The Purple Pen Lives!
My tan however is slowly fading as the summer months start to dissolve into falling leaves and Pumpkin Spice Lattes.
What the hell happened to my summer? The camping trips we wanted to take, the rivers we were going to swim in? The coast?! None of it. Instead of a summer of adventure, I sat and whiled away the months in my Starbucks lobby typing furiously on a novel that ultimately will probably only be read by my closest friends and family.
And I don’t regret it.
This has been the most successful year for my writing that I have had, ever. Yes, I’ve had short stories published before. But, I have never written this consistently. Even when in school I only wrote to meet deadlines. This summer, as I’m looking back, was magical. I spent it in a world only I know, in a world I created. With characters who were born and grew inside my brain. It’s a rush and pride that only a writer can know. To see the fervor of creation blossom into determination and sheer force of will. And to come out the winner, having finished the piece.
Ok, I haven’t finished it yet. But, chapter 18 is just short of 1,000 words, the manuscript poised just below 40k. And it sends a thrill through my veins knowing that I will finish a novel in the coming weeks. Its a high. I finally understand that.
Anyway, on to Lecture 8!
As I mentioned yesterday, this week’s lecture was on Plot. So let’s get to it!
A Novel’s Capital P Plot
Brandon starts by telling us that our writing groups, and even himself, are not going to be very effective in judging plot. Reading in segments makes judging plot and pacing difficult. So Brandon suggests having Alpha and Beta readers to let you know how your plot is doing.
I will say that I have been sending each chapter to my mom and she’s been reading it much faster than I’m writing it. She’s patient and the perfect first reader. She would never say something to deflate me. If she has questions she’ll ask them innocently, with no pretension. Also, how do I put this…? My mom reads stories that she likes. She reads for characters and plots. She doesn’t analyze for style and symbolism, because that’s not what it’s about for her. And that’s exactly what my first draft needs. She loves it just the way it is, and assures me that my first draft writing is better than a lot of the self-published eBooks she’s been reading on her Nook.
Basically, she’s my ego boost when I feel like a total crap writer. She’s been invaluable these last six months.
That said, I think waiting until the rough draft has been edited once before sending it to Alpha and Beta readers would be a good idea. So far, everyone from Write About Dragons that’s commented on my posts has told me things I already know. They tell me that the plot isn’t hinted at early enough. There’s not enough tension. I know all that. That’s why there’s a ton of notes in the sidebar of Scrivener for each chapter, reminding myself of ideas to fix those exact problems when I return to edit. So, I think sending a second or third draft would be much more beneficial, because all the stupid little stuff has been sorted out.
Also on this note, Brandon mentions that plot can be pretty loose on the first draft, especially for Discovery writers. DING DING DING.
As a Discovery writer I can say that, I didn’t really have a grasp on the full extent of my plot until about 2 weeks ago. I’ve been writing this novel for almost six months. Obviously, there are things happening in earlier chapters that aren’t going to make sense or really jive with where the novel actually goes. So, when editing time rolls around, there will be cutting and adding of scenes and lines to sharpen that plot, and make the piece more cohesive.
He also mentions that, until you’ve finished a lot of stories, you won’t know how to build a good plot. So far, I agree.
So, what is Capital P Plot? It’s the major thing the story’s about. Think of a plot pitch. When someone asks what your story is about, what do you tell them? That’s the Capital P Plot.
But, there’s also Lower Case P plot. This is plot that goes from chapter to chapter. Subplots. The thing that gets people to turn the page. What brings reader back after they’ve set the book down? Often it’s not the major plot, it’s smaller plots between characters, or something similar. Little P plots tend to be a bit more immediate and so offer more immediate satisfaction.
There’s something that needs to be said here. People kept asking about plotting over a series, which Brandon is insanely good at. But, he had this to say: Finish a great book, then worry about a series.
I wish more new writers would take this advice. Especially beginning Fantasy writers. We all read these epic fantasies that span hundreds of pages, over a multitude of books. We all want to write something that awesome. But, writing one novel is hard enough. Why would you want to outline and plot a five book series your first go? It is a sad form of sabotage, and I’ve watched it in action. Don’t do it! Write one book, then go from there!
Promises and a Sense of Progression
So, this is the bulk of the lecture, and I felt like I learned a lot from it. At the same time, I feel like I already knew this, I just never actively thought about it before. I’m glad to say that I’ve already done a bit of this subconsciously, but am looking forward to injecting more in the coming drafts.
Ok, enough ambiguity, let’s dive in.
You need to make Promises and then fulfill them incrementally to give a sense of Progression.
So, we’ve talked about making promises in previous posts, but basically, you hint at, or ‘hang a lantern on’ an event or something in your story. You need to fulfill that promise. And you want to do it in bits and pieces so that it takes time, both in the story and for the reader. It’s more satisfying that way.
Your first couple chapters are a promise of what the story is about.
This was the point in the lecture where I had a huge epiphany about a problem in my story. I had to pause the lecture in order to write in enormous capital letters “HOLY SH*T”, with the solution scrawled beneath it. It takes up about half the page, not due to length, but sheer size… I was very excited.
Ok, back on topic, how do you fulfill promises incrementally? Brandon gives a few examples.
If you have a mystery story, what you really have is an information plot. You make good on promises by doling out information. And, of course, it’s going to be cool.
Then there are Relationship (Romance) and Big Problem Plots.
So, in most romances, the characters don’t get a long initially. You spend a good bit of the story learning how they are 100% wrong for each other, and then as the story unfolds you realize that their differences make them perfect for each other.
Pride and Prejudice, anyone?
But there’s also the Romance where they do get along. Brandon references Austin’s Emma, but I’ve never read it. I call this plot ‘Escaping the Friend-Zone’. They get along, are usually good friends, and don’t realize that what they’re looking for has been right in front of them the entire time.
So, how do you fulfill those promises? By showing them interacting together over time. I just keep coming back to Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth talks crap about Darcy, but is continually shown that he’s not what she thinks, until she realizes she’s been a total b*tch about the whole thing. Admittedly, he’s not without fault and was an asshole just as often as not. Anyway, back to the topic at hand.
Then there are Big Problem Plots. These feel a bit more straight forward, and there’s nothing wrong with that. You solve big problems by acting. I know it seems too simple, but it’s true. What you need to remember is that there are usually more than one plot in a story.
Brandon references Mistborn, and since I’ve read it twice and have completely internalized it, I’ll put it in here.
In Mistborn, Brandon did what he calls ‘nesting’. It’s a series of brackets.
The largest bracket is the Big Problem. In this case the Enslavement of the Skaa. Nested within that is a slightly smaller bracket, labelled ‘Heist’. This is the plot that the character Kelsier brings forward, about stealing from the Lord Ruler himself. This is an exciting plot and keeps you reading, instead of the Big Problem being the focus.
Nested within the Heist is a smaller bracket labelled ‘Train’. Brandon goes on to explain that this is a plot type all its own. Think Karate Kid. You make good on promises by showing them at various levels of expertise. But, in Mistborn this is where we follow Val’s training as a Mistborn. And then, nested inside ‘Train’ is the smallest plot, Romance. This is where Val meets and falls in love with Elend.
There’s also Time Bomb/Travelogue plots. These are usually journey stories. You show progress by showing stops along the way. These plots add a sense of structure, and usually include some sort of critical deadline.
Brandon finally confronts the series question due to one persistent student who asked, ‘how do you include hints of plot in later books in opening sequences of the first book?’ Brandon answered honestly, ‘write the whole book, plot the series, and then go back and put it in.’
We all laughed, but it’s true.
The Danger of Not Delivering on Promises
If you make promises, and then don’t deliver on them, people are generally going to hate your book. He used an example of a book he read part of. It was a book that followed all the tropes of the epic quest, with knights and elves and yadda yadda. Well, Brandon got bored and put it down. Turns out, about 3/4 through, the book takes an unexpected twist and becomes a modern fantasy, turning all the tropes on their heads. But, it wasn’t successful.
It more or less failed because two things happened. The first part of the book promised an classical epic fantasy. Fans of that genre picked it up, got to the end and were pissed. And fans of the more modern fantasy never got to the end because they were too bored by the classic journey.
Basically the author made promises and either didn’t fulfill them at all, or didn’t subvert them quickly enough. You have to walk a fine line to make twists work well.
Brandon adds that having your protagonist fail isn’t a twist. You can definitely write that story, but don’t think it’s a plot twist.
Ways of Structuring Plot
We’re almost done guys, I promise. Ha! Promise… that’s funny because we’re talking about promises… haha.
1. Points on the Map: Imagine powerful scenes, and then write from point to point until you reach the end. It looks a lot like a graph, but if you’re a more visual writer this could definitely work. I really want to try it.
2. 3 Act Structure: So, you have your introduction which usually ends with some sort of call to action. This is Act 1. Then you have the protagonist trying to solve the problem, but generally things just get worse. That’s Act 2, it’s usually the biggest chunk of the story and ends when the main character hits their lowest point. And then there’s Act 3, where the problems get solved and the story concludes. Act 3 tends to be the shortest. Personally, I am not a fan of the 3 Act Structure. I have a hard time thinking visually, and this really fits for screenplays and more movie-like stories.
If you’ve beed reading long enough, you know I hate writing screenplays…
And, that’s all we talked about. Sanderson hinted at Orson Scott Card’s MICE. Not sure what that is. Google it. And he talked about Try/Fail which we’ve discussed before.
Holy hell. 2,000 words. I really should start calling these Recaps instead of Summaries… Sorry guys. Have a good Labor Day weekend. I’ll see y’all next week!