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Monday, September 26, 2022

10 Signs Your Plot is Weak (And How to Fix it)

Weak plots are surprisingly common in unpublished writing. But if you can't identity that your plot is weak, then you have no chance to fix it. And of course, once you do identify that it is weak, you may have no idea how to fix it.

I've been teaching about plot a lot the last few months, and I have shared before how as a "young" writer, I had some major struggles with plot. 

Unfortunately, I couldn't find resources that taught me about it in a way that clicked with me. I got it, but then, I didn't really get it. As a result I have literally experienced nearly all of the signs listed in this article at some point or another. So if you experience any of them, never fear--though it took a lot of study and time for me to be able to identify these signs and learn how to strengthen plot, I did it. And you can too. (And hopefully for you, I'll be able to help cut down the time.)

Monday, September 12, 2022

Managing Time in Summaries

The term "setting" refers to both time and place. Though we often focus on the place part when we talk about writing, the time part is equally important. When writing novels or short stories, we need to properly navigate the reader through the passage of time, so they never feel disoriented, and this is true for summaries just as it is for scenes.

Recently, I was asked to comment on how to handle time in summaries, but my answer was long enough to merit a whole blog post, so, here we are. And while we can certainly talk about the past and future in summaries, for this, I will be focused (mostly) on linear time.

Monday, August 29, 2022

James' or James's? Making Names that end in "S" Possessive

Most of us understand that in the English language, to make a singular noun possessive, we typically add an apostrophe and an "s," but many of us get confused when it comes to making a noun that already ends in "s," possessive. Do we just do an apostrophe? Do we add another "s"? Do we do something else?

Hi all, I'm keeping it short, sweet, and (somewhat?) simple for today's post, especially after finishing up that big series on plot, and I am covering an (oddly specific) topic that should be straightforward, but that can be surprisingly confusing. How do we make a noun that ends in "s" possessive, correctly? Specifically, how do we treat our characters' names that end in "s", to make them possessive?

This was an issue I ran into with my writing when I was a teenager, and even when studying English in college, for some reason the answer wasn't readily available. I remember asking a friend whose name ended in "s" for the answer, and even she seemed unsure. As an editor, I still get asked about this situation every so often, so I thought it was worth posting about.

So what is the deal?

If you happen to be someone who's been confused by this, guess what? The confusion is totally merited. This is because the answer to whether we write James' or James's is "it depends."

It's also confusing in part because you've seen it handled both ways.

The reason it's handled both ways isn't because of some fancy punctuation rule--it's because it depends on the publishing house's style sheet.

Most fiction in the U.S. is expected to follow The Chicago Manual of Style. This is typically seen as the standard for how to handle any kind of punctuation, grammar, printing, or what have you. If you have any questions related to those, it's best to go to The Chicago Manual of Style for the answer. 

The most current edition of Chicago (edition 17) says we should make a name that ends in "s" by adding an apostrophe and an "s."

So if James owns a watch, I should write, "James's watch."

With that said, other style guides (such as the Associated Press Stylebook in some situations) handle it differently, and a publisher may have an in-house style sheet for all their publications. Sometimes the extra "s" gets left off . . . 

- because people think the double "s" looks unappealing

- to save on space and ink, and therefore money

- because some names don't generally have the double "s" pronounced. (For example, "Socrates' ideas" is usually pronounced as "Socrates ideas" and not "Socrates-es ideas.")

Older editions of The Chicago Manual of Style even dropped the "s," probably for those reasons.

So, technically you can actually write it either way, but unless you are following your publisher's style guide, if you are writing fiction in the U.S., it's probably best to follow Chicago and write "James's." 

The most important thing, however, is to keep it consistent throughout the manuscript. Don't use "James' watch" in one line and then a paragraph later write "James's watch."

Because I try to stick to Chicago, personally, I write "James's."

Additional Resources:

How To Make Words That End In “S” Possessive by

Possessives of Names Ending in “S”: Charles’ or Charles’s? Harris’ or Harris’s? by

Possessive of Proper Names Ending in S by Daily Writing Tips

Monday, August 15, 2022

The Quinary Principles of Plot: Reveals & Twists

Reveals and twists are a great way to take a plot to the next level. Already, some of us are likely recalling specific books or movies that had jaw-dropping reveals or twists--the kind that stick with us for years, if not decades, after.

Over the last two months, I have been breaking down what a plot actually is and what it actually contains. . . .

In the primary principles, we covered goals, antagonists, conflicts, and consequences.

In the secondary principles, we covered progress, setbacks, costs, and turning points.

In the tertiary principles, we covered plans, gaps, and crises.

In the quaternary principles, we covered setups, payoffs, and connections.

And today we will be finishing up the series with two of my favorite things: reveals and twists.

Just as a warning, there will be spoilers from . . . Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, Squid Game, and The Sixth Sense

Monday, August 8, 2022

The Quaternary Principles of Plot: Setups, Payoffs, Connections

In order to write a strong story, it's helpful to know and utilize the principles of plot. So far, we have covered the primary, secondary, and tertiary principles. While not every likable story has a powerful riveting plot (some may emphasize character or theme more), with these elements you can create a solid one and strengthen it.

As a brief review, here are the components we've covered thus far.

Monday, July 25, 2022

The Tertiary Principles of Plot: Plans, Gaps, Crises

In storytelling, the primary principles of plot include goal, antagonist, conflict, and consequences. You can't have a great plot without those elements first. The secondary principles of plot build directly off the primary, and they include progress, setbacks, costs, and turning points. As you likely guessed, the tertiary principles build off the prior two sets, and they include plans, gaps, and crises. 

Here is a very brief review of what we've covered so far.

Goal--the protagonist has a want that manifests in a concrete goal. (There are different types of goals and the goal may change, but a goal is necessary to create context for the plot.)

Antagonist--the antagonistic force is a form of opposition; and thus it is something in the way of the goal. (While there is often a primary antagonist, most stories will have multiple--and even temporary--antagonistic forces)

Conflict--because the protagonist and antagonist "want" opposing things (to some degree), this leads to conflict.

Consequences--conflict only really matters when it carries consequences. This gives a plot a sense of cause and effect. Stakes appear as potential consequences. Ramifications appear as consequences that actually happen.

Progress--progress is used to measure how close the protagonist is to getting the goal. A sense of progress comes from reaching smaller goals within the larger goal.

Setbacks--setbacks happen when an antagonistic force blocks or pushes back the protagonist from his or her goal. They work as the opposite of progress.

Costs--when the protagonist moves forward and comes into conflict, there is often a sort of cost. This may be their physical or mental well-being, time, money, or any other sort of resource. Costs put responsibility and accountability on the protagonist as they exercise agency.

Turning Points--turning points appear as an action (event) or a revelation (information) that changes the cause-and-effect trajectory of the story (consequences). The plot was going one direction, but a turning point shifts it onto a new path.

Monday, July 18, 2022

The Secondary Principles of Plot: Progress, Setbacks, Costs, Turning Points

Plot is more than "stuff happening." At the most basic level, a plot should have these elements: goal, antagonist, conflict, and consequences. In this article, we will go over the secondary principles of plot: progress, setbacks, costs, and turning points.

But first, let's briefly review the primary principles. Without these things, the storyline will always feel weak or even "broken."

The protagonist has a want (which may be abstract) that manifests in a goal or even goals (which should be concrete and measurable--in that the audience knows what reaching the goal looks like). Not all protagonists start the story with a clear goal, but nearly all protagonists should have one by the end of Act I. Furthermore, not all protagonists have the same type of goal--for example, some goals may be aspirational, others goals may be simply to stop the antagonist, others may be to return balance to a previous lifestyle. It's possible the goal may change, and in such cases, it may be helpful to view the story as having act-level goals, rather than one, grand overarching goal from beginning to end.

Something antagonistic is in the way of that goal. The antagonistic force is a form of opposition--it is something in the way of the goal, not just something annoying or heckling the protagonist. In some cases, it may be more helpful to think of the antagonistic force as the resistance or obstacle in the way of the goal, and there will probably be more than one. Not every antagonistic force that appears in a story will be the "main bad guy" (or what have you), particularly in scenes and sequences. Nonetheless, if it is something obstructing the way, it is an antagonistic force.

The protagonist and antagonist want conflicting things. There isn't an easy, foreseeable way for them each to have their desires. This leads to conflict. The protagonist needs to somehow outsmart or overcome the antagonist. The more the protagonist wants the goal, and the tougher the antagonist, the bigger the struggle. This helps create meaningful conflict, not conflict that is cleverly disguised filler.

Conflict only really matters in that it affects what happens next, or in other words, it has consequences. This is where cause and effect come in. A strong plot follows a sense of cause and effect. In most stories, the effect will be both internal and external, but it's possible to be only one (internal emphasizes character more, external emphasizes plot more). When we project the cause and effect trajectory forward, we create stakes (what is at risk in the story). Stakes = potential consequences. Ramifications = actual consequences.

Next, we will dive into the secondary principles of plot: progress, setbacks, costs, and turning points.

Monday, July 11, 2022

The Primary Principles of Plot: Goal, Antagonist, Conflict, Consequences

The Primary Principles of Plot is Story

A plot is more than a "storyline" or "a series of events," and in order to have a solid plot, it must first have these primary principles: goal, antagonist, conflict, and consequences. Without these things clearly in the story, the plot will always feel weak or even "broken."

Now, with that said, not every likable story has an amazing plot. This is when we turn to what I consider the holy trinity of writing: character, plot, and theme. Generally speaking, for most stories, 99% of what you write should be touching and progressing one of these things, and often, all three. However, not all of them are evenly balanced for every story. For example, no one would say that Forrest Gump is about a thrilling plot that leaves you breathless and your mind spinning. It's mostly about character. Others may lean more heavily on theme (this is often what makes Pixar's stories tug at the heartstrings). And some, like the thriller, very much lean on plot.

Nonetheless, almost any decent story will have at least the primary principles of plot, which I'll be covering today. This is a part of a series where I lay out the primary, secondary, tertiary, and even quaternary principles of what makes a great one.

Monday, June 27, 2022

What Plot is NOT (How NOT to Fix Your Story’s Plot!)

According to the dictionaries, a plot is a "storyline," "main story," or "plan" in a literary work. A search online will tell you that a plot is a "series of events," "a list of checkpoints to move a story," "how the story is delivered in a book," "the structure of events," "what happens," "a chain of events" in a story.

You know what? To be frank, all these definitions of "plot" stink.

Not only are they pretty vague, but some of them don't even check out. 

Plot is "the structure of events"? No! That's structure. 

Plot is "what happens." Really? So I can write a story about a character looking out a window at a boring neighborhood with nothing meaningful, then have him lie in bed getting nowhere, and get up and get a snack out of a fridge, and then watch T.V. with nothing meaningful, significant, or insightful? Sounds like a plotless story to be sure!

Plot is "the main story." This doesn't even make sense. Story is more than plot. And what about the secondary plotlines? They don't fit the definition of "plot"?

I could go through the other definitions, but I think you get the point.

For the last couple of years, I have been thinking and studying plot quite a bit. Because on the one hand, I totally know what plot is, but on the other, at a deeper level, I have no clue what plot is. Like, I know what it is, but what IS it ReAlLlLy???

In the past, I knew writing great plots was something I struggled with--and what's worse, I knew I was struggling, but couldn't find the magic pill that would make everything click together for me! It's not that I didn't understand anything about plot, but I could never get what I was hearing to work into a big, old, powerful plotline that would leave the reader breathless, like I wanted. 

When I asked others for help and resources, most people couldn't provide what I needed or sent me to structure. And for the record, plot isn't structure, which is what many seem to think (more on that in a bit).

Finally, everything clicked into place at a level it hadn't before for me. In short, I'll be doing a few posts on plot to explain it all to my past self, and maybe it will help someone else struggling.

Or maybe you already understand plot at a deeper level than I did.

In any case, with such crummy definitions, I want to start by talking about what plot is not

And surely I've caught myself and others trying to make the following things into plot. And have sometimes even heard instructors talk about them as if they are plot. I realize some of these things will sound obvious, but you might be surprised how people can disguise them.