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Posts tagged ‘story structure’

First Monday June 2020 – is your plot a prison or a road map?

As the world cautiously opens up after the Covid-19 lockdown, I’m exploring some ways to get those writing muscles back up to speed. Not long ago I was asked to explain the difference between plot and story structure but held off while we dealt with our “new normal.” We’re still dealing, but I’ll tackle the question here. Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments below.

Plot is what happens in your story. Structure is how you show the plot unfolding. It makes your readers eager to learn what happens next.

Some writers resist plotting, afraid of losing interest if they know everything that happens. I used to be the opposite, obsessively plotting, afraid of running out of content. Over time I learned to plot the major events and turning points and let the characters supply the rest.

A rough plot is a road map, not a prison. It provides the reassurance of a desired ending while allowing the flexibility to make changes to the story as we write.

As I always say, there’s no one way to write, only what works for you. Try some of these approaches until you find your best fit.

Desert Justice is featured in this anthology

An excellent guide to structure comes from Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird, and uses the code, ABCD.

A = Action

Action isn’t all shoot-outs and car chases. It’s when something happens before the reader’s eyes instead of in flashback or summary. My romantic suspense, Desert Justice, opens when the heroine gets caught up in a plot to assassinate the ruling sheikh. An action scene can happen in an office, if the new boss is accusing a character of passing sensitive information to a competitor.

B = Background

Only sketch in enough background to let the reader know what’s going on.

Recently on TV’s Master Chef, each contestant was given a photo of themselves with a person who’d influenced their career or made sacrifices for them. They had to cook a dish to symbolise the connection. Thanks to this superb snippet of background, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

There’s a family connection in Desert Justice, too. She’s looking for her mother’s brother and needs the sheikh’s help. The brother is conspiring against the sheikh, but we don’t learn this until much later.

C = Conflict

Romance readers know the characters are attracted to each other. Conflict is what keeps them apart. It must be strong enough to last throughout the story and must be be solvable, not based on something they can’t change, such as their ethnicity.

They also need goals they desperately want to reach. My heroine wants to find her long-lost uncle. Since he threatens the sheikh’s life, their goals are in conflict. According to Hollywood writing guru, Michael Hauge, the goals must be visible so we know whether or not they are attained. Internal goals such as the need for love, happiness or personal growth come secondary to achieving the external goals.

D = Development

Development means creating the events your characters experience while moving away from or closer to their goals. Think of development as a journey. What stops must be made on the way from first meeting to happy-ever-after? This forms your story structure, whether detailed road map, rough outline or any combination to suit your writing preferences.

Development can mirror a real journey like The Odyssey or Thelma and Louise. A learning curve: think Beauty and the Beast. Or a suspenseful tale such as my Desert Justice.

Regardless of the story you wish to tell, using ABCD will get you there. Start where the problem starts – Beauty being stuck with the Beast, or my heroine caught up in a plot against the sheikh. Think big life changes – a bride left at the altar; a property dispute that could leave your character homeless. Drop readers right in the middle of the situation and go from there.

Give your characters interesting, page-turning challenges. What’s the very last thing the character wants to do? Leave them no option but to do that. Show us what they go through physically and emotionally. Push them to the brink. All events should be like links in a chain: cause – effect; bigger cause – bigger effect, biggest cause – OMG I can’t do this – they do it anyway, ultimate climax – satisfactory ending.

The ending should resolve the conflict between them, leading to the happy-ending they never thought they could have. Take your time with the ending. Show how they’ve grown and changed. Think A Christmas Carol where Scrooge sends the urchin to buy the biggest turkey in the butcher’s shop. He’s laughing when he pays for the bird, letting us see how far he’s come emotionally. Increasing emotions in your characters puts readers in touch with their own emotions, IMO the reason most of us read fiction.

A strong, clear structure gives you room to let readers share the emotional journey. My writing muse, Gene Roddenberry, called it “straight lining the story.” Yes, I give them goals to strive for and actions to take, each leading to the next as the stakes get higher and higher. But these days, I don’t keep them endlessly busy. I give them space to figure out what they need to do and, most importantly, how they feel along the way.

Do you plot as you go, or let characters lead the way? Neither is right or wrong, only what works for you. Share your thoughts in the comment panel below. The blog is moderated to avoid spam but comments can appear immediately if you click on “sign me up” at right. I don’t share your details with anyone.

Happy writing,

Valerie

Valerie is a Member of the Order of Australia

Author of  90 books in 29 languages

Australia Day Ambassador

Life Member, Romance Writers of Australia

Australian Society of Authors’ medal recipient

On Twitter @ValerieParv, Facebook and www.valerieparv.com

Represented by The Tate Gallery Pty Ltd, Sydney

 

First Monday Mentoring November 2019 – do you always write from the heart?

This week I was reading The Last Voyage of Mrs Henry Parker the second novel by past Valerie Parv Award Winner, Joanna Nell, when I found in the acknowledgments, her  appreciation for encouraging her to follow her instincts and write her book from the heart.

She’d certainly done that. At one point I was reading in such an emotional mess I didn’t think I could finish the book because I was feeling all the feels. Thankfully I did finish and the ending was totally worthwhile.

Joanna’s acknowledgment made me think about how important it is to invest yourself in your writing. Years ago an editor at Mills & Boon, London, proposed a change I’d already considered and rejected. When I told her so, she asked me how often I followed my instincts. I’d was forced to admit that I’d been second-guessing myself , trying to give the editor what I thought she wanted.

Nobody knows what will sell until it’s out there. Ask J.K. Rowling about her many rejections before Harry Potter became a publishing phenomenon.  Far better to follow your writing instincts and tell the story you passionately want to tell.

With so many books being published, the biggest challenge to readers is discovering your work. Joanna’s first book, The Single Ladies of Jacaranda Retirement Village, also published by Hachette, was launched with a national book tour. Her delightful humour and focus on love in older years meant she had a keen readership waiting for her second book.

Joanna Nell signs her much-anticipated new book

Some years ago when I wrote a book on creativity, The Idea Factory, published by Allen & Unwin,  my late husband drew a cartoon of a person being X-Rayed, the doctor indicating an actual book showing up on the screen. “Yes, there is a book in you.” These days it seems not only does everyone have a book in them, they can’t wait to get it out.

This can be at the expense of thorough editing and overall presentation, particularly if you’re self publishing. When it comes to basic grammar, story structure, spelling and the like, standards are slipping everywhere. The internet is full of memes showing the difference between their, they’re and there, which your spell checker doesn’t always recognise, although they’re (they are) improving all the time.

A useful rule for editing, coined by sci-fi luminary, Theodore Sturgeon, he described as “matter vs manner.”

Matter is what you write about – the stories of your heart. IMO these are non-negotiable. No editor or critique partner or group should tell you what stories you can tell, although you may have to wait for the readership to catch up.

Manner is how you tell your story and it’s here that beta readers, editors and critique groups are most helpful. If you have a wonderful story but it’s getting lost in turgid prose, excessive adjectives, typos and spelling mistakes, these are craft issues you can fix.  As far as possible I want readers to enjoy the story without  distractions, and I welcome having structural issues pointed out. The story is mine but how it’s told is an editor’s province, ensuring my message comes across as I intend.

For example, if the problem is the common one of repetition – the author repeating the same information in a different way or in another scene, it should be fixed, no argument. All writers have pet words we use unconsciously until we edit them out in successive drafts. Common examples are just, only, well, in fact, etc.  What must remain is your message, your reason for writing a particular story. In this I urge you to follow your instincts and always, always write from your heart.

How often do you follow your instincts and write from the heart? Share your thoughts in the comments below. They’re moderated to avoid spam but your comment can appear right away if you click on “sign me up” at right. I don’t share your details with anyone.

Happy writing!

Valerie Parv

www.valerieparv.com

@valerieparv on Twitter and Facebook

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