Mother’s Day Update from Juliet

Hi, Everybody!

Just wanted to touch base with you all today.

In the last week or so, I’ve followed this advice somebody gave on the opinion page of the K. C. Star as a way to fight the anxiety and depression of living through a pandemic: “Find something that brings you joy, and give yourself over to it.”

So I’ve gotten back into my writing and I’m really enjoying it though my plans on researching the weather for April 1901 for my book went sideways for a while because a couple of my favorite resources – the Kansas City Star archives and the Kansas City Library – said, “Oh we’re shut down right now so we can redo everything. It will be great when we come back.” Yeah, yeah, yeah . . . I need to know that stuff now. But I found another resource, so now I know generally at least what the weather was like on Easter in Kansas City a hundred and twenty years ago.

As you might be able to tell from the photo, my hair has gotten pretty shaggy. But I do have an appointment with my stylist the first Friday in June. And maybe until then I can trim up my bangs with my manicure scissors like Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone does from time to time.

And really, we’re doing pretty well staying at home. Oh sure, I miss seeing my Game Night friends in person and going to the show at Cinemark. I really like to grocery shop in person instead of hiring someone to do it second hand. I’d rather exercise with my friends at the center instead of doing it at home through a Facebook Live link. Still, even though we wear masks, have to stay six feet from our neighbors, and can’t pet their doggies, we can walk about the neighborhood pretty much as usual.

But best of all, Jess is on paid leave from her job so she’s sheltering in place with me here in our little blue house. I can’t tell you how grateful I am not to be doing this thing alone. Plus, Jess has gone really far in making this a wonderful Mother’s Day for me. She cleaned the house! She baked peanut butter cookies! She gave me a pretty new top and fun jammies. She’s fixing breakfast for dinner tonight. We hug each other whenever we like.

How are you all doing?

Best, Juliet

Novel Basics Card # 20

Novel Basics Card # 20
The Cover Card

The Cover Card asks the question,
“What’s my novel’s name?”

The wise organizers of NaNoWriMo say that those who have covers for their projects before they start drafting them are 60% more likely to write it that those who don’t. I think possibly that simply giving your novel a name helps make it real to you and so you’re more likely to write it.

The card I’m using as a sample this time isn’t a generic one like many of the others. Instead it’s a very rough draft of the cover I plan on using for my current WiP that also was the novel I drafted during National Novel Writing Month in November of 2018. Apart in April will be the fourth novel and fifth book in my cozy historical Calendar Mystery series. (Yeah I know the sketch on this card is crude and I’m so not apologizing for that. You shouldn’t be thinking perfection either as you make this last card.)

In the past I used photos I found in the great Dover book Victorian Fashion in America for the covers of the novels in this series. But for this book, I’ll use photos of my grandfather and grandmother on my mother’s side. And the title, like those of the first three novels in the series, states the month in which the book takes place, uses alliteration and/or assonance, is brief, and states the theme (or at least hints at it) or overall mood of the novel. Titles of the novels so far are January Jinx, Fatal February and Mischief in March.

So on your last card at least give the tentative title for your novel (a real name not Work in Progress), your name or the pseudonym you’ve always dreamed of using, and possibly an image for your cover.

You might want to put “ a blurb” on the flip side of your cover card. That is, in a very few words describe the novel you want to write. Here’s an example: “an action-packed thriller with a wounded hero.” Possibly my blurb for Apart in April will be “Driven apart by a personal tragedy, a runaway wife goes undercover as a detective. Meanwhile her husband struggles to win her back. But first he has to figure out where she has gone from the letters she strews behind her like Jack’s crumbs in the forest that contain clues of her whereabouts.” It’s way too long, but it’s not bad for now. I’ve got time to work on it.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this journey through twenty cards that we’ve taken together. For tips and suggestions on what to do after you’ve brainstormed your novel,  get your own copy of Novel Basics, a brief yet complete guide to writing a novel, in print for $8.99 from Amazon or the eBook version, now only $2.99, at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B07K2LXFRP

Novel Basics Cards # 18 & 19

Novel Basics Card # 18
The Reader Card

The Reader Card asks the question,
“Who will read my novel?”

By now, you probably have a fairly good idea of who will want to read your novel. For one thing, chances are good that your target or ideal reader reads the same sorts of novels as you do, and lots of them, too.

Try to get specific in identifying your ideal reader. For instance, if she reads women’s fiction, does she prefer cozy mysteries with women sleuths? Are the sleuths amateurs or police officers? Or does your ideal reader love romance novels? Must those books be wholesome and clean, with maybe a shy kiss at the end? Or does your reader relish erotica with lots of heavy breathing?

Is your ideal reader a male who enjoys a blood and guts, action-packed thriller with some very specific sex scenes?

As like as not, your ideal reader is the same gender as your protagonist and a similar age as well because it’s customary in publishing that the reader is about the same age as the protagonist of a novel. (In Young Adult fiction, the protagonist might be a bit older than the reader in order to serve as a role model.)

Long ago I had the fantasy that someday I’d write the book that everybody reads the year it comes out. I haven’t written that novel yet. But Suzanne Collins might have come close with The Hunger Games. A friend’s twelve-year-old granddaughter read those books and so have I, many decades older. Some of my contemporaries have read every one of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books.

Speaking of that writer, Rowling has written and published four novels in the Cormoran Strike series so different from the Harry Potter series that she uses the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith. The target readers for those two series are very different and their expectations quite different as well.

Next we’ll talk a bit more about the reader as we discuss Card # 19.

Novel Basics Card # 19
The Intention Card
(Card # 19 is probably my favorite card from my entire pack.)

The Intention Card asks the question,
“How will my novel affect the reader?”

The novel is a tool of infinite possibilities, a sort of Swiss Army knife with a million blades. That’s one of the reasons I read. When I pluck a novel off the new mysteries shelf at the library and bring it home, I’m filled with hope that this novel will surprise me. Maybe the author will say something new or at least in a different way: tease me, thrill me, move me to laughter and to tears in the same book, make me think about the human experience in some new way, expand my life, or simply help me escape my troubling or mundane world for a few hours.

Note: our local libraries are all shut down right now. Yours probably is, too. But many still offer new books through Overdrive that you can check out and read on your tablet.

At this point, I’ll circle back to my brief history of plot by mentioning that Aristotle said the purpose of a tragedy is catharsis, to purge the audience with pity and fear by seeing a man fall from grace through his own hubris.

As for me, I believe that laughter is the best medicine for whatever ails you in life, so I like to make people laugh or at least smile when they read my novels and stories. And I give my stories happy endings.

So what’s the primary intention of your novel? Do you want to entertain your reader by scaring the heck out of him with your horror fiction? Do you want to make her feel sexy with your erotic romance? Or do you want to create a puzzle in a cozy mystery for your reader to figure out? Maybe you want to move your reader to empathize with other people who have survived great adversity, to understand some truth or theme about the human condition from someone else’s suffering that your reader can experience vicariously.

In addition, one of the best things about the novel is its ability to say something worthwhile. So give at least a tentative answer to the question the Intention Card asks.

We have one last card. And then your personalized Novel Basics pack will be complete. Join me next time to discover the identity of Card # 20.

Novel Basics Card # 17

Novel Basics Card # 17

The Genre Card

The Genre Card asks the question,

“What kind of a novel will I write?”

Ordinarily, I don’t ascribe to the saying, “Write what you know” because when writers don’t know something they need to put in their books, they do research. But in this case, I advise that you write what you know. That is, you should write the kind of novel you’re most familiar with because you read novels in that genre all the time.

To narrow this down a little bit, let’s imagine you’re at the library and you’re looking for something tasty to read. Where do you go? To the children’s department even though you’re an adult? To the shelves filled with Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror? Mysteries? Romance? Westerns? General Fiction that might include literary and historical novels? You should probably write whatever type of novel you check out and bring home from the library. (You can perform a similar exercise by figuring out which genre you gravitate to in your local Barnes & Noble or indie bookstore or on Amazon or Thriftbooks.)

To narrow the subject of the genre down even more, by the time you get to Card # 17, you’ve made quite a few decisions that affect the kind of book you’re writing, for instance, the gender and age of your protagonist. Consider the differences between Tucker MacBean, a boy just entering the Seventh Grade in present-day Kansas in Lisa Harkrader’s children’s novel Cool Beans: The Further Adventures of Beanboy, and grown-up Lady Edith aka Edie Gilchrist in Eloisa James’ take on the Rapunzel story in her fairy tale romance Once Upon a Tower set in London in 1824.

What sorts of plot developments you include will also affect what kind of book you end up writing. For instance, noir mystery fiction has loads more blood and guts, not to mention foul language and a cynical view of life, than your typical cozy.

But why does genre matter anyway?

Well, I assume that you might like a return on the time and effort it took you to write your novel by having people buy it, read it, and even review it once you’ve finished it. The chances of that happening increase if your novel fits in a niche, the smaller the better, so you won’t compete against authors like James Patterson in the Mystery, Thriller, and Suspense category of fiction, for example.

These days big genres like fantasy, mysteries, women’s fiction in general, and romance more specifically have developed many, very specific subgenres. For example, the cozy mystery subgenre can be further subdivided into culinary mysteries, cozy mysteries that include hobbies and crafts of all kinds, and cozy mysteries that have animals. There are even subcategories for Christian cozy mysteries and cozy mysteries with magic like the novels and stories in my Cinderella, P. I. fairy tale mysteries for grown-ups.

Jim Butcher practically invented a new sub-genre–urban fantasy–with his Harry Dresden series described by a reviewer as “magic and wizardry meet hard-boiled detective fiction.”

Books like Butcher’s Storm Front bring us to a bit of an issue. For years, the standard advice in publishing was to avoid crossovers or mashups for fear of confusing potential readers, but that didn’t seem to deter Butcher who has published fifteen novels as well as three story collections in the Dresden Files series. The popularity of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander and its sequels seems not to be affected by their mix of time travel, adventure, and Scottish historical romance.

Next time we’ll explore the issue of genre a little more with the discussion of Card # 18.

 

Novel Basics Card # 16

Novel Basics Card # 16

The Subplot Card

The subplot card asks the question,

“What else happens in my novel?”

The novel is a huge beast and needs a lot of plot to reach the minimum required 40,000 words that will go into it. One way a writer often finds those words is with subplots. (Please note that the subplot card, like the wall card, might be a placeholder.)

Indeed, though the publishing industry is always changing, it’s still fairly common advice in publishing that if an author wants a career, she will write a series or trilogy on the theory that the more you write the more you sell. And while the reader expects the major “who wants what?” plot to be resolved in each novel, the subplots and the continuing characters in the series often serve to pull the reader from one novel to the next.

Exactly what the subplot contains depends in part on the genre of the novel. For example, in romantic suspense, the love relationship provides the main plot line and the mystery/suspense provides the subplot with lots of fun interferences with the main plot in play. If you’re writing a mystery novel, you’ll flip that with the mystery plot primary and a romantic subplot secondary.

Many writers, no matter the genre of the novel, might introduce the protagonist’s family and/or friends into the novels to pull the readers from book to book. Will Stephanie Plum favor Ranger or Morelli this time? the fans of Janet Evanovich’s very popular and long-lasting series wonder. They also wonder about the goings-on of Stephanie’s family, especially the outrageous Grandma Mazur.

Each novel in my Calendar Mystery series has its own murder mystery, resolved by the end of the book. But each might also have two or three subplots that carry over from book to book. January Jinx, the first in my calendar mystery series, has three subplots: Minty Wilcox’s goal of getting a suitable job for a woman in Kansas City around 1900, the romantic subplot with Daniel Price, and Minty’s on-going relationships with her family members. Also, Fatal February, the second novel in the series, has an additional mystery subplot besides the major plot line. Mischief in March, the third novel, has a romantic subplot that features two long time supporting characters in the series.

If you look closely at the picture of Card #16, you’ll notice that the subplot has its own plot line. Very typically, the subplot begins after the major plot is in place at the start of the book. The subplot might end pretty much before the second set-up scene, or it might end in the dénouement. Some authors put a cliffhanger related to a subplot on the last page of one novel to hook the readers into anticipating the next one. For example, I put a cliffhanger at the end of Mischief in March setting up a new mystery plot that I later resolved in a short story.

I’d be wary of doing that however. Some readers deeply resent that sort of ending. And it also put me in a bit of a pickle of how to resolve the issue for my readers in a timely manner. Ultimately, I wrote and published the short story called “Detectives’ Honeymoon,” later included in Old Time Stories, Book 4 of my Calendar Mystery series and also in the boxed set of the first three novels plus that story.

The boxed set, nearly 1,000 pages of historical mystery fiction, is now available for only $8.99 at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B07QDKF413

Next will come Card # 17.

Novel Basics Cards # 14 & 15

Card # 14, the First Set-up Scene Card asks the question,

“What leads to Act 2 of my novel?”

Near the end of Act 1 of your novel, after you’ve hooked your reader with the beginning scene and shown your protagonist and her world, you need a scene in which the protagonist commits to the action required in the book. Syd Field called it Plot Point 1 of a movie script and other authors have used the same term for the novel. But I prefer the term set-up since that’s what this scene does. Specifically, the first set-up scene sets up the action that follows in Act 2 in which the heroine confronts the problem and tries to resolve the situation by jumping the hurdles in her way.

It’s like the moment in a boxing match–after the fighter you favor has strutted into the ring, likewise his opponent–when the bell rings and one of boxers throws the first punch, thus setting the tone and character of the match. Or the tennis player puts the ball into play. The private eye might have signed the contract earlier, but now he emotionally commits to it.

In a romance, the heroine and her love interest, having met cute in Act 1, decide to try to make a go of it somehow.

In fantasy, the first set up happens when the hero accepts the call to adventure and sets off on his epic adventure through Middle Earth or goes off to Hogwarts for his first year of wizardry school.

In Theresa Hupp’s historical Western novels Lead Me Home and Forever Mine, the characters begin their journey on the Oregon Trail in the first set-up scene.

And now let’s move on to another pivotal part of your novel, the Second Set up Scene.

The Second Set-up Scene Card asks the question,

“How leads to Act 3 of my novel?”

Similar to the first set-up scene, the second set-up scene, more commonly called Plot Point 2, sets up Act 3 of the novel. That is, it sets up the climactic scene of the novel, the most intense scene of the novel, and also the aftermath of the climax, the dénouement. In the second set-up scene, for example, the hero prepares to make one more attempt to defeat the villain, or the antagonist throws one last, truly daunting challenge in the hero’s way. The protagonist girds her loins, or the villain musters his troops.

In Western fiction, the sheriff sets off to meet the swaggering bad guys in the middle of the street of the little cow town.

In romantic fiction, the hero prepares one last attempt to woo and win the gal he loves.

One of my all time favorite second set-up scenes in crime fiction appears in Dick Francis’s debut novel, Odds Against. Sid Halley, already handicapped with a missing hand, wakes up strapped to a boiler about to explode. Oh boy, you say to yourself, Will Sid get out of there in time to avoid dying? How will he do it? If he gets free, does he go after the bad guy and catch him? No spoilers from me. You have to read this great novel for yourself to find out.

Don’t worry if you don’t have much of an idea for this scene when you initially make out your cards. It will come.

Next time we’ll move on to one more plot card.

 

Novel Basics Cards # 12 & 13

Novel Basics: Card # 12
The Climax Card

The Climax Scene Card asks the question,
“What’s the high point of my novel’s plot?”

Back when I taught Creative Writing at one of America’s top community colleges, often as I introduced the topic of the moment of the highest intensity of your plot, the part of your plot that the entire book has led up to, some young male would snicker as he leaned over to the young female he wanted to impress and make some remark about climaxes that he figured that I wouldn’t understand because as a professor I was just too naïve about all such subjects.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s what it’s usually called, kiddo. Get over it,” I didn’t have time to say.

At any rate, the climax scene, aka the crisis and the catastrophe, can and often does show the do-or-die moment. It’s the highest point on the inverted check mark. Perhaps it involves the final confrontation between the protagonist and antagonist. Christopher Vogler in The Writer’s Journey, his excellent book on mythic structure for fiction and scriptwriters, calls this scene “the ultimate ordeal.” In a coming-of-age novel or a novel of ideas, the strongest, most powerful and intense scene may be when the protagonist has an epiphany about himself or life itself.

Traditionally, the climactic scene brings about a change in the protagonist’s fate, for better–he gets the girl and lives happily ever after with her–or for worse–he dies.

It’s the point in the novel when the protagonist finally resolves the problem of the book or dies trying, when Captain Ahab, for instance, finally confronts the whale in Moby Dick and dies.

In a western, it might be the shoot-out between the sheriff and the leader of the robber gang. In a traditional British murder mystery, it’s the scene in the library when the detective reveals the identity of the killer. In a romance, the lovers resolve their differences at last. In a coming-of-age novel, it might be the scene in which the protagonist finally discovers the truth about her father or his mother. In Stephen King’s psychological horror thriller Misery, Paul Sheldon finally vanquishes his number one fan, the cruel nurse Annie Wilkes.

Sometimes the climax might be a fairly intimate scene, with just the villain and the hero duking it out in the dark. Many mysteries have this sort of pivotal scene, but some novels have much larger climactic scenes with whole armies facing each other on the battlefield. I’ve grown to admire the climactic scenes in the cozy mysteries of Nancy Martin and the romantic adventures of Janet Evanovich for the way both authors bring together every major character in a dramatic, yet comic scene that resolves the mystery at last.

An important tip: avoid letting another character rescue the protagonist at the climax, a fairly common mistake for beginners. In a good, solid plot, the protagonist’s lover can’t come riding up on a white horse, fell the villain, and cut the ropes that tie the damsel to the railroad track. If the damsel is the protagonist, she has to do all of that herself and have the villain’s neck under her dainty foot when the lover rides up on his white horse, slightly too late.

So at least tentatively figure out which of the obstacles the hero confronts is the most intense, the do-or-die moment for your book to describe briefly on your Climax Scene Card. Now let’s move on to another major scene of your novel.

Novel Basics: Card # 13
The Midpoint Scene

The Midpoint Scene Card asks the question,
“What happens halfway through my novel?”

About midway through your novel, you will need a scene in which the plot takes a surprising turn of events or shifts in a new direction. The midpoint scene is very important structurally for your novel. For one thing, if you have a strong midpoint scene, your novel will not sag in the middle, a flaw I’ve heard at least one successfully published novelist complain about.

The midpoint scene is sometimes called the rug pulling because things seem to have been going well for the protagonist, but now something happens that changes everything for him, so he might have to start over again or almost. (The middle point of a W is a really good way of representing this part of a novel.)

For example, after a great struggle involving many challenges, the lone mountain climber grabs a loose rock and falls into a crevasse and breaks her leg. Oh gosh, the reader says. Will she get out of there? And how? Will she make it to the top? (FYI: she can’t get rescued here either.)

In her Adam Dalgliesh novel Original Sin, P. D. James waits until midpoint for the murder to occur after we’ve gotten to know all the characters including the detectives, the suspects and the victim.

In a romance, the guy and the gal get to know each other or at least try to in the first part of Act 2, but about halfway through Act 2 they have a misunderstanding or a falling out. For example, around the middle of Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy proposes to Elizabeth Bennet for all the wrong reasons and quite rightly she refuses him.

The midpoint doesn’t necessarily have to be negative. Perhaps in the first half of the book, your heroine has overcome some of her initial obstacles to achieving her goal of getting the guy. And now, strengthened by surmounting earlier obstacles, she’s gained the ability to confront the more challenging obstacles to come in the second half of the novel.

In her excellent book How to Write Killer Fiction, Carolyn Wheat says that in the first half of Act 2 of a mystery we have the first detection. In this section typically the detective is on the false track or the bumbling police detective gets it all wrong. But at midpoint something happens that leads to the second detection and the correct solution. The detective’s prime suspect turns up dead, for instance. Or Miss Marple takes over the investigation.

In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen receives her first gift from her sponsor on page 188 of the 374-page novel.

Next time, we’ll consider two last major scenes you need to figure out as you’re brainstorming your novel.

 

Novel Basics: Cards # 10 and # 11

Novel Basics: Card # 10
The First Scene Card (aka the Hook)

The First Scene Card asks the question,
“How will my novel start?”

Entire books have been written on the importance of the start of your novel. I won’t list any of these books here. But I will say that, above all else, the first scene of a novel must be compelling. It needs to pull your reader into your story, so it’s often called a hook. It also usually introduces the protagonist. Your protagonist, what she wants, her world, just what sort of a person she is, and something of her backstory are the basic subjects for Act 1 of your novel. That’s a lot for you to figure out before you decide where your book starts.

You probably won’t want to start with your protagonist’s birth, Dickens’ masterfully written David Copperfield to the contrary.

Bernard Cornwell begins The Last Kingdom, the first book in his epic Warrior Chronicle series, by telling us that the book (and series) protagonist Uhtred wants back his ancestral lands stolen from him. And then at the bottom of page one, we move right into Uhtred’s account of the day in 866 when his life changed, that is, when he first saw the Danes invading England.

Many beginning writers start with the protagonist waking up in the morning and then take him through the ordinary routine of shower, sh*t and shave. (Actually, I’m quoting from a student’s story.) Believe me. This has been done before, and it hardly ever works. Really you want to start your novel on a day when something different happens.

Now, I realize that the opening to your book might be very vague to you or even absolutely wrong when you first make out this card. In his memoirs Seldom Disappointed Tony Hillerman talks about the drawer he had full of first chapters, that is, false starts to some of his Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn mysteries. (Wonderful series, one of my all time favorites.)

So for now at least, think of a day in the life of your protagonist when something out of the routine happens or recently happened or that protagonist finds out about. It’s not a business-as-usual moment. It’s the start of something different. Uhtred’s life changes completely when the Vikings arrive in his world.

Think about the start of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, on what was decidedly not an ordinary day. Mr. Dursley sees a cat reading a map and several men wearing brightly colored cloaks. Owls are sighted flying in daylight all over the country. What is going on? Dursley wonders, and so do Rowling’s readers.

Often it’s when the character appears who gets the plot car going. In walks this dame of noir mystery fiction, for instance. The wizard Gandalf arrives in the little Hobbit town to fetch Bilbo Baggins off on an adventure.

Some novels start in medias res, that is, in the middle of things. A crime novel might start with the discovery of the body, for instance, another extraordinary event even for cops.

Card # 11: The Last Scene

The Last Scene Card asks the question,

“How will my novel end?”

By now, you shouldn’t be too surprised that the second scene card you complete gives the answer to the question on the Heart Card for your novel, the answer that you put on the back of your Outcome Card. But here, you can expand on it a bit to include the following options.

Yes, and furthermore . . .

Yes, but . . .

No, and furthermore . . .

No, but . . .

Yes, Cinderella gets her Prince Charming, and furthermore they live happily ever after.

No, Gatsby doesn’t get Daisy and furthermore he’s murdered. But Nick considers him worth more than a whole lot of other people including Daisy Buchanan that Gatsby tried so hard to woo and win.

Because I don’t like to use spoilers when I’m writing about the novels you might read, I’ll make some of my examples for the last scene fairly generic.

In Westerns, the hero, having vanquished the villain in a shoot-out and leaving the girl behind, rides off into the sunset.

In categorical romance novels, the girl and boy might ride off together in the sunset on the same horse.

In epic fantasy, the dragon slain and the treasure retrieved, the hero and his buddies celebrate in a victory feast.

Nick Carraway packs his bags, sells his car, prepares to go back home to the Midwest on the train, and reflects upon the lesson he learned from Gatsby.

In the last scene of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the protagonist decides that he’s had a fairly decent day, almost a happy one, one of the 3,653 days in his ten-year stretch in the prison camp, the three extra days being for leap years.

January Jinx, the first book in my Calendar Mystery series, has a yes, but ending. The novel starts with Minty Wilcox on her way to seek employment as a “business girl,” that is, a typist/stenographer, in Kansas City, a place that could downright deadly in 1899. Does she get that job? Okay, I’ll reveal that yes she does. (And furthermore, she meets this really good-looking gent.) But . . . That’s all you get.

Traditionally called the dénouement or unraveling or untying or the clearing up of your plot, the last scene of your book presents the aftermath of the next scene we’ll work on. The last scene ties up any remaining loose ends in the plot, and as is sometimes the case in series fiction, possibly sets up the next book. Do note that sometimes readers complain bitterly about a cliffhanger at the end of a novel, even if you’ve tied up the main plot, but especially if you don’t, so really I can’t advise it.

Novel Basics: A Brief History of Plot

Novel Basics: A Brief History of Plot

 

Way back in 4th Century BCE, the Greek philosopher Aristotle gave the first guidelines to plot structure when he said that a tragedy needs three parts: beginning, middle, and end, later called Act 1, Act 2, and Act 3. He also stated that the beginning isn’t necessarily preceded by any significant action, the middle grows out of the beginning, and the end grows out of middle. A successful plot might contain a surprise like some sort of shift in the action or finding out a secret from the past.

This very simple statement belies all the variations, refinements, arguments and applications to assorted kinds of storytelling that have developed since that time. Those variations included that of Horace, a Roman poet, who later said that a play needed five acts. Both Aristotle and Horace were talking about stories performed on a stage with live actions. Some differences and divergences of how plots were structured came about with the novel.

One of the earliest ways extended fiction was structured was the still popular picaresque plot, so named because Miguel de Cervantes used this type of plot in Don Quixote, first published in 1606, in which the hero and his sidekick, a rascal or picaro named Sancho Panza, go on one adventure after another.

The picaresque plot tends to have a bunch of episodes loosely strung together, that is, just one darned thing after another. You might recognize it from the very popular Fifty Shades of Grey. (Honestly, I haven’t read that novel. But a friend of mine read the first few chapters and reported that the book seemed episodic to her.)

Charles Dickens structured The Pickwick Papers, first published in installments in 1836, in similar fashion though he did frame the adventures with an overall story about Pickwick’s wedding proposal to a woman who sued him for breach of promise for not following through at the end of the novel.

I’ll omit some of the other variations of plot structure and skip to Syd Field’s Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, first published in 1979. Field said that successful movies tend to have three parts: Act 1 that runs for about thirty minutes (about thirty script pages), Act 2 that runs sixty minutes (about sixty pages), and Act 3, that runs to no more than thirty minutes. Field also says that a successful movie has six essential scenes.

Not long after that, Robert J. Ray in The Weekend Novelist described the structure of a novel as similar to Field’s paradigm, but with more pages in each act because the novelist must put much more on the page than the screenwriter does. Suffice it to say that the plot of a novel needs several scenes, six or even as many as nine including scenes that cut up the large Act 2 into manageable parts.

Scriptwriters are often so precise about bringing in the essential scenes that you can time them. “Hey, hey, wait for it. Wait for it. Ah, here comes Plot Point 1, right on schedule at minute 29.” Novelists generally aren’t so precise about hitting the plot points, but still successful novels usually place these important scenes at fairly regular intervals.

W. Somerset Maugham, author of almost twenty novels, once famously said, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” That hasn’t kept other writers from writing books on the subject and coming up with more rules, up to ten in one instance. My own take on this is that the novel you write tells you what it needs and wants to be as you write it, including decisions on structure. For example, although the classical template might dictate otherwise, Suzanne Collins divided The Hunger Games into three parts, all about the same length: Part I–138 pages, Part II–106 pages, Part III–130 pages.

As for myself, a writer primarily of mystery fiction, I prefer a more logical plot than the picaresque novel has, not one darned thing after another, but a tightly connected chain of events: that is, one more thing happens because of what happened before and the whole situation getting more and more complicated until things come together in a big scene in which the whole situation gets resolved.

My favorite representation of plot is the inverted check mark with the three major acts and the six major scenes overlaid on it because this diagram shows how the action and the tension of a well plotted novel build to the highest point of intensity in the book that’s resolved before its end.

Tip: Instead of thinking of plot structure as a formula, think of it as a skeleton, the bare bones on which you need to build your novel.

Next, we’ll move on to Card # 10, the first of your six scene cards. But before we do, here’s an important question for you: Where will you get the ideas for these scenes? Why from your obstacle cards, of course.

Novel Basics Card # 9

Novel Basics Card # 9
The Wall Card

The Wall Card asks the question,
“What could possibly go wrong?”

In truth, Card # 9 is a placeholder because you will need lots more than just one wall or obstacle that keeps your protagonist from achieving her goal right away. This card is one of my favorite cards because I have so much fun brainstorming all the things that could possibly go wrong in my hero’s journey. As a fiction writer, I’m especially adept at creating nightmare scenarios.

Exactly how many hurdles you need your hero to vault is partly a matter of scale. Hemingway needed lots more obstacles for Jake to surmount in the full-length novel The Sun Also Rises than he needed for Santiago in the novella The Old Man in the Sea.

Once, Janice Young Brooks, author of the historical novel Guests of the Emperor and as Jill Churchill the Jane Jeffries mystery series, confided in me that she likes to have “thirty-six things” to put in a book before she starts. They might not all be obstacles, but still she knows what she’s aiming for.

A more answerable question is where you can look for the obstacles you might place in front of your protagonist. Here are some suggestions.
1) A physical impairment can provide obstacles to a protagonist. For example, the protagonist of the Cormoran Strike series by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling) lost part of a leg in Afghanistan and often this physical impairment interferes with his life and his investigations.
2) Another source for obstacles preventing your protagonist from reaching his final goal right away might come in the form of some inner conflict. Self-doubt, shyness, lack of confidence, any of those would be good.
3) Other characters in the novel can provide obstacles. The major antagonist is an obvious choice, but the other characters can as well. These characters don’t necessarily have to be alive. In the Inspector Ian Rutledge series, set just after World War 1, by the mother-son writing team of Charles Todd, Hamish MacLeod, a soldier that Rutledge ordered executed, speaks up from the back seat and sows doubt in Rutledge’s mind almost every time Rutledge drives a car.
4) The settings can provide powerful physical obstacles to the protagonist getting where he needs to be. Again think about the bitter cold of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich or the perils of grocery shopping in America in April 2020.
5) The mystery author Marcia Talley is an expert in finding complications for the protagonist of her books in the daily news.

If you have the time and inclination, you might go ahead and jot down a few ideas for obstacles to your protagonist that pop into your head right now. Tip: Put each idea on a 3” by 5” note card so you can arrange them in order of intensity or danger later on.

Please come back tomorrow for a discussion of plot.