Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Your plot shouldn't be in a cemetary.

Okay, I apologize for the lack of blogs lately. I’ve been busy finishing books, entertaining friends from foreign countries, and trying to get my house sold so I can retire. Yeah, busy! Sometimes I think my life is a story in itself: plenty of action, plenty of drama.
So, we shall carry on to the next part of the writing blog—the plot. If you don’t have one, you don’t have a story; simple as that. Your plot is the motivation your characters have to do something. I’m going to use the “plot arc” commonly used in screenplays, simply because it applies to novels as well, just the number of pages is different.
Setting the stage: the first few pages, or perhaps a chapter or two are normally devoted to meeting your characters and setting up what their mission will be. The quicker you cut to the chase, the better. How many of you have read books that droned on about characters, the setting (the physical one) and anything else that could be considered trivial? Boring! At times, I must admit, I do spend a little more time than I should on some of those points. Getting the action going is the key to keeping your readers enthralled and looking for more.
My best friend occasionally harps on me (lovingly, of course) that I spend too much time building my characters and backstory. Admittedly, it’s a friendly slap up side the head telling me I need to rethink my opening; that I’m dragging. I go back, read, and then work on making it catchier, knowing that my first few paragraphs set the tone of the whole book. If they aren’t good, people will pass on it. So make those first few paragraphs count! Try and introduce dialogue early, let your characters tell the story. Narrative is boring, but necessary, use only enough to keep the story rounded and moving.
The passages are from a recently finished novel "Space Junk" that hasn't been to my editor yet--so there may be a few hiccups; but it'll work for our purpose.  Let's do a little test and see which one you prefer reading:

“Shmuff, where’s my warp drive?!” Space freighter Captain Dar Meltom bellowed into his comm headset. He owned the Marsuian, the fastest and most heavily armed ship in the galaxy. But today, fast was not happening. On his tail were half a dozen Soothian pirate ships determined to take him.
“What? What do you mean the intake manifold on the particle accelerator is clogged?! I need warp NOW!” He was knocked sideways as a blast from a laser cannon shook the vessel. “Can’t you fix it? No? Son-of-a-bitch!” More blasts rocked the ship. “What about shields? Can you give me more power to the shields?” He poked at the controls on the bridge panel, time running out. “Look, Schmuff, I need you to divert all available power to the rear shields. We can’t let ’em breech the containment field to the shuttle bay.” 

And here’s the second passage:

Parnela stepped off the shuttle, flanked by her usual detail of four male Kruelian soldiers. This journey made the second trip to Versith in the last few months. She found the planet to be the most depressing place she’d ever seen. A far cry from her own beautiful, peaceful planet covered in lush greenery. She’d rather see Kruelis destroyed than have it become like this place.
A group of Renthids stood by to escort her to Mognath. As she walked down the hall, she saw a group of slaves heading toward the shuttle bay. They were heavily guarded by other Renthids. One slave in particular caught her eye. It wasn’t because she found him overly attractive, she really couldn’t tell because of all the grime on him. But his shock of green hair stood out against the drab surroundings. She realized he must be Satiren. Parnela found it odd to see one in this part of the galaxy. The Satirens usually stayed far away in the Beta sector.

Okay, I cheated a little and used passages from the same book. The first one was the actual first two paragraphs, the other, later in the book—but it could very well have been the opening. Notice how different they read? The first was action, action, action. It grabs the reader, immediately sucking them in; the second, stands off a bit more, not drawing you in so close.

The basic screenplay is divided into 3 acts. Within those 3 acts, you usually find Act I is the set up (usually from pages 1-30) Act II is the confrontation (31-90) and Act III is the resolution (91-120). It’s funny, in some movies you can almost run a stopwatch and find the different acts. In a book, your plot may flow more loosely, time for you is not a complete hang-up (page count might be, however).
In a novel you have more time to set your character(s) up, introduce the conflict, and allow your character(s) time to resolve it. I think the most important of all is to create a conflict the reader can associate with. Is it a story of good over evil? Triumph in the face of adversity? Boy meets girl, boy likes girl, girl doesn’t like boy? Your plot will carry a common theme in which your reader should be able to understand. Don’t go crazy with a storyline that no one can “get into” that’s the fastest way to lose a reader.
And keep it simple if entirely possible. I’ve read books that you needed a dictionary to figure out, or worse, a physics degree. The majority of people read to enjoy, so let them enjoy escaping into the world you created—don’t bog them down with words only a college professor would use. Most people are comfortable reading at a 3rd to 6th grade reading level. Smaller words, shorter sentences also help to move a book along. Use the Fleish-Kincade reading level that is found in the Word Options/Proofing section. It’s awfully handy!
If you’re into the nitty-gritty, you can study plot points further. There are 8 well-known plot points used by Nigel Watts in his books. They consist of: 1. Stasis, 2. Trigger, 3. The quest, 4. Surprise, 5. Critical choice, 6.  Climax, 7. Reversal, 8. Resolution.  You can find further information on them on this website:
or, the book: “Writing a Novel and Getting Published” by Nigel Watts.

Plot twists:
Oh, these are my favorite! It’s so fun to have your character about to complete his mission and you throw in a monkey wrench, and foil his best laid plans. Here’s just a tiny twist to show you how a good plan can be foiled, or at least delayed:

Slowly he approached the Plexus. He thought the sound of his boots on the dusty gravel would alert the guard, but the loud humming of the device seemed to be masking his approach. Dar paused when he reached the opposite side of the “tin can” and gathered his nerves. One guard, just one guard was all that stood between him and the precious device. Taking several deep breaths, he readied for battle. He figured he’d come around from the back and surprise the guard, one shot, and that would be it.
He peered around the corner, getting ready to attack. His heart jumped when he saw another guard approaching. Dar ducked back and waited. He hoped they wouldn’t make a patrol around the device, there wasn’t anywhere for him to hide, and a hasty retreat was out of the question, there wasn’t any cover around for hundreds of yards. If confronted, he’d have to fight. He listened as the guards talked loudly for quite some time. They were speaking Renthis, a language he wasn’t familiar with. He knew a few words of Soothian, but despite the planets being “twins” in the galaxy—located within gravitational pull of one another, the species spoke very different languages.

Just a “momentary monkey wrench” can add some tension and drama to an otherwise anti-climactic scene. Of course the character does complete his mission, but not more than a few pages later, I throw another one in:

Going down two levels, Dar stopped to get his bearings. More aliens pushed by him, the noise, deafening. The ground shook constantly, and he figured he didn’t have much time. Making his decision, he went left, hoping it was the correct way. He knew he’d only get one shot at this. Hurrying along, he fought his way through the falling debris to the infirmary.
Bursting through the door, he hollered, “Aggalith! Emelith!” Wasting no time, he began searching. The infirmary was small, so there wasn’t much to search. “Aggalith! Where are you?” He ran to the kitchen. He found Aggalith trapped under a fallen beam, Emelith frantically trying to move it.
“Dar! Help!” she screamed, her little fingers digging madly.
He quickly joined in her digging frenzy.
Aggalith lay helpless. “Dar, take her, get her out of here!” he said, trying to push them away. “I am old, she still has many years, take her, please.”
“No,” he replied, still digging. “Are you hurt?”
“My leg is pinned, I don’t think I’m really hurt much, if any.”
A rock fell from the ceiling, smacking Dar on the head, he winced in pain. He continued digging, seeing that he was actually making progress. The planet continued to shake. “Hurry, Dar!” Emelith cried.

It wasn’t bad enough the character had to pick his way through dangerous tunnels to get to his friends, then I threw the little twist that one of them was trapped under a ceiling beam—complicating things even further. The more tension you can create, and the harder you can get your reader’s heart to pound with being caught up in the action, the better you’ve done your job. You want the reader to be sucked into the story and be in such a frame of mind that they want to jump in and help your characters.
The key to a successful story is to have a solid plot and a good smattering of twists thrown in to keep the reader off balance—keep them guessing what will happen next. All right, I’ll leave it at there for now. I think the next blog will be about self-editing. Yes, I use a copy editor, and it’s a good choice. But you want to do as much self-editing as possible before sending off to an editor, so they won’t be pulling their hair out with so many mistakes.

Until next time, my creatively obsessed friends.