I have just finished reading the above book on plotting a novel and I thought some of you might appreciate me passing on some of the key ideas discussed. I found a few points very helpful. I am a rank amateur at novel writing and very unskilled at plotting, so forgive me if I state what is obvious or common sense to those more experienced and knowledgeable than I. I will be brief, because although the book was quite detailed, there were only a few key concepts discussed.
1. Begininnings – the book suggested avoiding prologues, and commencing a story at a point of moderate excitement – with an event that arouses interest. This often means starting at a point further along the chronological sequence of events and flashing back to relate what went before. Prologues should not be necessary, as any information that appears to belong in a prologue should be presented in the story via flashbacks, dialogue, etc.
2. Causal Chain – A story must move from stability to instability and back to stability again. The book described a plot as a ‘causal chain’ – a sequence of events causing subsequent events and gradually eliminating choices as to the solution of a central problem. When there is only one choice left to solve the central problem, the story ends. The core problem must be significant. Not solving it must have disastrous consequences for the central character.
3. Sequencing of scenes – events described in a book should first be plotted in chronological order, then rearranged in plot order, which may be entirely different. Plots often start at the end or in the middle of a chronological sequence, and may proceed in orderly fashion from the start point to the end, using a single flashback to incorporate earlier events – or can jump around all over the place making extensive use of flashbacks or flash-forwards.
4. Intensity patterns – the book suggested rating the intensity of scenes from 1 to 10, then throwing out all scenes with an intensity level of 0 and striving for a pattern of gradually increasing intensity, rising to a peak near the end. Avoid sudden rises or drops, as they jar. Avoid a pattern of constant intensity for more than a few scenes, as this will bore the reader. Ensure there are occasional minor drops in intensity to provide relief and avoid over-stimulating the reader. The overall trend should be up – via a couple of steps up then one step back – until the end of the book which rises to a high point before dropping down to describe the restored ‘ordinary world’ and tie up loose ends.
The book provided some graphs of favourable patterns of intensity. One example was 4,1,1,3,5,3,5,6,7,4,6,7,9,3. Note the climax near the end, and the rise in the middle, with a slight lowering between high points to let the reader catch a breath.
Starting at a moderate intensity creates sufficient interest to keep the reader engaged through a couple of low intensity scenes to describe the ‘ordinary world’ – the world of the protagonist before the core problem presents.
5. Endings - All stories should come to a logical conclusion. Don't leave it to the reader to figure out how the story ends. It's your job to write the novel. The reader's task is to read it!
Endings should derive logically/casually from the events that precede. The outcome should be probable, but neither obvious nor outlandish. The two marks of an amateur writer are not resolving the conflict, or not resolving it in a believable way that derives logically from the sequence of events that precedes.
When the ending appears, it must feel like it had to happen, but before it happens the reader should not know what it will be.
Avoid 'deus ex machina' endings (god out of the machine). These are endings where divine intervention or an almost impossible event resolves the problem - something that has not been hinted at or built up to through the story.
6. Use of ‘Frame Stories’ - A ‘frame’ story is a story that is ‘topped and tailed’ or ‘framed’ by comments. For example, someone is telling a story, and the opening describes the story teller and environment – or the story is written in a letter, or told in a dream. Frame stories are commonly used by amateur writers because they are easy to write – but that doesn’t imply that they cannot be high quality and very professional. The key to a successful frame story is to understand that a frame is used to relate the effect of the events on the teller or the teller’s reaction to the events or thoughts about them, rather than to focus directly on the story. You use a ‘frame’ when the key message is how the central character – story teller, letter writer, dreamer, etc – thinks and feels about what occurred.
7. Leitmotifs (This was the most interesting section for me!) - Leitmotifs are repeating images, phrases, themes or thoughts. (eg. character refers repeatedly to some past highlight in his life such as being a quarterback in high school; an oak tree in front of a house symbolises solidarity). The term ‘leitmotifs’ derives from music, and leitmotifs are a feature of musical compositions.
They also occur in art.
Since reading about these, my husband and I have made a game of identifying the leitmotifs in stories and TV shows. It’s quite fascinating to find them and consider the effect they have on the reader. You find yourself anticipating a feature of a scene, or a statement by a character. We watched ‘Criminal Minds’ last night and noticed a reference to the criminal liking arches. Arches kept appearing in scenes, and you knew that when this leitmotif appeared, it indicated that the murderer had been active in this location.
Using leitmotifs conveys messages without saying something directly. For example, in a story, every time something sad occurs it is always raining. At the end of the book, the central character walks out into the rain. The author doesn’t need to say that the character is very sad. It’s implied by the rain because throughout the book the rain has been associated with sadness.
The author of the book claims that the skilled use of leitmotifs is a mark of quality in writing. The challenge for writers is to know what constitutes sufficient use and when they have overused or under-used leitmotifs.
If used skillfully, leitmotifs are not consciously noticed by the reader, but play on the subconscious. They create a feeling of familiarity, comfort, and security, but the reason for that feeling is not obvious.
Published by Writer’s Digest Books, 1st edition (August 15, 2000) ISBN-13: 978-0898799842
- Fairfield Writers Group-Queensland
- Fairfield, Queensland, Australia
- Fairfield Writers Group is a mix of beginner and experienced writers who meet the second and fourth Saturdays of the month at the Brisbane City Council Library in Fairfield Gardens Shopping Centre, Fairfield road, Fairfield, Queensland. Our passion is writing and we work hard at our craft. Our aim is to encourage, support and help each other to reach new heights in our writing. New members are always made welcome and usually whisked off to the local coffee shop at the end of meetings for sustenance and socialisation with the rest of the crew.
Welcome to Fairfield Writers Group
We hope you will stop for a while and browse our site and if you like what you see, please visit us again soon.