Today, we’re going to be talking about plot. What is plot, you ask? Well, it’s what happens in the story, or in other words, the action. If you need more of a definition, check out this article. Now…
Drop and give me 20!
Since today we’re starting with plot, your first task is to summarize your favorite story’s plot in exactly 20 words. No more, no less. Twenty. For example, I would summarize Harry Potter’s plot as follows:
A boy learns to be a wizard, makes friends, learns he has enemies, and tries to save the Sorcerer’s Stone.
Post your plot in the comments below so we can see your brilliance, and try and we will all try and guess what book you’re talking about. Fake internet points to whoever gets them right!
There, we’ve warmed up your brain a little bit and we can get down to business. We may know what a plot is, but can anyone here name the parts that make up the basic plot? Here’s a hint, the structure is a bit like a roller coaster. Don’t scroll down yet! Take a moment and see if you can dredge up the names of the parts of a plot from your freshman English course. Any luck?
If not, don’t worry. If you did remember parts, did they look something like this?
There’s a few different names you can give some of these parts, but today we’re going to be using Hook, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Resolution. I’d also have accepted Denouement for that last one, but Resolution is just so much easier to say and spell. What do these parts do? I thought you’d never ask!
- The Hook – This is the part where you do something interesting to get your readers, well, hooked. Something different, something that makes them ask, what’s going to happen next? Common tropes I advise you to stay away from: flashbacks, waking up, dream sequences, flash forwards, unexplained action. All of these things have been done to death and unless you’ve gotten really REALLY good at writing, you’ll probably leave your readers sneering at the page. If you’re lucky, they won’t put it down. You can do some very creative things with dialog, exposition, and characterization to keep a reader interested. The best thing you can do is write a whole bunch of hooks and go back later to decide which one does the best job of setting up the rest of the novel.
- Rising Action – This is 2/3 of your novel, ish. Don’t get out a ruler, it’s a rough approximation. This is everything leading up to the really super exciting part of the novel. Making friends, making enemies, learning life skills, setbacks, love, a lot happens during the rising action. One thing to keep in mind is it should all be relevant to the climax of either this book, or the climax of the series if you are working on a series of books. Get rid of anything that doesn’t serve the larger purpose of the narrative. If it’s something you think is just WAY too cool to cut entirely, save it for a short story teaser you can give to your fans as a Christmas gift after you get famous. They’ll love you for it.
- Climax – This is the part we all love, isn’t it? You’ve been working and working towards the big event and it’s finally here…and then it’s over. Just make sure whatever you make your readers work for is neither anti-climactic, nor unsupported by the rising action. Remember, if you’re missing parts of the track leading up to top of coaster, your readers are going to fall of the track and die. Not really, they’re just likely to put the book down. Boy, that’d be something though, wouldn’t it? Death by plot hole?
- Falling Action – Here is everything on the downslope from the climax. Tidying up from the battle, patching your wounds, planning recovery, burying the dead, dropping foreshadowing for the sequel. Whatever needs to be taken care of, but remember, readers don’t always like everything tied up in nice pretty bows. Leaving a few rough edges can have them coming back for more. It’s like that bit of corn kernel stuck in your teeth after eating popcorn. The feeling when you finally get it lose and have an “aha!” moment can be so satisfying. Make sure you leave some of these for your reader to connect on their own, they appreciate it.
- Resolution – This is your “what’s next?” spot. Are we done and the characters taking a curtain call? Is everybody in a better place? Is everybody dead? Or are they all gearing up to go hunt down the guy who killed their family, friends, dog, and class turtle? This is the full stop at the end of your novel.
Phew, okay, did that make sense to everyone? Excellent. Drop any questions you have in the comments below.
One more thing I want to mention about the plot roller coaster. The diagram above is a lovely skewed right bell curve, and overall, that’s the case. Particularly in simple things like short stories. However, such a straight line would get a bit boring in a novel, so don’t be afraid to put in a bunch of small rises and climaxes with a bit of a break after them, gearing your readers up for the big rise and fall at the true climax, like below.
Now we get to practice identifying these aspects in a story most of us are likely familiar with: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s (or Philosopher’s) Stone. I’ve even made a handy dandy worksheet to help! You can use the image below, or download the pdf here. You task is to identify all the parts of Harry Potter that fall onto the plot roller coaster, and where. Remember, you can’t fit EVERYthing on there, just the really important stuff. Ready? Go!
All set? Good. Now let’s see how you did compared to me:
Not too shabby! See, you don’t need to be super detailed in this exercise, this is just to sort of give you an idea of how things go together to shape a plot. Are we feeling more comfortable with plotting? Yes? Excellent. Then, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to take that blank plot worksheet and start figuring out the direction you think your NaNo novel is going to take. Some of you may be thinking, but, Rebecca, I’m a pantser, I don’t WANT to know where my novel is going. That’s just fine! Keep this worksheet beside you to make notes on your plot as you go to make sure you’re keeping all your bases covered, and maybe you’ll find you do have an idea of where you want your story to go. It can be as detailed (or not) as you want. Some others are probably thinking, but I don’t KNOW where my novel is going, is that a problem? Nope! Not at all. Revel in your lack of knowledge and let your characters take you for a ride. But again, use this to keep notes on what’s going on in your head. Try some plots out, see if any of them strike your fancy. You’re not wed to any of them.
Oh, and that reminds me of the most important note of them all at the end of this lesson. Say you know precisely what you want your story to do, and then, all of a sudden, you’re writing along and one of your characters starts going off the rails. You yank them back in line, but nope, there they go again. Don’t force it! Maybe your subconscious has a better idea, see where it goes, and don’t be afraid to change things up, even if you’ve already outlined it. Everything can and should be fluid right up until your editor tells you the book is going to print and they can’t possibly change another thing. And even then, that’s what second editions are for…
See ya next time where we’ll be talking about a tried and true plot format, the Hero’s Cycle! Until then, happy writing!