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Posts from the ‘Plot’ Category

Plotting Your Story: Act Two, by Robyn Bavati

When first attempting a novel, many writers have a great idea. They’re clear about the conflict – they know what it is their character wants and who or what is preventing him from achieving his goal. They may even know precisely how the story will end. It’s just the middle that is problematic – the 200 pages or so that take the reader from start to finish.

Not knowing how to develop their plot, beginners often make the mistake of adding too many characters, digressing into tangents that are not essential to the story, or overindulging in backstory or internal monologue – none of which help in developing plot.

It can be useful to think of a novel in terms of three acts, the way that screenwriters are taught to think about movies. While Act One is the set-up (establishing the world of the story, introducing the characters and the conflict, and providing the inciting incident that sets the story in motion) and Act Three is the resolution (in which a battle, often internal as well as external, is fought and won), Act Two is the place to complicate the plot, raise the stakes and heighten the tension.

It often begins with a sense of false victory, but hopes are soon dashed and the hero suffers. Here are some examples:

Act One: Betty, who is very shy, is head-over-heels about James, who doesn’t even know she exists. She keeps this secret to herself, not even confiding in her best friend, Sandra. One day, when James walks right by Betty on his way home from school, she decides to speak to him the next time she sees him.
Act Two: Betty has mustered up the courage to approach James and she’s feeling hopeful. But just as she’s about to approach him, Sandra tells her she has developed a crush on a guy – and that guy is James. Sandra tells Betty she has decided to ask James out. Betty secretly hopes James will turn Sandra down, but he doesn’t. Soon James and Sandra are inseparable. In the meantime, Betty finds out that James helps out at the local nursing home where her grandfather is a resident and her crush is intensified.

Act One: Marion’s favourite necklace, given to her by her beloved grandmother, has been stolen. She decides, despite the danger involved, to track down the thief and get it back.
Act Two: Marion is making progress with tracking down the thief, but while doing so, she discovers that he is wanted for murder. She also finds out that the necklace is worth a great deal of money.

Act One: Max, an athlete who has lost months of training due to a prolonged illness, sets his heart on winning an important race, even though his odds aren’t good.
Act Two: Max’s persistence and determination seems to be paying off, and he feels like he’s getting somewhere. Then he has a relapse and another precious week of training is lost. Meanwhile, he discovers that winning the race will mean a scholarship to university and his only chance of a higher education. Just when he’s beginning to think that with renewed perseverance he might have a hope, he finds out that he’ll be up against the formidable Victor, who has never lost.

What all three examples have in common is that Act Two presents the hero with greater obstacles and heightened stakes, both of which serve to increase the tension. It’s important to make things as difficult as possible for your hero, because the harder it is for her to achieve her goal, the more your readers will respect her when she does.

In most successful novels, Act Two ends with an act of surrender. The character recognises the impossibility of getting what he wants or thinks he needs, and surrenders because he has no choice. In that moment, he becomes conscious of the true nature of his dilemma and reframes his relationship to his goal. It is this transformative shift in perception that allows him, in Act Three, to overcome his demons, fight the battle and emerge a hero.

For example, in the case of Max, above, Act Two might end with his understanding that winning the race isn’t what’s important – the only failure is in not trying. This change in perception enables him, in Act Three, to run the race and emerge a hero, regardless of whether or not he wins it (though chances are he will).

If you’re struggling with the middle section of your novel, ask yourself how you could make things more difficult for your hero and what he still needs to figure out in order to grow.


Robyn Bavati’s bio page

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Robyn Bavati - Pirouette book cover     Moonshadow - Eye of the Beast by Simon Higgins - cover

Writing Novels in Australia

On Plotting And Writing Novels, by Phillipa Fioretti

The accepted wisdom in the writing advice blogosphere is that there are two ways of plotting. The first is flying by the seat of your pants and not knowing where the hell you are going with the story. The second way is to construct scene maps and character arcs and resolve all plot holes before you start to write. Personally, I think it’s a mix of the two as either extreme is unworkable.

Plotting a story requires the writer to hold a number of abstract concepts in their mind simultaneously: concepts such as narrative arc, that lovely thick spine we all use to hang our stories on, the three act structure, characters, themes and genre conventions. The action, which drives the plot of the story, takes place in scenes which should provide externalities that act on the characters. As a consequence of these, their inner lives and emotions change, triggering more action which then leads to consequences and events which continue to generate more ideas for scenes, and thus they are propelled through the giant python gut which is the narrative process.

Your job as a writer is to imagine situations and actions which will move the story along in a way that is true to the characters and their responses. At every step you have to think deeply about the characters’ motivations and actions, and then endeavour to steer the whole shebang in the direction you want it to go. There is an enormous amount of preparatory work to be done before you start to write, usually thinking, note taking, researching, talking and general rough outlining, but unless you are a serious perfectionist I think the whole plot process unfurls as you actually write.

Recently I listened to an interview with Vince Gilligan, creator of the television show Breaking Bad. What resonated was his account of how the actors inhabited the characters as filming progressed, bringing out aspects that the writers hadn’t or couldn’t foresee. So the writing of future scenes was adapted around the characters as they grew. For example, the main character of Jesse Pinkman was to be killed off in the first season but the actor’s interpretation suggested otherwise. Lesson? You don’t know – you can’t know – your plot in advance until you start writing.

It is while you are in the ‘doing’ that the ideas come. You can know your story, which is not the same as a plot, but you work out the best way to tell the story as you come up against problems along the way or get to know your characters better. This is the creative process of plotting, an organic and simultaneous use of craft, imagination and coffee.

I know every writer crafts a story their own way. Maybe some do set forth knowing exactly where each scene will go and how it will shift the story forward. It’s not how I work because if I knew the end before I started, I wouldn’t start.


Phillipa Fioretti’s author website:

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The Book of LoveThe Fragment of Dreams     Savage TideHouse for all Seasons by Jenn J McLeodA Distant LandThe Fortunes of Ruby White

Writing Novels in Australia

Character And Story, by Ben Marshall

I’m a full time scriptwriter for television which, stated baldly like that, sounds like I’m attending a Writers’ Anonymous meeting and am about to unload my tragic back-story. I’m not. But while I’m a pro with scripts – describing action, structuring scenes and writing dialogue – I’m an amateur when it comes to short story and novel writing.

Since moving off a property two years ago, I’ve had time to explore this other area of writing and pretend there was a chance I might one day be published. This admission will, to those aware of the current state of the publishing industry, indicate that I’m an optimist by nature, which will, to those familiar with contemporary psychology, indicate that I’m hopelessly unrealistic.

That said, my impressions of the writing game so far show that a level of blithe ignorance and dogged obsession are the most useful tools to advance one’s fantasies of becoming a ‘proper writer’. The motives for wishing such a pointless outcome range from a vague desire to attract admiration from others, similar to that which I gave certain authors during my youth, to a murkier desire to show off to those who never thought I’d amount to much. I’m talking about my parents, of course and, as mine are both dead, I feel my less murky motives are similar to geezers who fill their attics with model trains and miniature landscapes. I want to build a world where I, and others, can lose ourselves and re-find ourselves.

Writing soap opera, as I do, requires me to locate and reveal the emotional truth of a scene. Those who scoff at soap because of its shonky production values, hammy acting and stilted dialogue are welcome to do so but should also be aware that those who invest regular time to watch a soapie are emotionally engaged with it, just as you are with a serial drama you would choose not to scoff at like, say, The Wire, The Slap, The Straits or South Park. The fundamental difference between, say, Neighbours and The Wire is merely money and time. The similarity – that which we viewers draw sustenance from – is the emotional truths revealed in them. A good story well told is what all writers seek to achieve, but we often stumble when we mistake plot for story. Plot is a series of events occurring over time.
Story is what happens to the characters within that framing, and is the bit we really care about.
A feature film can take a year to write and make, often much longer, costs millions and lasts for a couple of hours. A week of soap opera takes a week to write and make, on a shoestring – hence the production values. But while a feature film might have a couple of plots to tell its story, a week of soap will contain up to a dozen storylines.
Television storyliners produce plot and story at a rate you can’t imagine, and they do it hour after hour, week after week, year after year. In this grinding of mental gears, brains get worn and sloppy, and one of the first things to go wrong is the creation of characters.
Characters begin to be written up as a physical description with a series of personality traits.
Here, I’ll make one up for you. ‘John is a good-looking twenty-something defense lawyer with a passion for criminal law. A risk-taker by nature, he often takes unwinnable cases, and loves to throw himself into extreme sports. His good looks and confidence endear him to women of every age, though John is yet to overcome the hurt of losing the great love of his life, Lucy, in a car crash six
months ago.’ That was an example of a typical character thumbnail in television, and it’s an example of absolute crap. It tells me nothing about what gets him out of bed in the morning or what his real drives are. Sloppy character creation will give a character motives like ‘he or she seeks fame, money, success or love’. We all aspire to some or all of those things so it doesn’t help understand the character in any significant way. It’s the ‘why’ the character aspires to any of those things that counts.

Let’s tackle John again. ‘John is a twenty-something defense lawyer.
His father is a High Court judge and was almost completely absent from John’s childhood. Often his only interaction with his son was to urge him to higher marks and put him down for anything less than an A+. He also secretly suspected John was not his biological son. John’s mother is a self-obsessed academic and trustee of several charities, who had John by accident late in life. Whenever she expressed love of her son, her husband found small, passive-aggressive ways to put her down. This distorted the mother-son relationship, turning it into paler version of what it might’ve been. Last year John was driving the car when he crashed and killed the girl he’d just proposed to.
While no-one says so, everyone blames him for her death.’

Okay, it’s not Tolstoy but it’s better – you can see where I’m coming from.

The crucial thing for me in telling stories is character. The crucial thing for me with character is knowing exactly what they’d do in any given situation because of who and what they are.

Bottom line? Character = story.


Ben Marshall bio page

Starting Your Television Writing Career: The Warner Bros. Writers Workshop GuideWriting Television SitcomsPlot Versus Character: A Balanced Approach to Writing Great FictionStory and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and FilmBuilding a CharacterThe Dramatic Writer's Companion: Tools to Develop Characters, Cause Scenes, and Build Stories (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing and Publishing)Storytelling in the New Hollywood: Understanding Classical Narrative Technique


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