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User Submission: Writing Well Part Three

Started by Rob, April 05, 2010, 01:22:53 PM

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Today's tutorial post was submitted by Gibson Twist, creator of Pictures of You. You can check out more of his work at Sinister Squid. Where this article and successive entries were originally published. Part one of this series can be found here. Part two can be found here.

The following is the third in a series of six tutorials designed to help novice writers build a better story.

Once you have your basic storyline down and you have a richer understanding of the people and places in it, it's time to start focusing on pulling the story into a clearer, more detailed picture as we look at writing an effective Plot.
The importance of having a concise and fully realized Plot cannot be overstated; if Theme is the vehicle driving the story and Tableau is the driver, then Plot is the road on which it drives, from Point A to Point Z and all stops in between. If an author doesn't do a good job of mapping out where the story is going, how long it will take to get there and the markers it must hit on the way, then it becomes a meandering and directionless journey. Your readers don't have to know where it's going, in fact it's better if they don't. But they have to know that you do or they won't follow you for long.

In constructing your Plot, there's a lot to consider... so much that I could probably do another series of tutorials on that alone, but for now I'll try to cover the major points you'll need to know and the elements that many fledgling authors neglect. It's worth saying that there is no such thing as the right way to plot a story, but there are indeed many ways to avoid doing it the wrong way.

Every writer has their own method of plotting, but there are certain elements that are common among most if not all of them. For the purposes of this tutorial, I'll break it down into two sections. In the first, I'll address quickly the uniformity of Plot, and in the second I'll look more in depth at the process I use as a model of how the plotting process can be done.

First, let's address the basics: Inciting Force, Action, Climax, and Resolution.

Inciting Force

Why is all of this happening? It's all well and good to want to write a story about a great train-hopping trip across the country, but without an inciting reason for the characters deciding to hit the rails, the story is hollow. A bus driver becomes a doctor... why? Jimmy climbs a mountain... why would he do that? Everything needs a reason, whether it is detailed or not. You should always know why your story is happening. Otherwise no one will believe you and no one will care. Luke Skywalker didn't just hop the first ship to Dagobah, he had a reason. Your Inciting Force can be commonplace* or surreal, but it should always be important to the characters. Nothing should ever happen just because. Consider as well that there can be many Inciting Forces, but be cautious not to overwhelm the reader with them.

*While Inciting Forces can be commonplace, they should never be mundane.


This is the body of the story, the Point A, Point B, Point C, what happens and in what order. Whatever journey the characters are on as a result of the Inciting force takes place here. Action will be the bulk of your story and is the most variable element of plot. What you do and say here, along with the Climax, will largely define the story you are telling and is what will distinguish your work from every other written piece. I'll elaborate on this in a moment.


Often, this is the point in the story where all of the action comes to a head and the Inciting Force is answered, when the mission is accomplished, where goals are met... or not! The mark of good writing is in building suspense so the reader doesn't always know how the story will end, and a good writer will know when the story demands a happy ending or something else. In addition, your story can have more than one Climax, and can in fact contain many smaller ones along the way. In Tolkein's Lord of the Rings, we can see one definite Climax when the ring is destroyed, but consider along the way as the balrog is defeated, as Saruman is toppled and when Minas Tirith is saved. These are all small Climaxes to what I call Episodes, which I'll address further.


Also known as Denouement, Resolution is exactly that... the resolution of the story, what happens as a result of Action and Climax. Everything that happens along the course of your story will have consequences, and you must be careful to resolve them, or if not resolved then be mindful of why. Illustrate the world in which your characters will live after their journey is done. If the ending is happy, let's see the picket fence. If it isn't, show us how the characters react to their failure. Tie up your loose ends!

Now that you have the basic fundamentals of Plot, what is left is the nuance, the variables. As I've said, there are innumerable ways to plot your story, some authors choose to plot meticulously while others plot loosely and allow themselves freedom to construct the details during Composition. For new writers, I always recommend the former, meticulous plotting. This doesn't restrict you from constructing the details as you write, and in fact every writer should, and it provides a clearer path with which to work. The following is an approximation of the process I use*, Markers, Episodes, Chronology and The Story in Rough.

*This process works for me, but I advise all writers to explore their own.


Make a list of the major points you want to include in the story, be they specific acts or lines of dialogue you want to use or generic scenes. If you want one character to say "That's what apples cost these days!" while flinging a hammer at a guy in a monkey suit, jot it down. If you want someone to be wearing a fake moustache but don't know why, jot it down. From important elements in the storyline to trivial aspects in the background, make a list and keep adding to it. These are your Markers, like an artist will decide their colour pallate before they begin painting, you too will decide what ingredients your story will have. You're not limited to these, mind you, and you'll probably scratch more than a few of them off before you're done, but this list serves as a guideline of where you want to go.


After you have your list of Markers, you can begin grouping things that can happen together or consecutively. In this step, you don't need to pay attention to continuity or what causes what, but focus instead on building the individual Scenes. This is the scene where Jack finds the steel chest in the jungle. This is the scene where the squirrels run through the kitchen. This is the scene where old man Clements throws the hammers. They don't have to be in order as long as you have a clear picture of what's happening in each one.

Helpful hint: Write each of your Markers down on its own index card. You can add notes for each at the bottom to help keep track of how you want to use them, or if they are connected to other Markers. You can then organize the index cards into Episodes. You will probably find that you are thinking of more Markers as you organize them, and this way makes it easier to fit them in, and if you need to move Markers from one Episode to another, simply pull out the card. If you have cards left over when your Episodes are constructed, you can reconsider whether those story elements should be included.

Progression and Chronology

Every event in your story should always lead into or be led into by another event, it should have a smooth narrative. Once your Episodes are put together, you need to make sure there is a natural Progression, that the story you are telling builds on itself. This is especially true if the narrative style you choose includes flashbacks or follows more than one main character, or any other kind of split narrative. It's generally poor form to create a flow of suspense or anticipation and then diverge into a point of low suspense. Of course, this is not always true, and in fact doing this properly can heighten the suspense to great effect. To do it properly, however, you need to pay attention to how it fits in.

As an example, the big car chase is on and the hero is in hot pursuit of the villain over the countryside, knuckles are white and teeth are clenched! Cut to an old farm hand walking his cow to the barn on a lazy, sunny afternoon. He takes off his cap and wipes his forehead with his sleeve as he looks up at the clear blue sky. What's next? Does the farmer notice the two cars speeding down the road and watch as they pass his farmhouse? Or do the cars smash violently through his field, narrowly missing the farmer and his cow and sending debris and chaos into the scene? Be mindful of how your story flows.

The other side of this coin is the Chronology, or timeline of your story. This is not only a case of knowing what is historically accurate for your story (King Arthur never told his knights to git r dun), but also making sure the events in your story are in in order, and that the timeline within your story is appropriate. Again, this is especially important in stories with split narrative or where time is a variable. If your story is set in 2009 and your character has been a cop for 15 years, make sure you don't mention him going to see The Matrix in high school. When your band of ragtag WWII soldiers is done fighting the Japanese, they won't be shipping off to fight the Nazis. If Jimmy loses his pocket knife in the third chapter, he shouldn't have it again in chapter 12. More than one might ever realize, but these details can be the difference between an enjoyable read and the loss of the reader's suspension of disbelief.

The Story in Rough

This should be the last step in putting together your plot, assembling everything you've done in proper order. Once you've turned your Markers into Episodes and you have a good Progression and the Chronology is sound, it's time to assemble them all together and write out The Story in Rough. Some authors will believe that they can keep the episodes straight in their heads, or even refer to their notes when they progress to Composition, and this may even be true, but I will always always always advise people to make the effort to delineate their full Plot. Whether it be in point form or in longhand prose description, be it handwritten or typed, seeing how your story moves from start to finish will not only affix it in your head, but will also offer insight into how a reader will experience the finished product. I suggest doing it on a computer, as it lets you make changes easily as you need to... which you will. Having your Plot worked out in sequence will also help you focus on the next steps in the process.

Congratulations, you have your Plot! Or, at least, the rough version of it. You will find yourself making adjustments in the next steps as the needs of your process require them, but what you have now is the blueprint. You can refer to this as you begin to compose and see where you're going, or going wrong.