Tag Archives: exposition

That Freaking Mountain: Plot Structure

In it’s most basic terms plot is what describes the structure of a story. It’s the arrangement of events within a novel.

Why’s plot so important? Well, without it, there’d be no story.

How about plot structure? If the plot isn’t structured correctly, then the story falls flat.

Many people describe plot structure as a mountain. That’s the best way to describe it. If you look at Freytag’s Pyramid, you’ll see his multi-point system. (I bet it’ll look familiar.)

*Gustav Freytag was a German novelist. He saw similarities in successful stories and diagrammed a story’s plot to reflect those similarities.

Here’s his pyramid:

freytag_pyramid

 

Below I’ve expanded on the points included on the pyramid:

  1. Exposition: Setting the scene. This is the start of the story, where the main characters and setting are introduced. Description and background are also provided. The exposition shows how things are before the action begins.
  2. Inciting Incident: Something happens to start the action. The inciting incident occurs between the exposition and the rising action. It’s a single event that starts the ball rolling. Without it, the characters would continue along in the exposition part of the story. Sometimes the inciting incident is called ‘the complication.’
  3. Rising Action: Where the tension increases. This is the series of conflicts leading to the climax, where the story gets more exciting and where the stakes keeping getting raised.
  4. Climax: Moment of greatest tension within the story. The climax is the turning point, the most intense moment of a novel. This is what the rising action was leading to.
  5. Falling Action: Decreasing tension. The falling action includes the events following the climax. Everything that happens in the falling action section is a result of the climax and readers know that the story will soon reach its conclusion.
  6. Resolution: The main problem is solved. The resolution is between the falling action and the denouement.
  7. Denouement: The end. This is the section of a novel where any lingering questions, secrets, etc. are answered. The denouement is often tied up with the resolution, but this concluding section is the final explanation of what happened. It’s the moment where the characters express their emotions about what happened, including events during the resolution, and their reaction(s) to how they’ve changed during the course of the novel.

There’s another version of Freytag’s Pyramid. This one is more commonly used today because it’s more effective. All the parts are still the same, however what’s changed is the length of those parts.

A modified version of Freytag’s Pyramid:

Fig._12

 

In this version of Freytag’s Pyramid, the rising action has increased, while the falling action has decreased. This difference is important because tension keeps readers interested. The more rising action you have, the better. You want the decreasing tension (falling action) to be less than the increasing tension (rising action). Once the climax occurs, nothing else can surpass it.

You can have false climaxes, where the characters are led to believe everything is over and has worked out in some way or another, but you want your true climax to be much closer to the end of the novel than the beginning.

Think of it this way, if you have a 50,000 word book, you want 40-45,000 of those words to come before the climax. Then, the climax itself should last for at least a chapter (depending on how long your chapters are). The remaining word count is left for the falling action, resolution, and denouement.

If this seems like a lot, don’t worry. Manuscripts are never perfect the first time through. Most aren’t ready by the fifth time through either. Get everything written down. Get your story onto paper. Let your madman (inner creative child) go wild. The judge (your inner critic) can come out later.

How much do you take plot structure into account when you write?

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Narrative Structure: Diving Off the Deep End

What do you think of when you hear the phrase “narrative structure?”

For some of you, you probably equate it with a novel’s plot. I tend to like separating out the plot and narrative structure. With plot, you have the main events of a story. Point A leads to point B. Point B leads to point C…you get the idea.

But with narrative structure, you shake up the chronological points of a story. You manipulate the sequence of events to create a better novel.

Why do this?

Because not all events within a story are equal.

Some parts of your story will be critical, pieces that define your characters or that raise the stakes up to an almost unbearable amount of tension. Other scenes will still be important, but they won’t have the same emotional punch that the key scenes will.

Say you have a scene where a car explodes in the middle of a highway, and your protagonist is only three cars away from the explosion. What are you going to focus on? You might give a brief bit of information before the explosion, like your protagonist fiddling with the stereo (better yet, your protagonist just had a horrendous argument with her fiancé and she went driving to cool off), but your focus will be the moment of the explosion (or rather, the moment the protagonist is first effected) and the moments directly after the explosion – the chaos, the effect this event has on your character, your character realizing what happened, the thoughts she has, the decisions/actions she makes, etc.

In it’s essence, narrative structure controls time.

It foreshadows, deals with exposition, flashbacks, and shuffling the novel’s chronology around.

Foreshadowing: warning or indicating future events. Foreshadowing gives glimpses of what’s to come by providing hints. For instance, in Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms the line, “The leaves fell early that year,” foreshadows an early death.

Foreshadowing is important in fiction because (1) it fosters tension and reader anticipation and (2) everything in fiction happens for a reason.

Exposition: introduces background information (the backstory). Exposition doesn’t advance the plot in the same way action does, but its role is vital. Without exposition it would seem like characters were born on the first page of a novel.

Writers rely on exposition to connect readers to their characters and their story. The essence of a novel lies not only in what will happen, but in what has happened before the novel began.

Flashbacks: a scene in a novel set in the past. Flashbacks accompany backstory and exposition. But while exposition is best given to readers in small pieces, flashbacks are for the moments in your character’s past where a few lines won’t be enough.

Flashbacks are dramatic. They’re the Broadway lights screaming at readers to pay attention because this past event had a monumental effect on the present state of the character or story.

Manipulation of Plot Chronology: Instead of having a novel’s events ordered from A to E, you can mix them up. Have E come first, or have B first. Playing with a novel’s chronological order can create a more interesting story. It can sometimes reveal more of a story. That being said, you don’t want to mess with chronology if you don’t have a deliberate reason for doing so.

Have fun with a novel’s narrative structure. Play around with it. You won’t know your novel’s full potential until you do.

How do you change up your novel’s structure?

How to Expand Your Novel

You’ve been working on your novel or your short story, but you’re stumped. There’s something off about your story, something that makes it hard to believe, not to mention your word count might be lower than you anticipated.

How do you go about remedying this? How can you expand your work?

One way is through narration.

  • Force your characters to do more, go bigger. You want to push them outside their comfort zone.
  • You want to make sure there are enough obstacles in your characters way to make what they’re doing have a big emotional and physical impact.
  • Find ways to reveal your characters’ internal states of mind – their thoughts, beliefs, ideals, fears– through their actions, or lack thereof.

Another way to expand is through description.

  • Find ways to show tension and movement through description.
  • Show what’s happening through sensory details. Make readers experience the same sensations your characters are. If your characters are blindfolded and bound, make it so your readers can only experience what your characters can. In this instance, that means both readers and characters can’t see what’s around them, but they can hear, smell, and taste, and though they have a lack of movement, they can feel the material of whatever is binding them.

Along a similar vein is exposition.

  • Sometimes a part of the story that’s told would be much more effective if shown. Think of it this way: instead of telling that the protagonist was in a car crash where her best friend died two years ago, show a flashback of it. It will have a much stronger impact and will cause your word count to spike.

Through dialogue you can also expand your writing.

  • What is said is just as important as what isn’t said.
  • During a conversation between multiple characters, shift back and forth between internal thoughts and spoken words. Give your protagonist – and readers – time to digest what’s been said, to process it. If the protagonist is called a very bad word, she’ll have a reaction. Show that reaction.

Speaking of reactions, the internal mind of a character is a wealth of information.

  • A character’s thoughts, feelings, hopes, fears, dreams – her memories – give insight into the character by showing what she thinks is important, how she sees the world, and lets readers know what she considers is at risk during different situations throughout the novel.
  • By showing the internal tensions of a character, readers get invested in the character and in the novel. Readers know that the character is at odds with the world around her, and they see her struggle to overcome both external and internal obstacles.

Expanding your writing might seem like a monumental feat, one you feel you may not be able to overcome, but once you know the techniques to expand your writing, you’ll find you can break your story down, and when it all comes back together, you’ll have a much richer piece of work.

How do you expand your writing?

Categorizing Fiction: What’s Each Part All About?

Fiction is a conglomerate of information. It can’t just tell you something. It has to serenade you, pull you in…perhaps romance you a bit. Bottom line: fiction needs to suspend your disbelief.

So, how do we, as writers, go about this?

There are five main ways to categorize fiction. Each way adds to the whole of the story, creating a richer, fuller world.

  1. Narration. This tells you what happened. It’s the meaningful actions that characters do. Narration can sometimes include meaning movements as well.
  2. Description. This deals with details, often sensory details (taste, touch, smell, hear, see). Description includes giving details about people, places, actions, gestures, speaking, etc. It tells “how” something is done, whereas narration tells “what” occurred.
  3. Exposition. This is information that is told by the author/narrator to readers. Exposition has a bad rep (the whole “telling” vs. “showing” concept), but it is necessary in fiction because it provides context, meaning, history, etc.
  4. Dialogue. Spoken words.
  5. Internal. This includes the thoughts and feelings, both immediate and long term, of a character(s). The internal category gets inside the character, and involves a character’s internal reactions to something. For instance, two characters might see the same event, but their internal reactions will be different.

Narration and dialogue speed up the pace of a novel, while exposition, description, and internal slow down the pace. A big part of the reason why all five of these ways are important to include in a novel is because there are times in a story where you want the reader to go fast, and times where you want the reader to go slow.

Some common mistakes:

  • Description. It can be easy to bunch description together. For instance, describing every aspect of a character all at once (hair, eyes, body type, clothing, posture, personality, etc.). When you bunch your description, you (1) don’t include it anywhere else in the novel and (2) create an imbalance. You want to reveal details when they’re important. When you use the right details, at the right time, the story feels organic, connected.
  • Exposition. Just as too much exposition is a mistake, so is too little. There are some things/information you need to know to understand and grow attached to the character. For example, if a story begins in October, maybe the protagonist’s parents died four months ago, and that piece of information would help explain why the protagonist has a drug problem, and create some understanding, maybe even sympathy.
  • Internal. Don’t let your writing get too internal. It can be easy to get lost in a character’s mind, but that can result in readers falling out of the story. Also, sometimes showing or telling is enough. If you write, “She curled up into a ball and cried.” You don’t need to also say, “She was sad.” Readers already know she’s sad because of her actions.

Which of the five ways are you the best at? Which ones should you focus on improving?

Creating a Compelling Character

What comes to mind when you think about characters in fiction? How about your characters? How do you reveal them to readers?

Creating characters readers care about is an essential step to creating a successful novel. It’s not only a character’s physical description. In fact, what a character looks like is only a very small part of creating a compelling character, and probably one of the least important aspects to a character. (Think about it. When you and your friends read the same novel and then talk about it, how often do they picture the characters the same way you did? I know my imagination adds to characters. I’ve even had it where a novel says a guy has black hair, and yet I still picture him blond.)

Here are some ways to reveal a character to readers:

  • Voice. What a character says and what they don’t say tells you something about what that character is like. Also important is how a character says what they say. Think about the statement, “I love it.” If spoken flatly that statement means something very different than spoken excitedly.
  • Action. What a character does in a given situation, or what they don’t do. Action is character. Actions carry more meaning than words. People can say anything. It’s easy to speak, but it’s what a character does that’s truly revealing.
  • Background. A character’s background. I.e.- occupation, family, where he’s from, era, significant events of the past and how he handled those situations, culture, religion, economic situation, gender, race, individual skills and society’s evaluation of those skills, his philosophy of the world (how he views the world), etc.

A character’s reaction to significant events in his life is telling. Multiple people can experience the same event, but each individual reacts differently. Most people have lost a loved one sometime during their life, yet not everyone breaks down in tears or shuts down emotionally, or smiles and seems like nothing’s wrong.

There’s a quote a professor once shared with me. It sums up the previous paragraph. “Not every male who’s close to their mother ends up like Norman Bates.”

  • Internal World of the Character. What a character fears or wants in the larger sense. This relates back to last week’s post on internal pressure, where a character weighs his fear of a situation against the possible outcomes or gains from overcoming his fear.
  • Exposition. This is what you tell the reader. Exposition provides context about the character directly to the reader. This is a vital part of creating a compelling character; however don’t go overboard with exposition. Telling a reader something is good, as long as you don’t forget about also showing the character to the reader.

When creating a compelling character, you need something to tie all the pieces together. Characters, just like people, are made up of a ton of different parts. There’s a reason many consider humans puzzles. But just as puzzles can be put together to form a whole, so must a character. If a character isn’t whole, then his actions won’t make sense.

How do you go about creating compelling characters?