Monthly Archives: May 2009

Plot Development – Two simple formats

There are two simple plot formats that have always been popular – the “epiphany plot” and “the worm turns.”  Personally, I’m a big fan of the epiphany plot.  This is where the main character has an epiphany as a result of the conflict in the story.  Often the epiphany occurs right before the climax and affects the outcome of the story but it also extends beyond the context of the story.  The revelation changes everything from that point forward in the life of the character and often those around him.  With the epiphany plot the main character learns something profound about himself and, sometimes, the reader learns something about himself as well.

With the worm turns plot format the main character is someone who doesn’t like conflict, indeed does everything he can to avoid conflict.  But at some point he can’t run away any longer and must turn and face it head-on.  This plot structure was very popular in the past but is not quite so prevalent these days.  However, it still works, partly because of its simplicity and due to the emotional connection it often establishes between the reader and the character.

Back in the early to mid ‘70s there was a TV show, Kung Fu, about an orphaned American raised by Shaolin monks who returned to the American “Old West” in search of his half-brother.  The entire series was based on the worm turns plot structure.  In every episode Kwai Chang Caine (played by David Carradine) was bullied and mistreated until he could no longer tolerate it.  Then he kicked the snot out of the bad guys and left town to avoid any further conflict.  Often the abuse of another meek, peace-loving person was the catalyst for Caine to spring into action and “Kung Fu” somebody.  But every episode was written around this simple format.

As you might guess, stories based on the worm turns format often incorporate an epiphany for the characters, as well.  Combining the two concepts makes for an even more powerful plot.  Without the epiphany you tend to have a story that simply emphasizes gratuitous violence or sadistic behavior.  Good examples are the Death Wish movies starring Charles Bronson.  In the original movie there is a ton of internal conflict and the main character has a very significant epiphany which makes it a powerful movie.  However, in the sequels he is simply portrayed as a vigilante who hunts down thugs and sociopaths.  Without the internal conflict and the epiphany the sequels lose their entertainment value and even their focus.

In my next article I’ll go into more detail about the types of conflict – internal and external – and describe how they work together to provide depth and intensity.  But in the mean time, think about the novels and movies you really like.  I think you’ll be surprised to see how many of them incorporate these two simple plot formats.

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Plot Development – Freytag’s Pyramid

In discussing plot structure I thought I’d start with the most basic premise – Freytag’s Pyramid.  This is derived from Gustav Freytag’s analysis of ancient Greek and Shakespearean drama.  I know…that sounds really dated, but it’s still relevant.  According to Freytag, a drama is divided into five parts: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.

Exposition – this provides the introduction of the story, the background information the reader needs in order to know (and care) about what is happening.  This is where the characters, the setting, and the conflict are introduced.  This is also where the inciting incident takes place.  This is the incident that triggers the conflict that drives the story.  It’s worth noting that the inciting incident may not be obvious at the time, but in looking back the reader should be able to see what “started everything in motion.”

Rising Action – this is the action that builds up and leads to the climax.  This will often also include actions in subplots and minor conflicts that propel the protagonist and antagonist along.  During this phase the tension builds, the pressure increases, and the consequences become more significant.

Climax – the watershed moment when the rising action reaches its peak.  At the climax the decisions and actions of the protagonist determine the outcome of the story.  This is the most dangerous, most stressful, and most critical point of the story.

Falling Action – these are the activities that occur after the climax.  They are the result of the climax and the point when the conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist unravels.

Resolution – the end of the falling action and the conclusion of the story.  There is generally a release of tension and anxiety, a catharsis, and the point where the reader sees the final outcome of the conflict.

Although Freytag’s analysis is referred to as a pyramid, it isn’t geometric in shape.  The rising action takes place through the majority of the story and is generally gradual while the falling action is typically very brief at the end of the story and, therefore, somewhat steep.  So a pyramid is not really a very good visual tool to depict the five stages of the story.

There is also what I refer to as a modified pyramid.  This is Freytag’s pyramid with a little wrinkle where it appears that the climax has been reached and the falling action begins, then the reader realizes that the conflict is not resolved after all.  In fact, things are worse than before.  So there’s another steep spike of rising action to the actual climax before the conflict is truly resolved.

In this case I’m not talking about a continuation of the climax, like a scene in a movie where the bad guy is in custody then, all of a sudden, he wrestles a gun away from his captor and starts shooting again.  I’m talking about extended action.  For example, in Red Dragon Thomas Harris sets the scene where the hero, Will Graham, believes the serial killer he’s after, Francis Dolarhyde, has died when his house burns during what appears to be the climax of the novel.  But later, when the autopsies are done on the bodies found in the house, Graham learns that Dolarhyde was not killed in the fire and is, in fact, going after his family.  Incidentally, if you haven’t read Red Dragon I highly recommend it.  In my opinion it’s better than the subsequent stories featuring Hannibal Lecter.

So, that’s enough about formal plot structure.  In the upcoming articles I’ll get more into specific techniques for developing main plots and subplots, outlining, and story progression – as in linear progression vs flashbacks and memories.

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Character Development – Nobody’s that perfect

Nothing bugs me more than when the hero or heroine in a novel is too perfect.  This is a common mistake for novice writers.  But it also plagues some writers who should know better.  I recently started reading a best-seller by a novelist who has had a bevy of best-sellers and I quit on page 34.  That was the point where it became evident that the two main characters were just too damn perfect.  Mind you, these are characters in a series of books, so I must assume this has been going on for some time now.  The man was handsome, smart, understanding and romantic, and yet he was a real tough guy who was an expert marksman and a martial arts black belt.  The woman was drop-dead gorgeous, in peak physical fitness with the body of a goddess, sexy, sophisticated, brilliant, tough as nails, and also an expert in self-defense.  Oh, yeah, and they both were the most ethical and moral people you’ve ever met.  It was like the old British TV show The Avengers with Steed and Mrs. Peel.  Only it wasn’t tongue-in-cheek like that show.  This was a serious novel with main characters that belonged in a comic book.

There are many reasons to avoid making your hero or heroine too perfect but I’ll only touch on a couple – one from the reader’s perspective and one from the writer’s perspective.  From the reader’s perspective…they’re boring!  A character who has some flaws, is struggling with a personal problem or problems, and has a few wrinkles (both in his psyche as well as his appearance) has more depth, is more realistic, and therefore is much more interesting.  We all know people who are “too good” or “too perfect” and, even though they may be someone you respect in some ways, they aren’t the people you gravitate toward at a cocktail party.  Why would you want to bore your reader with a whole novel about someone like that?

From the writer’s perspective, perfect characters are too restrictive.  Why limit yourself?  In Robert B. Parker’s series about Jesse Stone, he has a main character who is a recovering alcoholic with a checkered past and a co-dependent relationship with his ex-wife.  That gives Parker a couple of ready-made subplots for every novel in this series and a ton of material for character development.  You may or may not be a fan of Parker, but he is a master at character development.  He’s able to create interesting characters that can support a series of books without becoming caricatures of themselves.  That’s pretty remarkable when you consider he’s written 38 novels in the Spenser series alone.

Think about your favorite characters from the novels you’ve read, the movies you’ve seen, and even the TV shows you watch.  I’m quite sure they are not perfect.  We all have a tendency to make our main characters above average and someone we can look up to and perhaps even emulate.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.  Just don’t overdo it.  Too much of a good thing is just simply that…too much.  I love banana pudding.  But if I eat too much I don’t want to go near the stuff again for a while.  Don’t create characters that are too perfect or your readers will “pass on dessert” next time.

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Character Development – Whose story is it?

This article could go in the upcoming series on plot development.  But it also relates back to my previous article about what to do when a new character shows up.  So I’m putting it here in this series.

Have you ever read a story where there were so many strong characters, or the focus of the story shifted so much, it was hard to figure out who it was really about?  I’m not talking about soap operas – they’re all over the place when it comes to character development.  In fact, they break almost all of the rules without any qualms whatsoever.  I’m talking about a serious novel where the focus was fragmented, for lack of a better word.  That happened to me with Consequences.  I didn’t realize it until I had finished the first draft.  I gave it to my father to read and the first thing he said was, “Whose story is this?  It starts out with Dave.  Then Trevor takes over.  Then it kind of shifts back to Dave.  Only he’s become more of a secondary character at this point.  You need to figure out who the main character is and make it his story.”

In my first draft of Consequences the story began with Dave Simms.  We got to know him a little and learned about his computer consulting business.  Then we met Ron Maddox and learned a little about his relationship with Dave.  Then, after Ron was found dead in his office, we met FBI Agent Trevor Washington.  But Trevor was such a strong character he took over the story from that point forward.  When the story shifted back to Dave he was overshadowed.  He was still very important to the development of the plot, but it was no longer his story.  To be honest…it was a mess.  Of course, it was only a first draft, so it’s okay that it was a mess.

When I gave the focus to Trevor, made it his story, that also helped me to tighten up the plot and get rid of some things that didn’t need to be there.  As a matter of fact, all that stuff about Dave and his relationship with Ron got cut.  I literally whacked the first 52 pages and started where Trevor was introduced and where the real story began – with the death of Ron Maddox.

When you encounter a situation like this with your own writing you need to take a step back and look at your plot and your characters.  Every story has a protagonist and an antagonist. You must identify who, or what, they are.  Sometimes the antagonist is not a person it’s a force of nature or some other factor that acts against the protagonist.  Initially in Consequences I thought Dave would be the protagonist and Carol the antagonist.  Instead, Trevor turned out to be the protagonist.  There was more conflict between Trevor and Carol and the conflict between them was more complex and more interesting.  Once I realized that it was obvious…it was Trevor’s story.

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