More structured structure this month... and more questions, of course.
Plot structure isn't a prescription; it's a map. You choose where you want to go, and how to get there too. But this time, you'll avoid the blind alleys and dead-ends that derail so many good ideas. Your conflicts and story events will be driven by who these characters are and what they believe and need. Your story will be fueled by the clarity of coherence and the wisdom of theme.
Here are some questions to help you map out your story journey:
1. In one sentence, summarize your story situation. Example: After twenty years at war, a king battles the elements, the gods, and himself to get home, only to find that his kingdom is overrun with usurpers and his wife doesn't recognize him. (The Odyssey)
2. Next, write a one-sentence thematic summary, that is, the moral or message your story goes to prove. (You might not be able to do this right off-- consider what your protagonist learns because of the story events.)
Example: A warrior must learn to resist temptation and pick his battles before he can find his way home again. (The Odyssey)
3. Whose story is this, and why? (This determines the protagonist-- there might be two in a romance.) What journey does he or she make during the course of the book?
Example: This is Odysseus's story: he is the one who must go home again and restore his kingdom and his family. He is the one who must change and grow before he can overcome the god's curse that has kept him lost for 10 years. His journey is first towards the realization that he must change, then he must use his new skills to win back his kingdom and his wife.
4. Now write down all your major story questions-- the questions the story will answer. You might find you have an external one, an internal one, and a romantic one.
External: Will Odysseus overcome Poseidon's curse and finally make it home and restore his kingdom?
Internal: Will Odysseus learn to resist the temptations that have heretofore distracted him from his homeward quest?
Romantic: Can Odysseus and Penelope restore their love after a separation of twenty years?
5. Read over your answers above and see if you can come up with a few basic issues that your story deals with.
Example: Odyssey: home, family restoration, deception/hidden identity, fate, responsibility
Other common issues: forgiveness, honor, divided loyalties, family, loss of self/identity, self-discovery, past trauma, friendship, ambition, freedom, parental abandonment, parental overprotectiveness, competition, religion, politics, self-deception, death, birth, betrayal, trust, vengeance, shattered illusions, war
Free-write on your story issues-- how do they shape the story? Does the story help resolve these issues?
Example: Odysseus must battle his divinely ordained fate while accepting personal responsibility in order to get home, but once there he must assume a false identity to retake his kingdom from usurpers, but his task of restoring his family is complicated by his deception. (See how the protagonist's journey is developing!)
The Goals and Conflicts
6. Start describing the protagonist: Why is he/she the protagonist of this story? What special skills, abilities, or history put him/her at the center of the action? What problems come along with those character strengths? As the book opens, what is his/her goal? What motivates him/her to this goal? What internal and external obstacles are in the way of this goal? What does he/she need to learn or do in order to overcome these obstacles?
Example: The defiant Odysseus offended Poseidon, so he is the only Greek warrior who didn't make it home from the war. His great strength is his seeking, clever mind and his willingness to break the rules (he invented the Trojan horse). The obverse of these strengths is his rebelliousness and inability to resist temptation.
His goal is to get home; he has lost his life and can regain it only by rejoining his family. Poseidon continually interfere His goal is to get home; he has lost his life and can regain it only by rejoining his family. Poseidon continually interferes, and Odysseus doesn't help his own cause by giving into temptation to trick a Cyclops, seduce a nymph, or satisfy his curiosity.
7. Sketch the end of the book. What must have changed? How can the story questions be answered? How must the protagonist have changed? What should he/she learn from the events of the book? Knowing the outline of the end of the book will give you a destination, an endpoint, to aim at.
Example: Odysseus needs to make it home. This probably can't be done without Poseidon allowing it one way or another, which means O has to somehow resolve his conflict with the gods. Since Ithaca is in chaos after his long absence, Odysseus will need to find the strength to deal with his disappointment that he is not, indeed, quite home yet.
He must defeat the usurpers but not with sheer might, because there are too many of them. He needs allies, and can use his patented wiliness and playacting as tactics to increase his odds. In the end, he needs to reconcile with Penelope and their son Telemachus, perhaps by using them in his quest to regain the kingdom. He needs to prove to them somehow that he is trustworthy enough to be restored to the family. He needs to show that he has learned to resist impulse and temptation, and that he now values his family and home.
8. Keeping in mind the protagonist's conflicts, and what he/she has to learn, brainstorm a few situations that are sure to force a "learning experience". What kind of event is most likely to cause trouble for this protagonist? In what situation is the protagonist most likely to try and fail because of the internal problem? Can you outline a series of events showing rising conflict and higher stakes? What will be a good "crisis/dark moment" that forces the protagonist to finally overcome the internal conflict in order to triumph? What climactic event can show how much the protagonist has learned since the beginning of the story? How does the resolution show tangibly the theme of the book?
Example: Odysseus can't resist temptation. He's a curious, seeking fellow, and one who truly enjoys pleasure. So the plot should provide him with lots of opportunities to give into temptation, and lots of punishment for doing so, until he finally learns his lesson. The penalties perhaps should get more and more dramatic. There should be one later episode that shows him resisting temptation and remaining focused on his goal of getting home.
The dark moment will be when he finally gets home and finds to his despair that it is overrun with usurpers, and that his wife and son don't even recognize him. He must resist the temptation to charge in guns blazing. The climax should show the results of his learning that lesson-- He can now carefully plan out an attack on the usurpers, while he couldn't have in the beginning, because he is now stronger and more controlled, not so driven by his impulses. Penelope's final test for him demonstrates that he is choosing to forsake his wandering ways and be a devoted husband and father.
Finally! The Plot!
9. Sketch out an outline of the events that demonstrate the protagonist's external and internal problems, show the rising conflict and increasing stakes, and come to crisis, climax, and resolution. Think EVENT-- actual discrete happenings where the protagonist interacts, makes decisions, confronts an obstacle, investigates, enlists an ally, makes an enemy, gives into temptation, searches for something missing, breaks the rules... some action that manifests the protagonist's personality and purpose. Don't forget that each event will have consequences that will bring on the next event.
Here's a typical map of story events:
Initiating event. Protagonist acts: Trouble starts. On his voyage home from the Trojan War, Odysseus tricks a Cyclops and blinds him. He gives into the temptation to show off and shouts his name so the Cyclops will know who bested him.
**turning point** Something unexpected happens. External conflict established. : The Cyclops turns out to be the son of the God of the Sea, and the vengeful Poseidon curses Odysseus to an endless voyage.
Conflict engaged: Protagonist deals with it. Aeolus, Lord of the Winds, gives Odysseus a bag containing the winds, so that no ill winds will mar his voyage home. His greedy sailors, however, perhaps spurred by Poseidon, open the bag, and the fleet is forced into the harbor of a cruel race who eat most of the sailors.
**turning point** Internal conflict manifests and affects action: Odysseus escapes with one ship and takes refuge on the island of Circe, who turns his men into pigs. Hermes tells him how to avoid that fate, and Odysseus rescues his men. But Circe is so beautiful that he decides to stay there and enjoy her favors for a year.
Protagonist acts again based on internal conflict: When he leaves, Circe tells him that the seer Tiresias, in the Kingdom of the Dead, can reveal the future to him. Odysseus gives into his curiosity and diverts his voyage again.In Hades, Odysseus sees his beloved mother, who died while he was at war. She tells him that she died of grief, and that his father is wasting away without him, but that his wife Penelope waits faithfully for him though she is plagued with suitors. (This sets up the subplot of usurpers in his kingdom.)
Protagonist starts to grow: As he leaves Hades, Odysseus remembers Circe's warning and plugs the ears of his sailors so they won't be seduced by the songs of the Sirens. He has himself tied to the mast, so that he can listen to their songs without being enticed by them to his death. (Note: he hasn't grown enough to resist temptation altogether.)
**turning point* Consequence of internal conflict/action: To get back on course after the diversion to Hades, Odysseus must steer his ship between Scylla and Charbydis, the most dangerous place in the seven seas. Many of his sailors are lost in the process.
**point of no return* Another failure due to internal conflict: After that ordeal, Odysseus succumbs to his sailors' pleas to rest on an island that Tiresius had warned him to avoid. While he sleeps, the sailors kill the sacred cattle of Apollo, who calls upon Zeus to punish him. All the sailors are killed and the ship destroyed in a storm. Odysseus now has two of the most powerful gods as enemies, and he cannot go back to his previous course. The action has to RISE, remember-- the stakes get higher in order to force him finally to acknowledge, confront, and resolve his internal problem.
Protagonist regroups: O finds refuge on the island of Calypso. He spends five years as the nymph's love slave, until his prayers finally provoke the goddess Athena into action. She gets Zeus to help Odysseus escape his captivity.
Subplot develops: Meanwhile, back in Ithaca, Penelope is trying to ward off usurpers to the kingdom, and Athena sends O's son Telemachus on a voyage to learn more of his father's fate.
Antagonist reacts: Poseidon smashes O's frail raft with another storm.
Internal conflict returns: Athena helps O swim to an island where he meets a beautiful princess who wants to marry him.
**turning point* Internal conflict confronted: The princess promises him wealth, sex, happiness. O is tempted, but recalls his mission to return home and refuses. His "new self"-- the one who can resist temptation-- emerges.
External conflict resolves partly: Now that he has resisted temptation and impressed the gods, O has a swift voyage home.
Crisis-- "New self" tested: O gets home only to find his kingdom is overrun with usurpers. He cannot be sure of any allies, including his wife Penelope.
Dark moment: He despairs, wants to nuke the palace with the suitors inside. But he resists that temptation and makes a plan to infiltrate the palace in disguise.
**turning point** "New self" engages: He builds his allies, enlisting his son, newly returned from his character-building voyage.
Climax: Protagonist acts on decision that emerged from the dark moment. When the usurpers scorn him in his guise of an elderly man, he resists the urge towards violence until he can put his plan into place. He tests Penelope and finds her loyal, and proves himself to be king in an archery contest. Then, in a climax worthy of Schwarzenegger, he and his little army slaughter the usurpers.
Resolution: Penelope is happy to have him home, but isn't quite ready to trust him again as a husband. She tests him and, though he's tempted towards obstinacy, he does the sensible thing and re-commits to the marriage. The resolution should reinforce the theme or central issue in some way, and show the growth of the protagonist. In this case, the broken family is symbolically and literally rebuilt because of Odysseus's new strength of purpose.
Are the story questions all asked in the beginning and answered by the end? Is every scene built around an event that changes the course of the story? Does every event show something about the protagonist? Do you have recognizable turning points where the protagonist's world/life changes? Is the internal conflict established early? Is there a progression to higher stakes, which forces the protagonist finally to overcome the internal conflict? Is the theme proved?
Go to previous articles:
Structuring the Story
If you like my articles, check out my interactive writing booklets:
The Story Within Writing Series
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