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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.

Monday, June 20, 2022

Balancing Out Your Cast of Characters


It's no secret that side characters can be amazing in their own right. Great side characters feel like real people--even if the focus isn't on them. They have lives that exist beyond the scope of the protagonist. When they seem to exist only to help or exacerbate the protagonist, they lack authenticity.

With that said, untamed side characters can water down a strong story, or worse, steal the story. While we don't want our characters to be exact copies of each other (unless, of course, you're writing a story about characters being exact copies), it can be helpful to examine the main character and his or her journey to bring balance, depth, and meaning to your cast. After all, side characters are also called supporting characters, which means they are meant to support the protagonist's journey, not take away from it. 

In her book, Story Genius, Lisa Cron explains that while we need to develop secondary characters that have their own driving agendas, realizations, and often, own arcs, we also need to create them with this purpose in mind: "to help facilitate the protagonist's story."

She writes, "This means that although each one of them could stand alone as a full-fledged human being . . . you'll create them and their beliefs so they will naturally facilitate your protagonist's story."

Consider what role the character plays in the protagonist's journey, and develop the character with that in mind. What kind of qualities and attitudes are going to challenge your protagonist? What does your protagonist need to learn from this person? Who would uncover a new side of your protagonist? It's possible to fully brainstorm a side character who actually doesn't interact well with your protagonist. But when you consider these questions and similar ones, you're more likely to create a side character who offers meaningful exchanges. 

If the character is an ally, some writers feel compelled to make him or her too similar to the protagonist. In reality, it's often more interesting if the ally contrasts the protagonist. In Pixar's Soul, the protagonist, Joe Gardner, has a thirst for life (jazz, specifically), but he is allied with 22, who has no desire to even be born. This contrast brings each character into sharper focus, balances out the story, and provides more opportunities for meaningful discussions. 

Similarly, if the character is an opponent, it's often more effective to emphasize a likeness between that character and the protagonist. In Soul, Terry functions as the antagonist, trying to bring Joe to the Great Beyond. Like Joe, Terry is so obsessed with fulfilling his purpose (to count the dead), that he's blind to the inspiring things happening around him: Joe helping 22 finally find her spark. Like Joe, Terry is also aspiring to a moment of recognition--he wants the Jerries to recognize him with an award for him doing his job. 

In Soul, Terry reflects Joe

It may be helpful to consider much of the side characters as foils and mirrors of the protagonist and his situation. We can see how this balances out in Soul. Joe's mom foils him by pressuring him to take a practical job. On the other hand, Dorothea Williams reflects what Joe wants to become. Dez foils Joe by letting go of his veterinarian dreams and becoming a barber. Connie reflects his passion for music. Paul foils by being someone who never went after his dreams. . . .

In a sense, each of these characters represents a different moment of, or outcome to, the journey Joe, the protagonist, is on. In his book, The Structure of Story, Ross Hartmann refers to these characters as clones (a term that comes from award-winning screenwriter Brian McDonald). Hartmann writes, "a clone character . . . is a way for us to show what could, should, or might happen to a character if they take a particular path. . . . [We can] use a clone character to convey information about where the character is headed or might be headed either philosophically, emotionally, or physically." 

The supporting cast is also more balanced when it contains different types of arcs, which tap into the protagonist's journey. A character may change positively or negatively, or hold steadfast (remaining more or less the same) positively or negatively. In the film, Marley & Me, the protagonist, John, changes positively as he learns to embrace the adventures of domestic life. Marley, who already embraces the adventures of domestic life, remains the same, positively, throughout the film. John's friend Sebastian dismisses domestic life to go on career-driven adventures instead, remaining the same negatively. Had the filmmakers wanted to, they could have added a fourth character who leaves the adventures of domestic life to fully focus on her career, which would have been a negative change character (within the context of the story). 

In Marley and Me, John has a positive change arc while Marley has a positive steadfast arc

Because the protagonist's journey also plays into a story's theme, balancing out your cast with your protagonist in mind, can help keep your side characters thematically relevant. For more on that topic, I suggest reading Amanda Rawson Hill's post "Use Theme to Determine Subplots, Supporting Characters, and Tension.

In any case, creating your supporting characters with your protagonist in mind, will likely lead to a more meaningful, balanced cast, and story.


Monday, June 13, 2022

15 Ways to Increase Your Chances of Landing a Publishing Deal (by Query Letter)


Hello, everyone! Recently QueryLetter.com put together this nice infographic with some great advice on landing a publishing deal. They were thinking that maybe my followers would be interested in it, and I'm thinking . . . they were right.

If you prefer just the text version, you can scroll down and read it.

You can also scroll to the bottom of this page and get some updates from me.


Monday, June 6, 2022

How I Organize My Writing Ideas


Writers tend to come up with ideas at just about any time of the day (or night), while doing any type of thing, and that can often make those ideas difficult to organize. Heck, even when a writer sits down to intentionally brainstorm for an hour, the process can be a mess. I know, I used to have brainstorming sessions on paper with next to no organization, and then later spend almost as much time looking for something specific I had written down somewhere (okay, that might be a slight exaggeration).

A while ago, I was asked to share how I personally organize my writing ideas. I wasn't sure about answering at first, in part because it's a process that might not ring true to everyone, but then I realized . . . almost no process rings true to everyone, and maybe my process would be helpful to someone. So . . . here is my answer.

What idea goes where and when depends in part on when and where I get the idea. . . . 

Monday, May 23, 2022

The 4 Basic Types of Character Arcs (with Examples & Variations)


A character arc is how a character grows or changes through a story. At the most basic level, there are four types of character arcs: change positively, change negatively, remain steadfast positively, or remain steadfast negatively. Any other character arc should be able to--theoretically--fit into one of these four types. This article will go through each, while also giving examples and variations, and talking about common misconceptions.

While I've discussed character arcs on my blog before, including breaking down these four types, I've been missing an article that focuses solely on them to refer readers and clients to, so . . . I figured it was time. 😊  

When you understand the different character arcs, you'll be able to understand your protagonist better and write a stronger story for him or her. You'll also be able to write stronger antagonists and Influence Characters, as well as better side characters. Because character, plot, and theme all interconnect, you'll also be able to write better plots and themes, too.

Monday, May 16, 2022

Strengthening Story with Symbolism, Motifs, and Image Systems


When writing a story, selecting strong symbolism, motifs, and image systems can empower any narrative and bring themes home to the audience in a more tangible, even archetypal way. Yet for many authors, symbolism can be an afterthought (if it’s even a thought at all). And some instructors in the writing community actually caution against putting it in a story intentionally. But like with most writing elements, that’s usually only dangerous if you don’t know what you are doing.

As a "young" writer, I admit I was easily impressed when authors used symbols and motifs--that they put in that degree of thought into the concrete world of their stories. But a few years into my own journey, I realized as a writer, I had to pick content for the concrete world regardless, so rather than pick something random, why not take a second and pick something meaningful? Something symbolic? Next time you go to grab something random, consider if choosing something symbolic would be more impactful instead. (But always use good judgement—anything taken too far can become annoying.)

Monday, May 9, 2022

Theme: Showing > Telling




Many of us are familiar with the "Show, don't Tell" writing rule, but few of us realize how vital it is to writing our stories' themes. In fact, one of the most common problems that come up with theme, happens because the writer tells the theme more than shows it. So, when you learn how to show your theme, you are well on your way to writing a stronger one--which means writing a stronger story. Let's briefly review the "Show, don't Tell" writing rule and go over why telling theme alone is rarely effective. Then we'll follow up with why and how to show your theme.

Monday, April 25, 2022

The 5 Commandments of Storytelling According to The Story Grid


The Five Commandments of Storytelling come from The Story Grid approach to writing, which was created by Shawn Coyne, who has worked in the publishing industry for over thirty years now and has edited hundreds of books. Drawing from the influence of Robert McKee (best known for writing Story) as well as from his vast experience, Coyne came up with concrete ways to measure and understand story. His work has helped thousands of writers find success, and I've personally turned to his approaches several times.

Which brings me to today's article. I recently had some questions that led me back to his work, and specifically to The Five Commandments of Storytelling. Now, I admit, I don't love the name "Five Commandments of Storytelling" because all five elements have to do mainly with plot and structure, and not the other elements of storytelling. But as I've talked about time and again on here, what we call it doesn't really matter, as long as you understand the concept. Coyne also says on his site that it's comparable to the ten commandments Moses got, in that, when boiled down, these are the five things you absolutely need to guide you when getting started in storytelling. 

Some of these items will sound familiar because we've talked about them from other angles before, but I'm covering them from Coyne's angle today, while also throwing in my own thoughts and approaches (don't worry, I communicate which is which).

First off, these five elements are structural elements, and like most structural elements, they work within any structural unit: scene, sequence, act, or the global story. Each of these units really have the same basic parts. For an explanation of how that works, read my post, "Scene vs. Sequence vs. Act."

Monday, April 18, 2022

2 Rules of Thumb for Breaking Writing Rules


In the writing world, there are a lot of writing "rules": "Show, don't tell," "Don't use flashbacks," "Only use 'said,'" "Avoid adverbs" . . . While they can certainly be helpful, they aren't law. And if you've been with me for a while, you'll know that I love figuring out how to properly break just about any writing rule. I mean, I only have a whole section in my Writing Tip Index dedicated specifically to rule breaks.

Lately though, I've been thinking about two rules of thumb that can be used to justify breaking almost any writing rule. And really, they merit their own article.