By: Victoria Mixon
Plots are myriad, but plot structure is simple: hook, development (with backstory interwoven), climax.
Shakespeare’s five-act play, Syd Field’s three-act story, Freytag’s triangle (although Freytag called complications climax and climax resolution—causing untold confusion): like a holograph, hook-development-climax works on all levels, from the big picture down through chapters, sequences, scenes, to actual lines of dialog.
“What the hell is this?” Kerouac calls out to Slim in On the Road.
“This is the beginning of the rangelands, boy. Hand me another drink.”
Hook your reader (make them curious), tell your story, throw them off a metaphorical cliff when you’re done.
The five biggest mistakes in plotting:
1) Starting with backstory. I know, chronology works in life, but not so well in fiction. Chronology did work back when Moll Flanders wanted to tell us all about where she came from before she told us where she was. But that was then. This is now. Hook your reader first. You’ve got to make them curious before they’ll listen.
2) Letting the complications sag. The middle of a book is common bogland, and that’s why you hear so many people say, “I started that book, but never finished it.” Fitzgerald spent a lot of energy (and his publisher’s patience) on the galleys because The Great Gatsby sagged mid-way. It’s the writer’s job to keep upping the ante on the complications, starting a bigger problem the minute the last one’s resolved, keeping the reader turning those pages.
3) Dragging your denouement out. If at all possible, end at the instant of climax, like Henry James in The Turn of the Screw: “His little heart, dispossessed, had stopped.” You may grieve to let your characters go, but your reader just wants to find out what happened. And if you’re so brilliant they can’t let go–wow! Even more reason to quit while you’re ahead. The best compliment a writer can get is, “I didn’t want that book to end.” Hello, Constant Reader.
4) Putting the climax too far from the end. That’s what your reader is reading for, and when they’ve found it–they stop. It’s true, some brilliant works have been written where the catastrophe is the hook and the rest of the story is exploration of that catastrophe, but that’s sleight-of-hand. The climax is still the point where the writer confronts the reader with the pivotal event. The end.
5) Using a trick ending. Never conceal information from the reader so you can whack them over the head with it on the last page. Even mysteries, which appear to be all about trick endings, give the reader the clues to see through the trick before they get to it. John Gardner was adamant: if you set the reader up to resent you–they will. Good-bye, Constant Reader.
It might be your hook that catches the reader’s attention, but it’s the characters who drag them in and hang onto them for life. Know thy characters. They must be real people, not two-dimensional cartoons, with real bodies, real mannerisms and tics, real foibles, dreams, insights, and idiodicies to be ashamed of. Know them backward and forward. Then don’t tell it all. Hemingway said, “The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water.”
Leave out most of the words. No kidding. Leave out oh, well, yes, no, um, uh (definitely these last two). Leave out names except for extreme emphasis. Leave out first articles and even subjects of sentences wherever possible. Do you answer a question with, “It’s on the table,” or with, “On the table”? Try it and see how much snappier your dialog becomes. For heaven’s sake, leave out ellipses. Be like Emily Bronte and use em-dashes instead. Leave off dialog tags. Replace them with brief significant actions or, if you can get away with it, nothing at all. A book filled with characters talking the way we really talk, with tags, goes on forever and bores even the writer to tears.
Unless absolutely necessary, make characters talk at cross-purposes. How many of us actually listen to other people? We don’t. We’re always thinking about what to say next, when they shut up.
Keep it brief and significant. Raymond Chandler used to be able to burn up the whole first chapter describing a house. You can’t do that anymore. Everyone knows what a house looks like. Find those details that make a person, place, or thing important or unique, mention them, and get back to your characters.
F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “Action is character.” No matter what complications you throw at your characters, no matter what climax you have in store, each character must act in the only way they know how. If you’ve got characters who can react in various ways, you don’t know your characters well enough. Go back and learn them. They have reasons for only being able to respond under pressure one way. And the different ways different characters deal with trouble is where the tension lies, so it’s best to have characters with very different personalities going through this hell together.
Donald Maass also makes the point that action is not necessarily external. Action is very often internal. Conflict is very often internal. Total climactic catastrophe—as we all know—is only too often internal. “Tension on every page,” Maass says, and this is about as good as advice gets.
Exposition seeks not to just inform but to enlighten. Don’t waste your reader’s time with explanations. They’ve got brains. Let them use them. Leave out every explanation that can be inferred from the context. When you must cast light upon a scene, do it in context. Either you need to give the reader a breather between bouts of excitement or the tension can be heightened by knowing a little more about what’s going on. Take advantage of pacing to interweave backstory and exposition, but always keep up with your characters.
Go for it.