DiAnn Mills believes her readers should “Expect an Adventure.” She is a fiction writer who combines an adventuresome spirit with unforgettable characters to create action-packed novels. Her books have won many awards through American Christian Fiction Writers, and she is the recipient of the Inspirational Reader’s Choice award for 2005, 2007, and 2010. She was a Christy Award finalist in 2008 and a Christy winner in 2010. DiAnn is a founding board member for American Christian Fiction Writers, a member of Inspirational Writers Alive, Advanced Writers and Speakers Association, and is the Craftsman Mentor for the Christian Writer’s Guild. She speaks to various groups and teaches writing workshops. DiAnn and her husband live in Houston, Texas. Visit her website at: www.diannmills.com or find her on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/diannmills
Plots That Dance - Part II
Last month we talked about plotting and how the dance of character and plot is vital for a successful novel, the importance of a strong hook, various kinds of conflict, and scene construction. This month we’ll focus on the necessary ingredients for the beginning, middle, and ending of your novel.
According to Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass, there are five basic plot elements. I encourage you to read and study Maass’s books. Much of what we’re covering comes from his teachings.
The five plot elements are:
1. A sympathetic character. An individual who is fully developed and has a problem(s) to solve.
2. A problem arises resulting in conflict.
3. The conflict must twist and turn, deepen and grow. This is called layering, the what-if status: what is the worst possible thing that could happen to the character; what is worse than that; or even worse than that?
4. A climax must exist—when the crux of all the conflict comes to a point.
What constitutes the beginning, middle, and ending of the novel?
The following needs to be
incorporated into the beginning, or approximately one-fourth of the
1. A strong hook to draw the reader into the story. A novel opens in the middle of action, arousing the reader’s attention. This is a taste of the conflict to come, a subtle promise that the invitation to a four-hundred-page party will be filled with adventure.
2. An exceptional, sympathetic protagonist with whom readers bond and care about.
3. A story disturbance. This is not the story problem, but an intrusion into the protagonist’s life that is annoying, stressful, and endears the character even more to the reader.
4. Strong characterization of the protagonist and antagonist. These characters are alive!
5. A problem to solve: something to achieve, overcome, or accomplish.
6. Stress, tension, and conflict. A writer establishes tension by continuously placing obstacles in the way of the characters. One way to increase tension is through dialogue. (We’ll cover this in a future article.)
7. Establish the novel’s genre. (In an earlier article, we talked about genres.)
8. Setting. Where does your story take place? Review the earlier article on this to ensure your setting is a vital part of your plot.
Here is where a story can fall apart. In our dance of character and plot, sometimes the rhythm is dull and the story begins to drag. This won’t happen if we carefully plot the middle and include subplots with exciting twists and turns.
After you’ve established the character, list the worst possible scenarios (the what-if list) that could happen to the character. You will discard some ideas, while others will enhance an intricate plot. Complete this exercise for the protagonist and antagonist. Be creative—have the event be the exact opposite of what the reader expects.
Writers achieve suspenseful conflict by incorporating scenes that show the unlikelihood of the protagonist achieving her goal. Granted, readers need to take a breather now and then, but heightened tension keeps them turning pages. Remember that all the story lines have been written. Every plot idea you can muster has already been done. Don’t put a protective shield around a protagonist. Pit the character against insurmountable odds—into an abyss that we’d never venture. Why did we all fall in love with Indiana Jones? The writer used Indy’s fears to increase the stakes. Humor added to the characterization and his rugged good looks caused women to envy the actress opposite him and men to wish they could accomplish his feats. We were all glued to our seats!
Include problems of other characters—minor characters as well as the antagonist. Who will reach their goals? More important, how can they attain their goals with all the obstacles in their way?
Throw a wrench into the middle of the story. What can happen that will forever change the path of the story and the characters’ lives? This could be new information, eliminating a character, or changing the setting. Sometimes that aspect of plotting can make the difference between a best-seller and a mid-list novel.
Sol Stein suggests giving characters a different script. In other words, the protagonist and antagonists have different agenda. They enter a scene with their own goals in mind. Try this and watch the sparks fly!
The writer’s mission, if she should decide to accept the daunting task of superb plotting, is to make the seemingly impossible occur in such a way that it is believable and convincing. Spiderman movies are classic examples of how a comic strip hero looks realistic by establishing a sympathetic character. He has reasonable problems that create incredible conflict. An ordinary young man is bitten by a spider whose bite infuses characteristics into the hero, which lead him to accomplish impossible feats through realistic struggles.
Also the characters must realize that their goals are not easily obtained. Have you ever given up? Decided a goal wasn’t worth the trouble? We want our characters to be real, yet we want them to overcome their fears.
Consider the choices your characters make. Instead a character choosing between a right or a wrong, force them to choose between two rights or two wrongs. Imagine the guilt, the responsibility, and the circumstances surrounding this dilemma. Muddy the waters, have the story and characters resemble life but be bigger than life.
Chapter hooks are as vital to your story as the beginning’s hook. Keep the reader up all night turning page after page—wanting to know what happens next.
Flashbacks can be tricky. Avoid them. But if a story requires this technique, transition in, compose the flashback in action, and quickly transition out.
Another plotting technique is a façade story. According to Donald Maass, a façade story shows information to be true but is later revealed as false. For instance, a character believes something is authentic and projects that to the reader. The reader has no reason to doubt the character. As the story climaxes, the character learns he has been deceived. The new information ushers a new dimension into the resolution. The movie Sixth Sense is a façade story.
Sol Stein in How to Grow a Novel refers to the crucible as a driving point of plot. He defines it as an environment—either mental or physical that bonds two people together. It is greater than their desires—neither is willing to give it up.
The latter portion of the middle is where the climax occurs. This is the torch that ignites the inevitable. It’s catastrophe time. Whatever has been crucial and vital to the protagonist has been destroyed. The real character, the inner landscape character, must solve the earth-shattering problem. Every conceivable emotion must play before the reader through spine-tingling, heart-wrenching action. The dance of character and plot spins out of control.
The resolution (conclusion) to the story is the reader’s moment to breathe easier and appreciate the protagonist’s ability to beat the overwhelming odds to achieve success. All loose ends must be tied here. Craft an ending to ensure a satisfactory read. Avoid a jolted ending, as though the writer is wearing a caffeine patch.
As writer Steven James said, “Create the unexpected, the unpredictable, and the realistic.”
Next month, we’ll study point of view. Until then, keep writing!