Posts Tagged ‘planning’

Write it big enough and your plot template can also provide a handy hat.

Write it big enough and your plot template can also provide a handy hat.

I’m a big believer in templates and structures. For me, they enhance my creativity by giving me a structure to bounce off and a reminder of all the things it’s good to consider. When I put up my character template a few weeks back some people found it useful, so here’s another one, this time for writing plots.

I’ve taken elements of this template from all over the place, but most importantly from Dan Wells’s seven point story structure. When I’m writing a short story I often just use this template, alongside a character template if I’m developing a new character. For longer works I use this sort of format for each plot strand, and then combine them using another template.

Like I said, I love templates.

So here’s my list of things to consider when planning a plot. If you find it useful, or can think of other things you’d add, or even have your own template to share, please let me know in the comments.

My Plot Template v1

Title

Concept

Theme

Why is this series of events happening and important?

What is the main char arc here? – yes, this might also be on the character template, but it’s important to tie it to the plot – who’s going to change, and how, as part of this.

What’s the conflict, including its type – person vs person; person vs themselves; or person vs environment.

What suspense keeps the audience engaged?

What emotional exploration goes deeper?

What are the pauses for reflection? (I skip this when writing flash fiction)

MICE – is it a Milieu, Idea, Character or Event plot? This is a really useful thing to understand, and the linked Writing Excuses episode explains it
– Beginning, as fitting its MICE nature
– End, as fitting its MICE nature

Foreshadowing

The Seven Key Plot Points

Hook
– Questions raised
– Need created in readers

Turn 1

Pinch 1

Midpoint

Pinch 2
– Unexpected but logical direction
– Time pressure for solution

Turn 2

Resolution
– Answers to questions
– Emotional impact

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This scurvy crew are motivated by the longing for booze

These scurvy characters are motivated by the longing for booze

I love templates for the same reason I loved standard operating procedures when I was stuck in an office – they’re a way of making sure you don’t forget important details. Sure, you might need to deviate from them from time to time, but well made structures can help with anything, even the art of writing.

Heck, especially the art of writing.

When I’m writing the flash stories that appear here every Friday, I tend to only use a single plot template. Using a load of different tools for such a short story would be overkill. But when I’m writing a novel or the longer sort of short story, my desire for structure really goes to town, with all sorts of checklists and templates.

Given that a lot of my readers are also writers, I thought it might be useful to share one or two of these. So below is the checklist I use when trying to create a well developed character. I’ve added notes where I felt they’d help. Feel free to use it as you see fit, to let me know if you find it helpful, and to point out anything you think would be worth adding. Like any good process, this is a work in progress, and there’s always room to get better.

Andrew’s Character Template, version 1.2

Name

Concept – what is the core idea for this character? communist inventor? Buddhist adventurer? king of the whales?

Thematic link – how they connect to the theme of my story

Arc – how are they going to change over the course of the story?

Symbol – is there a particular thing that symbolises them within the story? for example, in one novel I’m working on the male lead is connected to blood and the female to fire.

Appearance

Voice – how they talk, especially distinctive words and sentence structures I can use.

Mannerisms

Grounding foibles – a little whimsical interest makes even the most grand of characters more relatable.

Story goal – what are they trying to achieve on the surface?

Deeper drive – what’s the deeper drive, perhaps never explicitly stated, that pushes them on? even ink and paper people deserve a subconscious.

Competence, proactivity and sympathy – which of these are they weaker and stronger in? in what way? a character who lacks all of them is unappealing, one who’s strong in them all becomes too flawlessly good (I stole this idea from a Writing Excuses episode)

Fundamental weakness – the one that runs deepest and causes them the most problems.

Flaws / faults

Response to pain – borrowed from someone I worked with on a ghostwriting project, this can be very telling about the character – when they’re hurt, physically or mentally, do they run, hide, fight back, try not to let it show?

Desire for survival affecting choices – this and the following four are borrowed from choice theory – how do these psychological drivers affect the character’s behaviour? which make the most difference? how do they come into conflict?

Desire for power affecting choices

Desire for freedom affecting choices

Desire for love & belonging affecting choices

Desire for fun & learning affecting choices

Conflicting characteristics – because internal conflict is interesting, and real people aren’t entirely consistent.

Family – who, where, etc.

What do they think makes them unique? – we all think we’re special in some way, and what we think we’re great at isn’t always the reality – another little detail to make the character more real.

It’s that time of the week again, time to delve into the latest Writing Excuses writing exercise. If you’re not already familiar with these, Writing Excuses is an excellent podcast in which four pro genre authors discuss how to write, and I’ve learned more about writing from this show than from any other source.

This week’s exercise:

Take the reverse engineered outline from a month ago, and move a side plot to the main plot.

This is an interesting way to see how focusing on different plots affects the structure of a story. I have to confess, I made a slightly half-arsed job of that previous exercise, looking at the first five pages of a Transmetropolitan comic. Still, I can do this exercise, and maybe take it a little further than last time.

Back to the City

The plot I looked at was issue six of Warren Ellis and Darrick Robertson’s sci-fi comic Transmetropolitan, ‘God Riding Shotgun’. Transmetropolitan follows the angry and often hilarious adventures of journalist Spider Jerusalem, who at this point in the story shares an apartment with his assistant Channon. I identified two plotlines – the main being Spider getting in the face of organised religion, and the sub-plot being about his relationship with Channon.

Turning this around, we would start on page one with Spider and Channon having a conversation, instead of Spider writing an article on religion. We get to see Spider being a jerk and Channon accepting it – the status quo – but the focus is on their relationship, not Spider’s work. Spider can still look crazy, and it should probably still feature an anecdote illustrating how weird their future city is, because that’s about establishing character and setting.

Now instead of getting sidelined into showing their relationship on page two, the conversation instead evolves into something about religion, introducing that plotline. Pages three and four take them out of the apartment to go to the religious convention which, in the comic, they get to somewhat later. We’re moving that plot along early on while leaving the other to bubble along in the background.

Which means that on page five, with the characters wandering around the religious convention, we see Channon learning about something objectionable Spider’s done to her and getting angry about it. Probably not what time he’s woken her up – as this is now the main plotline it needs more force. In fact, the convention and its weird religions would now trigger the revelation, subplot helping main plot along. They get into a heated argument in the middle of the convention. The main confrontation is being set up.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Stepping away from page by page detail, it’s interesting to consider how this changes the tone of the plot. In the original, we get a melancholy conversation and reconciliation between the characters midway through, as the subplot between them is resolved, and the comic ends with Spider trashing the convention in spectacular, angry style. We travel through emotional depth to an entertaining showpiece finale.

With the plots reversed, the comic hits the height of excitement and spectacle midway, with Spider making his fuss and probably getting thrown out of the convention. It’s then in the aftermath that we get into the emotional beats of the two characters’ situation, and they reconcile over their shared views on life. That leaves the reader with a very different feeling at the end – a combination of fuzzy and melancholy rather than amused and indignant. It’s a very different experience.

What Did I Get Out of This?

Despite working from the wobbly foundations of my previous work, I found this exercise really useful. It’s made me think about how I want the overall emotional flow of stories to go, and how I can rearrange plotlines to support that. It’s also made me realise that I should spend more time properly studying and rethinking other people’s writing, to get better at my own.

Anyone else done this exercise? How did you get on? And if you haven’t, what stories have you re-written in your head, and what did you change? Come on, you can own up, we’ve all wished for the happier ending from time to time.

My heroes, ready for action, adventure and a nice cup of tea.

My heroes, ready for action, adventure and a nice cup of tea.

This week’s Writing Excuses podcast was a Q&A on story structure, talking about different approaches to structure and how to get the most out of them. This ‘pick the best bits’ approach fits well with the exercise they gave at the end:

Make a list of all the awesome things you want your story to accomplish. Then put them in the order in which you want them to happen.

As with the previous exercise about plotting with the beginning and end in mind, I’m going to use this exercise to help me develop a novella I’m planning, Sieges and Silverware. The fourth in a series, this sees Victorian adventurers Dirk Dynamo and Timothy Blaze-Simms arrive at a German castle in their pursuit of clues to the location of the Great Library. It’s 1871, Germany has just been unified, and the occupants of the castle are holding out against that unification. Major plotlines include a dispute with their former colleague Isabelle McNair, a siege of the castle, a mad scientist on the loose and some covert feminism in an age run by men.

Making it Easy for Myself

If I was working with pen and paper, I’d have to brainstorm all my ideas, then write them out again in order. Thanks to the magic of the digital age I can put them in order as I come up with them, and edit that order if I’m not happy with it. So what you’ll see is the end result.

Hooray for computers!

Plot Away

My list of awesome things, in order:

  • Dirk getting lost in the crazy layout of the castle.
  • A civilised dinner party in a building being bombarded by heavy artillery.
  • A monster hunt through the darkness of the castle dungeons.
  • An argument that addresses the problems for women in gaining influence in Victorian society.
  • Blaze-Simms invents a bizarre steampunk defensive device.
  • A small band of heroes fending off a massive assault.
  • A discussion on the nature and value of nationalism.
  • The discovery of a mad scientist’s laboratory.
  • Ninjas vs Prussians.
  • Dirk and Isabelle reconciling their differences well enough to work together again.
  • A desperate airship or balloon flight from the castle as it is captured.

All the Cool Bits

Theoretically, I can see a lot of value in this exercise as a way of starting plotting without losing your enthusiasm for a project. It lets you focus on all the coolest things you want to write, and then turn those into something at least a bit coherent and useful.

But for me, in this instance, it’s proved less useful. I came up with a few interesting things, like the Carry on up the Khyber style dinner party. But whereas the first few volumes of this series were about throwing in lots of new cool ideas, by this point the story is about developing and paying off the stuff that’s already in there. I suspect that cool ideas will emerge from the structure, not the other way around.

It’s fitting with the discussion from the podcast. Not every approach to structure is for everyone, and you use the ones that suit you.

Did you try the exercise? How did you get on? And how do you go about structuring stories? Leave a comment, let me know what you think.

bookdesign345This week’s episode of the excellent Writing Excuses podcast set an interesting challenge in preparation for next month’s focus on beginnings:

Decide on the promises you want to make to your readers in your story. Then outline according to those promises.

The folks at Writing Excuses have talked a lot about the importance of the promises the beginning of a book makes. As a writer, you need to be aware of these promises, and pay off on them at the end, to leave readers satisfied. For more on this I’d recommend checking out some of their episodes on story structure.

Sieges and Silverware

For the exercise, I’m going to do some plotting for the fourth book in the series of Epiphany Club novellas I’m working on. I’m doing this because I need to start planning it anyway, so I might as well use the Writing Excuses exercises for that. With the first two books now at the editing stage and the third one part written, this is the one to get my planning teeth into.

I also find that I’ll put more effort into an exercise if I’m going to use the outcome – hence the use of previous exercises to help plan my Friday flash stories.

Entitled Sieges and Silverware, this story sees Victorian adventurers Dirk Dynamo and Timothy Blaze-Simms arrive at a German castle in their pursuit of clues to the location of the Great Library. It’s 1871, Germany has just been unified, and the occupants of the castle are holding out against that unification.

Plotlines and Promises

To work out what promises to make at the start of the story, I need to know how I’m planning to end it. The biggest plotlines, and where I want them to end, are:

  1. Following a parting of ways at the end of the previous book, I want to see Dirk and Blaze-Simms get back to cooperating with their former colleague in adventure Isabelle McNair, who currently has the clues they need to find the Library.
  2. This castle isn’t going to be able to hold out against the Prussian forces besieging it. In the end, it falls.
  3. The lord of the castle has been carrying out horrifying mad science experiments, and the story will end with his defeat, so that the heroes get a win.
  4. The lady of the castle has had her husband locked up and been running the place. This plotline addresses an issue bubbling along in all these books, and especially Isabelle’s character arc – the challenge for women of taking control of their lives in a male-dominated society. So I want to end with Her Ladyship moving on to something else, not defining herself in terms of the castle and marriage she was pushed into at a young age.

There are other plots too, but those are the main ones. So, if I want them to end that way, what are the promises I want to make for each plot?

  1. That the tension between Isabelle, Dirk and Timothy is going to be a major problem, and that the guys will deal with what they see as her betrayal.
  2. That we’re going to see this siege through to the end.
  3. That we’re going to find out what’s behind the strange monsters prowling the castle.
  4. That we’re going to see what’s going on behind the scenes of this castle, because the lady is being evasive about what’s keeping her husband from meeting the heroes.

MICE Don’t Squeak

There’s another implied promise to be addressed – Orson Scott Card’s MICE quotient. Is this a story whose structure is about Milieu (a setting), an Idea, Character, or Event.

Though they’ll all feature, and different plots are more focused on different aspects, I think this is primarily an Event story. It’s about Dirk and Blaze-Simms’s attempt to retrieve what they want from a castle under siege. So it needs to start as close as possible to the disruption of the event starting, and end as close as possible to its resolution.

That’s easy enough. I can start with them arriving by hot air balloon just as the siege begins, and end with them leaving the same way, with what they came for.

What Goes Into the First Chapter

That being the case, I now have a good idea of what my first chapter will look like.

It starts with the heroes arriving by hot air balloon at the castle, where they believe Isabelle is. There they meet her and Her Ladyship, and find that they’ve combined forces. They ask to speak to the lord of the place, but can’t get straight answers on that. As all of this is happening, Prussian forces arrive to demand that the local region join the newly unified Germany, and Her Ladyship refuses, triggering the siege. Just as they’re trying to work out what to do about all this, a body of a servant is found, ripped to shreds.

Hopefully you can see how I’ve set up all the plot threads there, creating an implied promise that they’ll be addressed. When I come to write the chapter I’ll plan it in more detail. For now though, I have the previous volumes to edit, and I’ve rambled on enough here.

What are your thoughts on how to start a story, and how to get the promises right? Have you tried this exercise? Have you noticed the promises in the books you’ve read? Share your thoughts in the comments.

5771025070_bddb7e2ec6_zI’m a big planner where writing’s concerned – working out where I’m going helps the words to keep flowing. But it’s interesting to see how, even for artists who prefer to improvise, preparation can be key to success.

This short video on the BBC website features jazz drummer Jimmy Cobb talking about working with Miles Davis on Kind of Blue. It’s a record that, to my ears, is one of the most sublimely perfect pieces of music ever made, a fluid, graceful masterpiece. But even if you don’t like jazz, it’s interesting to hear how Davis worked – picking the people to work with and the themes to explore meant the music just flowed, and they seldom needed more than one take.

The new year’s a great time to think about how you prepare to write, or for your other creative activities, and to set things up for success. If you feel like sharing how you do that, then please leave a comment below – I’m always interested in other people’s creative processes, whether or not they’re legendary jazz musicians.

 

Picture by photosteve101 via Flickr Creative Commons

3261773180_27ccde179c_zYou can take the teacher out of the classroom but you can never entirely take the classroom out of the teacher. Hence the fact that Laura sometimes tells me off for using my ‘teacher voice’ with her, and that when I see people learning I want to build on it. So given several positive responses to my previous post on planning a novel, I thought I might spend a bit more time looking at how I use seven point story structure.

To share an example of how this worked for me, I’m going to talk about ‘A Flash of Power‘, a steampunk flash fiction story I published here a few weeks ago. So you can see how I planned it, and how that worked out in the end.

Think short

Unlike planning a novel, for a short story I seldom have more than one plot strand. That’s particularly true for flash fiction – seven story beats in less than a thousand words is quite enough. It also means that those beats aren’t such big shifts as in a full novel, and tend to be more immediately connected.

Step 1: a beginning and an end

Before planning the story I brainstormed a whole bunch of ideas then thinned them out using 100:10:1. I didn’t actually come up with a hundred ideas, but I did the fundamental part of brainstorming lots of ideas, developing a few and then picking one. For ‘A Flash of Power’ that was taking Dirk Dynamo and Timothy Blaze-Simms, the steampunk heroes of a couple of stories in Riding the Mainspring, and giving them the challenge of stopping  a runaway moving factory.

That gave me an obvious end point for my story’s resolution:

  • They stop the machine.
    TBS looks pretty fried, promises no more moving buildings.

The second part means there’s some some small slither of character development in what’s otherwise a slightly daft adventure story – mad inventor Blaze-Simms recognises the need for some small limit on what he does.

Seven point structure suggests starting at the opposite point from where you’re going to end, so that gave me my hook to introduce the story with:

  • On moving factory TBS built – lightning-powered, combined with lightning generator.
    DD questioning the logic of the factory, as it’s now out of control.

So the factory’s out of control, and Blaze-Simms is being challenged on the wisdom of his creation but hasn’t listened yet.

Now to work out how they get from hook to resolution.

Step 2: twists and turns

The mid-point is when the characters make a transition towards pro-actively tackling their situation, and that propels them from the hook to the resolution. In this story the characters are trying to stop the factory from the start – again, a flash length story didn’t leave me time for any pre-amble and I wanted to start in media res. So that transition needed to be them taking control, and that meant giving them a plan to stop the factory, making my mid-point:

  • TBS says they can earth the factory.
    DD accepts that as the plan.

Now I needed turn one, the event after the hook that would normally introduce the conflict and which sets them on the path of reactively trying to solve the problem. With the factory already out of control, the conflict came from showing why it was dangerous:

  • It’s heading straight towards a town and disaster.

Oh no, disaster! The great big factory is going to crush the little people! Quick, heroes to the rescue!

I also needed turn 2, the event between the midpoint and the resolution, where the heroes grasp victory from the jaws of defeat and find the final thing they need to succeed. Here it is:

  • TBS gets hold of the necessary conductor for earthing – it’s what DD’s been hanging off.

Great. They have a plan and the tools to carry it out, getting them to the end. But everything’s going a bit too smoothly. So…

Step 3: Making things awkward

If your protagonists have everything go their way then the story’s boring. Things need to go wrong. So between turn one and the midpoint came pinch one, piling on pressure for the characters. In this story I didn’t want to add an extra villain or major new complication, so the setback came from the failure of the characters’ own idea to solve the problem:

  • DD rips out obvious connections between power sources – doesn’t help.

They’ve pulled the plug but the factory keeps going, leading to the midpoint and coming up with a proper plan. But after that comes pinch two, in which even more pressure is applied and they look failure in the eye:

  • DD tries to get to parts room by climbing a drainpipe, but gets shocked off the pipe and almost blown off the factory.

Oh no! Our hero is hurtling, however briefly, towards his doom.

Step 4: Once more, this time in order

Put all of that together and you have the plan I used to write ‘A Flash of Power’:

H:
On moving factory – lightning-powered, combined w lightning generator.
DD questioning the logic, as factory’s now out of control.

T1:
It’s heading straight towards a town and disaster.

P1:
DD rips out obvious connections between power sources – doesn’t help.

M:
TBS says they can earth it.
DD accepts that as the plan.

P2:
DD tries to get to parts room by climbing a drainpipe, but gets shocked off the pipe and almost blown off the factory.

T2:
TBS gets hold of the necessary conductor for earthing – it’s what DD’s been hanging off.

R:
They stop the machine.
TBS looks pretty fried, promises no more moving buildings.

And you can compare that with the story I actually wrote here.

Let me know if you’re finding any of this useful. Sometime soon I’ll probably talk about what comes before all of this – some of how I approach developing the core idea of a story. And as I put some of it into practice over NaNoWriMo I’ll probably discuss other writing techniques I use, partly because of my inner teacher, but mostly because November looks crazy busy and I won’t have time for blog ideas that aren’t just spewing out what’s on my brain that day.

If you’re also doing NaNoWriMo then come buddy up with me on the site – I’m there as gibbondemon, just like my Twitter tag – and if you enjoy ‘A Flash of Power’ then you can read more adventures from Dirk Dynamo and Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms in Riding the Mainspringavailable for the Kindle through Amazon and on other formats via Smashwords.

Happy plotting!

 

Picture by Ben Tesch via Flickr Creative Commons.