This month I’ll be presenting at my first writer’s conference! And have to admit, I’m a bit nervous.
I’m teaching a breakout season on plotting, which is definitely my favorite part of the writing process.
Below is the outline and talking notes for my class.
Click here for the PowerPoint Plotting Is Fun!
Syllabus: Plotting is Fun! How to keep your story from getting hung up somewhere between 300 pages of eloquently worded sentences and what might very well be the next Great American novel.
Plotting is fun! In fact, I think plotting so much fun, if there were a Chinese character for it, I would have it tattooed on my body somewhere. Except that I hate needles and anything that’s permanent, so . . . And because I think plotting is so much fun, I often have other writers come to me with plot dilemmas to which I find myself offering the very same advice, over and over again.
You’re making it too hard. Too complicated.
Obviously, we want our stories to have twists and turns, to make our readers ooh and ahh over the genius of what they never saw coming. But the genius doesn’t come in the intricacy of how we get from one twist to the next turn. That part, we need to make simple. When we ask ourselves, what is the easiest way to get from this twist to that turn? Miraculously, all our troubles just drift away.
Let’s give it a try. Do it right now. Think about a place in your story where the plot is hanging up (better known as the dreaded “writer’s block”). Now think about the simplest way you can get your character from where he or she is right now to where you want them to be.
Too simple, you say. My readers will get bored, you say. Not true. Isn’t it true that we can be doing the most fun thing in the world (a wedding, a trip to the beach, a party, Disney) but the minute we make it complicated, the less fun it becomes?
It’s the same with writing.
The wow factor for our readers comes in our delightfully quirky characters, our snappy dialogue and our concise but eloquent descriptions.
That’s what we are going to focus on today. Keeping it simple so it can be fun.
Discovery Writer or Meticulous Outliner. Every writer must plot.
Meticulous Outliner: The Meticulous Outliner lays their entire story out ahead of time. They plan all the pitfalls their characters will fall into and determine which chapter that will best happen in. They research and know all the intricate details of whatever it is they need to know intricate details on.
Discovery Writer: Takes a fly-by-night approach to writing. Sit down in front of the keyboard, set your fingers on the keys, close your eyes and just let the story flow down from your brain, out your fingers and on into the computer.
I like to think of myself as more of a hybrid. I outline in order to have an idea of where my story is going so I’ll have an idea of how long it will take me to get there. If the book has a time line—say I want to story to wrap up by Christmas—I need to plan so I know what month I’m in. Are there leaves falling? Is it cold? Etc. But not much more than that. Then I like to just let it flow. Sometimes the story takes me in a direction I hadn’t anticipated and I have to go back and re-outline, which is no big deal. Allowing the creativity to flow is more fun and more important than being bothered by occasionally having to re-plot.
First: Every great story is made up of a set of compelling chapters.
Four basics that every chapter needs:
- Focused, concise storyline that is constantly moving forward.
Remember to always keep moving forward. Don’t allow your plot to stand still even for a moment. Something of importance should always happening. Your characters won’t say something, won’t see something, won’t feel something, just because. Everything in your story is there for a reason.
Beware of detailed backstory and/or flashbacks.
The worst kind of book, for me, are the ones that start out with this super exciting scene where the mc hangs in the balance and I’m thinking “what is happening! This is so exciting! I can’t wait to see what happens next!” The next chapter starts and the author goes back to a time prior to the first chapter and starts giving me, the reader, all this long, involved back story.
Other times, the author is moving forward, things are happening, I’m white-knuckling the book, excited to see what happens next, and then the mc retreats into his or her head, falling into some long, drawn out flashback.
*What’s wrong with these two scenarios? (Pulls the reader out of the action and slows the pacing.)
Keep backstory and flashback short and to the point. We might have all this great history in our heads for why our character is the way he or she is, but the reader doesn’t need to know everything we know.
If we do your job right, everything the reader needs to know about the character will eventually come out as the story progresses.
- Character Development.
Show the reader something new about the character(s):
Another reason there’s no need for involved backstory or detailed flashbacks.
As authors, we’re always giving the reader new information.
Beware of reshowing/retelling what the reader already knows:
Huge beware. Don’t give the reader information, or show a behavior they already know or are familiar with. Behaviors, opinions, fears, feelings, worries, and concerns that have already been established don’t need repeating. They should simply be incorporated in the character’s overall demeanor and actions.
Example: My first novel was about a troubled marriage. After I finished, I sent it to an editor. About half way through, she noted in the margin that I needed to stop saying things like, “It’s been too long since . . .” I’d already established that their marriage had been in trouble for some time. I didn’t need to keep repeating it. Instead, I should show the characters actions and feelings mirroring what the reader already knows.
The only time it’s okay repeat something is when it’s a piece of the puzzle that may have been introduced early in the book and may have seemed trivial, but now is important and it needs reminding.
Or, sometimes it’s good to re-mention physical characteristics. We describe our characters, generally, in the beginning, but readers sometimes forget what they look like so it’s good to give readers tiny reminders here and there.
- Introduce new information.
A new dark and mysterious stranger enters the story. Or a quirky sub-character. A mentor. An antagonist.
Character(s) learns something new that shifts his or her previously established beliefs. The character discovers something new about himself or herself or a loved one.
Your character stumbles upon a new piece of the puzzle. Or learns something that shifts the focus of the story.
- End with a Twist: What once had been is no more.
A cliffhanger can be anything from leaving our character literally clutching the crumbling edge of a cliff, having just been shot, or facing off with a hungry lion.
A non-perilous example: Gilmore Girls.
Since I mostly write women’s fiction, I use these a lot. It simply means ending the chapter with a twist that makes the reader go, uh-oh, what’s this character going to do now?
Second: String all your compelling chapters together into the proper order.
Hero’s Journey: Using the movie Hocus Pocus as our example.
- The Ordinary World:
The hero is shown in his or her natural environment though a source of stress or polarity may be pulling him or her into the unfamiliar.
This means that the hero’s journey starts at a moment of change.
A world that is both familiar and alien to the hero.
At the beginning of Hocus Pocus Max is a regular teenager, sitting in a regular American high school classroom. There’s a cute girl, a possible love interest. We also learn that he’s new in town.
On the way home from school, Max is confronted by two bullies. Also the normal, the expected, but also shows him as an outsider.
*What do the bullies want from Max? (His shoes)
*What does Max do? (He gives them up)
This stage in the story is important because in order to show growth, we have to show the ordinary.
- Call to Adventure:
Either from external pressures or from something rising up from deep within, the hero’s Ordinary World is shaken up.
The hero doesn’t necessary have to be literally issued a call by someone in authority. The hero can simply become fed up with his or her self and feel the need to change. Witness an injustice and take it up him or her self to set things right again.
The beginning of when the hero is forced to face change.
In Hocus Pocus, Max is challenged by both his teacher and Allison (his romantic interest) to believe the story of the Sanderson Sisters—if a virgin lights the black flame candle on Halloween under a full moon, the witches will rise again.
Hero is presented with a problem, a challenge, or faced with striking out on an unexpected adventure.
*What challenge is Max faced with that gets him to go the Sanderson House where his adventure will begin? (Wants to spend more time with Allison.)
- Refusal of the Call:
Fear of the unknown has the hero turning away from the call of adventure.
At this point, the hero may balk at the call, fearful of facing his or her greatest fear or for fear of the unknown.
Max doesn’t want to take his sister, Danny, trick or treating because, at that point, his greatest fear is running into the bullies again. He becomes angry and says hurtful things to his sister when his parents insist he take her.
This stop may be brief.
Or the hero may take a bit of coaxing.
Example: Hunger Games.
May also be shown by another character’s expression of uncertainty and danger.
In Hocus Pocus, Allison and Danny caution him not to light the candle.
Max refuses to believe there is any danger in lighting a candle. He wants to prove there’s no truth to the Sanderson Sister legend. He also wants to look brave in front of Allison.
- Meeting with a Mentor:
Hero crosses paths with a seasoned traveler who gives him or her advice, training or equipment needed to complete the journey.
Introduction of a Merlin-like character who will mentor the hero. If we’re writing a modern-day romance or general fiction, the hero needs to have someone in his or her life they can count on for advice, solicited or otherwise.
In Hocus Pocus, Max’s mentor turns out to be a cat, Binx, who used to be a boy, who found himself in much the same situation Max will soon find himself in—trying to save his little sister.
Or the hero reaches deep within to a source of courage and wisdom.
Hero may channel his or her faith, a disdain for injustice, or become fed-up with a current situation. The hero may also become a victim who decides to fight back.
- Crossing the First Threshold:
The hero commits to leaving the Ordinary World behind by entering a new region or condition with unfamiliar rules and values.
Hero has received enough of his or her training to begin and thus embarks on the adventure.
Hero enters the new world for the first time.
For Max, this is when he realizes that because he lit the candle and took the witch’s spell book, he must now keep it safe or all the children in Salam will die.
Story picks up the pace as the adventure really takes off.
- Tests Allies and Enemies:
The hero is tested.
Hero faces challenges that will determine whether or not he or she is up to the task, and gains added strength when he or she is able to overcome hurtles.
In Hocus Pocus, Max, along with Danny and Allison have to find a way to get out of the grave yard without being caught by the witches, and while being chased by the zombie of one of Winnie-the-Witch’s ex-boyfriends.
The hero is forced to determine allies and enemies.
Max listens to Binx when the cat directs them to an underground tunnel that will allow them to escape. He learns the cat can be trusted. However, when goes to adults for help, he finds he can’t rely on them. First, he tries to explain what’s happened to a police officer, and then to his parents, but neither believe him.
The hero passes certain tests and challenges that are a part of his or her training.
Max is confronted again by the witches at the grown-up’s party but is able to escape them, getting himself, Allison and Danny to safety.
- Approach Dark Place:
Using lessons learned, the hero and newfound allies prepare for a challenge.
When Max is unable to find help, he, Allison and his sister hatch a plan to take care of the witches themselves.
The hero reaches a dangerous place.
In Hocus Pocus, Max fears he won’t be able to save his sister or the other children of Salam on his own. This dark place comes right before he and Allison come up with a plan.
Often this place is deep underground.
In fantasies, like those of those of the Hobbit or Lord of the Rings variety, this occurs literally underground.
A deep internal place the hero never visits or has been able to avoid or has never been required to visit.
In modern women’s fiction or general fiction, we use these more internal dark places to show the hero’s decent to rock-bottom.
Example: A lie the character has been hiding. A secret they keep. A traumatic experience they can’t process and don’t want to deal with.
- The Ordeal:
Near the middle of the story, the hero confronts death or faces his or her greatest fear.
In Hocus Pocus, this is when Max and his cohorts lure the witches to the high school where they lock them into the pottery kiln and turn the heat to high, frying the witches.
The Black moment or the point in the story when the hero actually hits bottom.
Max doesn’t ever really reach this dark a place but in most stories, the hero will. This is point in the story when we as authors will strand our characters in a proverbial tree and begin to throw rocks at them.
Reader is standing outside the action, waiting for the hero to emerge victorious.
This point is actually my favorite part to write. I really like to torture my characters and then have them come back from the brink victorious.
Out of death comes life. From fear comes courage.
Emerging from this darkest of places is what allows our characters to grow.
Having survived the Ordeal, the hero takes possession of the treasure won.
For Max, he finally wins the girl.
May be a magical sword, Holy Grail or some elixir that heals a wounded land.
Witches magic spell book and or the safe return home of his sister.
Hero reconciles with a love interest. May be a love scene or sacred marriage.
For Max, a near kiss.
There may be celebration while also the threat of losing the treasure again.
In Hocus Pocus, Max and Allison celebrate the demise of the witches by doing what Binx warned them not to do—open the spell book.
May be a return to the Ordinary World though that world now looks different.
The calm before the final storm.
- The Road Back to the Ordinary World:
The hero is not out of the woods yet.
Unbeknownst to Max and Allison, the witches did not die and when they unwittingly open the book, the book alerts the witches as to its location.
About three fourths of the way through the story, the hero is driven to complete the journey, to ensure the treasure is brought home.
In Max’s case, his sister is kidnapped by the witches and he must save her along with the other children of Salam, once and for all. At this point Max also overcomes his fear of the bullies.
*Who remembers how? (Takes back his shoes)
Often shown through a chase scene where the hero is pursued by vengeful forces.
Max is able to pull Danny from the witches clutches and is pursued down the highway by the witches on their various, flying, cleaning devices.
One last call to complete the adventure.
The climax of the story where the hero reaches the threshold of home and is tested one last time.
Max rescues Danny from the witches and takes her into the graveyard where he knows he has an advantage to fight the witches. Or hold them off until sunrise.
The hero is purified by one last sacrifice.
Max drinks the potion intended for Danny.
A moment of death and rebirth only on a higher, more complete level.
Max fights Winnie-the-Witch even as she is in the process of sucking the life from him.
The polarities in conflict at the beginning are finally resolved.
Max has made a new friend/girlfriend in a town he hated and felt alienated. No longer afraid of the bullies. Proven his love for his sister when earlier he’d been mean and hurtful.
- Return of the Elixir:
Hero returns to the Ordinary World with the elixir, treasure, knowledge or lesson learned.
With the help of his friends, including the zombie that was after them, Max is able to hold the witches off until dawn and the witches turn to dust. The Ordinary World returns but now Max has his treasure—Danny, safe and sound, and a new girlfriend, Allison—and has also learned a few things about himself.
Hero holds the power to transform the Ordinary World as he or she had been transformed.
Killing the witches also releases Binx-the-cat from the witch’s spell and he is united with his sister once again as well.
*When Binx’s sister asks him what took him so long, what does he say? (I had to wait 300 years for a virgin to light a candle)
*Which also taught Max what? (It’s good to be a teenaged virgin)
Alternate ending scenarios:
May be a temporary return or stop, as the hero must continue on his or her journey.
Examples: Harry Potter. Divergent. Hunger Games. Lord of the Rings.
A comedic or foolish hero might refuse to learn from his or her adventure and be doomed to repeat the journey.
Example: Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic novels.
Sometimes the lesson is simply that the adventure can be survived and, or will yield a good story to tell.
Sometimes our stories are only meant to entertain and that’s all right too.
Examples: Adventure books like those written by Clive Cussler.
Third: Pacing Killers.
If done improperly, these can stop your pacing, dead in its tracks.
- Plots that are constantly shifting between the past and present:
*What can potentially go wrong with this type of plot? (Every time the author switches from past to present and back again, the reader is pulled out of the action and the pacing has to start all over again.)
This can be done correctly and using the Hero’s Journey is one way to do it. Though the book won’t follow this outline the way we’ve described it today, if pulled apart and reorganized in chronological order, the hero completes each of the steps. If the arch or the hero’s journey is complete, the plot will work, and the book will potentially be amazing.
It’s a lot more work for the author, but hey, if this is the way you want to write your story, knock yourself out.
- Alternating between multiple plotlines that don’t intersect, in any way shape or form, until well into the book or at the very end:
I like to compare this style of writing to driving with someone who’s just learning how to drive a stick shift. Jerky.
It can be done and done well, just remember, if each plot is separated and lined up as an individual story and still retains the Hero’s Journey arch, it also has the potential of being amazing.
Fourth: Have Fun!
See a story in everything around you. Practice plotting by taking something as mundane as a man walking his little dog, and turn that scene into a story.
Don’t be afraid to stretch your imagination.
See your characters doing all the things you’ve always dreamed of doing, and then allow them to go a little further.
Go wherever your story takes you:
If you get way off track and end up in too-far-beyond-the-imagination-ville, you can always come back. But the point is, you weren’t afraid to go there.
Get over yourself and have fun. No one is watching. Let loose and enjoy yourself. Allow your characters to go crazy, to do or say the unimaginable. You can always go back and vanilla it down later. By allowing the creative juices to flow uncensored our stories to develop into creatures (characters) of their own making.
Letting go is simply just way more fun!