Most of you are familiar with plot charts. You’ve heard of terms like inciting incident, try/fail cycles, climax, and denouement. (If you aren’t familiar with those terms, you might want to look at my book Million Dollar Outlines.)
Since the days of Aristotle, folks have been trying to understand how plots work, and depending upon the writer, they’ve invented different terminology for various moments in a story.
For example, what I call the “climax” of the story is described by many Hollywood writers as “the darkest moment.” One old educator I knew talked about that moment as the “in the belly of the beast” moment, a term that I quite like. In other words, don’t let the difference in terminology between various schools of thought throw you. As educators, we’re all still trying just to figure it out.
I find it valuable to look at stories from several angles, but lately I’ve begun to feel that there are some pretty major components to a successful story that new writers sometimes miss, and as I talk about the parts of the story, I wonder if those should be added.
For example, every storyteller will mention that you have to have a “character” for a successful story. The character can be male or female, human or alien, or even a brave little toaster. I often read stories that have plenty of characters, but they just don’t work primarily because the author doesn’t create any sympathy for the character. In short, we don’t care if he lives or dies. In fact, I often see stories that start with gun battles or swordplay, and I just don’t care because there is no connecting moment, nothing that makes me care one way or another. I sometimes see beautifully plotted and composed stories that fail because something is missing.
So what’s missing? I’m going to call it the “sympathy point,” that moment where your reader is supposed to feel something for the character. If, for example, you want to show that the character is likeable, you might show that character as being in deep emotional or physical pain, or maybe you’ll have that character struggling to help another. If I want the reader to be intrigued by the character, I might show that the character has some special abilities or character traits that make the reader wonder about him or her. I can even begin developing characters that the reader might learn to detest.
As I plot out a story nowadays, I might add to my plot chart a note that says, “Show Mona in pain” or “Give her a lofty goal” or “Show her gift for talking her way out of a problem.” These little plot points I call “micro-plots,” and I find that in creating sympathy for a character, it isn’t enough to have just one. I need to reveal things about my character over and over again, creating a pattern of “sympathy” points as I build that character.
So, what other places do I want to think about for micro-plotting?
At the climax of a story there is often a moment where the protagonist is able to steal victory from the jaws of defeat. If you look at my plotting chart in Million Dollar Outlines, that point is called a “Reversal.” However, it’s a rather complex little bugger to write. Some neuroscientists are telling us that in order for a story to succeed, we absolutely need to have that reversal, and that the reversal really works best when the protagonist figures out at that exact moment how an internal problem that he has relates to the bigger problem that is facing him. In short, that reversal only works if we see how the A-line and the B-line, as they are called in Hollywood, actually relate to one another. By changing internally, the protagonist has to decide to become a changed person, to fix his internal problem so that his external problem can be vanquished.
Well, that’s a complex moment, and it can’t be shown in isolation. Instead, you as an author have to go through and figure out how to set up that successful resolution from the beginning of the story. That means that you have to “micro-plot” the characters' motivations and thoughts about the B-line, so that we understand why the character has a real internal problem that he or she can’t get past.
Indeed, in every plot, as your characters take actions we need to reveal their motivations for taking that particular action. For example, let’s say that your protagonist is driving down the road and has a police car flip on his lights and siren behind him. Does he a) Pull a gun out of his glove box and begin shooting at the cop? b) Hit the gas and head for Mexico? c) Wet his pants? d) Pray that he doesn’t get a ticket? e) Start calculating how much of a bribe he can offer?
You get the idea. In any conflict, we have a lot of ways that we can respond, but why does your character act the way that he does? What are his motivations? Does it help if the reader knows that your protagonist is a priest? That he’s drunk? That he just robbed a gas station and that he shot the teller?
I think that as we are imagining our story, there are often little plot points that don’t fit into conventional plot charts, yet we have to consider some of those moments in order for the story to make sense. We need to plot the characters’ motivations, history, and reveal his true self in order for a story to really have a powerful effect.
So when you’re brainstorming your tale, consider the “micro-plot” points.
Online Workshops Closed - We will be temporarily closing the online workshops for the next two months while David gets some writing done.
Storytelling as a Fine Art (Live Workshop) - Aug. 1st - 5th, Layton, Utah. * CANCELED *
Because of a change in schedule, the Storytelling as a Fine Art workshop has been canceled.
Writing Approaches (Live Workshop) - July 17th - 21st, St. George Utah * TWO SPOTS LEFT *
This little cozy workshop is only open to six students. In it we will discuss the business of writing, what makes a great plot, the fine art of prose, and also complete some writing exercises.
Writing Enchanting Prose (Live Workshop) - Sept. 25th - 29th, Dallas, Texas. * ONE SPOT LEFT *
In this workshop we will work heavily on imbuing your prose with the richness and details that bring a story to life. The goal is to teach you how to fully transport readers as you take them on a journey that captivates their hearts and minds. David Farland will teach you how to totally transport you readers so that they become so immersed in your story, they forget where they are—they forget they are reading at all.
Advanced Intensive Writing Workshop (Live Workshop) - Nov. 6th - 10th, St. George, Utah. * ONE SPOT LEFT *
Start National Novel Writing Month out right in this workshop exclusively for those who would rather be dead than unread! Dave is ratcheting up his popular Writing Mastery camp and this will be an advanced workshop where we perform daily writing exercises, give daily critiques, and work to improve our writing craft.
Hellbounce by Matt Harrill - David's friend, Matt Harrill, has his novel up for free this week on kindle.
As a prison psychologist, Dr. Eva Ross has always dealt with her share of sinners. But when her boss, the brilliant and unorthodox Gideon Homes, begins to make questionable decisions, Eva’s life changes. Between the trials at work and her loveless marriage, Eva is forced out of the life she knows.
After she encounters Madden Scott, a drifter with irascible charm, it quickly becomes clear that all is not what it seems. As everything around her crumbles into a new reality, the secrets that were barely hidden under the surface become a reality.
Their adventure takes them through nightmares and across continents, as they are thrust into the shadowy realm that separates our world… and what lies beneath.