Monday, June 10, 2013

The ABDs of Plot

Yes, usually it's the ABCs of something, but if you tend toward the slightly dyslexic (like I sometimes do) you won't find the following list out of sorts. While mnemonically muddled, it still includes the first five letters of the alphabet, so it's easy enough to remember.


Boom, your story's movin'.

Writers will often have a general idea of where their novels will start and end, but it's the road from beginning to end that provides the composition "adventure." The middle ground is riddled with alignment-destroying plot-holes and block after block of blocks, which is, ironically, the precise kind of rocky adventure we wish would permeate our paragraphs when our stories are making no progress.

When you're struggling to get from one end of your story to the other, remember the ABD building blocks. Stories are a matrix made up of many layers of beginnings and ends: scenes (which are ideally shaped out of action), background, and development. Chapter after chapter you'll find yourself repeating the same arcs as you build each scene in your story because that's what stories do. The road is paved one yellow brick at a time.

This post will be published in two segments: first the action, background, and development, then the climax and ending. Both are aimed toward helping you get the middles of your story paved so smoothly that readers will be baffled you ever battled writer's block at all.


Is your story drooping like your eyelids? If you're bored, your reader was bored a page ago. When your middle-ground paragraphs are dragging heavy loads of exposition, what do you need? Action Man! Oh, punctuation. You need action, man (or woman)!

I remember being surprised when I found out there was a difference between action and scenes. It's an example of what we discussed in our post about comprise versus compose: scenes comprise moments of action (and/or exposition); action composes the scene.

Setting the scene includes describing actual scenery: the where, the what, the when; it's the backdrop on stage. Action shows the separate elements—characters, surroundings, props—interacting in real time: from the monologue connecting directly to the audience, to the sword fight between feuding neighbors—action is who is doing what, and how and why they are doing it.

Because scene provides the place for where the action occurs, it's vital to illustrate it for the reader. Sometimes we want to start right in the action without any setup, and that's okay. Beginning with action often hooks the reader's/publisher's attention quickly. When doing this, it's important to remember your reader still needs some grounding, some orientation. Good action will throw out clues to a setting that hasn't yet been laid out. Include clues and key words in your action to develop the surrounding scene. What objects are the characters using? Is the action taking place outside? What are the weather and lighting like? Is there silence or noise? Are they on a bridge, on a boat, in the water? Including these details reaches out to all of the reader's senses to offer them a realistic and satisfying journey alongside your characters.

Pay attention to the characters and props interacting with the surroundings in the following example:
     "They didn't die in a car crash!" said Harry, who found himself on his feet.
     "They died in a car crash, you nasty little liar, and left you to be a burden on their decent, hardworking relatives!" screamed Aunt Marge, swelling with fury. "You are an insolent, ungrateful little—"
     But Aunt Marge suddenly stopped speaking. For a moment, it looked as though words had failed her. She seemed to be swelling with inexpressible anger—but the swelling didn't stop. Her great red face started to expand, her tiny eyes bulged, and her mouth stretched too tightly for speech—next second, several buttons had just burst from her tweed jacket and pinged off the walls—she was inflating like a monstrous balloon, her stomach bursting free of her tweed waistband, each of her fingers blowing up like a salami. . .
     "MARGE!" yelled Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia together as Aunt Marge's whole body began to rise off her chair toward the ceiling. She was entirely round, now, like a vast life buoy with piggy eyes, and her hands and feet stuck out weirdly as she drifted up into the air, making apoplectic popping noises. Ripper came skidding into the room, barking madly.
     "NOOOOOOO!" Uncle Vernon seized one of Marge's feet and tried to pull her down again, but was almost lifted from the floor himself. A second later, Ripper leapt forward and sank his teeth into Uncle Vernon's leg.
     Harry tore from the dining room before anyone could stop him, heading for the cupboard under the stairs. The cupboard door burst magically open as he reached it. In seconds, he had heaved his trunk to the front door. He sprinted upstairs and threw himself under the bed, wrenching up the loose floorboard, and grabbed the pillowcase full of his books and birthday presents. He wriggled out, seized Hedwig's empty cage, and dashed back downstairs to his trunk, just as Uncle Vernon burst out of the dining room, his trouser leg in bloody tatters.
     But a reckless rage had come over Harry. He kicked his trunk open, pulled out his wand, and pointed it at Uncle Vernon.
     "She deserved it," Harry said, breathing very fast. "She deserved what she got. You keep away from me." He fumbled behind him for the latch on the door. "I'm going," Harry said. "I've had enough."
     And in the next moment, he was out in the dark, quiet street, heaving his heavy trunk behind him, Hedwig's cage under his arm.
–Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J. K. Rowling


There are usually many separate stories happening alongside the story you're telling. Then, at some timely moment, that side story intersects or merges with the main road. Side characters or places can serve up a brief change of scenery or act as a permanent change of direction!

Whether the background is relevant to the immediate action, you as the writer need to know it all. You need to do your research, real and fictional. When you hit a dead end with the setting or a character, revisit the story's back roads to patch up holes and bridge any gaps. Then you will, hopefully, discover the solutions for your story to continue.

Background includes histories of characters and places; certain historical or personal events; how characters are related or involved; and the rivalries and alliances, curses and spells, obstacles and goals, and other tensions that permeate the story. Ideally, the background elements reveal themselves effortlessly as the story goes along, but they must be revealed, some before others and some not until the end. Background sets up the point of departure as well as the destination, then maps the route for the story so that the reader can keep up with the pacing and follow with interest to the end. 

Think of Dorothy and her magical journey through Oz. If we hadn't known about her background a little before she whirled into the strange land, we wouldn't have been able to recognize the similarities shared between her real-life friends and her dream friends. But with that extra background knowledge we are allowed to glimpse a greater depth of symbolism for not only the characters but the entire plot. Be privy to the possibilities of your story's background, explore them fully, represent them justly, and your story will positively come to life for readers.


Akin to background, development needs to be laid out with thorough understanding of your plot and characters. If your characters are round, dynamic, popping from the page, and your plot is solid, connected, and mapped, your scenes and dialogue will practically write themselves. 

Some tricky elements involved in development include suspense, foreshadowing, surprise twists, hints or clues, and hoodwinking details. These can be woven into the story at the right time more easily if the background is solidly in place. I remember in the Harry Potter series how in the earliest books we know that all that was left of Peter Pettigrew was one finger. It isn't until the later books that this detail comes back with a twist when we realize how Ron's rat, Scabbers, has the missing toe to a front paw and eventually we connect the dots: Peter isn't dead, he's an anamagus!
It can be helpful to create a list of some precise details, twists, and symbolic objects you want in your story, and plot them along the story line in their proper order of appearance. The trick as author is to decide which details need to come before the rest to set the tension up high enough so that when it breaks, the reader is satisfied with the build up. Believe it or not, readers like to be misled—but only if their attention is redirected with delightful, sometimes climatic surprise.

Continue to Part 2.

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