Posts Tagged ‘plotting’

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.

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.

Preparing for NaNoWriMo has meant planning the novel that I’m going to write, or at least start writing, in that month. So yesterday I sat and planned my novel, currently titled City of Blood and Steam. As other people will also be planning novels right now I thought I’d share my process, in case it’s useful.

My planning process has three basic steps.

Step 1: fundamentals

I start with the fundamentals – what and who is the story about, and what plotlines does that give me? City of Blood and Steam is about a pair of priestly detectives investigating a murder in a steampunk city where people believe that machines have souls. So plotlines will stem from these characters and the case they are investigating.

The character plotlines are the most important ones – they’ll make sure that the characters have interesting issues and dilemmas to face, and that there’s a sense of progress in their characters. So arcs include their relationship moving from one of resentment to one of trust, the older character’s battle with the effects of age on her body, the younger character’s search for a sense of purpose, and their relationship with the church authorities.

The investigative plotlines are more numerous. I have a central backbone to the case, through which are threaded subplots in which they investigate each reason the victim might have ended up dead, each major strand of suspicion and mystery. I have no idea if this is how mystery writers normally work, I’ve never written a full length detective story before, but this approach has worked for me with other stories.

The investigative plotlines also include a conflict with a lawyer who’s getting in the way of the investigation because of the vested interests it upsets. So there’s an antagonist in play as well as a murderer to find.

Step 2: breaking down the plots

Step one normally leaves me with about eight different plotlines for a novel. For a short story it’s only one or two. For this mystery I’ve got fifteen, which means lots of work on step two – breaking down each plotline.

I map out each plotline separately without thinking about how they relate to each other. For this I use Dan Wells’s seven point story structure because it’s got a nice rising and falling rhythm to it and it’s what I’m used to. Click the link to that previous post if you want to know more on how it works.

In terms of pure practicalities, I do this on an Excel spreadsheet. So by the end of step two I have a grid containing a column for each plotline and a row for each of the seven beats in Wells’s structure. And each cell in that grid has a one or two sentence explanation of what happens at that point in the plot.

Now comes the tricky part…

Step 3: putting it all in order

Finally I work out how the steps in the plot strands relate to each other, spacing them out into roughly thirty chapters.

I usually do this by printing out my spreadsheet, cutting out the cells and then manoeuvring them on the dining room table. Yesterday I didn’t have that option so I used two windows in Excel, copying and pasting from the existing plot point sheet into a new chapter breakdown one.

I start by spreading out the most important arcs – in this case the character development and the main plotline of solving the mystery. I want those spread fairly evenly through the book, with the most important ones starting right at the start and finishing in the final chapter. Looking at them together sometimes highlights things that should happen in the same chapter – for example a major setback in the investigation might make a natural trigger for a crisis of confidence in a character’s personal plotline. I’m looking for story beats that fit naturally together, while keeping each plotline in order.

Having done this with the main plotlines I then do the same with the others, again looking for connections to fit them together. Does one strand of investigation take the characters to the docks, and another need them to spot someone there? Then let’s put those two together. Are they going to get told to drop the case in classic cop show fashion? Then lets do that after they’ve gone poking around in someone important’s business, kicking up a political shitstorm. And that would be a great point for a confrontation with the meddling lawyer.

I usually have to make a few tweaks at the end, removing empty chapters and splitting up over-crowded ones, but fundamentally that’s it – at the end I have a plan of thirtyish chapters with a satisfying beginning and end and several things happening in each chapter, which I’ll turn into a chapter plan as I get to each one.

Thoughts, questions?

That’s my approach to planning a novel or other fiction writing project. I expect I’ll do more posts like this as NaNoWriMo takes me at an accelerated pace through the writing process. If you’ve got any questions or thoughts then leave a comment.

How do you plan a story? Got any recommendations for other guidance? Share your ideas below.

Fellow writer J H Mae recently invited me to take part in IC Publishing‘s writing path blog tour – an opportunity for authors to connect up with each other while talking about their craft. That seemed like an interesting thing to do, so here I am, touring from the comfort of my living room. Thanks for the invite!

Seriously, it’s really comfortable here. I’m sitting in Laura’s big armchair, set up perfectly to face the flat screen TV. For her, this is the Skyrim setup. For me, it’s how I write.

Speaking of which…

1. How do you start your writing projects?

Brainstorming. Whether the project’s a short story or a novel, whether it comes to me in a flash of inspiration or comes after trawling my notebooks for hours looking for the right idea, I go from there to brainstorming. I note down ideas relating to the central concept, looking for inspiration for characters, setting, plot and thematic elements that relate to it. Sometimes ideas connect back in with each other, which is great. Sometimes not so much.

Then I develop the main characters, often using Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s 45 Master Characters, because I find templates helpful. I think about background, motives, desires, conflicts. Based on the conflicts I plan out a plot, usually using Dan Wells’s seven point story structure because, again, I like templates – they remind me to put important things in. Somewhere in all of this I’ll do some research, usually at the brainstorming stage, to give me interesting and authentic details to bring my setting alive. If it’s about an alternate history Baghdad I want the history convincing. If it’s about an alien race then I might want tribe formations to seem anthropologically convincing. A few good details will provide a lot of inspiration and a lot of grounding for a story.

Then it’s time to write.

What passes for my office

What passes for my office

2. How do you continue your writing project?

I’m lucky. Because I work at home as a freelance writer I can mix my schedule up to try to create a balanced life. So writing six hundred words of fiction a day is just part of my routine, to be slotted in wherever it’s convenient between other writing, household chores, a bit of mindfulness and maybe a trip to the gym. Sometimes I do a lot more than 600 words, but having that routine is what keeps me going. If I get stuck I use the Write Or Die word processor to force myself to put words on the page, but these days that’s seldom a problem.

I’m usually thinking about my projects between writing them. Many of my most vivid ideas have sprung to mind while driving over the Pennines to visit family.

And no, getting distracted by plot isn’t why I crashed my car, though it was on that route.

3. How do you finish your project?

For most short stories I get a first draft written pretty quickly, then do one or two editing passes (one with input from a friendly reader) and then send them out into the world. But that’s seldom actually the finish. I have about a 5% acceptance rate, so my average story gets rejected nineteen times before it gets accepted. And a few of those rejections come with useful feedback, which I use for further re-writes. So really, a short story is finished when someone accepts it (or I do the edits they request after acceptance) or when I decide that it’s never going to see the light of day and stick it in my ‘abandoned’ folder.

It’s a big folder.

That means that by the time one story’s done with I’ll have written a dozen more, so I don’t really struggle to let go – I’m writing so many things, I get to endings all the time.

4. Include one challenge or additional tip that our collective communities could help with or benefit from.

The best inspiration comes from other creative fields, different disciplines sparking new ways of thinking. So go take ten photos of different sorts of boundaries, or dance around the room like your character, or watch a video about how computer games are structured and see what you can learn.

Next up…

Now I get to pass the tour on to some other fine writers, who will answer these same questions in a week’s time.

First up is Russell Phillips. Russell is an award-winning author of books about military technology and history. His articles have been published in Miniature Wargames,Wargames Illustrated, and the Society of Twentieth Century Wargamers‘ Journal. He has been interviewed for the American edition of The Voice of Russia. And you can read my previous tribute to the awesomeness of Russell here.

Next is another fantasy author from my neck of the woods. Manchester-based R. A. Smith is an occasional time travelling historian, a keen gamer and a wannabe petrolhead. He counts war gaming armies and several bears amongst his extended family. Authors the Grenshall Manor Chronicles, Oblivion Storm and Primal Storm out now, book 3: WIP 🙂

Last and by no means least comes the blogger whose beard and enthusiasm I most envy. Josh Stanton is crazy about steampunk. When he’s not reading and blogging about it, he’s writing it. He is currently working on a steampunk horror, called Choke City.

Go check out their blogs, and look out for their blog tour posts in a week’s time.