The Benefits of Writing Fanfiction

 

 

I know, you’re thinking fanfiction has a bad reputation. Mostly because what you may have found published on the Internet is poorly written by emo-angsty teens blasting My Chemical Romance.

But there are definite benefits to writing fanfiction, even if you aren’t emo or plan on anyone reading it. Ever. So whether you’re going to write The New Adventures of Old Sherlock Holmes or The Lost Chronicles of Narnia, here are some ways to use fanfiction writing to your advantage.

1. Fanfiction is a low-stakes writing opportunity

If you recall in my previous post, finding low-stakes exercises takes the pressure off what you’re writing without taking the pressure of writing off you.

Sound complicated? Think of it this way, you can still be productive, you can still hit your word goal or write for your allotted amount of time without worrying if inspiration will strike or if you’re just throwing down words in your WIP, sending it off course all in the name of progress. Taking a break from “serious” projects to work on something you enjoy may just get you around that impasse and refuel your passion. fanfiction article 2

Fanfiction is also low stakes because you don’t have to worry about anything being good enough to publish. Plus, all the work has been done for you–the setting, the characters, the plot, the structure, the genre.

Because these elements come ready-made, they allow you to develop individual aspects of your writing in any number of ways.

2. Fanfiction helps you develop stronger characters

One way to write fanfiction is to use minor or secondary characters from your favorite book series, television show, or movie saga and make them the protagonists of the story. You’ll already have a basic understanding of the character you’ll want to use, but by making them the hero, you can develop a more complex character by exploring his or her backstory, internal needs, and external goals within the world that has already been created. You get to orchestrate how he will plan and act and react to a specific set of cirumstances.

Television series do this all the time. You’ll notice a few episodes every season that focus on one or two of the minor characters to make them seem like more than just the sidekicks. For instance, in one of my favorite television shows, Castle, you’ll see episodes dedicated specifically to exploring Detectives Ryan and/or Esposito, as well as Castle’s daughter, Alexis; and both Castle and Beckett take a backseat, appearing in only a few scenes in an ancillary capacity.

ryan and espo

You can also develop your character creation skills by insinuating completely new characters into the fictional world already made.

I do this with my own fanfiction serial, which is set in Azeroth, the world in World of Warcraft.

My hero-protagonist and all her little friends are completely based off one of my in-game characters and friends’ characters, but I maneuver them around the lands and landscape, the races and classes, the political factions and society of the world as built-in game as they embark on their own adventure.

 

 

3. Fanfiction helps you write plot

So you’ve got a cast of characters to play with, a setting set up, and a structure to work with. Now all you have to do is bring them all together in a plot completely your own. Give Nancy Drew a new mystery to solve or Nero Wolfe a special case to crack and work on how to incorporate clues and subplots into an original story.

Perhaps Jacqueline Natla comes back for one more go-round with Lara Croft. You already know there will be certain elements such as foreign lands with ancient relics, henchmen with weapons, and vehicles for all terrains. All you need to do is find a reason for Natla to return, add a chase scene or two, and put Lara in mortal danger.

once-upon-a-time-719174_1920

When you think about it, aren’t all sequels really just a form of writing fanfiction plot? It doesn’t even have to be that original. One of my favorite movies, The Mummy Returns, is basically just the same “take over the world” ploy as every other superhero movie. You can’t do worse!

4. Fanfiction helps you write setting

If your fanfiction du jour is a visual medium such as a video game, TV series, or movie franchise, you can work on describing the setting that has already been created visually, if not stunningly, for you. You can also work on using these aspects of description to create a specific atmosphere for your story. Read Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper for a brilliant use of setting description to not only create a claustrophobic atmosphere but a vehicle for plot and character study. fantasy house

Take any short story you like, for example, and really ramp up the description. This could be in a story that doesn’t have a lot of description because of word count constraints, or it could be you choose to write a story that takes place in a little-utilized or  even new setting for the characters.

Once Upon A Time did this when they threw fairy tale characters into the modern-day town of Storybrooke, Maine. They also did it this last season when key characters set up shop in Seattle, Washington.

I’m not suggesting you have to write a 300-page novel to work on writing better description or even a complete story, but you will have enough material already created for you to write a few key scenes or chapters. And hey, it’s fun to travel!

5. Fanfiction helps you write better. Period.

As long as you’re writing, and it doesn’t much matter what, you are practicing. And that is what’s going to make you a better writer. There’s no pressure with fanfiction unless you plan on publishing it online, and most of the time you’ll probably be breaking some copyright laws. Just knowing this subconsciously will allow you to take risks with your writing. Try new things, not be afraid of failing, or worry if it’s “good enough.”

If you’re up to the task of working on everything all at once, try rewriting a simple story or novel. I’m currently thinking of rewriting the original Nancy Drew novels (well, maybe one of them). Granted, the 1930s were a different era, but the writing is pretty simplistic because they were meant to be read by young girls at the time. However, there is plenty of opportunity to explore character, settings (including building atmosphere), pacing, and suspense. Plus, they are relatively short as far as novels go.

Maybe you have a favorite book or series from when you were a kid or you’ve read something recently that you think you could write better. Well, why don’t you? What did you think wasn’t good about it? It probably falls into one of the aforementioned categories: character, plot, setting, etc.

Take a beloved fairy tale and rewrite it from another character’s point of view or put your own twist on it the way Jane Yolen does in The Emerald Circus.

The options for writing fanfiction and the benefits of doing so are boundless.

And I promise you won’t turn into an emo-angsty My Chemical Romance loving teenager.

MyChemicalRomance-2004AP

 

 

 

 

NaNo Warm-Up Part 3

Welcome to Week 3 in the NaNo warm-up writing prompts.

In last week’s post, we explored ways of coming up with story ideas based on book titles. Some of you may have come up with your own titles or some may have worked with titles of already-published books that you knew nothing about. Either way, writing a short book synopsis is a great way to start thinking about a story in terms of plot.

But what if writing plot isn’t your strength or you prefer to write a story based on character instead?

Mary Hilton in Potent Fictions: Children’s Literacy and the Challenge of Popular Culture criticised the Point Horror series’ main characters, who were often teenage girls, as basically being used as a plot device. These femalce characters spend much of their time being upset, stalked, dumped, terrorized, paranoid, or killed. It’s true. The main characters of any of these books could be swapped from one to the other without changing storylines much.

But for literary writers, stories begin with character, and plot grows organically from there.

This week’s exercise focuses on creating characters who have a specific story to tell and comes in two parts.

Remember the Bestselling thriller, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or the movie The Man in the Iron Mask? How about Girl With a Pearl Earring? Each of these titles is basically an innocuous character description, and if you had never read any of these books, you would be hard pressed to guess what genre or plot they suggest.

The first part of this exercise is to come up with a list of various character descriptions. These could describe some physical attribute, a personality quirk, or an emotional state. Heck, you might even want to take a cue from Edgar Allan Poe and be as generic as possible: The Black CatThe RavenThe Sleeper.

Here are a few examples to get you started:

  • The man in the green speedo
  • The girl who cried at midnight
  • The boy who ate glass
  • The cat whisperer
  • The woman in the rain

The second part to this prompt is to randomly select one from your list and create a character from it. This could be done any way you want: personality profile, character questionnaire, backstory narrative. You can work on one character per day or spend several days on the same character. There is no wrong way to do this.

The most challenging option for this exercise is, once you have selected your character, to write his or her story. This is done by asking simple questions: WHO? WHAT? WHY? HOW?

For instance, why is that man wearing a green speedo? Is it socially acceptable because he’s on a beach in Italy or Spain? Is he on a swim team? In the Olympics? Is his choice of swim attire out of place on the rocky Maine coast?

Why is the girl crying at midnight? Who is the woman standing in the rain? How does one know they can communicate with cats on some otherworldly level? What makes a young boy eat glass? The answers are endless, and no matter which ones you decide on, your character will dictate your story and not the other way around.

Happy writing!

The End

The end, also known as the conclusion, resolution, falling action, or denouement, should be the shortest section of your story, so don’t worry if your outline looks a little skimpy. Indeed, you may only have a few scenes or only a few setting changes.

(We’ll discuss more on what exactly a scene consists of in a forthcoming post, but for now, think of a scene as taking place in one distinct setting like bedroom, boardroom, stock exchange floor, police interrogation room, hospital room.

Don’t confuse it with other distinct areas of a general setting. For instance, in a police station you might have several different settings such as Captain’s office, breakroom, interrogation room, holding cell, dispatch cubicle, detectives’ desk area, etc. Each time your protagonist [or POV character if writing in third person omniscient] moves into a new area of the police station, you can label it as a new scene.)

Basically, the end section of your story begins after your main conflict has been resolved. You’ll know when this happens because all the tension will have been released. You, along with the reader, are finally able to breathe a sigh of relief. In a mystery, this may be when the police finally arrest the criminal. Or when two lovers finally profess their feelings for each other in a romance novel. Or the ragtag crew of bandits overthrow the evil queen in a fantasy novel.

It’s a chance for you to tie up any loose ends in one or all of the subplots (though not all subplots have to be resolved) and a chance for your readers to view the aftereffects of the resolution. If your protagonist was fighting for the good of humanity, we will need to see how humanity reacts to the outcome of the conflict. Maybe the town is rebuilding after being devastated by the evil queen, or a community holds a candlelight vigil for lives lost during the battle. Maybe no one even notices that anything has changed (think government conspiracies that happen unbeknownst to the general public). But your characters know because they have changed during the process.

Use the end of the story to show us these aftereffects both physically and emotionally, but keep it brief. If you’ve outlined your story well, the ending will be both logical and satisfying without the need for lengthy explanations. If you find you do have too much to explain, you many need to rework your main plot or consider tying up various subplots earlier. All of your plots should not be resolved at the same time.

Many writers find it helpful to craft their ending scenes in such a way that their protagonist and important minor characters can congregate in one place to tie up loose ends. Settings that can bring everyone together could be at a wedding reception, birthday party or school dance, in a bar, a restaurant, the village commons–any place and/or event that seems logical not only for your story but for your characters as well.

So see? The end is not as complicated as you thought.

The following is my first pass at outlining the conclusion of my story. There are actually only two distinct settings: outside the school and inside the headmaster’s office, but I broke the scenes down into which characters were interacting with each other and which subplots were being resolved.

  1. Back on campus, Insp. Hunt drives True and Nils to the administration building. True’s mother is waiting for her and doesn’t look too proud that her daughter is getting hauled up in a police car.
  2. Inspector Hunt talks to the administrators alone. Bettina, Nils, Tucker on crutches, and Konstantine, hand in hand with Bettina, are all anxiously awaiting the plight of their friend.
  3. True and her mother meet with Headmaster Wickingham alone. The school feels that though True did break every rule, it was her tenacity that broke this case wide open. Though she would still be placed on disciplinary probation, they would like her to continue her studies at this school. If it’s ok with mom. Mom broke up with David because she didn’t want to lose her only daughter and her husband in the same year. She can stay.
  4. Outside everyone claps and cheers. True tells Hunt she knows he put a good word in for her. And she thanks him. Nils tells True she can write the kind of article about this experience using the first person if she still wants to. True says she’ll start on it right away just as soon as she and mother take a little time together. She asks Mr. Bartleby to pack their bags in the car and take them to the train station bound for London.
  5. Rumpleton brings up a basket with freshly baked goodies for True and her mother to eat on the train. She winks that there might be a nail file baked into the cinnamon apple braid bread.

You can’t do any worse than this, so take heart and plot on.

The End

In the Middle of Things

If you’ve been diligently working on your timeline or outline, you’ve probably noticed the middle (and longest) section of your story is a little sparse. Lots of writers panic when it comes to the middle because they automatically think they’ll never be able to come up with enough interesting stuff to happen. Lies! Stuff happens all the time!

If you understand what the function of the middle is, you will have no problem torturing your characters.

Think of the middle of your story as one of those really bad days when everything seems to go wrong.

Your external goal is to get that promotion at work. And in order to do that, you have to nail a presentation to a bunch of Japanese business men. Great! We’ve already established your goal in the beginning of your story, which probably took place the day or night before when we first met you and your cat family.

Your cat family
Your cat family

Here’s where the middle starts:

You oversleep, wake up in a panic, jump out of bed and land in a pile of cat puke. “Damn, cats!”

You fling the bezoar off the bottom of your foot and hop into the kitchen where you start the coffee maker before hitting the shower.

Someone in another apartment flushes her toilet and your water turns scalding. Curses abound.

While pouring your coffee, you drop the pot, breaking it and spilling more scalding liquid all over your power suit.

You’re cranky because you don’t have time to stop for Starbucks and losing self-confidence because you have to wear a different outfit.

Power Outfit
Power Outfit

Of course there’s a traffic jam. Some idiot got in an accident. You’d go around but cars are blocking you in. The only thing you can do is lay on the horn and scream obscenties.

Phew! You finally get to work (late) but still in plenty of time to make the presentation. After grabbing a cup of sludge in the breakroom, you head into the conference room to set up before the others arrive.

Fire up the computer, take a deep breath, access the file.

The presentation you worked so hard on and stayed up all night perfecting is gone. Hard drives, soft drives, thumb drives; it’s nowhere to be found. Your blood pressure rises, you start hyperventilating, and the thoughts in your brain start to swirl. You look for it again. You try another way. You go through a back door. Fuck! you scream silently.

You sweat, you feel weak, you sink into the chair and ask yourself how you’re going to tell your boss you screwed up.

And then you remind yourself that even though the promotion is out of the question, you still need a job or your cats will go hungry.

Hmm, less food means less barfing…

No, that’s just cruel.

And then you start drawing from memory your diagrams, graphs, and charts on the whiteboard. And you give the worst presentation of your life.

Okay, so that’s the end of the middle of your story. Easy peasy.

If you look closely a each of the scenes or events in my outline, I started with small events that are easily overcome:

Oversleeping, stepping in barf, scalding shower, coffee break (literally).

They start small; annoying, but you can move past them. You don’t really have a choice.

To increase tension, I added some conflicts that are outside of your control or that you can’t readily get around:

Traffic jam; sorry, you’re stuck there, so deal with it.

You're stuck in it
Did I mention it was raining?

Presentation file gone. There is nothing you can do to retrieve it except drive all the way back home, and that is so not going to happen.

You hit rock bottom, your lowest moment. You want to give up. You failed. You will never reach your goal. Everything you’ve worked for up to this point has been for nothing.

Why am I such a loser?
Why am I such a loser?

But you don’t give up because your cats depend on you. Because you’re not a quitter and neither is your main character. He has to see it through to the end, regardless of obtaining that goal. It’s a matter of fulfilling something bigger. And that something bigger is your internal need. What do you need to make yourself truly happy, fulfilled? Seeing a tough situation through to the end, the sense of accomplishment you get when you try no matter what, the increased self-confidence that you can go out there and face those Japanese business men without a shred of technology. Your dignity. Your courage in the face of adversity. A sense of humbleness and humility. Whatever it may be, you have achieved it because you did your best in a losing situation.

To recap in the middle of things: an event or conflict happens that tries to thwart your main character from reaching his goal (coffee spills all over his power outfit). He reacts to the conflict (spends a few seconds cursing) then devises a new plan (changes from his power outfit into one that makes him less confident but is still going to make the presentation anyway).

Repeat this sequence as many times as you want, increasing the difficulty level with each new conflict thereby increasing the tension (will he make it to work on time? will he be able to pull off the presentation without his file? will he get the promotion? will he get fired?), really making it difficult for your protagonist to reach that goal. Because after all it’s not really the goal that matters, it’s what he learns about himself through overcoming obstacles, what he gains internally, that is the real prize. Business-Hero

You know that quote about, “God only gives us as much as we can handle?” Well, you’re God and it’s your job to bring your character to that breaking point and then make him try one last time. Insert your climax here.

So as you work through your timeline/outline for the first time, don’t worry too much about not having enough conflicts. Just aim for a few events, keeping in mind what it will take to bring your protagonist to almost quit and how you want your climax to play out. How does your character react to those conflicts? What new tactics will your character use to get through all those barriers?

And remember, this is just one of many passes you and I will take as we continue to outline our stories.

Next time we’ll visit The End.

In the Beginning

Chances are, if you’ve come up with a story idea, you’ve probably got a few opening scenes, the climax, and maybe a handful of random ideas or bits or dialogue you have no idea where to put on your outline.

Fantastic! Because writing isn’t math (thank god) and a story isn’t a formula. You don’t have to start at the beginning of a problem and work your way through the equation, following hard and fast rules, until you come to a finite solution. You can start anywhere along your timeline and work forward or backward through your scenes until you’re satisfied. And you can do this over and over again, Substituting, Taking Out, Adding, and Rearranging, until the story is exactly the way you want it.

So where do you begin?  First, categorize the scenes you do have (I’ll call these scenes “guideposts”) into one of the following categories: beginning, middle, end. That was a stumper, I know. This is best achieved using the index card method where you actually lay your scene cards out on the floor, a desk, a table, or a bed in three separate groupings. This gives you a visual representation of your story and the ability to physically manipulate the scenes as you try out new ideas. (You may even choose to talk to yourself while you do it, and I hope you do.)

So here’s a guide as to what scenes you might categorize as the beginning.

The Beginning:

Generally, you’ll want scenes that introduce your main characters and give your readers an idea of who your protagonist is before anything interesting happens. Take yourself right now.

  • Who are you? How would you describe your personality and then what actions do you take that show it? If you’re an emotional person, you might cry during commercials with animals in them (think Budweiser ads during the Super Bowl). If you are a fitness enthusiast, you might be slogging it out at the gym or measuring cups of spinach for your salad.
  • What is your daily routine? How do you feel about it? If you’re miserable in your job, show us. If you’re a self-centered diva, maybe you boss people around and freak out over brown M&Ms.
  • Who are the important people in your life? Do you talk to your mother on the phone every night? Do you go out drinking with the guys after a hard day at the construction site? Do you run ragged trying to get your kids fed and bathed and put to bed at a decent hour.

You’ll also want something interesting to happen that will change your main character’s life forever. This is called an inciting incident. This will be the first major event in your story, and it will accomplish a number of things.

  • Define what genre you are writing. Is the major event a murder (mystery), a chance meeting with a stranger (romance), a letter of admission to a school for wizards (fantasy), etc.
  • It will provide an external goal for your main character to try to reach despite a lot of trials and tribulations.
  • It will in some way fulfill your main character’s internal need. What does your main character need more than anything to be happy? If you answered with items like more money, a better job, a fresh start, a spot in the dance company, you are actually talking about an external goal. Like the word says, anything outside of your character’s body is external. Ah, but you might say an athlete pushes his own body in order to win a specific race. Well, winning the race is the external goal, but why does he have to win it so badly? Because his internal need is not just to win but to be recognized, appreciated, admired, etc. (Funny how all these things originate within the core.) Perhaps your main character felt his father never loved him, so he tries to prove to himself over and over again through winning race after race that he is worthy of being loved. See, the internal need always stems from some deep self-need that has gone unfulfilled. Until now. The external goal is just the vehicle to help him achieve it. Some examples might be to learn compassion, to be loved, to be accepted/to accept, to be tolerant, to trust/be trusted. More often than not, your character won’t even know what he or she needs to be happy. That’s why he keeps pushing himself to win those races, working more hours to make more money, sleeping with every guy who looks her way.
  • The inciting incident will also come through a catalyst in one of three ways: a piece of information (a death, a pregnancy, a weather report), a situation (being electrocuted, being fired/getting a raise, witnessing a crime), or another character (a dame looking for her sister, a traveling lightning rod salesman, a bully).

This inciting incident will always be rejected by your main character. At first. Think Scully: your protagonist is skeptical. Or scared or lazy. Or even believe that she isn’t worthy of such a dangerous mission. This is your character’s main flaw. And figuring out this flaw will help you plot out the whole middle of your story because it will rear its ugly head over and over again, taunting your protagonist to quit every time it gets too hard. And it will get too hard.

Life for your main character may go on seemingly as usual; however, there’s always that little question of “what if?” going on in the back of his mind. What if I do take that job? What if there really is life on Mars? What if I do have the power to save the world and all my little hobbit friends?

Maybe he even has a conversation with some of his friends. Maybe they try to convince him to “go for it.” Or maybe they tell him he’s crazy. Either way, your protagonist’s life will be changed forever because he tried going after that goal or be changed forever because he didn’t.

Make sure he tries.

And last but not least, the end of the beginning section of your story will be a scene in which your protagonist takes that first step out of the shire, off the cliff, or onto another planet. She has accepted her fate, risen to the challenge, and taken action.

Now, check out the guidepost scenes you grouped in the beginning category. Where do they fall in the spectrum of the beginning scenes? Can you think of anything that needs to come before or after them? Write down a brief description of any scenes on new index cards and arrange them in an order you think works.

And remember, you don’t have to keep this order or these scenes. The idea is just to get something down to work with.

We’ll tackle what happens in the middle next time.

 

Rosewood Lane: From a Writer’s Perspective

Kudos to creepy paperboy(s) for making this movie slightly unsettling, despite the paperboy looking like he’s about 19 and still riding a bike. A 12-year old would have been creepier.

Though as bad as Rosewood Lane, starring Rose McGowan, is, a writer can learn a lot about plot by using this storyline as an example of what not to do.

Here is my top 10 list:

10. Never play the “crazy” card, using it as an excuse to let your antagonist do whatever he wants. Even if your bad guy is paranoid, schizo, delusional, psychotic, or just a generic form of mentally ill, your antagonist will always have a motive for why he does the things he does. It may not be logical to sane people, but it at least has to be plausible to the audience. Your bad guy will encounter an inciting incident and have an external goal much like your main character. You should never use the excuse that “he’s crazy” to justify his actions.

9. Never write an animal into your story just to kill it off later. (Unless you’re Stephen King.) Having your antagonist kill an animal just to prove he’s evil is like beating a dead horse. The audience should know he’s evil long before he gets his hands on Fido or Fluffy especially if you’ve spent as much time creating your villain as you did your protagonist. Don’t fall victim to the trope. Instead, do something less cliché like getting Fido or Fluffy help your main character vanquish the villain.

8. On that note, never have your main character leave her pet outside or alone in the house when she knows there’s a psycho murderer on the loose. And certainly don’t leave it outside if the murderer has a history of killing animals. It’s completely irresponsible of your main character, and your audience will hate her and you for it.

7. Never place a weapon into your plot just because you think it’s cool. I mean, what lawyer for the District Attorney’s Office lets off steam by shooting a crossbow? And don’t let said lawyer leave the weapon lying around in the basement with a psycho murderer on the loose who has already broken into the basement. While it is true that if you introduce a gun in the first chapter, you need to make sure someone uses it, you should also make sure your weapon du jour has a credible reason for being used. Police detective>Gun; Hunter>Crossbow; Ex Special Forces soldier>sniper rifle; Lawyer>Crossbow=NO! Baseball bat, maybe. Wusthof Cook’s Knife, more likely.

6. Never mention bits of backstory without explaining the significance of it. For instance, if your creepy paperboy spouts off nursery rhymes and your protagonist mentions off-handedly that he must have heard one of her radio shows on nursery rhymes, then please explain what this show was about and what the correlation between nursery rhymes and abuse victims and/or psycho paperboys is. Because if we don’t know, we won’t be able to understand your psycho paperboy’s motive (See #10.)

5. Never introduce subplots you have no intention of following up on. If your protagonist has a conversation with another character about having been in therapy before, make sure the audience knows exactly why she was in therapy and how her actions now seem to warrant more sessions. I mean, I don’t think Googling the paperboy’s address to talk to his parents after he’s broken into your main character’s house, stalked her on his bike, rearranged her porcelain knickknacks, and tried to kill her boyfriend is unjustified or abnormal behavior needing counseling.

4. For that matter, never write a story without at least two-to-three subplots as they provide the audience relief from all the tension of the main conflict. Many subplots include elements of humor, romance, and every day nuisances to allow the reader to catch her breath until the next big upheaval happens. It is often these subplots that show the depth and complexity of your characters because they are not just reacting on adrenaline.

3. Never introduce a supernatural element into your story then explain it away in the resolution. Yes, this may be construed as a plot twist, but it is also misleading. Your reader wants to know what kind of story she is reading and will allow herself to invest in this world as long as the author delivers. If you have not provided any clues that the other-worldly, adopted paperboy with the reptilian eyes who can be in two places at once is really just one kid in a set of triplets, your reader will feel duped and cheated.

2. Never write a resolution that fails to tie up major events. That’s the whole point of a resolution–for the audience to see the widespread effects of the main plot and most subplots. What happened to the lawyer boyfriend who was buried alive somewhere? Your main character just spent two hours trying to find him, digging through piles of dirt in her backyard to no avail, so it must be time for a bath, and we must never mention his fate again.

And my #1 thing to never do in your story is:

1. Never ever have your pscyho paperboy shoot your main character in the back with a crossbow then rip out the arrow as she runs to her car (because how else is she going to sit in the seat) only to have her beat the crap out of him with a baseball bat one-handedly, get in the car, spend 30 seconds trying to start the car with her left hand because apparently she is now paralyzed on her right side, make a 3-point turn, slam her car into the paperboy who is now riding his bike straight into her, watch the bike fly over the car without the paperboy on it, then get out of the car to look around the street for his body. If you can’t find all the problems with this scene then I can’t help you.

There you have it. Ten things you should never do in your plot. Hope this helps.

Plot Happens

I know you’re scared, but there’s really nothing to fear. Plot happens every day. You’re living plot right now, albeit probably not as epically as you’d wish. You make plans, a goal, or a to-do list for the day; something happens to screw it up; you react emotionally; then you come up with a new or revised plan.

That’s plot. Over and over again. With each new conflict making it seemingly harder for you to accomplish your goal.

With each new conflict creating tension and raising the stakes because now you’re losing precious time to get through your list.

With each new conflict forcing you to find alternative and creative ways to make things go according to your plan.

The secrets of plot revealed.

And so for the next several days or weeks, you’ll be figuring out what your character’s goal is, throwing a wrench (or screwdriver) at it, showing us how the character reacts, then showing us how your character revises his old goal or comes up with a new way to reach it. Repeat this several times and by the end of your story, your main character will have grown as a person because, “that which does not kill us makes us stronger” (Friedrich Nietzsche).

Here’s another analogy: Plot is like planning a vacation.

You probably have some idea of where you want to go and some idea of things you’d like to see and do, but you don’t know how to get there or where you’ll stay until you start figuring out your itinerary. Plot is the writer’s version of an itinerary. And these are a few suggestions of how I came up with my itinerary.

The first thing I did to plot out my story was make a timeline. first timeline

I used bright pink stickys (the top row) to plot out the actual timeline of important events in the Jack the Ripper murders. Beneath that, I used orange stickys to map out the major scenes of my storyline in the corresponding order. I used stickys because I like having the ability to move things around, step back, and see how everything plays out.

Plus, as any teacher knows, writing on a blackboard (or a reasonable facsimile) uses different neural pathways (which is why teachers make more spelling and grammatical errors when writing on one than on paper) and forces your brain to work more “creatively.” And who doesn’t want to be more creative?

From this timeline, I wrote a synopsis of each scene on a half-sheet of paper (some writers use index cards but I’m cheap and used old notebooks) and arranged them in oder on my bed (you may wish to use a table or the floor). Again, I like having the flexibility of moving scenes and sequences around while being able to see how logically the whole story unfolds. This took several hours, but with each new pass at my plot, I came up with new scenes and subplots to fill out the outline.

second timeline

After a generous amount of time working on my scene “cards,” I moved back to my wall timeline with a fresh sheet of paper (I cut sheets of paper stores use to wrap breakables and taped them to my wall). Keeping the original Jack the Ripper stickys up for reference, I plotted my corresponding murders with the orange stickys.

Next, I wrote a brief sentence or two (or three or four) summarizing each scene. I even used different colored markers for each plot and subplot thread as an easy visual guide to make sure I wasn’t leaving any one thread for too long. My color system is basically purple for the main plot, pink for romance (I know), green for family relationship problems, turquoise for suspect scenes, dark blue for journalism themes, orange for scenes that hide clues as to the killer’s identity, and magenta for school conflicts. Yours will depend on what genre you’re writing and what threads you think are most important.

One other outline tool that I use from my studies in screenwriting is a beat sheet. This is basically a numbered list of scenes, each described in only a few sentences. I revised mine two or three times while working on the wall timelines.

The best thing about the beat sheet is that it’s portable. You can bring it to Starbucks and not have people looking at you funny when you spread out a 3-foot long roll of paper with a bunch of colored writing on it. (Although I think I’m going to try it someday just to see how people react.) beat sheet

 

So these first couple of passes at the outline were just to get my scenes down in a somewhat logical order and fill in as many gaps as I could. The wall timeline nor the beat sheet are the final version of my plot. There is more work to be done, and I’ll have more suggestions/tools for you too.

For now, work on writing out your ideas/scenes in whichever format feels comfortable or try different ones. Keep those neural pathways working.

Next time, we’ll go more in depth about plot points, scene structure, and how to fill out your beginning, middle, and end.