Tag Archives: Plot

No Plot, No Problem?

Given that there are “plot-driven” novels and “character-driven” novels, you’d be forgiven for thinking that if your characters are strong enough, you don’t need a decent plot and vice versa, but is that really the case?

Murder mysteries, for example, are highly plot-driven. They are all about who killed whom and how and why, and the reader can easily become sufficiently hooked on a good mystery that the characters are allowed to be fairly two-dimensional and uninteresting. But if we consider all the famous mystery stories, they have something in common – a fascinating, flawed, quirky sleuth. Certainly, there isn’t much character development in these stories: Hercule Poirot never acquires modesty and Columbo never cleans up his act; but if the plot is what drives us through that episode, it is the character who brings us back to the next.

The problem I seem to have is more the opposite. After lots of practice here at Elmowrites and elsewhere, I’ve honed my skills at writing short stories, but when it comes to a novel, I find the whole question of plot daunting.

It’s easy enough to tell a story: “this happened, then this, then that”, but to write a decent novel, you need PLOT. You need progression, development, cause and effect. There must be sub-plots, each of which needs all of that too, and the subplots must be nicely tied in with the main plot to create a cohesive whole.

Many story ideas boil down to “what if” questions: what if a child psychologist who had recently been shot treated a boy who could see dead people? What if an asteroid were about to hit earth? What if a crazy German dude took over a building that just happened to house a rebellious NYPD detective’s wife? What if I watched too many Bruce Willis movies?! (I haven’t seen the latest yet, looks like I may have to wait for the DVD now)

But a PLOT is about more than that initial question. A PLOT needs the author to add tension and excitement and near-misses; a PLOT requires us to build our hopes for the characters from a carefully-crafted sequence of successes and failures.

I’m beginning to understand why writers need to study novels as well as movies. In plot terms, most movies are short stories, novellas at best. (This is probably why some of the best movies of all time are based on short stories: Stand By Me, Shawshank Redemption, Brokeback Mountain… the list is long and distinguished). When great (and not-so-great) novels are turned into movies, fans generally grumble about all the stuff that’s been missed out, and this is why. You just can’t fit 80,000 words into 2 hours of screen time.

A short story still needs a plot. Even Bruce has to fail a few times before he finally succeeds. Especially when someone’s provided enough budget to fly a fighter jet into a freeway. But it doesn’t need to have quite so many complexities as a novel, and this richness is what a good plot provides.

So, if you’re telling your better half what you did today, no plot is no problem, but if you’re trying to land a publishing contract, better hunt one down!

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False Finish

This year’s editing plan has led me to really start thinking about story structure. I’ll post a few of those thoughts here over the next few months – do let me know if you agree or disagree with my conclusions, or have any wisdom to add to my musings.

One of the plot points which is often highlighted in structure plans is the “False Finish”. It has various names, this is just the one I prefer. The idea is that towards the end of the story, the hero either thinks he’s succeeded or thinks he’s failed. It feels like an ending, but it’s unsatisfactory for one reason or another and ultimately is actually the beginning of the true ending, which will tie things up much more convincingly.

If you think of story structure as a fight scene, this is the point when Hero lands a killer punch on Villain’s jaw. Villain falls down, apparently dead. Hero turns to Love Interest and smiles. It feels like an ending, but it isn’t because in fact, Villain isn’t dead and will suddenly appear for one last-ditch attempt to kill Hero, only to be foiled by Hero’s quick reactions or a Sidekick character dealing a truly fatal blow. (This is the true finish, leaving only whatever wrap-up scene is necessary to show Hero and Love Interest riding off into the proverbial sunset.

Alternatively, the same thing, but with Hero seemingly knocked out, Villain looking up victorious (false finish), only for Hero to actually be pretending and rise up to save the day (true finish).

I get it, and I get that a false finish can be a good plot point. I’m just not sure it’s there in every great story. In fact, outside the Action and possibly Romance genres, I’m struggling to think of many examples. I’ve read that if you want to study story structure, movies are just as useful as novels, but even in the movies, I’m short on examples outside those genres. Stand By Me has one: they find the body (false finish), Ace arrives and they stand up to him (true finish), but I’ve gone through an awful lot of movies in my head to find that one.

Can you help me with other examples of the false finish? Do you think it’s really imperative? I’d love to hear from you.


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Adding More Filling To The Pie

Approaching the end of February, and I’m desperately trying to finish my first read-through of The Phoenix Fire, in accordance with my editing plan. I’ve just taken a week off to spend time with my best friend who came out to meet Sebastian. I don’t regret that at all, but it does mean I’m going to have to knuckle down to finish the read-through by Friday.

However, I’ve already made an important discovery in what I’ve read so far: there isn’t enough plot. The draft is long enough, maybe even a bit too long, in terms of word count, but there is nothing like enough happening to sustain interest for a full novel. It’s probably a symptom of this being the first novel-length story I’d written (not counting a romance I wrote in school), but I don’t suppose my recent spate of flash fiction writing is going to help me fix it.

Novels keep you reading because you want to know what happens. Not just to the main characters, but also to a bunch of minor ones. And you have to believe something will happen, that the author isn’t just giving a long-winded description of a boring life. Although I reckon that description would apply to a few classics, I don’t think I can rely on that to carry me through – Remains of the Day, anyone?

What this story needs are more themes, sub-plots, twists and turns, tangents and probably lots of other tricks. Yes, most novels can be boiled down to a one or two sentence plot summary, but they have to be much more than that when you read them. A “Beef Pie” isn’t generally tasty without the gravy, vegetables … and enough beef (or horse, if you’re British) in the filling.

I think the challenge of re-writing TPF is going to be harder than even I thought!


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Planning 101

As promised, in previous posts (see https://elmowrites.wordpress.com/2012/02/20/planning-by-the-seat/), I’m going to try to lay some groundwork here about the planning process for writers who choose to plan in advance. I am not advocating planning as the only method of writing, but when the project is big, or time-pressured, or simply when the writer has a good idea in advance of where the story is going, it can help to get that down on paper before the writing starts in earnest.

Today’s post is about Plot planning, there are other kinds of planning which I’ll deal with another time.

Some of these ideas are based on what is known as the Snowflake Method, which you can read about in more detail here: http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/art/snowflake.php

Stage 1: Elevator Pitch

When the novel(1) is finished, the writer may want to pitch it to a publisher, agent or editor. But even from the beginning, it’s a great idea to have a clue vision of the basic premise of the story. Ideally, we’re going for no more than 25 words and a single sentence.

EG “An old woman looks back at a love affair from her youth and the disaster which separated her from her lover forever.”(2)

Stage 2: Paragraph Pitch

This stage is in many ways just a part of Stage 1. The idea is to expand the single sentence pitch into a paragraph, but it’s still very much a pitch. It will still leave the reader guessing about a huge number of things. It shouldn’t be more than about 100 words and 4 or 5 sentences. It will start to identify the themes and focus points of the novel.

EG “Four boys facing challenges in their daily lives, learn the location of a body in the woods. Set out on foot to see it, but a rival group of older boys is heading the same way. On their journey, the heroes face experiences and dangers which test not only their friendship but their own strengths and personalities. The boys who find the body are not the ones who set out to look for it. This coming of age drama tells the story of childhood friendships and innocence on the verge of discovery.”

Stage 3: Paragraph Story

This is where the plotting really starts. Stages 1 and 2 did little more than identify the  themes and ideas. They were deliberately vague and enticing, but this is the time when that stops. From Stage 3 onwards, the plan is not for the eyes of anyone except the writer. It absolutely should contain spoilers and answers to the questions the first two stages raised. This paragraph should be around the same length as the previous one, but this time be clearly plot driven. The first sentence should deal with the opening scenes, the last sentence with the ending, and the middle of the paragraph three key events that happen in between.

**SPOILER ALERT: This example contains spoilers for a film starring Joaquin Phoenix and Bryce Dallas Howard.**

EG: “A 19th century village, surrounded by woods populated by scary monsters that keep the inhabitants trapped in their otherwise idyllic lifestyle. A young couple falls in love, but a mentally handicapped boy who had hoped to marry the girl himself stabs the lover repeatedly in the chest. The girl’s only hope of saving her fiance is to travel through the woods to the nearby town to get medicine. Giving his blessing, her father admits to her that the monsters are not real, created by the elders of the village to protect its inhabitants from straying to the tempting but dangerous town. When she travels to the town, the girl realises that she and the villagers have in fact been living in a secret enclave in modern America, set up by the elders to escape the dangers and excesses of 21st century society.”

Stage 4: Expansion

From here, the process is simply one of expansion. Each sentence in that paragraph can be turned into a paragraph of its own. Each of these new paragraphs into a page, and so on. In some ways, this process could be repeated forever until the story was novel-length, but it is my view that to do so would be to create a much flatter story than is possible by writing more organically. Therefore once I have a collection of about 25 scenes, I tend to stop and write from scratch, using this plan as no more than a guideline. I might add in more scenes, or flesh some out more than others, depending on the flow of the writing and the scenes which lend themselves more to tension or action.

Taking the example above, this film incorporates a huge amount of set up; the first sentence alone takes up something like half the length of the film, with the second sentence creeping in and taking up most of the rest. The third and fourth are brushed over relatively quickly and then the final sentence is the denouement and ties together all the threads that have been spun out by elements either only hinted at or not mentioned in this summary.

Expansion is over when the writer says it is. They may do little more than chapter headings, or they may write a page or two of notes for each chapter. They may even not break the book into chapters until after it is written.


1: For convenience, I’m referring to the story / work as a novel. This could equally apply to a shorter story, a memoir or whatever piece of creative writing is being carried out. I’m not sure it works so well for non-fiction, but I imagine it is quite easily modified to do so.
2: Feel free to play the game of identifying the famous books or movies I’m using for my examples.


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