Using Stages of Plot as a Framework

Posted by on Feb 25, 2015 in Advice |

Plot is one of the four backbones of fiction (the other three being character, setting, and style), and it’s one we haven’t touched on much here on the B&BD blog. So today, I want to go through the traditional stages of plot.

When I edit my own work, one of the things I like to do is map where my chapters fall in these stages. Doing so really helps me visualize the pacing, and also helps me narrow in on what the tone of each section should be. Are my characters getting too much downtime in the rising action portion? Or, conversely, not enough? Does the climax or denouement stretch on for too long to be effective? These are the questions we can ask ourselves when we employ the stages of plot as a framework.

Like most traditional writing rules, these stages of plot are there to be experimented with. For practice, consider your favorite books, movies, and even TV shows and observe the way they utilize these plot stages. Compare to yours. This will help you learn to see the structure of your manuscript and revise for tension and a complete arc.

Exposition

This is almost invariably the first stage: the introduction to the characters and the setting. In the exposition, you’re laying a foundation for the story. This section is important because it lets us bond with the characters before the shit hits the fan, and sets initial expectations for the rest of the novel. Once the stakes are raised, we know where the protagonist is coming from and what it will mean to them to succeed.

Often, writers spend too long in the exposition stage of the plot or they try to give too much exposition all at once. It varies from genre to genre, but you often don’t need as much exposition as you think.

Remember that your exposition can be a hook as much as any other plot stage. This is where style and character matter a lot toward engaging the interest of your reader. You’re presenting information necessary to contextualize the plot, but how are you presenting it? By the time you get to editing your draft, you should be thinking of ways to innovate your scenes, whether by an unusual exchange of dialogue or perhaps an unexpected setting or point of view.

Hamlet.

Hamlet.

Rising Action (First Phase)

Traditional ‘story mountain’ maps generally show rising action as one long climb to the climax, but I like to break it down a bit more, so I include what I call the first phase of rising action. This is the part of the story that grows out of the exposition and builds the tension. This stage usually includes the inciting incident, which is what gets your protagonist involved in the plot–but that’s one of the ways you can experiment. These days it’s very common to find the inciting incident in the first chapter, perhaps even the first page.

The exposition and first rising action phase work best when they’re blended in a steady ebb and flow that gradually carries your reader forward (or upward, depending on your visualization) into the story.

So when you’re mapping, how can you tell the difference between the two kinds of scene? Exposition tells the reader what the characters already know. It establishes the status quo, introduces things as they are. Rising action, in any phase, introduces something new in some way, whether it’s an attack or just news of an attack, or even if it’s just your protagonist learning something that may have been established in the exposition of another character (such as a villain).

The key in this phase of rising action is that each development should raise more questions than it answers, or otherwise muddle the plan.

confusedspn

Catalyst

This isn’t one that shows up on basic ‘story mountain’ diagrams, but I like to think of it as the event during the rising action that really kicks things off. This is that moment when everything changes, when the characters move from asking questions to actively participating. This is where urgency is introduced. Something must be done immediately!

Rising Action (Second Phase)

The second rising action phase is what I think of as the crisis stage. This is where characters are making and executing plans, experiencing setbacks and losses, and barreling along toward the climax. Tension should be high, both in terms of external stakes and between characters. This is the time to exploit relationships and dredge up secrets left unshared. This is the time for things to go horribly wrong.

This is also when your characters, protagonists especially, should confront their worst fears and attitudes and start to find the hero within themselves. How does your protagonist respond to adversity? And your supporting characters–do they cave or rally? Which of them can be trusted, or relied upon? Stack the odds against your players and allow them to surprise you.

tumblr_lw138nNRXJ1qe3vm8

Climax or Denouement

This is the point where everything comes to a head. The apex of the story mountain, if you will. I include both climax and denouement, because they sometimes overlap, but put simply: the climax is the high point of the plot, the most tense or exciting or active point.

A denouement can include or directly follow the climax, and makes clear or resolves the elements of the plot to that point. Think of it as the scene in a crime procedural when the detective is explaining the evidence against the suspect, and how they figured it out. Another fun example is the end of Louis Sachar’s Holes, when the main character realizes the connections between all the events and people at the camp.

The execution of this stage will vary depending on the genre of your novel. A fantasy denouement could stretch several chapters as part of an epic battle. In a contemporary, it’s more likely to happen in the space of one chapter, and be purely a climax.

Falling Action

In this stage, your characters are either solving the problems of the climax or processing the denouement and cleaning up after it. It depends on your genre. The Return of the King is an excellent example of extended falling action, if you consider the destruction of the One Ring the climax. There’s a lot of logistical housekeeping to be done, and even a little more action to be had when the hobbits return to the Shire and deal with the consequences of the battle at home. But it’s all downhill, nothing the hobbits can’t handle after what they’ve learned and been through on their journey.

Falling action is about consequences, and every book should have this stage even if it’s part of a series.

tissuespn

Resolution

Like exposition and the first phase of rising action, falling action often blends with resolution. As your characters address the aftermath of the climax, they must either accept or reject what they’ve done and the way things end up, and make plans for the future. For series writers, this stage of reflection is how you build momentum toward the next book without utilizing a hateful cliffhanger. It doesn’t have to last long, and is often better if kept brief.

To use a film example, the final shot of Catching Fire shows us Katniss reacting very quickly to the news that the Games are over and she’s on her way to District 13. We see her reject her fear and become determined–to what, we’re not specifically sure (in terms of just watching the movies). But we know she’s made a decision and intends to do something about it, which kicks us toward the next film, while still feeling that this arc of her story is complete.

Questions? Responses? Drop us a line in the comments or on Twitter! 

Read More

First Steps Post-Draft

Posted by on Dec 1, 2014 in Advice, Encouragement |

Many of you have just finished NaNoWriMo, so I figured now would be a good time to share our tips for what to do after typing “the end”. (Step one is to read up on our 10K, 10% NaNoWriMo promotion and see if it’s for you!)

Sit back and bask in your glory.

You wrote a novel! A freaking novel! It’s an achievement and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. There are so many people out there who want to write novels and never do, people who don’t dedicate the time to it–and on top of that, there are plenty of would-be novelists who never finish a single draft. (I was one of them for a long, long time.) You’ve taken a big step and overcome a big obstacle. REVEL IN IT.

GlitterBitches-Small

Step away from the darlings.

When you’re finished soaking up the warm glow of accomplishment, put the manuscript away. Don’t touch it. Delete your word processor’s desktop shortcut. Forget that it ever happened. Return to your regularly scheduled hobbies.

Love on your supporters.

We writers often ask a lot from the people in our lives. We ask for space, we let the stories and the inspiration take precedence over conversation except when we need to bounce an idea off someone, we get frustrated when all we want to do is go write but there are other demands on our time and they just won’t go away. Sometimes we write dark things and it puts us in a funk and our spouses/siblings/roommates/parents/friends bear the brunt of our self-induced bad moods. We get super self-centered and all we want to talk about is our characters.

Now that your draft is done, do something nice for all the people who helped you do your writerly thing while the work was in progress. Even if it’s just a card or a heartfelt email, they’ll appreciate it and they’ll continue to support you in the future.

hug3

Do something different.

By the time you finish your draft, you may have gotten used to the rearranged schedule you made so that you’d have writing time. Feel free to relax it a little, but don’t be afraid to take advantage of that extra time to do something new and different. Play chess. Take an online course through places like Coursera. Knit a sweater. Ride a horse. Steal a TARDIS. Whatever!

New experiences are food for writers’ brains. You made room in your schedule to write a book, now use that room to learn and try new things. You never know what you might need to know for your next book (or even the one you just finished, when you get to editing it).

When you’re ready, make an editing plan.

Give yourself a nice long waiting period. The time required is different for each person, and even different for each manuscript, but what’s always true is that you need some time away in order to see your manuscript with a clear head. Spend some time just thinking about your manuscript first. Your first round of editing should be about story structure, character development, plot, all those big picture things. Make a plan. Whether you’re a pantser or a plotter, now is the time to outline your manuscript and make sure everything flows. Get the big parts in place before you start hunting for typos.

What are your favorite self-care steps post-editing? Share in the comments or on Twitter! 

Read More

Hyphens and Compound Adjectives

Posted by on Nov 24, 2014 in Advice |

When I’m copy-editing and proofreading, one of the things I almost always end up doing is adding hyphens between compound adjectives. A compound adjective is when two adjectives are joined together to modify the same noun, as in:

“Loki wore a fur-trimmed coat.”

I often see these compound adjectives written without hyphens, a la “fur trimmed”. It probably doesn’t seem like such a big deal, until you’ve got a nice long string of compound adjectives to deal with.

“Loki wore a sky blue soot covered knee length fur trimmed coat…”

Wait, is that sky blue soot? Is the coat knee length, or is the fur trim knee length? You can see how it gets messy. Hyphens indicate exactly which words are meant to be joined together, making the sentence flow. (Commas help too, when you have this many adjectives.)

“Loki wore a sky-blue, soot-covered, knee-length, fur-trimmed coat.”

Generally speaking, it’s only necessary to hyphenate a compound adjective when it precedes the noun it’s modifying.

“Loki wore a soot-covered sky-blue coat with fur trim.”

“Loki wore a soot-covered fur-trimmed coat. It was sky blue under the dust.”

Hyphenation rules can get, as Grammar Girl says, “squidgy” depending on who you ask; but most of the publishing world uses the Chicago Manual of Style, so I refer you to this handy dandy chart of hyphenation rules.

Now here, have this GIF of Loki in a fur-trimmed coat.

loki

 

What’s your squidgiest, most troublesome punctuation mark? Let us know in the comments!

Or you could just show us more Loki GIFs. Your choice.

Read More

10K, 10% NaNoWriMo Promotion

Posted by on Nov 12, 2014 in Promotions |

Hello out there, you brave NaNoWriMoing souls!

Ash and I love NaNo. It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s buoyed on a glorious ocean of support and inspiration from writers all around the world. It’s about having fun and following your dreams.

For some of you, the dream ends with the draft. You will have finished a book, and that will be awesome. Seriously. Congratulations in advance!

Some of you, however, will want to take that baby places.

To that end, we’re offering a 10K, 10% promotion! For every 10,000 words you write in this year’s November NaNoWriMo, we’ll give you 10% off one of our full manuscript packages: our Reader Report, already an amazing value, and our intensive line and developmental edits, including our two-round, two-editor Twice Tried option!

Write 10K, get 10% off.

Write 20K, get 20% off.

30K, 30%. 40K, 40%. Make it to 50K, and we’ll give you 50% off a full manuscript critique.*

This is kind of a big deal.

excited supernatural

RULES

To be eligible for this discount, you must:

  • participate in NaNoWriMo in November 2014
  • track your progress through the official NaNo website and provide us with your NaNo username
  • contact us anytime between now and March 31st, 2015 to reserve your place (we need a signed contract and agreed-upon deposit to reserve slots)

We’re offering this promotion through March to give you time to self-edit your NaNo manuscripts (perhaps even during National Novel Editing Month) before sending them to us–we highly recommend doing this, because that’s how you’ll get the most out of our feedback. But please: do not email us to reserve a slot until after you have done a round or two of self-editing. We reserve the right not to accept your project if you email us tomorrow but tell us you want a slot in April of next year so you have time to edit. That’s an extreme example, but basically it’ll work nicer for everyone if your manuscript is pretty much ready to go when you email us.

We’ll apply this discount to qualifying writers who reserve their place before 11:59 pm on March 31st, so you have plenty of time to revise and still get the discount.

Not sure about the fate of your NaNo novel, but have another manuscript that’s ready for another set of eyes? We’ll apply this discount to those projects too! You still need to show us your word count for this year’s November NaNo, but we invite you to share any completed, unpublished manuscript with us. Self-publishing? Stuck in the query trenches for way too long**? Get a revise-and-resubmit**? We can help.

*Discounts will be capped at 50% off.
**For those who are querying, it’s probably better if your manuscript is not actively being read by any agents or editors when you send it to us.

All you writers out there are an inspiration to us. Hat’s off to you for your dedication, and good luck with the rest of National Novel Writing Month.

Well, depending on the man...

 

Questions, concerns? Feel free to share in the comments, or tweet us @Bear_BlackDog.

Read More

When, Wait, What?

Posted by on Oct 22, 2014 in Advice |

“She started to undress when suddenly, a man burst forth from the closet.”

What’s wrong with that sentence? Well, a few things, but today we’re focusing on the middle. We know that generally, a word like ‘suddenly’ isn’t necessary. If an action really is sudden, you don’t want to tip your reader off that it’s coming. (I personally find ‘suddenly’ useful when describing feelings or realizations that come upon the character, well, all of a sudden. But for actions, not so much.)

So what happens when we drop ‘suddenly’ from our sentence?

“She started to undress when a man burst forth from the closet.”

What’s wrong with the sentence now? Hopefully, you’ll notice that it can now be flipped: “When a man burst forth from the closet, she started to undress.” That sounds like the man bursting forth from the closet is her cue to start undressing.

Well, depending on the man...

Well, depending on the man…

Knowing the original sentence as we do, we can surmise that that’s probably not what the writer intended. They meant that the man interrupted the woman while she was undressing. But cutting ‘suddenly’ and leaving ‘when’ makes the remaining sentence confusing.

While this situation could be marginally rectified by a comma after ‘undress’, that’s not going to open this up for descriptive opportunities. Plus, as you astutely noticed, there are other issues with the sentence. A good way to fix this kind of situation is to break the two actions apart and give them all the description they deserve. I also like to drop ‘sudden’ actions to a new paragraph so that they’re harder to skim over.

“She peeled off the cardigan and fumbled with the buttons of her blouse. She couldn’t get Brad’s expression out of her head.

The door crashed open behind her. Brad’s face vanished and she whirled around, clutching her shirt collar.”

Overall, one of the most important revision steps is to ensure that your descriptions are clear in what they’re trying to convey. That’s why it’s so helpful to get more pairs of eyes on what you write.

Read More

Keep Your Main Character Visible

Posted by on Oct 8, 2014 in Advice |

In YA speculative fiction, there often ends up being a team of sorts–the main character (usually a neophyte), at least one more experienced character who may or may not also be a love interest, and an older mentor (Gandalf, Haymitch, etc). Because of this, there are almost always group scenes in which the main/POV character takes a backseat to the conversation.

Today’s post is not a critique of that tendency. It usually suits the character and their skill level at that point in time. Sometimes, however, when the POV character isn’t participating in a large group conversation, they become entirely invisible. 

By this I mean: they’re not speaking, they don’t seem to be observing anything, and they don’t seem to have thoughts or reactions to anything that is said. Basically, they disappear from the page until they speak again.

I’ll caveat here by saying that, as ever with writing techniques, moderation is key. I’m not suggesting your POV character weigh in, verbally or mentally, on every line of dialogue spoken around them. You should also be careful to avoid too much filtering. But the last thing you want is for your main character to fade into the reader’s background. They’re your main character for a reason, right? You chose their point of view. (An exception would be if you’re choosing to write in an omnipotent or distant POV, which I honestly don’t see much anymore.)

Here’s an example. The team is having a conversation about an incident. One character is visibly upset. Another character proceeds to tell the mentor what happened. The main character was present for the incident, which happened in the chapter before, so you rightfully truncate the recap to a single, “he explained what happened” line. The visibly upset character speaks, having “regained her composure.”

I hope you see the opportunity. The in-novel explanation of the incident will take much longer than reading the truncated line, so your main character–who doesn’t have to listen to the recap–has some hang time. Do they stare at the wall? Do they watch the mentor? Do they watch the visibly upset character compose herself, do they comfort her? Do they focus on their own thoughts, and what are those thoughts?

There’s a chance here to characterize them and center them in this group scene again. Take it, and give us another in to your main character. Because who knows what they could be thinking?

53914-Supernatural-Im-stabbing-you-i-W7AG

Read More

On Day Jobs and Hobbies

Posted by on Sep 18, 2014 in Advice, Encouragement, From the Editors |

IMG_5206

Bear here, enjoying a moment of quiet. I sit at my desk without any looming edit deadlines and my daughter at the babysitter’s. Crickets are singing in the yellowing grass outside my window. Tomorrow there will be no babysitter, and I will have house work. But today…today is mine. Today I can pause and decide what would please me to do.

These moments are wonderful, because they allow me to rekindle my love of writing. After doing the day, sometimes there’s not much energy left for the creative process.

But I don’t want to take the regular days for granted. I think responsibilities can remind us of the beauty of the creative process and drive us forward as writers. The day job, the kid, the family obligations, scrubbing the toilet…what kind of escape would writing be if I didn’t have these things?

And let’s take it to the next level. What if writing books was my only interest? What if I didn’t have an interest in music? What if I didn’t have native plant gardening to make me feel excited about something bigger than myself? What if I didn’t sew for the orderly, mind quieting therapy of it?

There’s so much to enjoy in life. Every day. Don’t make writing carry the burden of being the only thing you look forward to.

It’s good to have obligations to structure your day and motivate your passion. And sometimes it’s good to step away from the computer and pursue another hobby.

We all have things we need to do, and things we want to do. For a lot of us, writing is something we simply need to do. Myself included. But I also want writing to be something I WANT to do, as much as possible.

I want to tell any overburdened, busy writers out there: if you catch one of these quiet days, don’t let the thought of your obligations stop you from enjoying it. Free yourself. Do what you like. Feel no guilt.

Me, I’m taking the day. I won’t read over this post obsessively to make sure I got it “right.” I’m not going to waffle between this or that chore. No–not today. Today, I’m going to go outside and enjoy the garden.

IMG_5262

-Bear

Read More