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.
LV Cabbie says
Wow! Thanks for this. Will make sure my friends know about it.
Thank you. My only problem now is having too little description….
I'm somewhat aghast. I mean, people, Really?
Victoria, for your part, hey it's well written, concise and achieves what it set out to.
But I have google, I have fingers, I know words such as "writing tips novels". I've read all of this in one form or another (whether or not I put this into practise or not is another argument =0P) and I also have the power of memory so I don't forget this stuff as soon as I read it.
So why's everyone gushing about the content? I mean I understand it's brilliant to have a concise crib sheet for beginners, but I don't for one second believe that too many here are beginners. And to be honest, if you aren't new to this, and this info is mind-blowingly insightful, then you haven't done your research so shame on you budding writers. Shame shame shame!
Truth is that any advise, simplified and truncated, can only do so much. I understand that not everyone wants to read the minutia of how to spot, and omit, unnecessary compound clauses. But that's, unfortunately, the kind of detail you have to go into to move from using 70% of your writing ability, to 75%. And then the next step is harder and so on. Going from 10-60% is easy, because it's learning the basics.
So while congrats Vic on Nathan picking your post out (Mine was overlooked, probably because it was rambling, unnecessarily verbose and crap), and the article itself is perfectly fine, I can't help but think the overall reaction to it is somewhat excessive.
Word verification – Slyinale: A dishonest gastropod
Andrew – you're funny. Wrong side of the bed this morning?
Just for the record, I'm fairly new to writing, and I thought this was wonderful.
And, oddly enough, I'm not at all embarrassed about being new.
I loved the way she laid it out – very clear, concise and accessible.
I didn't agree with every word, but that just gave an opportunity for some fun discussion.
But even if I wasn't new: Lots of people write about writing. The trick is to do so in a way that is helpful, and I really think Victoria accomplished that.
There is also, by the way, a thing called supporting your fellow writer when they've been given an awesome opportunity. That's not the same as not being truthful, but it is in the general range of not being too critical. You might want to look it up. It's under 'supporting your fellow writer when they've been given an awesome opportunity.' So that would be under the 'S'.
On a different note, Nathan is back today! Yay!!
I’ve realized that if I revisit what I once learned, I do so with new eyes and deeper understanding.
It behooves us all to reexamine what we already know or think we know.
I am genuinely grateful that Victoria, a professional editor, took the time to prepare and share.
Shame, shame, shame on all authors who think they’ve already learned and comprehended everything they'll ever need to know about writing – or who think they’re too good to revisit basics.
I've got no quibble (love that word) with people new to writing. I was once. I said "dumb stuff" quite alot. I've got even less of a problem with Victoria's post, which does exactly what it says it will do in 1000 words. My shock was the number of people who came across seemingly taken aback by the news. Really, it shouldn't have been.
Fine, comment and say well done I've got no problem with that. Comment and whoop about Nathan picking a "friend of the comments board" (Which sounds like some cool middleearth title). And if you're new to the whole process, then gape in wonder, copy, paste into a word document and save on your desktop.
But I'd be shocked (hey I could still be massively wrong at which point I'll prepare a hat ragu to eat) if the note-leavers hadn't read/come across this info already. And in all seriousness (IF they are experienced and serious about writing) they should have.
I'm not raining on Victoria's parade – well done to her (She kicked my literary ass – my entry probably came 300th out of 250….hehe) but sometimes you can say well done without feeling like you have to justify that praise with some personal anecdote. It comes across a tad patronising (unless of course I'm wildly wrong and everyone that posted truly had heard nowt of the posted advice – in which case I retract everything I said and will find a hole to curl up in)
Word verification – reres: male ra-ra skirts
Victoria Mixon says
Aw, Andrew. This has been a great bunch of comments! You don't mean to tell me you're discouraging folks from saying wonderful, kind things whenever and wherever the urge takes them?
Don't do that!
Actually, I just checked in to thank Nathan for offering his site (and his great readers) to the five of us. It was really a terrific week.
Thank you, Nathan!
Laura Martone says
Well, as one of the "new" writers who'd previously commented on Victoria's post (and thanked her for her insight), I just have to say that, of course, I've encountered such advice before. That's, in fact, WHY I commented.
Although exceptions certainly exist, it seems that publishers, editors, and agents are encouraging today's writers to write books that more closely resemble streamlined screenplays than the classic ramblings of old.
Nonetheless, though I've read these "guidelines" in many other places, I thought that Victoria did put them together well, and I'm not ashamed to thank her as I did – for her time and her perspective.
Like you, I'm not a fan of obsequious flattery – and you're right, any "new" writer worth his/her salt should've read all this before. But I still have to agree with Mira – perhaps someone did get up on the wrong side of the bed today… Hmm?
While this is an excellent summation of what seems to be the conventional wisdom these days (and I do follow it as best I can), I have to admit that when I read over the novels that I love the most, I see those authors breaking these rules regularly. When I come across a novel that follows these rules closely, I tend to like them okay, but not love them.
What makes Victoria's post valuable is that it's not only succinct and engaging, but Victoria obviously writes from experience. The advice she delivers is not simply an aggregation of Google search results from questionable sources. That's why people — myself included — will print this out and tack it up next to their monitors. Going to check out Victoria's blog for more…
Haarlson Phillipps says
Needs a re-write,viz. re-ordering of priorities, and examples referenced need to be more succinct and better placed. Other than that ok –
Michael Reynolds says
I agree with most of what you wrote.
The one area I differ is on dialog. Humor sometimes requires the use of words like "Well," "So," "Um," and so on. Also ellipses. Timing is important to humor and you can use all those otherwise unnecessary bits to put comic timing on the page.
OK well after a nights sleep (and a marathon fight with my internet at home which still refuses to work. It was proper ‘Jason and the Argonaughts’ type stuff!) I thought I’ll try and clarify a few things (also as no one will comment at this late stage I will have snagged the last word…mwa-ha-ha!!)
Vic: First off, I’d never discourage praise. I like praise, you like praise, everyone likes praise (Except any French stereotypical struggling painter…hehe). Looking back retrospectively perhaps I was a little heavy-handed about the whole thing and for that I’m sorry (as a qualifier I wasn’t, at any point, having a pop at the article) but alas these public forums don’t have the mediating effect of a hurt look to slow down ones fingers.
Laura: Not quite the wrong side of the bed, maybe the bottom corner perhaps. I just felt that the tone of a large number of post came across like salesman charm, ‘whatever it is that you do, it’s awesome Just please; like me, like me, like me, like me, like me…and buy this photocopier!’ You can go as berserk and over-the-top as you like, that doesn’t bother me, at least, but don’t dilute your excitement by some perceived need to justify yourself. It seems, well, mildly sycophantic. The only other answer seems that were honestly impressed by the advice, which is fine, there just seemed too many. Now while the truth probably lies somewhere in a mixture of politeness and excitement and total in its innocence, I still stand by what I said, albeit now I accept it was probably the illusion, not the intention I reacted to.
AM: I’ve got no problem with the work, no problem with people enjoying it; I said, quite clearly, that this shouldn’t be *new* knowledge to most people here. I stand by that fact – label me as arrogant if you wish, despite the irony of making such a judgement on an assumption of what I ‘think’. Yes, the basics are important. Yes, when things aren’t working the basics is the best. And Yes I don’t know everything about writing, which is why I continue trawling the net for more perspective, advice, tips, hints, etc etc. But I can say a hearty and honest well done to someone without making out they’ve just done the equivalent to cloning Christ. That is patronizing.
Amy: I’m not talking about your usual Google flim-flam. I’m talking Sawyer, Scott Card, King, Sanderson, Strunk. And that’s not including the new breed giving great advice. Carolyn Jewel said some stuff about back-story collision I’d never heard before and was really, genuinely blown away. That’s not belittling Vic’s experience, which as an editor may consist of vastly more pages of text reviewed than any of those I’ve listed above.
Phew….well, I think I’ve alienated everyone….my work here is done…=0)
Word Verification – hotiless: a room full of Michael Winner
A Writer from India says
I have read quite a few books on the craft of writing, and own a few of them that I often re-read, but this post made me want to start revising my novel rightaway.
Very useful. Thank you!
Really good advice. The exposition part especially. I don't want to be told. I want to be shown or even better figure it out myself.
A book that forces me to think makes me come back as a reader. That's what I strive to do as a writer
Arrogance: an attitude of superiority manifested in an overbearing manner or in presumptuous claims or assumptions
Patronizing: to adopt an air of condescension toward ; treat haughtily or coolly
Projection: the attribution of one's own ideas, feelings, or attitudes to other people or to objects
Tweed: a coarse wool cloth in a variety of weaves and colors, either hand-spun and handwoven in Scotland or reproduced, often by machine, elsewhere.
Coalesce: to grow together or into one body: The two lakes coalesced into one.
Caber: a pole or beam, esp. one thrown as a trial of strength.
Potato: Also called Irish potato, white potato. the edible tuber of a cultivated plant, Solanum tuberosum, of the nightshade family.
Cutlass: a short, heavy, slightly curved sword with a single cutting……
Sorry, I think I've missed the point of this game
Word verification – Chernab: Kidnapping of any once famous, plastic-coated vocal Diva
Andrew, frankly it's the American way for people to lick each others' butt-holes with generous heaps of overwhelming praise for any feat, however spastic. (Gee, that sure was so wunnerfull dude etc.) You see it all over the net. Don't be suprahzd to fahn an elemint of it here. National trait and all that.
Above all else, dialogue should be in the voices of the characters. If the character is an 80-year-old grandma from Germany, she certainly shouldn’t talk like an inner city teen – or a 40something wannabe teen – from Detroit. If the character is a distraught 5-year-old, let her speak as one, don’t shove her into the body of a tranquilized 30-year-old out shoe shopping simply because childish stammers piss off impatient readers.
When characters speak, writers need to put down the rulebook and listen.
"Putting the climax too far from the end."
Or as Joe Bob Briggs used to say:
When the monster dies, roll credits.
Victoria Mixon says
We've gotten so worked up over dialog on my blog that I'm offering new Dialog Workshops.
$10 for one hour of intense work on participants' own dialog (a few hundred words each). I'm limiting each workshop to 5 participants to give us time to really work in-depth on each piece and keeping the price low so everyone can be involved.
Please join us! BYOD.
Victoria Mixon says
Now I'm also offering, on request, a weeklong Dialog Workshop over email, for those who can't reliably schedule a full free hour.
You can see all the details on my blog.
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