Article of the Month
c. 2004 by Alicia Rasley
1. When you tighten a draft, go from Macro (big) to Micro (small). So start by writing your Beginning, Middle, and End for your major plots.
EXTERNAL: Beginning: Tony is put in charge of the task force to find the source of the bomb left at the mall.
Middle: A second bomber gets involved, and when good old police work doesn't turn up many leads, Tony enlists Beth to do a psych profile of the perp.
End: Beth suggests the bomber is someone Tony knows, and Tony must investigate within his friends and relatives to stop the destruction.
INTERNAL: B: Tony takes a vow to give up on love and anger, because his intense emotions are too dangerous.
Middle: With the opera dedicated to his father's memory coming up, he is forced to confront his difficult, complex family situation and his brother's betrayal.
End: When he makes a crucial misjudgment, he learns to forgive his brother and ask for forgiveness himself.
INTERACTIONAL/ROMANTIC: Beginning: Tony and Beth agree to "rehearse" dating, as each is "once-burned" and wary of new attachments.
Middle: While their many differences in background and outlook keep them incompatible, they are drawn together by their shared laughter, and kept together by the bomber investigation.
End: They must risk the pain of loving to get the rewards of passion and caring-- and this requires trusting each other.
2. Now outline the main turning points, the places where the plot turns in a new direction. Don't get indiscriminate here. There are usually no more than 12 turning points in a book. For some examples, see "The Three Acts" below.
Go over this list of turning points and put in page numbers where they occur. The initiating event should come in the first couple chapters. Then do you see a pattern of increasing conflict, rising action? Watch out for circular action where the protagonist re-does some big step. Beware of long gaps between turning point, especially near the end.
Organize events for action. It's important not to use up all your ammunition early on. So think about the steps the protagonist needs to take, what he needs to discover, what she needs to do, and make sure there are enough to power the entire plot. Jot these steps down. Then assemble them in terms of emotional risk. For example, the recently paroled hero who wants to clear his name starts out with the easiest step first: he hires a lawyer. But when that doesn't work, he might try something a bit harder for him emotionally, like personally going over the evidence that got him convicted (hard because he has to read how his girlfriend betrayed him). If that doesn't reveal what he needs, he might go talk to the prosecutor who convicted him (hard because he is so full of anger towards the prosecution; he's afraid he might attack him). Save the hardest emotional action for the last, maybe after the crisis, and this should force him to confront something he's been unwilling to confront. Say he goes to the old girlfriend and asks her to explain what led to her testimony. See if you can make the "hardest action" make him confront his internal conflict (like lack of trust, or fear of abandonment) and the decision he makes then (maybe to trust the girlfriend) brings on the triumphant climax. Just remember, if the steps don't involve more and more emotional risk, the action/conflict won't rise.
3. Now... this is painful. Take your whole manuscript and go through it and jot down one sentence summarizing every event of every scene. Take that "scene outline" and experiment to make sure that the scenes are in the proper order. This can really be hard to see when you're reading the whole book, so use the scene outline to focus on events. Should she discover the clue before or after she starts suspecting John? Should John realize who the villain is before or after he is injured? Think about how the motivation is affected depending on the order—for example, John might have more incentive to discover the villain if the villain hurt him... then again, was it his discovery of the villain's identity what led to him being injured? What do you want? Sequence is all when it comes to motivation.
4. Now look at each scene. Do you need every part of it? For example:
Scene 4: John drives to the office. There he gets a phone call telling him to go to the cemetery. At the cemetery, he meets Tracy and they exchange folders, and she suddenly kisses him.
Now... do you need those first two "events"? Does anything really happen? Try cutting them and starting the scene at the cemetery with a quick narrative bridge. For example:
John huddled deeper in his coat. Cemeteries were depressing places even in the summer, but in midwinter—But that's where Tracy asked to meet him.
Look at the transitions between scenes. Does Scene A end on a note of conflict? Pick that up in the beginning of Scene B. Use the first couple paragraphs to set the scene (where are we, how long has it been since the last scene ended, who is the POV character and what is he/she doing), but also link back to the previous scene. That will help with the coherence of the story. But it's important to end the earlier scene expeditiously and start the new scene as close to the major scene action as possible. There's a real tendency to wander at the end and the beginning of scenes. Don't follow the heroine into the shower unless there's someone waiting for her in there! And don't start a scene with the hero driving to the school if nothing important is going to happen until dinnertime. Just summarize with a narrative bridge if you need to.
5. Pick up the pacing and get rid of deadwood by ruthlessly analyzing everything you have in a scene. Watch especially for do-nothing dialogue ("Well, John, how are you?" "I'm fine. How are you?") and for showing too much interaction with minor characters. Don't make her ordering coffee from the surly waiter a five-paragraph event if the waiter isn't important to the plot. If you think, "Well, it shows how patient she is," that's not good enough—show her being patient in a meaningful event, like dealing with the surly teenager who comes to her office to confess to a crime he didn't commit. If it's not meaningful, do you need it?
Alicia Rasley is a 16-year member of Romance Writers of America and Indiana RWA, a writing teacher, and a RITA-award winning Regency author.
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