Tag Archives: plot

Gina with the Cross: A Vingette

I first came across vingettes when reading The House on Mango Street. This book is a series of vingettes. Instead of having a single plot, where each chapter flows in chronological order, this novel is more a series of photographs. Each picture shows a scene, a snapshot into a person’s life. In the case of The House on Mango Street, that life is of Esperanza Cordero, as she grows up in an impoverished Latino neighborhood that she’s determined to leave, only to discover that once she fulfills her dream, she’s drawn back through the need to once again see the people she left behind.

Intrigued with the vingette, I decided to try my hand and create a scene that’s more about conjuring meaning through imagery than plot:

Gina with the Cross

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Gina, petite squirrel girl with emergency red flare nails and gold cross necklace, one purple rhinestone and one missing because she liked to pick, was my girlie friend who loved to pray.

“All you have to do is ask for forgiveness,” she said, staring at me, her brown eyes wide. Her hands were clasped tightly in her lap and her elbows were going to leave indents in her knees.

Despite her whispering, her words charged down the pews, bouncing off the stone floor and the stained glass windows. Nail polish puddled around the purple rhinestone in her left index fingernail, trying to suck the stone down into the sea of red.

“Why?” I asked. My hair fell about my face, and as I stared at my friend, her face was cut into strips: pale, pink flesh divided between strands of coarse mud.

“If you don’t, you’ll be excommunicated.” She scooted closer to me, until our knees bumped against each other. “Just tell them what you did.”

I tugged at a loose flap of skin clinging to the edge of my fingernail, twisting it around and around and then yanking. A plum of pain stabbed into my flesh. I yanked again.

What I did? I wanted to breathe, to expel all the air from my lungs. Just shove it all out there and away, but my throat was constricting. A lump formed in it. My lump, a callous, lopsided chunk of lard and ash. Soot-coated and reeking, it slicked against my esophagus, twisting, trying to grind up the soft tissue there.

“I have nothing to apologize for.” I frowned. My voice had choked on itself, like some piglet trying to squeal, but who had its mouth taped shut.

“Don’t say that.” She grabbed my hands, squeezing my fingers until pain spiked up my wrists. “You’re going to Hell, if you don’t.” Her forehead bumped against mine; her breath burned my cheek. “Worse, you’ll be ostracized. What will your pa say if he knew? You’re going to give your ma a heart attack.” Her voice dropped, quivered. “What about me? What am I supposed to do?” Her head started shaking, almost as if it had a life of its own. “I can’t keep this secret.”

I ripped my hands from hers. “Then, don’t.” I rose. Pain spiked through my jaw. It raced down the side of my neck and made my ear throb, a double bass bashing against my eardrum.

The backs of my calves banged against the pew and the wood shrieked against the stone. A few parishioners swiveled around from closer to the altar, but I didn’t care.

I opened my mouth to shout: What are you looking at! You think you know me! You think you know who I am! But no words came out.

My gaze fell to Gina. She stared up at me; her lips parted in a stark O, her Bambi eyes bright in the dim candlelight. “Tell them whatever you want. Whatever makes you sleep better at night.”

My palms pressed against my jeans. My index finger poked through the hole worn at my knee. “You can even tell them that I wanted it. That’s a lie, but you know that’s what they’ll say. I asked for it.” The big cross gleamed in the background. Massive and golden, it hung heavily over the altar, waiting for the perfect moment when its cables would snap and it would crash, banging against the stone, and squashing whoever was standing beneath it. Perhaps I should stand there. Perhaps it would fall on me. “After all, our bodies know when to get pregnant and when not to.”

“Aislinn…” Her hand fluttered to her mouth. I hoped she could feel my eyes piercing her. I hoped they seared her ribs black. “I know you didn’t want it. I know you were forced – I believe you – but…you killed your baby.”

The lump grew larger, churning and elongating. It would turn my throat to stone. “It was never mine.” I spun around and abandoned the pew. My Keds squeaked against the aisle. One of my shoelaces was untied. The white flopped against the red of my shoe, and dragged along the gray stone. I glared at it, but didn’t stop.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that Gina hadn’t moved.

Solid oak doors rose in front of me, stretching far above my head and arching. Iron bars locking them in place. I stopped and stared stupidly, my hands frozen at my sides, unable to press the bars. I’d been able to enter this place. I should be able to leave.

The hairs on the back of my neck stood. There were eyes on me.

My nails pierced the palms of my hands – there would be little crescent moon imprints that would refuse to fade – as I slowly turned, my heels digging into the stone. Great, golden eyes from a tilted head, encircled by jagged thorns, watched me. They shouldn’t be able to. The head was pointed down and to the side, the ribs jutting out against the flesh, the stomach caving in, but still the eyes were on me.

I could have been so many things. I’d wanted to be so many things. What was I now, to Him? To everyone?

Noise rose in my throat, shoving upward, scraping and clawing at my tongue and lips, trying to pry my jaw apart. An uproar about to burst free, shredding me from the inside out, but my lump wouldn’t allow it.

I steeled my hands – iron could only burn – and shoved open the doors.

(Picture courtesy of arbyreed.)

Writing a Series: The Fun of Starting the Next Novel

 

9111774612_bfd9ca1b69_zBook series, whether it’s a trilogy or longer, are popular in the literary world. After book one, readers want to continue on with the story and characters. They want to see what happens next. However, writing the next book – to use a cliché – is easier said than done.

For this reason, often the following books within a series aren’t always as good as the first, especially the second novel within a trilogy. Many times the second novel in a trilogy is seen as the bridge between an extraordinary beginning (the first book) and a heart-wrenching ending (the third book).

The middle book is a transition between the start and finish, and often times doesn’t include as much drama, excitement, and action as the first and third novel. Instead of increasing the tension from the first novel, the second book’s plot drags. The thrill wears off, and the characters become tiring.

Did you know that there’s a term for this phenomenon?

Middle Book Syndrome

(Aka Sagging Middle Syndrome)

Basically, this occurrence results from weak plot structure. In other words, the writer didn’t lay out how the trilogy was supposed to go. This could have taken the form of in-depth planning or a one-page synopsis for each novel. However, if the writer only saw the very beginning and then figured the rest of the story would come to him later, this tends to create an implausible story overall, since the steps leading to the finish are fuzzy. (If the writer can’t see the steps from the starting line to the finish, neither will the readers.)

Granted, the second book can be more challenging to write than the first and last. In the first book, the story and everyone in it needs to be introduced, and if the genre is fantasy/science fiction, a new world must be brought to life. Everything is new.

In the final novel, tension is ratcheted up. Readers are looking at battles and deaths and any other sort of excitement that leads to the massive climax.

The middle book must somehow maintain and increase tension, while not leading to the conclusion. The second novel already has many of the puzzle pieces from the first novel. More pieces will be introduced, but a good chunk must be reserved for the final book. Therefore, the puzzle has to continue to be put together in the second book without showing readers the entire picture.

Not so easy to do.

One way to prevent middle book syndrome is to remember cause and effect. Each action has a reaction. Everything a character does causes something else to occur. Cause and effect allows each piece of a novel series to be part of a whole. (To see more about how “every part of a novel should be integral to the whole,” click on the “Sagging Middle Syndrome” link above. For more on how to write a trilogy, check out “How to write a book trilogy: 5 crucial steps”.)

I am currently working on a trilogy, and for each question I introduce in my first novel (plot, subplots) I record it on a separate document. Therefore, I’ll know which strings I have to continue with while writing the second book. Having this other document also helps me to remember what questions I’m introducing, so that I won’t have awkward loose ends.

Added to that, I know how I want the trilogy to end, and am currently working on a one-page synopsis for my middle book. The story might change as I get deeper into the trilogy. My first novel certainly has, but it helps to have the big picture, and some of the smaller, connecting pieces, so that I can work on cause and effect.

What do you think? Ever read any trilogies/series that had the middle book syndrome?

(Photo courtesy of Richard Binhammer.)

Getting Ready for a Showdown with Revision

When you ask writers what their least favorite part of writing is, many will tell you revision. Why? Revision is a necessary part of writing, however it’s something a lot of writers struggle with. It’s time consuming for one, and it can be difficult to spot the flaws within your own work. Not to mention mentally preparing yourself to tear apart everything you just wrote.western_showdown

A good old-fashioned showdown.

Revision can seem like a daunting process. So how do you prepare for it? 

  1. Remember that first drafts are for dumping all your ideas onto the page. First drafts aren’t perfect. Characters, setting, and plot can still evolve afterward. If you had an ending in mind when you began your novel, it might have changed halfway through. Now, you need to go back and foreshadow correctly for the new ending.
  2. Relish in dissecting your story. It’s natural to want to keep to keep your writing, but if the writing doesn’t fit the story, then it’s got to go. One of the great things about computers is that you can save all the different drafts of your story. Just because you make a change doesn’t mean it’s gone forever. But the goal is to improve your story, and if there’s a chapter that doesn’t advance the plot or reveal anything, then it doesn’t serve a purpose other than to add to the word count and so it needs to go.
  3. The story is key. The story is what matters. Story and plot are two separate entities. Plot can change, while the underlying story remains the same. The story is the core issue, while plot equals the events within a story. If your protagonist needs to come across the corpse in chapter two, then be caught by the murderers in chapter seven, then escape in chapter ten, etc. there are many different ways these events can occur. You can change up the entire plot and still have the same story!
  4. Break it down. Revision doesn’t occur all at once. You’ll revise your work multiple times. Decide what aspects of revision you’re going to focus on during each stage of revision. In revision one, you’re likely to focus on the big picture issues, such as plot holes, coherency, the stakes for the characters, etc. Without first looking at the big picture issues, you won’t know if your story will work. The next revision might take a look at each chapter, instead of the story as a whole. The third revision could focus on certain sections of chapters. Eventually, you’ll be looking at grammar and punctuation. By breaking down the revision process, it doesn’t seem like such a mountain.

In the end, the goal is to make the story better, and the only way to accomplish that is through revision.

How do you prepare for the revision process?

(Photo courtesy of CowboyLands.)

 

Ka-Pow! Writing Action Scenes in Novels

Think back to some of the most exciting scenes in novels you’ve read. Most of those scenes probably have a lot of tension and include some sort of action. I can think of Harry Potter facing off with Voldemort, Katniss with the tracker jackers, sword fighting in The Princess Bride, the Battle of the Hornburg (aka Battle of Helm’s Deep) from The Lord of the Rings, Fight Club, etc.

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What is it about these scenes that make them memorable? Why are they successful?

  1. They are fast-paced.

A quick pace makes for heightened tension…and readers flipping through pages because they want to know what’s happening. Just make sure you don’t move so fast that readers get lost. You want your characters, and the plot, to move forward. Sometimes you want there to be chaos – for instance, if you’re writing a war scene with soldiers and explosions – but you want an organized chaos. You, as the author, need to know what’s going on at all times, even if your characters don’t.

  1. They advance the plot.

Action scenes can and should provide vital pieces of information, whether it’s about the protagonist or the antagonist. They should move the plot forward. If an action scene doesn’t serve a purpose, why is it in the book? To just show how cool the protagonist is? That’s not a very good reason on its own. However, too much information becomes extraneous, can slow down the pace, and clog up the action. During action scenes concentrate on the main characters, their senses, emotions, and movements, and the new piece(s) of information.

  1. The protagonist is forced to take decisive action/make quick decisions.

Whenever the protagonist is forced to make decisions based on instinct rather than logical analysis, the tension ratchets up. Instinctual responses, such as fight or flight, create faster responses, quicker pacing, and can produce unexpected consequences (both good and/or bad). By having unexpected consequences as a result of an action scene, drama is increased.

  1. They have an underdog.

UnderdogHave you ever seen a wrestling match? It’s pretty boring. Whenever you have two or more evenly matched opponents the stakes aren’t high enough for the action scene. There needs to be an underdog, and that underdog must find a way to rise above the odds and win. If the underdog (most likely your protagonist) is fighting to stay alive, to save another’s life, for freedom, or for some other purpose, then readers have someone to root for. More than that, readers have someone they want to root for.

  1. Characters are revealed.

How the protagonist fights, whether he chooses to fight or not, etc. shows readers a lot about the protagonist. You know the old saying of actions speak louder than words? It applies here. Your protagonist might be a black belt or have served in the military, but may choose to not fight. Knowing that the protagonist could seriously injure the opponent, but chooses not to says a lot about that character. Same goes for someone who would rather mind her own business, but then sees an injustice occurring and can’t let it go.

When a character is forced to make quick decisions, his true personality comes out. This is because he doesn’t have time to think about what he should show the world. He doesn’t think about what he wants to show the world. He just acts.

Bottom line: think about what you’re saying/showing about your characters through their actions.

  1. The fighting/action is unique.

I read a novel a while ago where within the first five chapters there were two action scenes. However, they were nearly identical, and both ended with the same result. It was repetitive and unnecessary. When you have action scenes, make them unique. Each scene should have a different outcome. Make each fight/action scene (because fight and action scenes aren’t always once and the same) special. You want readers to remember each action scene. If they can’t, then you need to go back and make sure each conflict is solved in a different manner.

  1. The scene(s) can be visualized and felt.

fraser1Give a close in view of the fight. Does the protagonist hear her jacket being ripped? Does she taste blood in her mouth? Is there a crack of a bone breaking? What’s going on her head? Providing both external and internal images and feelings allow readers to experience the action along with the protagonist. Plus, by keeping a close in view (think of it as pulling a camera in close) you heighten tension. The protagonist may not know what happened to her partner or the person she’s trying to protect. There may be so many attackers or so much going on that she can’t see more than a few feet in any direction.

Something to watch out for is balance. Action scenes are great. They’re necessary in stories, but they must be balanced out by other scenes. If there are too many action scenes, or if the action scene stretches on too long, readers will skim the scene in order to find out what happens.

For clarity in action scenes, why not try blocking them out? Use your friends and/or family. Have them each take on the role of a character and stage them in a room or backyard. Move them around as you would actors or chess pieces. This will help you visualize the scene and will allow you to hear input from your friends/family about whether or not they think a character’s movements are realistic.

Remember each character, no matter how small of a role they play, have motivations, dreams, fears, and goals. Their movements, especially in tension-filled action scenes reflect all those things.

What’s the most important part of an action scene to you?

(Photos courtesy of Yellow Hall StudioJeremy Epstein, and Reeling.)

That Sagging Middle: What You Can Get Away With & What You Can’t in the Middle of a Novel

There’s so much focus on writing phenomenal beginnings and endings for novels. You have to hook readers right away and then leave them with their mouths hanging open at the end (in a good way). But what about the middle section of a novel? You know the one I’m talking about…it takes up the majority of the story.

I’ve read more novels than I’d like where the action in the middle of the story seems to come to a standstill. There was an amazing, fast-paced opening, where I was whipping through pages, but then, BAM! We hit the brakes, skidded off the road, and are in a ditch, waiting for the tow truck.

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Ah, nap time.

Eventually, there’s an incredible ending, but the middle nearly made me throw the book out a window a la “Silver Linings Playbook” style.

Let me first talk about what you can get away with in the middle chapters:

  • The pace can slow down, a bit. There can be pauses in the action, where backstory gets filled in because you’ve already set up the story’s cadence, chapter length, tension, etc. at the start of the novel.
  • You can have fun in the middle section. Just because the pace slows down doesn’t mean tension does. You can expand on readers’ expectations by complicating expectations, adding a twist, turning them upside down, and more. As long as the bread crumbs remain consistent, feel free to play around.
  • The middle orients readers more to the story.
  • As with all well-written slower scenes, they prepare readers for what’s coming next. The urgency ratchets up in the following scenes, and we know the preceding slower scene is leading to all hell breaking loose.
  • The middle shows the stakes characters are facing.
  • The middle chapters are what make things real and believable, especially with character interactions/relationships.

Now on to what you can’t get away with:

  • Letting the tension slide. Yes, your protagonist is in training, preparing to fight the big battle. But readers tire of hearing who was wearing what, how many girls hate the protagonist because she’s somehow more special than them, how petite the protagonist is, how the protagonist is torn between lovers, etc. Get to the battle, please. Better yet, make us believe we’ve reached the final, balls-to-the-wall battle, and then throw in an even bigger, more badass battle afterward.
  • Information dump. Don’t pile on information. Backstory is important, but as with the beginning and ending readers don’t want to be told everything. We want to experience it. Make the information an active part of a story. As the protagonist is climbing a mountain – real or metaphorical – make the backstory applicable to present day events.
  • Having too narrow of a focus. Novels are long. They have only one main plot, but there are several smaller plotlines. And let’s not forget that our goal as writers is to make it seem impossible for the protagonist to achieve his goals. Adding variety and mixing it up breathes new life into an otherwise stagnant middle section.
  • Leaving in the boring sections. If you’re reading your own writing and want to put it down, imagine how readers, agents, and editors will feel. Axe the boring bits. Either replace them with something more exciting or just get rid of them. There’s only so much philosophical musings readers can take.

What do you do to keep the excitement flowing in your middle chapters?

(Photo courtesy of Devon Cottages.)

Books Galore: Writing a Series

Writing a book series takes time and effort. It requires commitment and consistency. A book series is more than keeping the same main characters. It’s introducing new obstacles, pushing character development forward, and bringing innovation to the table.

3089196_1354260677808.78res_400_176A few examples of book series are Harry PotterThe Southern Vampire Mysteries (Dead Until Dark, Living Dead in Dallas, etc.), and Alex Cross (Along Came a Spider, Kiss the Girls, etc.). From those examples you can see that book series are very wide-ranging. Harry Potter is young adult fantasy (the first book actually counts as middle grade, while the rest are YA). The Southern Vampire Mysteries is a paranormal romance/mystery series, while Alex Cross is mystery/crime fiction.

Despite book series varying so greatly from one another, there are commonalities that make them successful.

Premise/Concept

One of the first things to do is to spend a little more time on the premise, the idea making up the story. It’s harder to maintain a series than it is a standalone, and for some series – those that build off of each previous book – it requires more forethought than series that aren’t so tied together. By spending some time on planning out the series, it’ll make it easier to sustain the series.

This forethought can be as simple as a paragraph or single page synopsis for each book.

Regardless of whether you’re in the middle of book five or just starting book one, the overarching premise is carried throughout each book.

A different way to think of this is as the premise being the core of each book, like the inner core of Earth. Just as this planet has layers covering its inner core, so does a book series. But, no matter what, there is always that inner core, that center that remains despite how much the tectonic plates shift.

Characters

A series typically follows one to three characters.These characters will evolve over the course of the novels, but they ultimately know who they are and what they have to gain with each goal/action they make.

In The Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers to compete in the Hunger Games in order to protect her sister. This need to protect her family is a key part of her personality. It fuels her actions throughout the trilogy.

Also, make sure your main characters encounter enough conflict and a variety of conflicts to hold readers’ interest. I was reading the second book in a YA series not too long ago and was disappointed to find that about the first half of the novel was the same conversation taking place over and over again in different locations (the second half of the novel was great though).

Readers will only keep reading if they’re interested in the characters and what is going on in the characters’ world.

The World

The world the book series takes place in must be consistent. If in book one people can’t fly, then they still shouldn’t be flying in book three, unless something happens that gives them the ability to fly.

Know the rules, government, history, environment, etc. of the world. The world can change over the course of a series. Karen Marie Moning drastically changes Dublin, and the entire world, in her Fever Series. However, certain elements do remain the same. Those common elements help ground readers in the world you create. They also help prevent confusion and frustration on both the author and readers’ parts.

A well-developed world also lends more to the story. If three hundred years ago an ancient, magical medallion that belonged to an evil sorceress vanished, and there’s a legend that the medallion could open a portal to the underworld, well that’s interesting. Perhaps this medallion is only causally mentioned in book one, but then it comes back with a vengeance in book two.

If you’re only going to take one thing away from this post, take this:

Keep track of all information pertaining to your series. Whether it’s writing it all down in a notebook or typing it up onto a word document, write out descriptions of your world, characters, etc. Include the main plot and any minor plots woven throughout your books.

While writing book two, you might remember that your town has a deep-water lake to the north of it, but by book five, you may remember it as being west of town, or you may have forgotten about it completely.

Having a document to serve as a reference for all your story information will make your life easier, a lot less stressful, and will decrease the number of plot holes you have to fix.

Are you planning a series or in the process of writing one?

(photo courtesy of fanpop: http://bit.ly/1wQ5gml)

 

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?