Posts Tagged ‘plot’

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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bookdesign346Writing Excuses continue to provide excellent writing advice and interesting exercises through their podcasts. And so I keep beavering away at the exercises, and where possible using them for work in progress. This week, I’m working on book three of the Epiphany Club series, Aristocrats and Artillery, using the exercise from episode 10.19:

Write dialog in which each of the speakers has a different subtext and motive. Without explicitly stating those, try and make them clear to the reader.

This dialogue is between Isabelle McNair, adventurer and scholar with the Epiphany Club, and Louis, the King Under Paris. Prussian forces are invading France, Napoleon III has been overthrown, and the war is approaching Paris…

The Dialogue

“Your Majesty.” Isabelle curtsied before the King. “So good of you to see us again at this difficult time.”

“Indeed.” There was a secretive little smile at the corner of Louis’s mouth. “The Prussians draw ever closer, and we both know that a republican government cannot stop them.”

“A situation which only makes my plea more urgent.” She rose and looked him in the eye. “Paris is full of priceless artefacts, sources of knowledge that might be endangered by the war.”

“Or by the ignorance of the Prussians.” Louis nodded. “Take this for example.”

He drew back the cloth on the table next to him, revealing a stone tablet. A tablet like the two in Isabelle’s room back at the hotel, packed and ready to depart. This time he favoured them all with his knowing smile.

“To some it just looks like a rock.” The King ran a finger across the engraved surface. “But to persons of learning it could be a source of great knowledge.”

“Indeed.” Isabelle’s voice remained remarkably calm. “We should ensure that it is safe.”

“We should ensure that the whole city is safe from the invaders. And for that I need all the support I can muster.”

“You will need supporters abroad.” Isabelle made a small gesture with her hand, taking in all three members of the Epiphany Club. “People with influence in foreign governments. Respected organisations that can quickly win diplomatic support for your regime.”

“And I would reward such friends greatly.” The King smiled and pulled the cloth back across the stone. “Once my city and my country are secure.”

Did It Work?

So, readers, what did you think the characters’ motives and subtexts were in that conversation? Is it clear, incomprehensible, actually a little too obvious? Please let me know how I’ve got on.

I recently introduced Laura to the film Tremors, after making the shocking discovery that she’d never seen it. In doing so, I realised how great an example it is of a key storytelling trick – try fail cycles.

Footloose vs Dune

In case you’ve somehow missed this cinematic classic, Tremors is a 1990 film about a small town under attack by giant burrowing worms. Starring Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward as handyman heroes Valentine and Earl, it’s a film that I love not because it’s masterful or innovative, but because it’s so much fun. It uses a horror structure, but lacks the dark atmosphere of horror. It has a humorous tone, but isn’t a comedy. The characters are clichés, but together they’re an interesting mix. The climax features one of the most hilariously in-your-face ropey special effects shots I’ve ever seen.

It’s as if Frank Herbert’s worms from Dune escaped to hunt down that guy from Footloose, and exactly as serious as such a film would be. I love it.

Try, Try Again

Try fail cycles are an important part of plotting stories. They consist of a character repeatedly trying to achieve a goal, and repeatedly facing setbacks, until they finally get there. Those failures are what make the final success feel rewarding – after all those struggles, the character and their plan have grown, and there’s real tension around whether this attempt will succeed. Given that we know that heroes usually win in the end, it’s an important way of creating doubt about the outcome.

In Tremors, those cycles are really clear, and they show how the pattern can vary.

In the first act, Valentine and Earl make repeated attempts to leave town, for a variety of reasons. Every time they are stopped in their tracks. Their eventual failure is what keeps them in town for the film, and for one final escape attempt in the last act.

In the second half of the film, once the monsters are on display in all their rubber and gunk glory, we see two try fail cycles from the townspeople. One is them trying to get to a place of safety, as one option after another at first works and then fails. There’s the same pattern with their attempts to kill the worms. They try, they succeed, but then something means they can’t follow the same approach. It’s not just a cycle of try then fail. It’s a cycle of try then succeed and then fail, which creates strong emotional peaks and troughs. We celebrate the successes and bemoan the failures along with Valentine, Earl and the rest.

Finally there’s the romantic arc, as Valentine tries to work out how to communicate with geologist Rhonda. It’s much less prominent, and less obviously a repeating cycle, but it’s there. Valentine faces his own awkwardness several times, all under the amused eye of Earl. It’s a reluctant try fail, in which Valentine fails toward realising what he wants romantically and how to make it happen.

Learn from the Worms

Sometimes it takes an unsophisticated story to expose the clever tools writers use, and Tremors is one of those occasions. If you haven’t seen it then go watch it – I’ll still be here when you get back. And maybe share your thoughts on the film or try fail cycles in the comments below.

I don’t know if William Shakespeare really is the most influential writer in literary history. As someone who grew up Britain, it feels like it. And within my cultural experience, he’s certainly the writer that others lean on the most, borrowing openly from his work to make connections with an audience.

As both a reader and a writer, I find it interesting to look at two different ways in which creators approach this – by adopting the structure of Shakespeare’s plots, or by dressing up in their trappings.

Hamlet on Motorbikes – Sons of Anarchy

On its surface, the TV show Sons of Anarchy has a very modern plot. Its tale of a biker gang struggling against the unstoppable tide of change, full of drug deals, arms shipments and roaring engines, is as 21st century as you can get. But you don’t have to dig deep to see something older in there.

Especially in its early seasons, Sons of Anarchy was a full-on tribute to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, with a bit of Macbeth thrown in for good measure. The protagonist Jax is the son of the deceased John Teller, founding leader of the Sons of Anarchy motorbike gang, a gang who rule their local community in a thoroughly medieval manner. His mother Gemma is married to the current leader of the gang, who was responsible for John’s death, while John’s diaries fill in the role of Hamlet’s father’s ghost. The Macbeth angle comes from Gemma, egging her husband on to ever darker deeds in the name of ambition.

Using these familiar roles and conflicts gives the show a sense of depth and darkness. Hamlet and Macbeth are both classics for a reason – they presented characters who were deeply troubling and yet deeply convincing. They turned familiar relationships, particularly family relationship, on their head. This is unsettling and yet fascinating to watch. How will Hamlet/Jax tackle the contradiction between familial love and a quest for vengeance? Will Lady Macbeth/Gemma ever face the consequences of her own ruinous actions?

Sons of Anarchy borrows its structure from Shakespeare, and makes some open nods to that source, but it doesn’t wear the outward trappings of the bard’s plays. For that, we can look at a very different story.

Macbeth Made Funny – Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett

Wyrd Sisters was one of Pratchett’s early Discworld books – not the first few unrefined works, but the ones where he was getting into his stride as a humourist, a humanist and a storyteller. It’s the story of three witches – Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick – as they come into conflict with a king who has, Macbeth-style, murdered his predecessor to take the throne. Where Sons of Anarchy is dark and brooding, Wyrd Sisters is funny and often light-hearted, though with a serious sense of justice at its core.

Again, the two main Shakespearean influences on display are Hamlet and Macbeth. We get the royal usurpers, one of whom can’t get the blood from his hands; the victim’s ghost seeking justice, as in both plays; the witches of Macbeth‘s most-quoted scene; the use of a play to bring out the truth as in Hamlet; and many more little references. But the underlying plot twists and inverts Shakespeare rather than following his beats. The references are there to provide humour rather than depth, and to let Pratchett make a point about who we see as heroes.

Different Approaches, Different Uses

These different ways of borrowing from Shakespeare clearly have different uses. The Sons of Anarchy approach works whether or not your audience know the plays. In fact not knowing them may help – a friend of mine was put off by the show’s knowing winks toward its sources. While Wyrd Sisters works as a story whether or not you know your Shakespeare, the references to the bard have no value if you don’t. They are jokes about Shakespeare, rather than a drama told using his tools.

So if you’re thinking of using Shakespeare in your writing, which approach will work best? That depends on what effect you’re after.

Borrowing the trappings Pratchett-style lets you share jokes with readers who know Shakespeare – which is probably most readers, to some extent at least. It creates a bond between you and those readers, lets them feel smart for being in on the jokes, but can disruptive immersion in the story by reminding you that it is a story in a long line of stories. It works best for humour.

Borrowing the plot Sons of Anarchy-style lets you borrow the darkness that oozes from Shakespeare’s dramatic works. It can help to create something thoroughly immersive, though it creates a risk that the audience will realise the connection partway through, again disrupting the experience.

Borrowing from any source has its uses and its risks. But when the source is as good as Shakespeare, his popularity adds to the potential for triumph or disaster.

Do you have any opinions on who has borrowed well or badly from Shakespeare, or from other sources? Have you tried it in your own writing? Share your thoughts in the comments.

I love it when I get a chance to learn writing tricks from other media. Something like dance, music or painting can often provide different approaches to art that take me in new and fascinating directions as a writer.

My most recent discovery is Every Frame a Painting, a YouTube series by Tony Zhou. This series on the art of film is fantastic in its own right, helping me understand the importance of editing in a way I never did before, as well as countless other visual elements. It’s also reminded me of a couple of great lessons on story structure, and refined how I view them:

  • Points in a plot should be connected by implied ‘therefore’ or ‘but’, not just ‘and then’. This creates cause and effect, not just events that could happen in any order.
  • It’s often worth having two stories going in parallel, and switching out of each as it reaches its peak of interest, rather than leaving it for an emotional slump.

Rather than writing any more here, I’ll recommend that you go check out Every Frame A Painting, starting with this five minute piece on Orson Welles’s F for Fake, from which I drew the lessons above.

bookdesign345Each week, I’m doing the exercise from Writing Excuses’s excellent podcast writing course and sharing the results here. This week’s exercise was working on beginnings:

Start writing your story! Write 500 words, focusing on just one of the promises you’ve identified for your story. Then stop, and start writing another 500 words with a different promise. Aaaand then do it a third time.

For these exercises, I’m working on Sieges and Silverware, the fourth part of a steampunk series I’m working on. You can read the first volume as an ebook now, and read the exercise preceding this one here. Suffice to say, I’ve identified some cool things I want to include in my story, and this exercise is about setting up the promise that those things will happen. So, here are three beginnings, any of which I might eventually refine and use:

Promise 1: Blaze-Simms invents a bizarre steampunk defensive device.

Dirk Dynamo wouldn’t have minded so much if the hot air balloon were plummeting toward the ground. Sure, they were losing altitude fast, and there was no way this would be a pleasant landing. But at least if they were heading toward the ground he could see what was coming, get ready to roll clear or dive into something soft just before they crashed.

What bothered him was the trees. A vast swathe of dark German forest, broken by the occasional rocky outcrop. Sure, the leaves might soften the initial impact. But then the balloon would get impaled on branches, accelerating its descent. They’d be falling through twilight shadows and layers of concealing greenery onto no-one new what upward protruding spikes of wood or rock. Risking life and limb was fine, Dirk lived with that all the time. But he liked to know what he was getting into.

And if possible, he wanted to live through it.

“Any progress?” He glanced away from the approaching treetops and toward Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms, who was frantically disassembling and reassembling a mass of gears and gadgets in the corner of the basket. The Englishman looked a little too excited for a man facing imminent death, but then he always looked happy with a spanner in his hand.

“Almost there.” Blaze-Simms twisted a bolt and something glowed in the contraption in his hand.

There was a tearing sound and the balloon jolted as its ripped seam gave another few inches. Hot air hissed out onto the icy wind, and the treetops raced towards them.

“Almost ain’t gonna cut it.” Dirk grabbed a rope and braced for impact.

Leaping to his feet, Blaze-Simms slapped his device onto the side of the burner. He flicked a switch on its side. There was a whir, a rush of air that almost snatched Dirk’s coat off his back, and suddenly they were rising again.

“Great work, Tim.” Dirk struggled to be heard over the rush of air, but he was sure the grin on his face would convey the message.

Something was spinning on the top of Blaze-Simms’s device, while gears and levers rattled away around the glowing core.

“That will give us six more hours,” Blaze-Simms shouted over the artificial wind rushing past them and up into the balloon.

“Should be enough to get there,” Dirk shouted back.

There was another ripping sound and they stopped rising, though at least they weren’t heading back down into the trees.

Blaze-Simms looked up at the balloon, back down at his device, and then back up at the balloon again.

“Call it three hours,” he said. “Can we manage that?”

“Guess we’re gonna have to.”

Promise 2: A civilised dinner party in a building being bombarded by heavy artillery.

Dirk Dynamo had expected that they might face trouble. He and Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms were heading toward the castle of someone they didn’t know, and who was helping their opponents. That wasn’t the sort of circumstances where you got a warm welcome.

What he hadn’t expected was that the castle itself would be in trouble.

“I say, what a spectacular view!” Blaze-Simms looked up from his notebook to take in the ground beneath their balloon.

The forest below was a sea of green, broken by occasional jagged promontories. The tiled roofs of small German villages added variety to the scene, but their rustic charm was nothing compared with the view up ahead. Rising like a finger pointed toward heaven, the Red Castle rose in grandeur from the hilltop in front of them.

“I’d expected it to be more, well, red.” Dirk turned the propeller Blaze-Simms had attached to the balloon basket, steering their course more directly toward the hilltop fortress. It was a place that had clearly been laid down a layer at a time over the centuries. At its base were walls and towers of grim grey stone, flat and functional, a defensive measure that could once have withstood any kind of assault. Above and behind them, within the protective circle of walls and steep hillsides, were additions of brick and timber frame, mixed in with a more refined kind of stonework in which elaborate arches played a prominent part. And above them all rose a tower more magnificent and ambitious than anything that had come before, many times as tall as the old walls were wide, a fairy tale castle of pale stone reaching to a tiled peak.

“I’m sure there’s a history to the name.” Balze-Simms tapped a pencil against his notebook. “Something involving heraldry, or perhaps blood.”

“Speaking of blood.” Dirk pointed to the open ground in front of the castle. “What do you reckon that’s all about?”

As they grew closer, what had started as a meaningless muddle of human activity was turning into what could only be an army camp. Wagons emerging from the treeline showed that it was still growing, while men in blue uniforms set up tents and organised supplies. Artillery pieces were being arranged facing the castle walls, their aggressive intent clear. It took Dirk back to his own days fighting in a different blue. The memories weren’t all happy.

Blaze-Simms pulled what looked like a snuff box from his pocket, unfolded and extended it until he held a telescope. He peered through the lens toward the castle.

“I say, look at that.” He passed the telescope to Dirk. “She’s definitely here.”

Dirk closed one eye and looked through the telescope toward the point on the battlements where Blaze-Simms was pointing. Three women stood watching the movement below, champagne flutes in their hands.

Promise 3: Dirk and Isabelle reconciling their differences well enough to work together again.

Night was falling as the hot air balloon reached the walls of the Red Castle. An elderly servant in a tailcoat supervised two teenagers in livery as they helped with the landing. Taking the ropes Dirk Dynamo threw to them, they secured the balloon by tying it to the crenelations. Even before they had finished, Dirk leapt from the basket down onto the stonework and looked around in the light of burning torches. Behind him, Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms scrambled out of the basket, accompanied by the clatter of gears and gadgets rattling in his pockets.

The elderly servant stepped forward and held out a gloved hand. He said something in German.

“You catch that?” Dirk asked.

“Sorry what?” Blaze-Simms looked up from peering at a gargoyle.

“Ah, you are British?” The butler’s expression didn’t change as he shifted into English, but Dirk thought there was slightly less of a formal edge to his voice.

“He is.” He pointed at Blaze-Simms. “I’m American.”

“Oh.” Was it possible for a man’s face to fall without moving a muscle? If it was, then the butler managed it. “May I have your card please?”

“Do I look like I’m carrying a card?” Dirk gestured toward the battered balloon, his filthy clothing, the bruises still fading from his face.

“I’m afraid I don’t know what passes for normal in America.” The butler managed to make the last word sound like a curse, and it made Dirk’s blood boil. With the least possible movement, the servant turned to face Blaze-Simms. “Sir, do you-“

“There’s no need for that.” Isabelle McNair stepped out of the shadows of the nearest tower. “I know these gentlemen.”

Dirk felt like someone had grabbed hold of his insides and stirred them around until nothing was in its place and everything was knotted with tension. He fought to take deep, long breaths, calming his hammering heart.

“Mrs McNair.” He couldn’t keep the edge from his voice. Everything about her reminded him of Paris, both the good and the bad. It was the bad that threatened to overwhelm him, and he pressed his anger down. “We’ve come a long way to talk with you.”

“And I look forward to talking with you,” she said. “Though I must confess, I barely know where to start.”

“Sorry would be nice.” Blaze-Simms looked absurd in indignation, his scowl so serious atop his incorrectly buttoned tailcoat. But at least he could express what Dirk couldn’t put into words. “After everything we went through, I think it’s the least we deserve.”

“If I were sorry, I would not have done it.” Isabelle took a step forward, her attention on Dirk. “But I hope that, with time, you might forgive me.”

“That don’t seem likely,” he said through gritted teeth.

“Of course not.” Isabelle smiled, though there was sadness in her eyes. She offered him her arm. “Shall we go inside?”

Dirk thrust his hands into his pockets and nodded toward the door.

“After you,” he said.

Reflecting on the Exercise

This was really fascinating. I enjoyed all three beginnings, and without the exercise would only have ever written one. It’s made me think about which promises are most important, and which help set the tone of the book best, as well as drawing readers into the characters.

If you’ve got any thoughts on which of these three is best, and why, then please let me know – I need to give this some serious thought.

And if you’ve done this exercise or something like it, please share you’re thoughts on it below – I’d be intrigued to hear how you got on.

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.