Friday, July 6, 2012

Turning an Idea into Story: Pack the plot full of action

I’ve been talking about turning an idea into a story by building a strong middle with an action-packed plot. Chances are, you have things happening throughout your story. After all, you’re writing about something. But just how exciting is the action?

I ghost-wrote a novel about a girl detective on a paleontology dig. I tried to capture life on a dig, with the long hours crouching in the dirt in the hot sun, and I included info about how fossils are preserved, found, and excavated. The editor said I needed to cut some of the nonfiction info about paleontology and have more action. She suggested using the desert setting more. I wrote a couple of new chapters where the girls get lured into the desert at night, get lost, and realize they are surrounded by coyotes. Hmm, crouching in the dirt or escaping coyotes at night—which sounds more exciting?

The author next to rock that (maybe) contains a dinosaur bone.
As you develop the middle of your story, look for places to add more danger, more excitement, more tension. This is true even if you’re not writing an action story. If you’re writing a teen romance, your “danger” may be social danger.

In order to keep the tension high, check that your characters are struggling enough. How difficult have you made things? Can you make the situation worse? (Note that for younger readers, you may not want to choose the scariest or most difficult challenges. Keep your difficulties appropriate to your audience age.) 

If your characters accomplish things too easily, try to add complications. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, you might consider the “Rule of Three.” A character should try and fail twice, before succeeding on the third try. For a novel, a character might have to make several steps to reach their ultimate goal. You could use the Rule of Three at each step, to ensure that your character isn’t zipping through the challenges.

Exaggeration is a key to most strong fiction. You want your story to be believable, but that doesn’t mean it should be realistic, at least not in the everyday, normal sense. Most of us want to read about unusual characters having dramatic experiences. We already know about everyday life. 

Dramatic exaggeration works for short stories and novels, in any genre, for any age group. I wrote a review of The Sandwich Swap for The New York Journal of Books. The authors took a real-life experience—an Arab girl’s disgust over her friend’s peanut butter and jelly sandwich, until she tried it—and turned it into a school-wide war. That turned a minor episode into a dramatic and entertaining picture book story. (Read the full review by clicking on the book’s title.)

Next week I’ll talk about raising the stakes to keep the tension high.

Advanced Plotting has tons of advice on building strong plots. Get Advanced Plottingon Amazon or B&N, in print or e-book.


  1. I like the Rule of Three. And, by the third time, the reader is certainly cheering for success!

  2. Great post. Thanks for the reminder on using the Rule of Three. I also enjoyed reading your review about "The Sandwich Shop".

  3. Thanks, you two! The Rule of Three is so simple and helpful, yet easy to forget or miss.

  4. The Rule of Three sounds good. I will definitely bear it in mind. I do like the idea of having fairly normal characters, but thrust into extreme situations. The reader will relate more.