Posts Tagged ‘story structure’

Where your plot begins

How do you start a story? Do readers expect a nice big grabber scene? And at what point does the plot kick in?

I said in my last post, Fiction Myths, that we should be wary of the oft-repeated admonition that the story should begin as soon as possible. The thought apparently driving this bit of advice is that readers are impatient. They want conflict, a reason to turn pages–something, perhaps, to worry about.

Fair enough. But getting your plot fully engaged on page 6 isn’t the way to do it. Not that we have the luxury these days of beginning a novel with a meandering tour of the village or setting out on an epic journey, first provisioning at the local market.

So how do you start a story?

Story shape

The question of how to begin is grounded in the shape of story. From screenwriting comes the classic shape of the three act structure, pierced in the middle by the mid-point scene (thus actually creating four sections of the story.) For a great discussion of this structure, see Larry Brooks, Story Engineering. Don’t leave home–don’t start a novel–without a thorough understanding of this basic blueprint! Within this context of story architecture, you will find the crucial turning points, Plot Point 1 and Plot Point 2.

Plot Point One

It is at PP1 where your plot launches the character down her path in a way that changes everything. It is the point where the protagonist takes up the gauntlet in full knowledge of what is at stake for her. You might now introduce a partial glimpse of the forces arrayed against her. Your main character is now determined to take action. Perhaps she has no choice. (This point may be proceeded by the inciting incident. The inciting incident brings the potential of a story on stage. The gunslinger arrives in town, the old man dies leaving all his money to his young mistress. The main character is not yet engaged fully. That happens at PP1.)

The PP1 scene typically occurs about one quarter of the way in. It can be said to be the end of Act One. A storyteller has some leeway here. Use the elements of classic structure in service to your story. These aren’t iron clad rules. (Yet, the closer you can come to the ideal one-quarter point, the more the audience will, unconsciously, recognize the familiar territory, the deliciously familiar story-telling turning point.)

Function of beginnings

The purpose of beginnings is show us the characters and their life situation (including the milieu in sf/f) in a way that brings the reader to care about the action to come. We want to know what’s at stake for the major character; what they want–or if they don’t know that yet–what they value. We learn why the desire or value is held so dear: we are introduced to the inner world of the character. Not usually through flashbacks, but through real-time actions dramatized in scenes. We see the forces of antagonism, or their shadows on the wall. This is all set up for PP1. When the private detective takes the case against his better judgment, when the major character is kicked out of the house, when the disgraced officer is given one last chance to redeem himself.

Bridging conflict

So how do we keep the reader turning pages in Act One? Through bridging conflict. Bridging conflict is any conflict that is not the main story conflict. It can be used any time your main conflict must retire to the wings for a beat or three. It is often used in subplots to carry us along until we return to the main stream. But at the start of a story, it is why we keep turning the pages.

An example: At the beginning of Naomi Novik’s Victory of Eagles, Captain Lawrence is disgraced, in irons in the brig. He is awaiting execution. His faithful dragon, Temeraire, is kept in the dark about his beloved captain’s fate. Now, the plot can’t begin yet, because we haven’t seen Lawrence suffer enough, we haven’t had time to become enraged by his treatment. Furthermore, the plot when it bursts open will be a hell burner, and it requires some set up. What does Novik do to bring us to PP1? She has Temeraire under threat of losing his nice big cave.

That’s it. A morose dragon who is wallowing in self-pity is now going to be summarily ejected from a miserable hovel of a cave that he has spent some time digging out to make it more comfortable while he mopes. I’m not kidding, this was her plan for getting us a few chapters in. And it works brilliantly. Instead of milking Temeraire’s anxiety, Novik has him acting out his terrors by self-righteously protecting a few feet of mud and rock. We are outraged by the obnoxious interloper and rooting like hell for our favorite dragon. Meanwhile Lawrence undergoes one humiliation after the next while waiting to be hanged. Then at PP1 Napoleon invades England. Lawrence and Temeraire are dragooned into emergency service. By the time the French land on English shores, the two main characters are on the path to a dramatic struggle for redemption.

Learning to care

The first part of your novel, therefore, is devoted to making the upcoming conflict meaningful. To make the stakes matter to the reader, not just to the character. To make us care. So that at PP1 we feel a turn in the gut, a hope, perhaps even a desperate one, that things will work out.

That’s why grabber scenes as openers often fall flat. They may be loaded with conflict and violence, but frankly, we don’t give a damn. We don’t know the characters. Death and betrayal are all very well, but they are common. They aren’t meaningful to us unless we know a bit about who it happens to.

Take the book I’m reading at the moment. Please, take it. It’s by one of my favorite fantasy authors. But he started his latest book with a big grabber scene where the major character nearly dies. Did I care? Not at all. Then he falls back to some painfully slow stuff, so I am still annoyingly disengaged from his story, and I’m on page 40! Listen up. Readers are the most picky, demanding, and thin-skinned of people. They usually see through the fakery and formulas, especially that grabber scene that was meant to signal an action-packed story. They respond by saying “I just couldn’t get into it.”

Which is why openings of novels are so important. Because if the reader puts your book aside at page 40, they’re not going to recommend your book to anyone else. And they’ll remember you let them down.

 

Plotting: A Stubborn Grace

OK, we’re talking plot again. Let’s say you’re telling your story to a group around a campfire. Are they hugging their knees in fear and delight or are they nodding off? Depends on the plot. Are they going to eagerly repeat your story to ten other people? Depends on the plot.

The Dead Cat

I heard a story a couple weeks ago at a party. A woman said she lost her beloved cat this year. Sad, no doubt, but common. Then she gave me the details. The way she lost her cat (how it happened) had me hanging on every word. It had to do with a cherished old tabby, horrid coincidence, shocking neighbors, self-righteous employees at the pound and a last stagger to the food bowl. It was outrageous and funny and suspenseful, and when I’ve retold it, people laugh and gasp.

It had a great plot. But why is that so damnably important? Read More…

Writing in Scenes, part 2

Last time I talked about writing in scenes: what they are and how they can discipline your writing. But not all scenes are equal.

We all know that some scenes need to carry more weight than others. But which ones? And where do they fit in a novel’s architecture? While there are competing views on what the scaffolding of a novel should be, I’m going to give you the leading one, and the one I use.

There are six crucial scenes that bring your story into focus. Each should be an emotionally charged packet of drama that turns the protagonist’s fortunes (a reversal.) Read More…

Story Structure Demystified

Like most of you, I’ve read a dozen books on writing the novel. Most of them try to tell you how to write something dramatic, memorable, believable, engaging . . . all important qualities. (And ones I’d like my books to have! Thus Kay reads lots of these things.)

Now comes along something a little different: Larry Brooks has written a book on novel structure. Story Structure Demystified. And oh boy, are you in for a ride. Read More…

Can Writing Be Taught?

Along with 90 other people, I sat in on a marvelous writing workshop this weekend. Even after 10 published novels, I was able glean a few key things that caused me to re-align the last quarter of my current novel in progress. Did the workshop leader teach me how to write better?

I don’t think so. Writing can’t be taught. That’s my position this afternoon, and I’m sticking to it for at least a couple days. Read More…