On Writing: The Basics: Plots–Getting Started

Monday, October 10

So this week I’ll be talking about the writing basics–plot, character, conflict, and stakes. Again, this is all stuff I look at and try to work out in the pre-writing stage, so it’s fair game if you’re prepping for NaNo!

So, if, as Julia Cameron says, transformation happens through action, then plot is simply the actions our characters go through in order to grow and change.

Of course, in real life, we all stumble upon events and revelations, epiphanies and sudden tragedies, all of which can move us to change. But fiction is different than real life. Fiction has to make sense. Therefore, it is up to the author to take their characters through a sequence of actions that force those characters to grow or transform.

Now some writers do this instinctively. Others have such beautiful prose or skillful characterization that we never even notice a lack of plot in their writing. But not all writers—or not me at least—possess that innate skill. I have to work at it.

The thing is, we have all been studying plot since our parents first began reading Good Night Moon or Harold and the Purple Crayon to us. Ever since our first cartoon, we became consumers of story, and most classic story comes with a plot.

In its most simple form, plot is merely a beginning, a middle, and an end. And really, as a reader that’s all we need to know. Well, that and whether or not the combination of beginning, middle, and end works for us.

But as writers, or more specifically, writers for whom this is not instinctive, we need to break it down a little more.

First Act – Beginning
Second Act – Middle
Third Act – End

And as long as one act pulls the reader along into the next act, you’re golden. But as writers, how do we make that happen. I think the first step is to understand the structure behind the structure.

First Act (Awareness of problem/situation)
Second Act (1st Attempt to solve or fix the problem/situation)
Third Act (Second Attempt to solve or fix the problem/situation)
Fourth Act (Third and successful attempt to solve or fix the problem/situation)

Wait a minute, you say! I thought we were talking about three acts! For me and my process, it is hugely helpful to break that middle act into two parts, thus Act Two becomes in my mind Act Two and Three. The reason for this is that I think the middle of the book is a very important moment, one that deserves to be included in the structuring of the novel.

So that gives us a vague idea as to what different acts should entail, but still maybe not enough to actually start writing the dang book.

But first, some definitions so you won’t all think I’m speaking Greek.

Story – a narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Plot – the physical actions of your story that drive the narrative; the choice of events the author uses to propel their character’s growth.
Acts – the sections of a story; beginning, middle, and end. Usually mini stories within the bigger story framework that build toward the ending.
Arcs – the forward trajectory taken by the plot or character.
Turning Points – scenes that come at the end of an act and propel the reader into the next act, either by a dramatic revelation, ramping up the stakes, increasing the tension, or spinning the story off in a new direction.

Now let’s take a look at all the structural components of a plot, from a writer’s perspective.

First Act
Set up – Section of the story that gives a sense of who the character is, what is missing from their lives, and what they will need to change and grow.

Inciting Incident – what forces the character to engage in the elements of the plot, where the trouble starts, the day that is different

1st Turning Point (TP) – the scene that propels the reader into the next act

Second Act
Increasing Conflict/Dramatic Action – action that has some meaning or purpose within the greater context of the story as opposed to simple physical action.

Rising action – scenes increase in dramatic tension as the plot progresses. Also causality. This happens, because something else happened, which in turn forces even more conflict to happen.

2nd TP – MID POINT – this scene propels the story into the next act, but it also is the point of no return, the hero cannot go back to who they were, must go forward, which is why I think it needs to be marked on its own.

Third Act
Continued Rising Action (Protagonist and Antagonist engaged in escalating struggle)

Final TP – the moment when everything coalesces to propel the hero toward the final showdown

Fourth Act
Climax – the final confrontation (either internal or external but preferably both) that the story has been building to.

Resolution – how the newly changed character, using skills and knowledge acquired through the course of the story, fixes the problem or comes to terms with the situation.
~ ~ ~

So that are the basic components of a plot. Tomorrow I’ll talk about how to go about creating them from your what you know about your characters or story idea.

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