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writing

Autumn has always felt like the true beginning of a new year for me, after years of back-to-school programming. So it follows that fall is a perfect time to start something new in my writing, especially with Nanowrimo coming up again in just over a month.
Now, you might be what they call a “Pantser” and enjoy seeing where your story takes you as you go. But even if you are the pantsiest pantser in the world, you still want to have some idea where your story is going. And if you’re a die-hard plotter, then you’ll really like these steps to creating a new plot.

I grew up writing.  For the longest time I had a rather serious problem.  Most of my stories lost steam about a third of the way through and sat gathering dust.  

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Then one day I picked up “The Outlandish Companion” by Diana Gabaldon, writer of the bestselling Outlander series, and I discovered an amazing thing: you don’t have to write in a straight line.

What?  But that can’t be right.  A story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end, right?  Of course.  And you have to visit each of those things in order, right?  Not necessarily.  

Once I learned that I didn’t have to follow that story thread from start to finish in my writing, that I could stand outside of time, so to speak, and pop back into the story wherever the mood took me, my writing took off.  

Now when I write, I see my story as a string of beads.  I have a string, which is the rough outline of my plot.  I have a beginning, I know where the story is going to end, and I know the direction it needs to take to get there.  But along the way are a series of scenes – the beads.  I pick up the beads out of the jumble in my imagination, and I can lay them where I want them to go in my manuscript.  Then, when most of the beads are in place, I can fill in the gaps and string them all together.  Voila! 

Sometimes a scene isn’t going to work with the overall story.  So when I get to the stringing stage, I might have to let it go and try something else instead.  But I find that the benefits of this approach far outweigh the occasional trouble of letting a scene go.

1. I actually finish the manuscript

2. I work more closely with my inspiration

3. I discover moments I might not have written otherwise

4. I uncover a new direction for the story to take

5. I identify scenes that just don’t work

Sometimes I do manage to write a story in a straight line.  And kudos to those who can do it every time.  But when it doesn’t work to write linearly, I find the “string of beads” approach helpful.  

It’s been a long time since grade school story writing, and since nanowrimo is coming up soon, I think it’s time to brush up on plot.

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First of all, where does a story come from?  Where do you get that seed from that starts a book?  What are the building blocks that go into making a story?

Inspiration

Some people call it the muse.  But there is always something, some spark that starts a story.  Maybe it’s a challenge you’re facing or you’ve been through.  Maybe it’s a dream you’ve had, or a daydream.  Maybe it’s a simple image that awoke your imagination. This is what a story starts with.  If you haven’t got this, you don’t have a story.  And the more powerful your inspiring spark, the more powerful your story has the potential to be.

Problem

This might be your inspiration, and if it is, you’re one step ahead.  Some people call this the conflict.  I’ve heard it boiled down to this: Your character WANTS a, BECAUSE b, BUT c happens, SO your character responds with d.  This formula of “WANTS, BECAUSE, BUT, SO” applies to your big problem that takes the entire book to solve, and every little problem along the way.

Climax

This is that moment that your readers are waiting for, the one where everything comes together, where they say “aha!”  If this is missing from your plot, or if it’s difficult to identify, then you have not delivered on the promise you gave at the beginning of the story – that your character will solve the big problem.  I don’t mean everything will be all sunshine and roses, but that one big problem that you already defined will be wrapped up here.

Rising Action

Is this really starting to sound like grade school here?  Your story will follow an arc pattern, if you were to draw out the plot in a graph measuring tension.  You can’t just introduce the problem, meander through a pointless jaunt, and then bang! deliver the climax.  There has to be some indication that the character is moving toward this climax, even if the path is a twisty one.  See if you can identify significant landmarks along the way, and a pattern that leads to the high point.

Tension

Along the same lines of the rising action, you need to create, sustain, and heighten tension throughout your plot.  If you solve a small problem, invent three more.  Stack the odds against your character and make the reader really want them to succeed.  Otherwise when your climax arrives, your reader will shrug and say “so what.”

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Well, I’m going to get started on plotting my nanowrimo novel.  Hopefully this helps you if you’re doing the same!  🙂

Ever read a book that kept you hanging on till the last page, unable to put it down?  Ever read one that didn’t?

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What made the difference?  Why did you lose interest in that one book?  Why did you forget about everything else while you read the other?

Suspense.  Even if it isn’t a “suspense” novel, every good book has some measure of suspense.  Every gripping novel keeps you guessing, wondering, hoping, fearing – right until the last page.  (And maybe beyond)

I’ve heard this phenomenon called “breadcrumbs”.  Like Hansel and Gretel’s ill-fated trail through the forest, these breadcrumbs are supposed to lead the reader on a journey.  In this case, it’s a journey of discovery.  You might be discovering a mystery, or a relationship, or a dark secret, or the culmination of a quest.  But a good author knows how to reel out just enough information to keep the reader journeying.

How do we as authors cultivate that sense of suspense?

Don’t Let the Cat out of the Bag.

Is there some big secret at the heart of your novel?  Don’t blurt it out all at once.  This is the death of suspense.

Dole out information in small doses.  Think of it as a “need-to-know” basis.  The reader has to earn their security clearance before they can be privy to new intel.

Don’t Withhold Crucial Information.

On the other hand, an author can easily lose a reader’s interest by not sharing enough.  The reader needs to know why this promised culmination is important to wait for.  They need to care about what happens.  Think of each little “breadcrumb” as a small reward for waiting, an incentive to keep going.  Put each reveal in a pivotal place – try to get a gasp out of your reader every time.

Make the Secret Worth Waiting For.

Ever spend an entire book or movie waiting for a big reveal, only to watch pages of build-up fall flat?  If you’ve strung a reader along, promising them it will be worthwhile, make sure you deliver.

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Now as you write or read through your work, hopefully you’ll be able to keep your eyes open for the breadcrumbs.  🙂