I looked up the definition for plot in the dictionary and it said: A secret plan to achieve a hostile or illegal purpose.
Just joking. The applicable definition is: The series of events consisting of an outline of the action of a narrative or drama.
In the next three chapters I'm going to cover major parts in detail: the beginning, pacing and the end. In this chapter I want to talk about some structural issues regarding the development of a story.
First, notice the definition says a series of events. That means something has to happen. Most of us can't get away with writing a story where your characters stand around doing nothing. Action, in whatever form it takes, moves the story forward and carries the characters with it. Sometimes your characters act, sometimes they react. Regardless, they're doing something.
One thing I do that helps me considerably while I am still working on developing my story (before I've written my first sentence) is try to have an idea what the climax of my story will be. After all, that's where all the action is driving toward. I think it helps to know the climax because it gives the story direction. It also focuses me on the main plot, and helps from getting sidetracked and making a subplot develop into the climax of the book. Without an idea of what the climax is, you might end up with the book that will never end.
Real life is full of coincidences, but there is great debate over how much coincidence can be in a novel. Some people say you can have no coincidences at all in a book; that everything must happen for a reason. The thinking behind that is to prevent the author from manipulating the plot too much. But, the author is, after all, the supreme ruler of the novel, so in essence the entire novel is a manipulation.
When does a coincidence work? When it is an integral part of the novel.
Example: In Michael Connoly's novel BLOODWORK, a retired FBI agent is asked to investigate a murder by a relative of the victim. He is recovering from a heart transplant operation and doesn't want to take the job on—until he finds out that the heart he received came from the victim. A staggering coincidence, right? Not when you find out that someone murdered several people in an attempt to get a different type of transplant. Thus the 'coincidence' turns out to be a plan by someone that drives the entire story and provides the climax.
When doesn't it work? When it comes outside of the plot to change it.
Example: Your hero is trying to find out who the bad guys are. The phone rings and the secretary for one of the bad guys gives your hero much needed information. We never hear from or see the secretary again; she was an obvious plot device to jump-start the novel and give needed information. However, the phone call works if it's an attempt by the bad guy to lure the good guy into an ambush.
The term you should think of is internal logic. A plot needs to make sense inside of itself.
15. WHERE SHOULD MY NOVEL BEGIN?
There are actually two beginnings to a novel: the first words the writer puts down to start the manuscript, and the first words the reader sees when they open the completed book. Only rarely are those two sets of words the same. When I teach novel writing, I find most students spend an inordinate amount of time trying to have the perfect beginning, but if the first sentence of this section is true, then much of that time is wasted. My advice always is: just start somewhere and sometime. You can always go back and redo the beginning. In many of my books the published beginning is not where I began writing on that first day starting the manuscript. The number one rule in novel writing is simply: WRITE.
Now that we've cleared that hurdle, let's discuss the beginning of a novel in conceptual terms. Understanding the diagram below will help us in doing that:
Let me explain what each part represents:
The thick vertical line on the left, labeled Start, is where the novel begins. Page 1.
The tip of the arrow on the right, labeled End, is where the novel ends. Last page.
The thick horizontal arrow, going straight across, is your original idea or the main story line.
The thin arrows are your subplots and ancillary action. Note that all subplots eventually end up supporting the original idea.
When trying to decide where to place the start line, keep in mind the purposes of the beginning of a book. Your opening chapter has to bring people in the door. The beginning must hook the readers and also serve a second purpose: either introducing the story theme/problem or introducing the main characters. It could do both, but don't overwhelm your reader by putting too much in the first chapter. By knowing all the information in your background box, you give yourself the ability to dip into that box and write a new beginning. Sliding the start line to the left. If you slide the start line to the right, you simply have to expand your background box by removing the information you originally had in your beginning and working it in as expository information. Understanding this concept gives you an almost unlimited freedom to be able to eventually have a dynamic opening chapter.
I believe by the end of your second chapter you should have accomplished two things: introduced your core problem that will be resolved in the climax; and introduced your protagonist.
Think about the message you send with your opening. If you lead with your problem, you are telegraphing to your reader that the problem is key. If you lead with your main character, then you are telling the reader the character is more important. That's not a hard and fast rule, but it's a tendency.
Start noticing how books and movies start. Figure out why the writer started them the way he or she did. There is a reason.
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