version:

You've got Robin - the leader, with a background of tragedy and mystery
Little John - his boisterous, brawling side kick
Friar Tuck - the irresponsible fun seeker or prankster (he was expelled from his order for being disrespectful)
Much - the trustworthy confidante
Maid Marian -  she's kind of the wild card - appears different in every new rendition of the legend
Will Scarlet - the fixer, the worrier - in this case, the twist is Scarlet is a girl and adds a whole new dynamic to Robin Hood's gang

This book really opened my eyes to how useful a gang can be to creating a memorable story. A lively banter can make you feel like you are part of the gang, and that's just what Scarlet excelled at. Here's a great example:
[John] looked at me with a smile. "So, you're back." 
I laughed. "Not for you, John Little." 
He looked like I slapped him. 
"Just because you kissed me don't mean I'm your girl none," I told him. 
I heard Much chuckle, and John stepped closer to me. "Maybe I wasn't asking you to be my girl." 
"I'm nobody's bit of fun either," I told him, right serious 'bout that. I went toward the fire, and John threw up his arms.  
"What does that mean, Scar?" he asked me. 
"I guess we'll have to see." 
Rob and Much both laughed at this, and John glared at them. "Will one of you talk to her?" 
Rob shook his head. "I don't get on the wrong side of a lady thief." 
"Well, how am I supposed to get on the right side of her?"

Besides the interesting twist to Robin Hood's gang, and the great banter, there'a lot of other reasons why I recommend this book (see my full Goodreads review). 

What's your favorite fictional "gang"?  And oh - here's a chance to win your choice of any fictional gang you want - or any book at all, for that matter. My friend Miss Jack Lewis Baillot is giving away a $20 gift card to Barnes and Noble (extended to May 18th), just leave a comment here.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Spies, Murder and Mystery

In celebration of the official release of A Spy Like Me, Laura Pauling is hosting a three-week blog series: A Spies, Murder and Mystery Marathon. Woot! Woot!

 Authors galore, guest posts and book giveaways almost every day! Gemma Halliday, Cindy M. Hogan, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Nova Ren Suma, Elisa Ludwig, and Anne R. Allen....Just to name a few!

And here's why she's celebrating!

Stripping your date down to his underwear has never been so dangerous. After dodging bullets on a first date, Savvy must sneak, deceive and spy to save her family and friends and figure out if Malcolm is one of the bad guys before she completely falls for him. Amazon ~ Barnes & Noble ~ Smashwords

Head on over to Laura’s blog for the start of the Spies, Murder and Mystery Marathon. You won’t want to miss this sizzling series as we head into summer. Stock up on some great thrilling reads! If you dare…

I just finished reading A Spy Like Me, and loved it! Savvy Bent will steal your heart with her spying and prying and her mixture of spunky humor, determination, and insecurity. And Malcolm... oh boy, I need some more of him! A non-stop adventure packed with Paris, pastries, and a lot of heart.

Besides Paris, a perfect setting for spy games, where would you pick for a mystery setting?

Friday, May 4, 2012

Why top ten lists are creative gold

My theme for the A-Z blogging challenge was a top ten list for each letter of the alphabet. My reason for trying this was - just for fun! I have always loved top ten lists - they almost always engage you to think of your own additions or re-ordering, don't they? Anyone remember David Letterman's top ten lists? (they're still going)!

I discovered some lists were really easy for me to put together. Some were surprisingly hard: either because I had a hard time coming up with ten things (my romance list was the hardest! Which really surprised me!) or I had a hard time narrowing down my list to just ten things.

But the bottom line was coming up with lists of ten really challenged me creatively (but I suppose you could say that about any theme you choose for the A-Z challenge. Just coming up with something for all 26 letters in any kind of theme is creatively challenging - I loved some of the other ideas I saw out there).

Towards the end, when I was writing my "W" post - my top ten writing tips, I had a Eureka moment:

6. Force yourself to make lists of ten 
Think you've come up with a brilliant plot twist? Think again. Actually, think of nine other possibilities. Your first idea is never the best idea. But if you force yourself to think of at least 10 ideas (most of them will be laughable), one or two of them might be truly brilliant.

This advice, which I don't use nearly often enough, really hit home with me after 21 top ten lists. Your first idea is never the best idea - it continually amazed me what things ended up on my lists, brainstorming after the few easiest ones immediately popped into my head. And even better, my commenters always had great additions that I wish I'd remembered.

In a deju vu kind of way, here is my top ten list of top tens. This based on number of pageviews (lists that got over 100 pageviews).

10. Period pieces (e.g. Pride and Prejudice remakes)
9. Writing Tips
8. Love Stories (e.g. Time Traveler's Wife, Beauty and the Beast)
7. Young Adult books (e.g. the Hunger Games, the Outsiders)
6. Italy - places and things
5. Fantasy lands (e.g. Narnia, Middle Earth)
4. Chocolate (e.g. Death by Chocolate, Chocolate Truffles)
3. Actors and Actresses (e.g. Meryl Streep, Harrison Ford)
2. Dramas (e.g. Gone With the Wind, the Godfather)
1. Elegant things (e.g. ballroom dancing, afternoon tea)

Some of you may groan, some of you may smile, but I'm not done with top ten lists yet. I have several more up my sleeves, many of them inspired by another great source of top tens at the Broke and the Bookish blog  (a whole collection of different book-related top tens, such as your top ten favorite book covers, top ten books I Have Lied About, top ten authors I would Die to Meet).

In the meantime, give me ideas!!! What top ten list would you love to see?
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