Tag Archives: Writer

Writing Workshop – Plotting the Plot

cartoonThis plotting method is the one I find most useful.  If you don’t like it that’s ok, ignore me and go do your own thing – do whatever works for you.

The idea for a novel can start with a character, story idea, a concept, a question, a what if?  Or a story world.  We will start with the plot, because we have to start somewhere.  If you’ve already started with another element of the story don’t worry, all these workshops are interchangeable and can be done in almost any order.

The primary function of a fiction writer is to tell a story.  At the very minimum you need a three line plot.  This consists of

  • A Premise – what is the story about.
  • Complication(s) – (But) what difficulties do the characters have to overcome and how do they overcome these complications
  • A Climax – How your characters over the complications and resolve the story.

How your character(s) overcome the complications of the plot forms the main body of your story.  Without complications, objections, and hurdles for your characters to overcome, your story will fall flat, because all stories are about how humans overcome conflict.  Stories are so hard-wired into human nature, that even stories we think are about something else are ultimately about humans.

In fact, the more difficult you make it for your characters, the more their personalities will be exposed and the more interesting your story will become.  Plotting is really all about storytelling and storytelling is all about conflict.

For instance:  a Princess is born, grows up, meets the Prince of her dreams, gets married and lives happily ever after is not a very interesting story (unless you are three years old).  A Princess grows up overcoming the eccentricities of her parents, meets the Prince of her dreams who turns out to be a monster, but the Princesses’ pure love helps the Princes overcome his Monstrous traits – Beauty and the Beast – is more interesting.  Add that the two families are monstrous and compare that against the forbidden pure love of the prince and princess and you have Romeo and Juliet, turn pure love into obsession and you have Twilight. It’s all about what your characters have to overcome and how they go about it that makes your story interesting.

In Gaia’s Brood, the three line plot is:

  • A girl goes on a quest to discover how her mother died.
  • But, hidden forces conspire against her quest.
  • Why these complications arise is answered in an unexpected confrontation with the story villains, creating the climax of the story.

In Helium3 the plot lines are:

  • A boy wishes to pursue his dream of racing space sleds.
  • But, he is a chronic outsider and the system is fixed against him.
  • A confrontation with injustice and the boy’s nemesis form the climax of the story.

How may complications can you have?  One.  Keep it simple, make your story about one overriding issue, one theme, and one only.  If you find you have more than one, try to split them out into separate plots – now you have two stories and you are on your way to a series.

At this stage concentrate on the overall picture, there will be plenty of time for detail later in your story arcs, sub-plots, character journeys, and story beats, all of which will be covered in future workshops.  For now, keep playing with your three line plot until you have something that grabs you or intrigues you, it’s not easy, but it pay dividends in the end:  if the plot grabs you, it will grab your readers too.

Plotting Exercises:  Try sketching out a couple of simple, three line, plots each day:  A Premise, A Complication, and A Climax.  The more you practice plot writing the easier it becomes, and sooner or later you are going to hit on that original plot that you cannot get out of your head and which turns into your next story. Let me know how you get on and please share any questions, ideas or your own process in the comments.

Tip:  If you have difficulty separating your characters from the plot, (I always seem to let the characters get in the way, which produces a kind of writer’s block when it comes to plot writing), describe the story in basic fairytale stereotypes: desperate king tries to marry off his daughter to a rich prince, but the prince is a monster, however, love conquers all and the monster is tamed by the princesses love – beauty and the beast.  Or, a lonely princess and a cursed prince fall for each other, but their love turns into obsession which threatens to destroy both of them and lead to war, however love overcomes the impossible divide and war is averted – Twilight (note that being a vampire is not part of the plot outline, but a consequence of a character trait).  Well it works for me.

Keep writing, Nick.


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Writing Workshop – The MacGuffin

The MacGuffin is a device use by script writers, particularly in action and adventure films, to advance the action and maintain the audiences interest.

The term coined was by Alfred Hitchcock. He generally used it as a device to hold together the first part of his film. What is it? Anything which all the characters are interested in obtaining. In Psycho the MacGuffin is the $40,000 which has been stolen. The pursuit of this money provides the motivation which holds all the characters together in the first part of the film without giving away the whole plot. Hitchcock generally only used it as a device to hold together the first act. Ultimately, Hitchcock said the MacGuffin is just not important ‘It is nothing.’ Who for instance remembers the $40,000 in Psycho?

The Coen brother always use the same MacGaffin in each of their films: money, and it is always a red-herring. In their film ‘O Brother Where Art Thou’ which is one of my all time favourite movies, three convicts break out of prison to retrieve a large stash of money. We learn later that the money was a hoax, but it keeps the film moving and gives everyone a purpose until the true objective is revealed.

In the film Safe, which I watched last night, the MacGuffin is a little girl who knows something. The protagonist and most of the Antagonists have no idea why the girl is important or what secret she knows, all they know is that their enemies are pulling out all the stops to find her, so she becomes important to them too.  Not until three-quarters of the way through the film do they discover what the chase, and the rising body count, is all about.  A clever script, I thought, and a theme I would like to use in a future story.

Steven Spielberg and George Lucas also use the MacGuffin as a device in their films.  In the original Star Wars movie, Lucas says R2D2 was the MacGuffin, which he used to hold the first act together in the classic Hitchcock way.  Spielberg, on the other hand, has a different view of the MacGuffin. For him, the MacGuffin must always be the ultimate prize.  Here the device is used to motivate the characters throughout the whole film.  The best examples are from the Indians Jones Series: in Raiders Of The Lost Ark, the MacGuffin is the Ark of the Covenant; In The Temple Of Doom, the holy stones; In The Last Crusade, it is the Holy Grail; In the Crystal Skull it is the skull. In fact, Spielberg likes the MacGuffin technique so much he is happy to have more than one. Not only will he have an overall MacGuffin, but he will have minor MacGuffins in each act of the film.

A MacGuffin is normally an object, but could be a person, that all the characters are interested in and that propels the action forwards. It could be the main objective of the protagonist and antagonist which drives the action throughout the entire film. It could be a step on the way to the main objective or it could be totally unrelated to the main objective and be completely forgotten by the end of the film. It’s purpose is solely to provide focus and move the action along. It’s a technique which readily transposes to writing.

In Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows you could say that the Horuxes and the Hallows are MacGuffins. They provide the necessary focus and motivation to propel the action forwards.  In my book Gaia’s Brood, the MacGuffin is Eve Swift’s journal.

A MacGuffin can also be a useful fix if you are editing and you realise your story just doesn’t hang together. Is there an object/person already in the story which can be turned into a MacGuffin (even if it is a complete red-herring) or can you introduce one. Look for ‘shotgun’ objects. By that I mean have you focused on an object in a part of the story but not used it – like the proverbial shotgun hanging behind the bar in a western: if it is shown it must be used by the end of the film, but nothing says you need to reserve it for the end of the story. If the pursuit or desire of the object will hold together the first act, by all means use it as a MacGuffin, secure in the knowledge that you are following in the footsteps of the greats.

So when you are next planning your adventure or action story, consider whether you have a MacGuffin or whether you need one. How many MacGuffins do you need? One overall object to provide a focus for the entire story or several steps along the way, or both. How about one to propel a (sub) story along, or maybe a total red-herring?


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Writing Workshop – The distracting Steampunk Gadget

Isn’t this the most awesome steampunk gadget ever?  I have no idea what it is, but that’s half the beauty – my imagination can run riot.

Let’s face it, some steampunk gizmos are fabulous, and beautiful, and just desperately need to feature in that steampunk novel you are writing.  Don’t do it; resist the temptation.

Warning:  Include a wealth of information about a cornucopia of steampunk inventions and you kill your story.

There are rules and conventions to storytelling.  Yes, we need to push the boundaries, but push them beyond what your audience can bear and you lose them.

In film making there is a foreshadowing rule which cannot be pushed too far, called the ‘Proverbial Shotgun Technique.’  Audiences and readers are so familiar with this technique that omitting it becomes as big an error as over using it and in some steampunk novels I have read, it is definitely overused.

The shotgun technique is best illustrated by reference to the cowboy western film where it originated..  The camera zooms in from a general view of the bar to highlight a shotgun hung on the wall behind the barman.  The existence of this weapon has now been raised in the viewer’s consciousness.  Not using the shotgun to resolve a plot conflict, by the end of the film, is to leave the audience feeling deprived.

On the other hand, if a shotgun is suddenly produced to resolve a critical plot-line, without having been foreshadowed first, viewers/readers may feel cheated, because they never had the opportunity to anticipate this scene (technically called a ‘deus ex-machina’, ‘God out of the machine’: a cheep story device introduced to rescue a failing plot line).  So if your character is suddenly going to win a fight by producing, a spring loaded knife from up their sleeve, you had better have introduced at some earlier part of the story.

Similarly, if you explain in fine details the workings of say a steam driven car or the beautiful device featured at the top of this article – no, I have no idea what it is, but isn’t it fantastic – that device then has to play some part in the plot line of your story.

There are some nerds and geeks who will want to immerse themselves in detailed descriptions of how your story world works, but save that for your website, because most readers want a character driven plot and an exciting story.

Think of your gadgets and gismos as characters in your story:  the stranger walking past the window will receive only a passing description, whereas a character who drives the plot is described in a lot more detail.

If you are writing a thriller/crime/mystery, where your reader knows the villain is killed, you could highlighting a gun, a knife, and a rock.  This will increase the anticipation as the reader tries to work out which weapon is used.

Except in the above scenario, it is best not to use the shotgun technique to create red-herrings.  For that, it is better to use a MacGuffin, but more about that in a later post.

In short:  If you show it, use it. If you have used it already, but not shown it, edit it in earlier.Tweet this!

Writing Workshop – Believable Heroes and Villains

The worst and best of humanity is yet to come.

1a7ac1964593d93334899fc5b6fc9516Today, is International Holocaust Memorial day—70 years since the NAZI concentration camp of Auschwitz was liberated.  It reminds us all of the depths to which human depravity can plunge, but it also reminds us of the great sacrifices some people will make for others—the best of humanity.

How as writers do we capture this in our characters?  The easy answer is to portray our protagonists as the best of humanity and our villains as the worst, but that results in flat, two-dimensional characters, in which no one, except younger children, are interested.

The reality, is that everyone has the ability within themselves to both plumb the depths of humanity and to soar to the heights.  The film Schindler’s List is a great example of the internal conflict within human nature.  Here is a man who does good things for bad reasons—this is the sort of character that keeps our readers glued to the text, furiously turning pages.

The twentieth century was probably the worst yet in terms of human depravity—mainly as a result of despotic atheistic regimes killing their own people in ever larger numbers.  Some may view that last statement as controversial, but the facts speak for themselves.

As our technical ability to easily kill large numbers advances, I believe that even more shocking atrocities will be committed in future centuries—though I hope and pray I am wrong.  The worst and best of humanity is yet to come (Nick Travers 2015).  This is a statement I make in the forward of the novel I am currently working on, ‘Coggler’s Brood,’ because I want to explore some of these themes in the story.

Do you think any of those despots in the twentieth century believed they were evil, or the villain of the plot?  Most, maybe all, sincerely thought they were making their society, and the world, a better place.  They alone were the courageous souls taking the necessary decisions others flinched away from.  In their eyes, and the narrative of their lives (more about this later), they were the heroes.

Every villain should be the hero of their own story; every hero should fear they are the villain.

As writers we are students of human nature.  We know every real person is conflicted, and those who are not, because of mental health or personality disorders, are in conflict with society.  We know that no one is purely good or purely evil; we know that every story, no matter how fanciful, zany, comic or alien, is really about the human condition.  Conflict is not just the nature of story, it is the nature of human beings.

This is why great writers often use religious or philosophical themes in their writings, because these disciplines concern themselves with trying to resolve the essential conflict at heart of each human experience.

To be real and multi-faceted, our characters need to reflect these internal conflicts, not just deal with the plot conflicts.  This means we need to know our characters inside out.  We need to know what motivates them and what conflicts they carry inside themselves.  Make every villain the hero of their own story.  To do this, of course, we need to plot out our villain’s story in the same way we plot out our protagonist’s story.  We always say to give our characters flaws, but how about making part of the protagonist’s conflict a nagging doubt that they are the villain, and their actions are forcing others into doing bad things—if they stop, perhaps the bad things would stop too or have another character introduce this doubt.

A fundamental facet of human nature is that we all construct narratives of our own lives.  When something major comes along in our lives, we re-write the narrative to fit the events.  We might say it was ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’ or ‘that it was meant to be’, because we can clearly see how every twist and turn of our lives has led to making us the person we are today.  However, before the event, it is highly unlikely this featured in our future narrative.

Just as every real person has a narrative of their lives so every character in our plot too has a narrative.  To make our characters, whether hero, villain, or side character, real, we need to know and explore the life narrative of each one.  Reading enables us to explore all sorts of conflicts, situations, and solutions.  In a good book we can explore the big themes of life.  As writers, we owe it to our readers not to duck the big issues of life or present flat characters who have no internal conflicts of their own.  In our stories, we can, to a greater or lesser extent, explore the true nature of human existence.


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