Posts Tagged ‘plot’

Common Writing Mistakes: Pacing and Plot Flow

Back to it, squiders!

Also, a reminder that we’ll discuss Dream Thief by Stephen R. Lawhead next Thursday, if you’re planning on reading that along with me. (Have you been reading it? Once again we have a future where all the scientists are men and who knows what the women are doing with themselves. It’s pretty sad in ’60s-era scifi, but this is mid ’80s and he should know better.)

(Also, I kind of want to punch the main character in the face, but we’ll get to that next week.)

Today we’re going to talk about issues with pacing and plot flow. Pacing is the speed of your story, and everything affects it, from how often you hit your plot points to your dialogue, your description, and even the length of your sentences. Plot flow is related, but is essentially the order your plot happens in and whether or not things make sense.

Have you ever read a book where you realize you’re halfway through and nothing’s happened? Or where things happen so quickly you’re exhausted just thinking about it? These are pacing issues.

The range of what is acceptable for pacing varies widely, with some genres tending to be faster (a lot of thrillers, for example) and others slower (romance). Some readers are willing to accept a slower or faster story pace than general as well, so you may find that some of your readers are fine with your pace while others are yelling at the book.

Pacing is a hard thing to work on. To some extent it’s instinctual, and it can help to read books to use as an example. Personally, I’ve found that the best way to get pacing to work better is to make sure you’re hitting key plot points when you’re supposed to. Too spread out, or lacking them early in the book, and your pacing is too slow. Too close together or bunched in weird places, and you get other problems.

Plot flow is directly related to pacing in that if your flow is messed up, your pacing is probably also messed up, and vice versa. If you have five things happen within a chapter and then another five chapters pass before anything else of note occurs, well.

But plot flow issues can also include what’s happening, and in what order. Is your character learning things before they should? Are they doing things and then doing them again because you forgot they’ve already been there, done that? Are you skipping key scenes that will help explain what’s happening? Are you forcing things to happen because you feel like they have to, not because they flow organically?

Plot flow issues can be hard to see while you’re writing as well. Some are obvious, such as when you get your character into a situation with no way out except some deus ex machina that stretches disbelief. But it might not be until you start getting feedback from your betas that you realize that you never showed your characters falling in love.

Perhaps the best way to avoid plot flow issues is to outline. If you know how your story is supposed to go, and what steps you need to go through to get there, it’s harder for things to sneak in (or get left out).

(See posts about outlining for more information on the subject.)

Thoughts about pacing and plot flow, Squiders?

Another nonfic post on Tuesday, and then the Dream Thief on Thursday. I hope everyone has a lovely weekend!


No Happily Ever After?

My husband and I finished up watching Wayward Pines last night (Yes, I realize we’re about four months behind, which is actually pretty good for us, television wise). And the series was working toward a conclusion, and working, and working–and then it kind of jumped the shark at the last minute.

And I understand, logically, why they did–to leave themselves open for a possible second season, even though they used up all the source material in the first season–but it still annoyed me.

(And this morning I did some research, before I got too annoyed, to see how the books ended so I wasn’t wildly out of line.)

It just…it almost seems like it’s a trend now. It’s bad enough that we seem to have gotten to this point where everything has to be dark and gritty much of the time, but now nothing can end on a good, or even a hopeful, point.

Sometimes this can be good, but more and more I’m just finding it a little exhausting. I look at the news, and all the terrible things happening around the world, and now I can’t even escape into media because it’s just more of the same.

And I know the argument is that it’s more realistic, that bad things happen and nothing is ever truly good, but can’t we have some hope? Some peace? It’s fiction, so can’t we occasionally bend the rules?

(Ending this here because I am typing outside without gloves and it is freezing and also now snowing, and I regret my decisions in life.)

What do you think, Squiders? Any recs for good, engaging media that is not all dark and “oh noes” all the time?

(And Merry Christmas, for those who celebrate, if I don’t get here on Thursday!)

The “Logic” of Fairy Tales

The other night, my husband was reading the small, mobile one Rapunzel. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the story, a pregnant woman craves the lettuce in the witch’s garden next door, and the witch says she can have it if the witch can have the child once it’s born. (And then there’s long hair and towers and “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair” and all that.)

Me> Why would anyone agree to that?
Husband> Do you mind?

But, honestly, why would you agree to that? The story says they’d been trying to have a child forever, so why would they give it up for some pregnancy cravings?

There’s other bits of the story that I have issues with. Rapunzel is just one of the fairy tales we’ve gotten for the small, mobile one, and reading them often reminds me that fairy tales seem to come with a healthy amount of ignoring common sense and logic for the sense of telling a tale or teaching a moral.

But, as Genevieve Cogman points out over at the Tor blog, while fairy tales are often passed off as tales of morality, unless you meet certain requirements, you’re pretty much screwed. You have to be the youngest, or have a certain set of virtues, or possess certain protective charms.

I think this may be why reworking fairy tales has become so popular. Because fairy tales don’t make sense, because characters make plot decisions that have no basis in logic or even emotion, because the villains have no motivation besides being wicked. And that makes us curious. Why, after threatening to kill the miller’s daughter in Rumpelstiltskin, does the king decide to marry her? Why the reliance on “love at first sight”? Why does the wolf go through the charade of being Grandma in Little Red Riding Hood? (What is a “riding hood” and why wear it for a walk?)

(I actually explored the Rumpelstiltskin question in one of the first anthologies I ever did.)

What do you think, Squiders? What’s your favorite example of fairy tale unlogic? Also, share your favorite redone fairy tale in the comments.

Previously Discovered Territory

So, I’ve been working on determining a project to work on for Nanowrimo. And, since I haven’t started a new rough draft in four years, I’ve got a huge list of story ideas that I’ve written down, to get to eventually.

I think I started with 18 different novel ideas. I’m down to four: the first book of a space adventure scifi series somewhat in the same vein as Star Trek; a high fantasy adventure story that’s the same world as my high fantasy trilogy but otherwise unrelated; a vague story that involves some combination of mazes, Friendship Trumps All, hidden magical worlds and is mostly still in the running because it’s so openended for the moment; and the sequel to my anthology story that’s included in the Under Her Protection anthology.

And because I’ve been treading on the same ground for years, editing and rewriting and submitting and publishing, the idea of writing something new is extremely exciting and I want to write them all. So I’ve been having a hard time eliminating ideas, and so I’ve been talking to anyone who will listen to me about them, in the hopes that one will suddenly jump into the lead and I can start planning for reals.

Last night I was going over these ideas with my husband again (only there was one more idea that has since been eliminated, because we determined that the plotline needed to be planned out in such detail beforehand in order to work that Nano was probably not the right place for it), and I explained the worldbuilding for my scifi series, which he thought was interesting, but then when I went into potential plots for this first book (crew has to learn to work together, saboteur from radical group onboard, warring colonies, transmissions from a colony thought lost) he said, “Well, what’s new about any of that?”

And I admit I went through this phase where I went “OMG he’s right, obviously I should not be writing science fiction when I’m just going to do the same plot as everyone else ever” but I got over it. And I will tell you why.

First of all, when condensed down to a single sentence, a lot of plots sound the same, whether they are or not, because summaries lack the nuances that stories have.

Second of all, the fact of the matter is that I like a good space adventure and other people like a good space adventure, and sometimes it’s okay to use genre conventions (especially if you twist them later on).

And third of all, a story is more than just the sum of its plots. And each plot is affected by the world it’s set in, by the characters involved in it, by the tone and theme of the story, by the voice. Every murder procedural ever follows that same basic plotline, but everything else changes.

So why shouldn’t I write my saboteur and my clashing personalities (arguably more interesting because they’re trapped on a deep space ship together) and my space dinosaurs? My story will still be uniquely mine, just like every story is unique to its author.

So there.

Premise vs Plot vs Structure

Some time ago, Squiders, we discussed Premise and Plot. (That’s a fairly short post, but for those too lazy to click through, the basic gist is that a premise is the idea of the story, whereas the plot is the series of events in a story.)

Today we’re going to expand this a little and talk about structure. What is structure? The structure of a story is how the plot is presented. It’s chronology, viewpoints, tense. It’s when certain events happen in a story.

The plot doesn’t necessary vary based on structure, but the structure can make for very different stories with the same plot.

For example, let’s say we have a plot with plot points A, B, C, and D.

Story 1 is presented in a linear fashion, so A, B, C, and D are presented to the reader in the order they happen.

Story 2 is presented in a nonlinear fashion, so we start with C, go back to B, then back to A, and finish up with D.

Story 3 has multiple viewpoints, so character 1 presents their side of the story, and then character 2 presents their side.

Story 4 intertwines A, B, C, and D with a separate story of plot points E, F, G, and H, alternating between the two plots.

The plot points don’t change because the structure changes. The events still happen in the order they happen. What changes with the structure is merely the presentation.

Your story has a structure whether you think about it or not. Some people plan their structure out in advance, whereas others just happen.

Perhaps the most common structure in story-telling is the Three-Act structure, which consists of a beginning inciting incident, a middle section where conflict builds, and a final concluding section. There are, of course, other structures, and even Three-Act structures can vary, based on when the turning points in between acts fall. (Some people say the inciting incident should occur about 10% of the way through the story, while others say 25%, for example.)

A common variation of the Three-Act structure  looks more like an increasing sine wave (sorry, engineer, don’t know how else to explain it) where a series of mini-climaxes accompany the act transitions, leading up to the final climax at the end of the story.


Premise = idea

Plot = series of events

Structure = presentation of plot

The Importance of Antagonists

Someone on Twitter the other day was asking the Twitterverse at large whether or not their protagonists had antagonists.

Well, I certainly hope so.

What drives story? Conflict. And what causes conflict? Having obstacles that your main character/protagonist needs to overcome.

(Your main character and protagonist are usually, but not always, the same character. But that’s beside the point.)

An antagonist, from the Greek antagonistēs, is anyone or anything that acts in direct opposition to your protagonist. It doesn’t have to be someone doing something on purpose. It doesn’t even have to be a person. In fact, from scene to scene, the antagonist may change. Sure, the overall story will have a major antagonist, but in a small scene where your character can’t get the barista to understand their order, the barista is the antagonist.

A story without an antagonist has no conflict, and a story with no conflict has no plot.

People will invariably point out their favorite one-man piece of literature as an example of something otherwise, but having a single character doesn’t mean there’s not an antagonist.

It may be a fish, an island, or his own mind.

Remember what they taught us back in high school English? There’s three main types of conflict: Man vs Man, Man vs Nature, and Man vs Himself.

So any story worth anything had better have some sort of antagonist.

Otherwise it’s just someone sitting and twiddling their thumbs, and no one cares about that.

Disagree with me, Squiders? What/Who is your favorite antagonist?

Dealing with Side Characters

You know, Squiders, main characters are bad enough. They don’t do what you want them to do, or they forget the plot in a moment of passion, or you turn your back for a moment and they’ve decided being a bad guy sounds like a pretty good gig. But at least you know they’re important. When a scene goes the wrong way, at least they’re still in the center of it.

Side characters, however, are tougher. They walk a fine line between being important and being in the background. These are your sidekicks, your lackey bad guys, your friends and relations. They’re important to the characters somehow. They contribute to the plot…somehow. But they can’t do too much, or they become main characters. And they can’t do too little, or your reader wonders why they’re there.

It’s a hard line to tread. Each story, each plot, has different character needs. And very few novels can get away with no side characters at all. People, unfortunately, do not exist in a vacuum. And each side character provides their own issues. It might be your character’s mother, whom they obsess about constantly, but, in the end, provides little of use to either plot or characterization. It might be your character’s best friend, who is always around, providing witty banter, but isn’t there when your character needs her most so your reader wonders why you bothered to build her up so much. It might be the professor your character fights with the whole first half of the novel, only to disappear for the second half.

Unfortunately, there’s only one thing to do. You look at a side character, decide what they need to contribute to the plot, and then you either build them up so they fit their goal, or you dial them back (or, sometimes, get rid of them completely).

I’m having to do this right now. I’ve got a side character named Thor (yes, that Thor) that at the moment, sits on the cusp. I’m not quite sure which way he’s going to have to go to fit the story.

(Hopefully I will by the end of the day, though.)

Anything you’ve found helps with side characters, Squiders? Any you’re having issues with at the moment?

What is a Subplot?

We all know what a plot is, don’t we, Squiders? The plot is what happens. It’s the series of events that takes us from the beginning to the end.

So, what’s a subplot?

A subplot is a series events that enhances the main plot.

So, what does that mean?

It means that a subplot gives the plot or the characters more depth. They can show why characters other than the main character are doing what they’re doing, what makes the main character the person to do the job, or create additional obstacles for the characters to overcome.

But it is important to note that subplots are directly related to the main plot. They must connect to it somehow.

In other words, they don’t stand alone. They don’t make sense without the main plot. If a “subplot” does, it’s not a subplot. It’s a stand alone plot, and it’s very difficult to pull off multiple plots in the same work. Mostly it just confuses people. In fact, if you have a “subplot” that doesn’t relate at all to your main plot, people are going to wonder why it’s there at all.

Like a plot, subplots need to make sense. They need to have a beginning, a progression, and an end. If you don’t have an end, you’re going to have dangling plot strings, and people will wonder what the point was.

Subplots also need to have less importance than the main plot. If they don’t, well, maybe your plot is in the wrong place.

Any thoughts on subplots, Squiders? Tips?

Doing a Story Justice

On a somewhat related note to Monday, here’s another author fear that I sometimes worry about myself – doing a story justice.

You know how it goes: somehow, a story worms its way into your head, as stories are wont to do. It’s brilliant. It’s amazing. If done correctly, maybe it’s your chance to finally get a story into that literary journal you’ve always dreamed of seeing your name in, or maybe that Top 25 market that’s always been just a tiny bit out of reach will finally say yes.

All you have to do is sit down and write it, and maybe your dreams will come true.

And that’s where the doubt strikes. Sure, some tiny, obnoxious part of your brain says, if done correctly, this story could be extraordinary. But all it’s got is you, and what have you done lately that can prove you’ve got the chops to pull this off?

So you sit there, and you say, well, perhaps my brain is right. Maybe I’m not ready for this story yet. Maybe I should hold off until I have a few more publications under my belt. Maybe I should hold off until I’m sure I can do this.

Except you know what happens to stories that you wait on. They wither and they die. Right now, that story is clear in your mind. You can see scenes and characters and dialogue. Even if you write a detailed outline, when – if ever – you go back to that story, it’s going to be different. You’re going to have lost something, something that drove you to want to write it, and you’re going to be hard-pressed to remember what it was.

So I say, why not write it now? Part of writing is the journey, the growth you experience with each story. Sure, maybe you won’t do this particular story justice. But you won’t know if you don’t try.

And you may be pleasantly surprised with what you come up with.

Write Your Query First

So, generally people look at novel writing as a linear process: Step 1, write the novel. Step 2, edit the novel. Step 3, submit the novel. So you write the book, make it pretty, and then worry about how you’re going to sell it. For those who have never thought about selling a novel, the query is the pretty letter you send an agent or editor telling them what your book is about in an attempt to grab their interest so they sign you and you get lots of money.

(I’m lying about the money.)

But, it turns out that writing your query BEFORE you write your novel can actually be helpful.

Don’t look at me like that. I’m not crazy.

Here’s the thing. Queries force you to take your plot and smoosh it down into a few paragraphs. It forces you to pull out what’s most interesting about your story and what your main themes are.

These are important things to know. And if you know them before you get 50,000 words into a novel and realize you have no idea where you’re going or why, you’re going to be able to write a more cohesive book that makes sure to focus on what you feel is important.

But Kit, I hear you saying, I’m a pantser. I don’t know where my book is going before I start it. How can I possibly write a query first?

Well, it’s a little harder for you, but not impossible. After all, there’s something that pulled you to start writing that particular story. Can you put what that is into words? Aside from helping you realize what’s important to the story, it might help you hold on to whatever it was that got the juices flowing.

Just something to think about, Squiders. Have a good weekend.