Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Plot: Not Just Another Word for a Hole in a Graveyard

To celebrate the release of my new book, Advanced Plotting, here’s one of the guest author essays.

Plot: Not Just Another Word for a Hole in a Graveyard
by Jenny Milchman

We can bat about terms like “literary” versus “genre” fiction till people cease to die, but the truth is every body needs a grave, and every story needs a plot.
I can already hear the opposing cries. “No, no,” they say. “What every book needs is great characters.”
(And anyway, how about cremation?)
Well, yes. I agree with you. But what are great characters supposed to do?
Therein lies your plot.
But how exactly do you construct a plot?
Here’s one method, with much of the credit going to that great genius of story, Robert McKee. His book — “Story” — is worth more than a look. For now I’m going to piece together McKee’s wisdom with some of what I’ve learned myself, then challenge each of you to create the bare bones of a terrific new plot.
Each story has to have a start, of course. The inciting incident kicks things off, just as the first kick of a football game sets the players on a course to win or lose. If you come up with a toothsome inciting incident, your plot will be off to a great start.
Think of scenarios that intrigue you. Did you ever get stopped in traffic so thick you couldn’t see its source — then start wondering about that source? A terrible accident maybe? A broken down bus? (There’s just something inherently dramatic about a bus….) Or possibly a driver so sick of things he left behind his car?
Or perhaps your telephone just rang late at night. Before you pick it up to learn that your daughter got scared at her sleepover and wants to come home, let your imagination run a little bit wild, let your heart start pounding. You will have the makings of an inciting incident.
After the inciting incident is set up, and the characters needed to fulfill it are introduced, with its ramification played out a bit, you come to plot point 1. This occurs at roughly 1/3 of the way through your story. Plot point 1 takes what you have begun to create and sends it careening off in a new direction. Maybe the driver did leave behind his car — but now he comes back. Or perhaps when you get to the sleepover…nobody’s home.
About another third of the way through your story comes, what else? Plot point 2. Again, your story is going to be turned somehow, sent off in another direction. If you think about the story as a steadily rising arc, the plot points are forks along it. The action continues to rise, but it’s not a straight progression.
All the scenes and moments you have created so far call for an awakening at this point in the story. You don’t want things to be linear — you want to introduce the unexpected. Think about the least likely thing that could happen. Then think about the most likely thing. Something somewhere in-between will be a great plot point. If all else fails, you can have someone knock on the door. Even if this plot point doesn’t stand in the final version, it will get you moving towards something new.
Plot point 2 leads into the climax of your story. This is where all the scenes, threads, and characters you have arrayed come together in one knotted ball of action, only to be swiftly unraveled during the denouement so the reader can have a moment of quietude and rest — just before dashing to his or her computer.
Why will he or she dash there?
Because your now loyal reader wants to see if you have any other books — trusting you completely to deliver a well-constructed, seamless plot.

Jenny Milchman is a suspense writer from New Jersey. She is founder of the series Writing Matters, which draws authors and publishing professionals from both coasts to standing-room-only events at a local bookstore. In 2010 she created Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day, a holiday that went viral, enlisting booksellers in 30 states, two Canadian provinces, and England. Jenny is the author of the short story “The Very Old Man,” an Amazon bestseller in mystery anthologies. Another short story will be published in 2012 in a book called Adirondack Mysteries II. Her novel, a literary thriller titled Cover of Snow, is forthcoming from Ballantine.

Buy Advanced Plotting for $9.99 in paperback on Amazon. Through September 1, get Advanced Plotting as a $.99 e-book on Amazon, B&N, or Smashwords.

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