Friday, October 29, 2010

Countdown to NaNoWriMo Day Five: Plot

Well, hello there!  Welcome to Friday!  As it happens, this is a very special Friday, because it is the last one of October, and it opens the door to the final weekend before NaNoWriMo starts.  Are you excited?  Yeah, me too.

And speaking of which!  If you haven’t been around the last few days, you won’t know that we’ve been brushing up on our novel-writing craft this week, with a little help from the workshop notes I brought home from Chautauqua, NY this past July.  If you’d like to read the posts from Monday (Creativity & Inspiration), Tuesday (Writing Novels for Young Adults), Wednesday (POV Character), and Thursday (Characterization), feel free to click on the links and join in those discussions as well.

Today’s notes are from a workshop called “Plot: Its Making and Breaking” by editor and publisher Stephen Roxburgh.  Mr. Roxburgh had some great advice to share—and I’ll actually be recapping another of his workshops on Sunday to propel us into NaNo World.  Enjoy!

  • The difference between Story and Plot is summed up in these two sentences: “The cat sat on the mat” vs. “The cat sat on the dog’s mat.”  Story talks about a sequence of actions, while plot adds a WHY and makes it all cohere.
  • (From ON POETICS by Aristotle) A story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end:
    • Beginning: that which nothing needs to precede, and which something must follow.
    • Middle: that which something needs to precede, and which something must follow.
    • End: that which something must precede, but nothing needs follow.
  • Necessity is the crucial element here.  It binds the whole formula together.
  • Every story starts with an imbalance, or an injustice.  The end is inevitable. You will never know the beginning of a story until you know the end.  Learn to not fret about the beginning, until you reach the end.
  • Most novels have between ten and twelve major scenes, which click together.  Often the pieces are out of order, need to be put together.
  • You can never see your work objectively—which is exactly how editors and agents will see it.  You’ve got to stop seeing your book the way you wrote it.  Think of it in these structural terms, and that will help you to step outside it.  You need to see the whole arc of the story to see how the little things work within it.
  1. Plot of Character: Protagonist who starts in one state, and changes.  At the end of the plot, there has been a fundamental change of character.  In YA, it is usually a character moving from innocence to experience.  It is also what most YA novels are.  Often start with a character who is in some way immature; there is some imbalance.  At the end, the character is somehow reconciled or redeemed.
  2. Plot of Action: What changes is not the character; it’s the circumstances.  It’s about the fate, the fates or surroundings that change.  James Bond and Indiana Jones: you are always watching how the character gets out of his scrapes.  Picaresque novels.  Don Quixote.  Charlotte’s Web.  “Romance” is Robert Louis Stevenson’s word for plot of action.  A reader hunts after incident like a pig after truffles.  The first thing you have to do in a book is to kill off the parents.  If you don’t lose the parents, how are the kids ever going to do anything?
  3. Plot of Thought: It isn’t the thought of the character that changes, it’s the thought of the reader.  Essentially political communication or nonfiction.  Another word for Plot of Thought is didacticism—intentionally teaching something through the work.
EACH story/MS is essentially one or the other.  But they’ve all got bits of the others in them.  Action always seems to trump character in reader interest.  Plot if thought displays the urge to tell rather than show: which shows a lack of confidence in both yourself and your reader—because you don’t believe your story can convey it on its own.

But the competing influence between character and action has to not kill each other off.  They have to work together.  Remember that necessity has to drive your plot.

You have to step WAY away from your book and determine whether it is a plot of character or of action?  What is my central plot?  Where is my MC at the end?  And is that different from where he was at the beginning?

Modes of Representation:
1.)    As it is: Mimetic, an imitation of life.
2.)    Better than it is: the Disney version of life.  The Utopian vision.  (Nowhere.)
3.)    Present things as worse than they are.  Dystopia.
Most YA novels are Mimetic.  Even fantasy can be mimetic.  People can identify with it.  Prior to the 70s, literature for kids tended to be strictly Utopian.  The YA novel, when it officially came along, started to represent the realities of adolescence.  But there’s a fine line between representing reality and showing a reality that utterly and wholly sucks.  The thing is to be intentional, to be deliberate, no matter what you are doing. 

-          The most important question you can ask yourself is: How do you want the reader to feel right now?  The challenge of literature isn’t to affect your reader, but to affect them precisely as you wish.
-          Manipulate their feelings deliberately, incrementally. 
-          The ending has to be inevitable.  Necessary.

Authors tend not to cut themselves any slack.  They try to do them all at once. 

Several ways to gain perspective:
-          Put the MS away for a few months/years.
-          Work on something else
-          Give it to a trusted reader
-          Try to think about your book with some distance.

You should be able to articulate succinctly the heart of your story.  Begin to look at each of your episodes, and see how each moves the reader along the story arc toward the heart of your story.  Try to look at your story with some objectivity.

Any thoughts?  

And a random question because I'm curious: How many of you write with a clear intent of craft inside your head the whole time?  In other words, are you able to write--actually WRITE, not edit--with clearheaded motives and editorial goals, or does some other part of you take over like a vehicle driving itself and keep you from being intentional until you're either away from the MS or approaching it with a red pen? 

Just curious.  I'm the unmanned vehicle, in case you couldn't tell. 


  1. I try to have an idea of at least what I want to accomplish - the overall theme and blah blah. But for the most part, I just write. I just realized that my first three chapters end in a similar fashion - a different character is left alone with their thoughts - and I never intended that to be the case. I'm not sure I'm happy that that ended up being the case, but I'm just going to keep writing and not worry about it for now.

  2. I'm with you, Nicole. I can't look at anything objectively (or even with focused intentions) until I've stepped out of Writing Mode.

    And I love this approach: "I'm going to keep writing and not worry about it for now."

  3. Another great post, Hanna. Thanks!

  4. Glad you liked it. Thanks for visiting, Rachel!