Formulating a Plot

If you happen to follow the “Current Work In Progress” meter to the right, you might notice a drastic change.  It’s not an illusion or a joke, my work in progress has fallen from 25% done at 15,000+ words to just above 10,000 words.  Maybe you’re scratching your head wondering, why?  Today I chronicle the tough decision I felt forced to make, and what I have been spending the last few days doing about it.

First off, why chop a third of my work in progress?  The simple answer is, I had painted myself into a corner.  I hated it.  When I first started The Veil, I had a vision of it focusing very closely on the main character.  The cast would only expand  if the story became a series.  I already had characters in mind and how they fit into what would become a team setting.  The first book, however, was about finding yourself.  Where I had taken the story, characters appeared far quicker than I had anticipated.  My story about a young man finding himself turned into more of a super-team book.  Not what I wanted.  So I retraced my steps and asked where I went wrong.  The point I decided on meant a third of the work got intimate with the delete button.

So where do I go now?

As discussed in previous posts, writing wildly ahead without a plan or direction is the wrong approach for me.  Like a stubborn fool, I continued to do just that and got myself into trouble.  So I decided to make a plan.

I asked the Twitter gods if there was some sort of form for a plot outline.  I enjoy filling in forms.  Having some structure gives me security.  Unfortunately, the Twitter gods decided to ignore me that day.  Or perhaps were too busy preparing for the Lost finale.  Regardless, I was on my own.

First thing I did was look at Martina Boone’s Plotting Made Easy – The Complications Worksheet.  This gave me some idea of what I should accomplish in each section of the story.

Secondly, I thought long and hard about the Hero’s Journey.  My character’s arc fit the hero journey, so I gave close consideration to the various components.

Third, I allowed my idea to run free.  I said, “If this is the world I’ve created, what’s possible?”  The more I asked what could happen, the more did happen.  I started having some pretty wild ideas.  They worked.  They fit together.  My story excited me again.

With these new ideas, I wrote a synopsis of the story.  It was dirty.  It had holes in it.  I would never give it to anyone if I wanted them to read my book.  But it gave me a framework to pin things on.

Then, I created a space that I called Themes & Ideas.  I used this space just to write words and random sentences.  Some were about mood, others about deeper themes and meanings.  I used it as a space to brainstorm with no restrictions.

Out of those random thoughts, I was able to return to my synopsis and start plugging holes and touching up the paint.

Last night, I started putting together scenes.  For each scene I asked;

  • Scene – [Title]
  • What’s the Purpose of the Scene:
  • What Action Happens:
  • What Do We Learn That’s New:

Making sure that every scene answered these points fleshed out the story.  It was more cohesive.  No scene could be a throw-away, I forced myself to justify their existence.  I didn’t worry about order, I just wrote scenes. As their number expanded, I saw where they fit together.  When I have more, I will create a new file and copy the scenes in their proper order.  When that’s complete, I’ll have my plot map.  Then the fun starts!

While it was hard to kill a lot of work, this new direction is far more exciting and satisfying.  It stays truer to the original vision I had while still managing to provide surprises.

This process is frustrating to a “I want it done now” kind of person.  Which I confess, I am.  Truth, though, cannot be denied.  This is the only way this book is getting written.

The Hero’s Journey Part 6 – Tests, Allies, Enemies

Now that our hero has crossed the first threshold, he has fully entered the other world.

Set the Ground Rules

This is the other world.  We need to very quickly show the differences between the ordinary world our hero has left and the special world he has entered.  There will be new rules here, new emotional experiences.  How the hero interacts with the world, and how it interacts with him, will be different.  The tone and voice used might differ.  This place will be more difficult for the hero, failure will carry more dire consequences.

Trials and Tribulations

Stories in general are about conflict.  The myth structure usually revolves around a quest.  Quests are never easy.  The hero finds himself tested, often thwarted, until he learns new lessons and overcomes.  Just as in crossing the first threshold, in this stage there will be other tasks to complete, more threshold guardians to defeat.  These tests will contribute to the hero’s growth for the ultimate battle that will need to be waged at the climax of the story.

Allies

During the hero’s trials, he may find help in the form of allies.  It can be one of the hero’s tests to find out who can be trusted in this new world.  While allies could be those who travel with the hero, it could also be characters that the hero helps along the way who repay him later on.  If your goal is to build a team around the hero, this would be the place to do it.

A special subclass of ally is the sidekick.  The sidekick is usually far more devoted to the hero and will follow him through most, if not all, of the quest.  The sidekick can act as a foil for the hero, providing comic relief, a voice of conscience, they could even fill the role of mentor if your initial mentor character has parted ways with the hero.  The best sidekicks are the ones that are given a character as deep and meaningful as the hero’s.  Remember too, there needs to be a plausible reason that this person would choose to follow the hero.  After all, the hero does not walk an easy road.

Enemies

The hero has stormed a foreign domain.  Often these domains are controlled by a powerful person that is not going to welcome the hero’s meddling.  It is very easy at this stage for the hero to develop enemies.  These could be the main antagonist, the antagonist’s minions, or other types of threshold guardians.  Consider a situation where the hero must defend his life.  In order to survive, he slays his opponent.  What if that opponent has a brother, sister, mother, or father?  This person has now become the enemy of the hero.

The hero might also encounter rivals.  These are people that aren’t interested in destroying or killing the hero, they are merely in competition with the hero for a common goal.  For instance, Jacob and Edward in Twilight both have commendable qualities and though there is bitterness between them due to competition over Bella, they still unite for the common good.

This stage could form the bulk of your narrative.  This is the ground for numerous conflicts, the building of relationships, both good and bad, and for the hero to grow.  Soon the hero will need all the skills, allies and courage he can muster as he faces his greatest challenge ahead.

The Hero’s Journey Part 5 – Crossing The First Threshold

To recap: Our hero started in his ordinary world.  He received a call to adventure.  Initially, he refused the call.  Then, a mentor approached and provided the hero with tools and insight he needed.  It is time for the hero to fully commit to the other realm.  In order to do so, the hero must cross the first threshold.

Approaching the Threshold

Our hero has had much of his fear and doubt alleviated by the intervention of his mentor.  This doesn’t mean he is going to readily accept all of it and plunge head first into action.  The adventure might not be personal enough for the hero to journey forth.  This is the final precipice.  What will finally push the hero onward?  That’s up to you, but it could be the kidnapping of a loved one, or a force of nature might force the hero forward.  In the end, at this point the hero needs a shove.

Threshold Guardians

Making the cross to the world of adventure is not going to be easy.  Often the path is blocked by a Threshold Guardian.

Guardians are not always obstacles that need to be tackled.  Often, they are only emotional blockades to the hero that need to be acknowledged.  Defeating the challenge they represent can deliver important insight to the hero that will aid in later steps of his quest.  They can present physical, mental or morality types of challenges.  A threshold guardian could be as simple as the hero’s father telling them they are not allowed to go out.

The Leap of Faith

The hero has defeated the guardian.  Now, they stand with one foot in their ordinary world and the other dangles over the cliff into the next.  They must now make a leap of faith and plunge into the other world.  By finally crossing the threshold the hero commits himself entirely to the quest.  There is no turning back.

Charting the hero’s transition could be as simple as climbing out a window, or as treacherous as crossing a desert.  In either case, the hero has finally accepted his destiny and made his move into the realm of adventure.

Entering the Other World

The hero’s entrance to the other world does not have to be a smooth one.  Maybe he falls out the window, or perhaps his initial thoughts of the other world are shattered by its realities.  In either case, he is now here, and the adventure truly begins.

Next, our hero is put to the test, meets new allies and new enemies.

Searching for my voice

Ugh.  So I’m 16,000+ words into The Veil.

I watched Donnie Darko three nights ago and it resonated with me.  Which now has me contemplating tossing half of what I’ve written.

Where I was with The Veil had it turning into a group hero piece.  That wasn’t working.  Deep down, I wanted the story to be more introspective, more a tale of identity and learning who you want to be.

Donnie Darko had this dreamlike quality to it.  The events of the movie seemed random until the very end, when you realise that the purpose of them all was to drive the hero to his destiny.  The story tied into questions of existence, love and being alone.

That’s the voice I’ve been searching for.  Now, I need to plot.  This time, for real.  No writing until I have a rough plot drafted out.  This write and find out approach is a big fail for me.

The Hero’s Journey Part 4 – The Mentor Appears

Our hero has received a call to action.  In his human frailty and inexperience, he has refused the call.  Our hero needs the tools for success.  While these could be literal tools or skills, perhaps what our hero needs most is someone to give them confidence.  The archetype of the mentor fills this need.

At its essence, the mentor is often wrapped in the guise of the wise man or woman.  Their classic function is to provide the hero with vital tools or clues that will aid him on his quest.  Through their intervention, the hero builds the needed confidence to continue on.

The mentor’s role is temporary.  At some point in the tale, mentor and hero will part ways, allowing the hero to face his destiny alone.

Varied Uses for the Mentor

Sources of Wisdom

The mentor provides the character with knowledge.  This can also occur without a physical mentor, such as the hero finding a book, or a website.

Sources of Conflict

People rarely want to be told what to do.  The dynamic between the mentor and a reluctant hero can add to the conflict, and therefor, character development of your story.

The mentor may eventually become a villain.  This form of misdirection is used often in cautionary fairy tales where a mentor appears to save the day, only to exact an evil price for his services.  This is also a way of avoiding the mentor as too much of a cliche.

Sources of Tragedy

Hero’s suffer.  As a writer, what better way to make your hero suffer than to deprive him of his beloved mentor?  I did say earlier that the mentor and the hero would part ways.  You can use this to add more dimension to your hero and story.

In the end, the mentor can be a very rich and vivid character, or can take the stage for the briefest of moments.  The mentor doesn’t even have to be a person.  In the end, the mentor role is to aid the hero in conquering his fear and moving forward with the quest.  The next challenge for our hero will be to cross the first threshold.

The Hero’s Journey Part 3 – Refusing the Call

In the last of these series, I talked about The Call to Adventure.  We had established our Hero’s Ordinary World and the call was going to start shaking him loose from it.  Before our hero commits entirely to his quest, he gets reluctant and often refuses the call.

Why would your hero do that?  The most simple answer is it’s because it is the human thing to do.  The refusal of the call is mainly about fear.  Not only fear of change and the unknown, but also fear of failure.  By showing fear, the hero becomes more relatable to your reader.  Why they refuse the call, and also what will lead them back to it, can tell the reader so much about your character.

Harry Potter initially is in disbelief that he would be a wizard.  It tells us about his character that he doesn’t immediately accept his fate and instead doubts himself.

Hiccup, in How To Train Your Dragon, folds under the pressure of his father and joins the training course to kill dragons.  It tells us that he wants to please his father, even at the risk of his own life.

Luke Skywalker initially turns down Obi-Wan’s invitation to fight the empire, believing himself nothing but a simple farm boy.  This gives us a true vision of Luke.  Initially, he complains to his uncle that he wants to get away, join the academy, etc.  When the opportunity comes to flee, he refuses because of all the obligations he has previously complained about.  It is a character trait we all recognise and it shows that despite complaint, Luke is reliable and trustworthy.

The simple fact is, a hero who can do no wrong, never shows fear or doubt and overcomes all odds with ease, is boring.  A hero like this only belongs in the realm of caricature.  Your audience is made of real people.  By allowing your hero some weakness, you bring him closer to your audience and increase their sympathy to his plight.

This refusal, while integral to the development of a believable and sympathetic hero, creates a problem; how do you get your hero to accept their quest?  There can be a number of ways, but one of the most common is due to the intervention of the next step I’ll discuss, The Mentor.

Not Finished Your Manuscript? Write Your Query Letter Now

You’ve read the headline and now you’re wondering, why would I write my query before I finish my manuscript?  After all, the advice you see on every website says to not send out any queries until after the manuscript is finished, edited and rewritten.  Well, I’m not going to tell you any different.

What I am going to do is give you something to think about.

What is a query?  New writers agonize over them, agents spout platitudes about their importance and they are generally seen as the key to the publishing kingdom.  Forget that.  They might all be true, but focusing on those points creates a distraction.  Besides, that’s not the point I’m getting at.

The query is a statement that uses two to three paragraphs to describe your story and then perhaps a single paragraph that states who you are.  You’ll read lots of advice on writing queries, but they will all tell you to include these two components.  It is because of these two components that I suggest you write it early on, like now, maybe before you write a single word.

The query in this sense becomes your mission statement.  Every time your story feels overly complicated and you think you’re losing track, you look back to those simple paragraphs and you remember the essence of your tale.  Distilling your story to its core early on will keep it omni-present in your mind.  This will give you cohesiveness.

It is not only the story the query distills, it is also your identity as a writer.  Remember, you and your story are a package.  Both need to be sell-able.  There have been interesting conversations about online identities and figuring out who you are as a writer.  Once again, your query not only serves as a mission statement for your book, it also serves as a mission statement for yourself.

The query is about selling yourself and your work.  If early in the game you can write a query that sells you on your book and your identity as a writer, it will be all that much easier to sell those things to someone else down the road.  No one will love you until you love yourself, KWIM?

Maybe someday I’ll feel competent enough to write a post on how to write a query.  Until then, I’ll provide you with a link to Adventures in Children’s Publishing where they link to examples of  Successful Kid Lit Query Letter Examples.  Feel free to add any great websites you know of that provide instruction on writing queries in the comments.