Posted in Exercises, writing

Plotting a Series

As a writer, it’s entirely possible that at some point you get hit with an idea that is simply too big for one book. That might be because of complex plotlines, multiple points of view, or even because new story ideas keep cropping up that all connect tangentially back to the same thing. You’re looking at a series, and all the fun territory that comes with it.

Series might seem a little more unwieldy than a single standalone novel or even a duo, but they’re manageable. There are dozens of articles out there that will tell you the key to plotting a series is to give it an overarching goal. I’m not here to tell you that.

I’m here to tell you that as a novelist, you probably already have the tools you need to tackle a series.

Don’t laugh just yet. Let’s start at the macro level. In a series, each book is the next installment in a longer, overarching story. Down to the micro level, in a novel, each chapter is the next installment in a longer, overarching story. See the connection?

Series will be a little more detailed than your average chapter, but you can approach them the same way. Each chapter should have a goal and a conflict. So should each book in the series. And like a series, the entire book should have a central conflict.

So, rather than getting stuck on how long that series is and how difficult it seems to plot it, break it down like you would any other chapter.

For me, I like to write out a one-sentence summary of what happens in each chapter. So it might be something like this:

  1. Snow White’s father remarries an evil queen and dies on his wedding night.
  2. Snow White’s stepmother is furious to find the King’s will leaves Snow White the only heir.
  3. Stepmother tries to kill Snow White, who runs away into the woods.
  4. The Dwarves find and rescue Snow White but demand her help in exchange.
  5. Snow White solves a problem for each of the Dwarves.
  6. Stepmother finds out Snow White is still alive and sends a hunter to kill her.
  7. The Dwarves and Snow White flee their home.
  8. Snow White and the Dwarves gather an army of forest creatures.
  9. The army is marched onto the castle of the Stepmother.
  10. Snow White becomes queen and begins rebuilding.

You get the idea. Each chapter help builds and resolve the overall conflict. Now let’s take a look at these as if they were books in a series.

  1. Snow White’s father remarries an evil queen and dies on his wedding night.

On it’s own, it seems pretty simple, but if we’re assuming that’s the overall conflict, then we know there’s more to it, so it might end up being something more like this:

  1. Snow White’s father remarries an evil queen and dies on his wedding night.
    1. Snow White begs her father not to marry his bride.
    2. Stepmother convinces King Snow is merely grieving her mother.
    3. Snow White discovers proof Stepmother will kill King.
    4. Stepmother blocks Snow White from attending the wedding.
    5. The king is poisoned at supper.
    6. King dies and Stepmother warns Snow White the same can happen to her.
    7. Snow White learns she will be queen when she comes of age and decides to simply wait Stepmother out.

The ending for this one resolves it as a tragedy while still leaving it open for the next story. Snow White will be Queen…if she can avoid angering Stepmother long enough. Likewise, the next book furthers the conflict when Stepmother finally discovers that she’s only Queen until Snow White is old enough to take the throne.

Chapters work the same way. Each one has a smaller conflict in it that must be resolved, but that still feeds into the main plot. First chapters, like first books, open up the main conflict, but still handle their own struggles. Final chapters and books resolve all the conflicts and leave the story with a satisfactory ending.

As an exercise: Take your favorite series and write a one-sentence summary of each book. Then break each book into a one-sentence summary of each chapter.

Posted in books

Reasons for a DNF

If you’re not familiar with the term DNF it’s short for Did Not Finish. I’ve seen it a lot in the book community, and even some posts on specific books as to why they ended up being on the DNF list. After looking over my own DNF list, I realized there were a few key things that ended up causing me to put the book aside.

Too Many PoVs This one is very subjective, however for me, there’s a limit of how many characters are needed to tell the story. If you’re introducing a new point of view in almost every chapter, there’s too many views to follow along. I don’t need to know every character and their side of the story, I want to know why I should care about the main character.

A variation on that is also late introduction to PoV characters. I’ve had two separate stories where I got halfway or better into the story only to be blindsided by an entirely new PoV character.

Dumb Characters I really wanted to put it some other way besides ‘dumb’ because that feels harsh but that’s what it came down to. In both of my most recent DNF additions, the lack of basic thought on part of the main characters heavily contributed to the book being put aside.

This isn’t just a case of a character who isn’t academically smart or who simply doesn’t think very quickly. This has been a case of characters following questionably sound logic, or outright ignoring the very obvious signs that they are the Chosen One, their friend is a vampire or anything else that might be painfully obvious to the reader. It’s also a case of characters not asking the obvious and important questions–like how everyone knows they’re the Chosen One, or how everyone knows their friend is a vampire.

Lack of Plot This one is a really minor complaint. I’m personally much more drawn to character driven stories, but when the progress on solving the main conflict is largely characters rehashing what they know or going about their day-to-day lives doing their jobs while the side characters around them are off doing important plot-worthy things, it’s frustrating and it’s boring.

Inaccuracy Again, this is a very minor thing. Getting every detail about a place you’ve never been or a food you’ve never tasted is hard. Even getting every detail about an experience you’ve had can be hard. And the only reason this ended up on the list is because it ended up being the entire reason for a DNF within the first chapter.

Inaccuracy in facts does happen–but when it happens across almost every fact, it makes me feel like you haven’t done your job as a writer. And trust me, I know that’s a hard job (it’s one I pursue myself). It doesn’t take long to google how large an animals is, what kind of fish can be found in an area, that tigers can swim and which plants are actually poisonous.

These are all reasons for my personal DNF’s. They’re not a guarantee that every book out there with these things will be a DNF, it’s just some of the more common or stronger reasons for certain books to be put aside.

What are some of your reasons for a DNF?

Posted in General

Romance and Subplots

It’s Valentine’s Day, a celebration of all things love and romantic. Which is why I’m taking the opportunity to touch on a topic that we all know: Romance as a plot. More specifically, romance as a subplot.

Romance itself is a fantastic plot and it’s a popular one. That’s largely because it follows a fairly simple path. Couple meets. Couple’s relationship is threatened. Couple gets a happy ending. The exact how, and why and where varies from story to story. That however, makes it a beautiful subplot, especially for character development. Why? Because the biggest part of a romance plot is character development.

So what makes a successful romance?

Balance is a huge thing. Whether it’s your main plot or a subplot, romance is based on the characters and how they work together. That means they both have to bring something to the relationship–maybe he’s calm where she’s hot-headed. Maybe she’s cheerful where her girlfriend is gloomy. They both bring something that the other one needs to the table.

They also, however, need something in common. Maybe their family values are the same, maybe they both want the same things in life. Commonality makes it easier for your couple to start looking at each other with any sort of affection.

Obstacles can make or break the romance. There has to be some reason why your characters don’t just get together right from the first meeting. If there wasn’t something in the way, there wouldn’t be a story there. They’d just be together. The reason they’re not getting together can be varied. Anything from forbidden love, to emotional trauma to prior circumstances is fair game.

A notation here: your obstacle needs to make sense. If it’s simply a case of misunderstanding that could be resolved in two lines of dialogue, it’s not making sense, it’s a poor plot device. If however, your misunderstanding is caused by one or both deliberately being lied to and kept from one another by outside parties, that makes sense. It might be painfully obvious that they deserve and belong together, but until that obstacle is resolved, they’re barred from each other, thus it needs to be able to hold weight on its own.

Change is the final element here. I mentioned that the biggest part of a romance plot is the character development, and this is where that comes in. Your obstacle should keep them from getting together right away, but it should also force them to change, and more importantly, to change in a way that makes the obstacle null and void. That often means one or both characters is willing to make a sacrifice to be with the other: Romeo and Juliet is an extreme example, but it is one: both of them were willing to run away from their families to be together.

Together, the balance, the obstacles and the change make a romance plot engaging, and because the core element of it is the change they make, it makes a fantastic subplot because it plays into character arcs. Because that obstacle keeps them apart initially, you can also use that obstacle as a complication for your main plot goal–or, alternatively, make the main goal part of the obstacle keeping them apart.

That doesn’t, however, mean your heroine automatically fits with the antagonist’s daughter just because they both have the same goal of taking down the antagonist and the antagonist will do anything to keep his daughter away from the heroine. It could very easily mean that your heroine’s plucky sidekick who gets both the antagonist’s daughter and the heroine to work together is the one that belongs with the antagonist’s daughter because she’s come from a similar background with a super-villain for a parent.

As a subplot, it helps to remember that the external conflicts your couple faces together will force them together. That might mean some of the complications they face in resolving the main plot are only properly resolved when the two of them have spent some time together on the solution.

Posted in Exercises, writing

The Middle Bit

When it comes to a story, there’s three main parts to the plot: The beginning, the middle and the end. If you want to get technical, there’s an exposition, rising action, climax and  resolution. Regardless of what you call them, there’s one part that causes numerous headaches.

The middle. Writers everywhere struggle with getting from the opening to the ending.

The Saggy Middle is a common complaint among writers. We’ve all been there. The opening is great! The climax is dramatic. The resolution is perfect.

It’s that bit between the opening and the climax that’s not holding a lot of tension, causing it to feel lackluster and flabby. There’s a couple of reasons that might be, most of them structural in nature.

If you’re a pantser like me, beware of having too many detours in your middle. While it’s easy to wander through a lot of different scenes, make sure you’re taking a look at what each scene is doing for your plot. Do you really need it? If the answer is no, remove it. If it does add something, ask yourself if it’s in the right place: does it make sense in context with only the two nearest scenes? If not, move it to a more appropriate place.

If you’re more of a plotter and you’ve done an outline, then take at the tension in your scenes. If your characters aren’t facing obstacles, then it can seem like you’ve driven them into the climax with no real motivation to change. Take a look at whether or not you’ve got enough obstacles in the way of your characters. If you don’t, look at where obstacles would make sense and consider reworking the specific scenes.

No Idea What Happens Next is another problem with the middle, but it occurs most often in the actual writing process of an early or rough draft. You might know how to start the story, and you might know where it ends. What happens in between can be a bit fuzzier.

In this case, try making a list of things that could happen. They don’t need to be an outline, or even logical–just start listing things your characters could do. Let your inspiration wander freely down this list. Remember you can come back later and take out anything that doesn’t fit.

Once you have a list of at least five things, set a timer for fifteen minutes and write a scene as if each of those things is what happens next. Which ones are you more inclined to keep writing on?

 

Posted in General, writing

On Rewriting

Currently in my writing projects, I’m knee-deep in a rewrite. In this instance, I’m talking about completely scrapping the initial drafts and notes and starting over again. I’m keeping the characters and the basis for the conflict, but everything else has been moved to the ‘junk’ folder. In a lot of ways, as much as rewriting is a significant part of my process, it’s also the most frustrating.

There are multiple reasons for needing to rewrite something. Perhaps the plot makes too many illogical leaps. The characters might not have solid motivations, or they lack development. Maybe the setting creates problems. Individually, the problems might be solved by rewriting one or two sections. The main reason I’ve found for needing to rewrite an entire manuscript is because the problems have all added up to need multiple different sections rewritten.

As I mentioned however, it’s frustrating. The idea itself may be good, but the execution and the work already put in may not be enough. Having to throw out the time and effort I’ve already expended to start over can give doubt a reason to creep in.

In some ways it’s a good thing. Rewriting gives me the chance to explore the story again, to find new places to look for mystery and wonder. It also gives me the opportunity to bring an old idea up to par with my current skills. Although it doesn’t always help, reminding myself that a rewrite is just another opportunity to learn can curb some of the frustration stemming from needing to start over.

How do you handle rewriting?