Simplifying How to Plot a Story

Plotting a story can terrify even the most gifted writer. But it sounds scarier than it actually is, and it can even be fun once you embrace the challenge. Let’s simplify the process to get a better understanding of how things work.

Think about your plot as driving from your departure location (the beginning of the story, which we’ll call Point A) to your destination (the end of the story, which we’ll refer to as Point B) with a few scenic stops along the way.

Using the familiar ‘boy meets girl’ scenario, let’s look at the basic story plot. ‘Boy meets girl’ is our Point A.

One such story that comes to mind is Grease where Danny meets Sandy on a summer vacation. Of course, the first meeting could be a bumpy ride where the boy doesn’t impress the girl. Just Like Heaven is an example of this when architect David leaves a bad impression for Elizabeth who doesn’t like his carelessness when it comes to her furniture. Or another example is Elizabeth Bennett’s distaste of Mr Darcy’s behaviour in Pride and Prejudice.

No matter how the initial encounter goes, the boy has met the girl. Along the way the boy manages to peak the girl’s interest and then that’s usually when he does something to cause her to become angry, hurt or disillusioned. Other characters in the story may have initiated the problem, but the boy has allowed it to escalate. Or it can even be a series of misunderstandings that has caused the rift. That’s the ‘boy loses girl’ part of the story.

Following the pattern, it’s now up to the boy to win the girl back. This usually means he must prove his worth to her. Perhaps he makes a difficult decision or performs a heroic act to show her how much he really does care. Depending on the circumstances, the girl may make it easy for him, meet him half way, or make him work hard to win her back.

In Grease, Danny decides to lose his ‘coolness’ and jeopardise his relationship with his friends in the attempt to win Sandy back. Sandy in turn meets him half way with a symbolic gesture when she turns up in that well-known skin-tight black outfit. A song or two later, and all is well and everyone is happy.

That’s the basic idea of where we start and where we want to end up, but how do we get from Point A to Point B?

To keep the explanation simple, every story is based on a series of events (or focal points) that drive a story from Point A to Point B. These events may be things that happen to a character, or it could reveal something about a character, or a character’s actions or reactions to a situation. It’s the author’s job to know the sequence of events that establishes the story’s plot. There are a number of ways to map out your story.

You can write each focal point onto a piece of paper or card so you can move them around as you map out the entire story. Something that you thought should go early in the sequence of focal points might actually be better at a later stage, so the movability of the cards is extremely helpful.

Some people prefer to use software that has the capability to plot a story and the ability to move the focal points around until the story has been completely mapped. Pick whichever way works best for you.

Remember though, each focal point should move the story forward. While focal points are the basis of the story, it’s the author’s prose, description and uniqueness in telling the story that makes it shine. However, the plot must be sound or it won’t matter how brilliant the writing is – the story will struggle.

Happy writing (and plotting)!

The Key to Being a Professional Writer: Create, Rework and Edit

Hello to all the writers out there. The best advise I can give regarding grammar is don’t let it consume you. Sit down in front of your computer or pick up a pen and writing pad and start creating. Don’t worry about grammar or where to stick commas; this isn’t the stage to allow yourself to be distracted. Write! Emerge yourself into the creative process and allow it to flow from you to the page.

But you haven’t finished yet. Here comes the ‘roll up your sleeves and start digging’ part of the process. Explore the possibilities until you have your start, middle and ending. Develop your characters so they act, speak and react in believable ways while remaining true to themselves. Use the full scope of colour and depth, smells and noises, and make it come alive for the reader. Play the ‘what if’ game and challenge yourself. What if this happened then how would each character act or react, and how would that affect the plot and sub plots. Keep working on it until you make it as good as you can get. Keep delving deeper with each draft moving closer and closer to the story that it’s destined to be.

Now here’s an important step: put your work away and don’t look at it for at least a week (longer if possible). If you can’t leave it for that long, then enjoy a coffee break at the local cafe, dance around the house as if no one can see you, or go for a long walk. Do whatever it takes to break away from using your creative side and distance yourself from your newly created work.

Return to your written piece with a fresh mindset and look at your work as if it’s the first time you’ve seen it. Now it’s time to start editing it.

Check your grammar and punctuation. Look up any word you’re unsure of in a good quality dictionary. Once you think the piece is at its best, give it to someone (or multiple people) you trust to read it that can provide insightful feedback. It doesn’t matter if it’s a family member, friend, neighbour or work colleague, but pick avid readers who are capable of providing quality feedback. If you don’t have someone like this in your circle of friends, then have it professionally assessed.

Listen to their comments regarding the content and understand they are trying to help. They are giving their point of view, perhaps uncovering an area you haven’t considered. Pay attention to what they question because that can identify storytelling problems. Are they having trouble understanding a particular section, and that’s why they are questioning it? Perhaps it’s not clear enough and the section needs reworking. Perhaps the sequence of events has been revealed in the wrong order and isn’t working with the timeline. If they point out a word or punctuation mark that seems inappropriate — look it up!

Rewrite the piece taking the feedback into consideration. You don’t have to take all feedback on board when reworking your story if it goes against what you want to achieve. For instance, a suggestion about changing the plot might tell a different story to the one you want to tell. However, understand why a suggestion was raised and if you can improve your work without compromising on the story you want to tell. It doesn’t matter if it takes 20 drafts. A story takes as long as it takes until it’s right.

Have you finished yet? Not quite. I’d recommend hiring a professional editor. Family and friends can help knock the rough edges off and highlight understanding difficulties within a story, but you still need a professional who knows the rules and who has been trained to see the inconsistencies in a story.

If your goal is to have your work published then you have to be professional — that means your attitude as well as your work. You’ve probably heard this before, but it’s important. If you were applying for a job that you wanted, then you’d make sure your résumé was impressive before sending it anywhere. Sending your manuscript to a publisher works the same way. You’re competing against all those other writers.
Even if you opt for self-publishing, you’re still competing with other writers to get a reader’s attention.

Another important rule, perhaps the most important of all: don’t give up! Hard work and dedication will get you there, but be prepared for the long haul. Everybody wants their dreams to become reality today, but the most important dreams – the ones that mean the most to you — take time. And when those dreams start to turn into reality — you’ll know you’re on your way.

Active and Passive Voice

Many writers drift into the passive voice. When this happens, teachers and other writing professionals often say, ‘You’re writing in the passive voice. Use an active voice instead. It will make your writing more interesting.’

Most likely they offered the same explanation: With the active voice, the subject undertakes the action. With the passive voice, the subject is being acted upon, (or words to that effect).

No one seems able to describe it in any other terms, which leads many writers surrounded by open books trying to understand this conundrum. It’s actually surprising how many books use this same phrasing.

Writers want a simple way to detect when they have moved from active to passive. So, for those writers who have trouble with the concept, here are a few hints to let you know when you have slipped into the passive voice.

Look for the word ‘by’. Here is an example of passive voice:

The trespasser was chased by a bull yesterday.

The bull is actually the subject and it’s the one carrying out the action. A simple rewrite changes the above example into the active voice:

A bull chased the trespasser yesterday.

Of course there are also passive sentences that don’t contain the word ‘by’. (You didn’t think it was going to be that easy, did you?)

Have a look at this example of a passive sentence:

The matter will be looked into further and a solution will be found.

Notice that there is ambiguity with the above example. Who is looking into the problem? A sentence that is unclear who is the subject can indicate it’s written in the passive voice. Don’t be afraid to reword the sentence to transform it into the active voice, as in this example:

The mailroom personnel will check into the problem and rectify it immediately.

Now we have a clear subject – the mailroom personnel.

Not all sentences have a subject, such as fragments.

Why is the active voice more desirable than passive?

Active voice can make a sentence more exciting by speeding up the pace, and it’s especially useful when the writer wants the reader to feel anxiety or suspense. Creative writers (fiction and non-fiction) use the active voice for these reasons.

Does that mean we shouldn’t use passive voice at all?

The passive voice does have its place. It can help readers to catch their breath after an exciting, fast-paced section.

It’s also extremely useful in corporate writing and to soften the effects of blame on an individual or group, as in the following example:

The letter failed to be sent on time by the mailroom personnel.

(Did you notice the example had the word ‘by’ in it?) The example clearly blames a particular group, but is softened with the use of the passive voice. (Was the previous sentence written in passive or active voice?)

This next sentence is written in active voice and delivers a more brutal attack:

The mailroom personnel didn’t send the letter on time.

Hopefully these hints will help alert you to the passive voice and clear up the confusion about whether the subject undertakes the action or if it’s being acted upon.

As always, happy writing!


Habits To Avoid

Habits in speech have a tendency to creep into our writing. Things that are accepted or ignored in everyday conversations should be avoided when writing. Have you ever said, or heard, something like this?

  • The movie starts at 7.30 pm at night.
  • Her dress was the colour of blue.
  • The final score was dismal at the end of the game.
  • I’m telling the truth, he was killed to death!
  • I ride my two-wheeled bicycle for twenty minutes each day.

These are tautologies. A tautology is saying the same thing twice. Let’s look at those examples again.

The movie starts at 7.30 pm at night.

There is no need to indicate it’s at night as the ‘pm’ already tells us this.

The movie starts at 7.30 pm.

Her dress was the colour of blue.

Blue is a colour.

Her dress was blue.

The final score was dismal at the end of the game.

A final score indicates the end of the game.

The final score was dismal.

I’m telling the truth, he was killed to death!

Some times when we try to emphasise a point we can fall into the trap of over doing it. Dead is dead; there are no in-betweens.

I’m telling the truth, he was killed!

However, it is okay to say, ‘He was stabbed to death’, because people can survive a stabbing.

I ride my two-wheeled bicycle for twenty minutes each day.

Bicycle means a two-wheeled bike.

I ride my bicycle for twenty minutes each day.

Some tautologies stand out, but some are used in everyday conversations so they can go unnoticed. Keep a look out for them, and then avoid them.

What do all of the following have in common?

  • Needle in a haystack.
  • Not over until it’s over.
  • Plenty of fish in the sea.
  • A hard slog.
  • Kicked the bucket.
  • Beat a dead horse, or flog a dead horse, or whatever variation of it.

They are clichés. It’s amazing how often they manage to slip into writing. Any phrase or expression that is overused is a cliché and should be avoid. If you have a character that has a tendency to use such phrases when talking, then of course you’ll probably want to use a couple to enforce this character trait, but don’t overdo it. Usually overdone expressions annoy people, especially when reading.

There’s nothing that can ruin a story faster than cliché after cliché. It’s disappointing when they show up in published books. It’s as if the author didn’t care enough about the readers to take a couple of minutes to think of another way of saying it.

A simple rule: if you’ve heard it before, and pretty sure most other people would have heard it, then don’t use it. Be creative and think how else you can say it or describe it.

Are Mentors and Workshops Beneficial?

Broad Editing and Services

It can be an amazing journey for a writer to create a fiction or non-fiction book. It can also be quite a scary and unfamiliar ride. There’s a lot involved depending on the genre and style. There’s the matter of creating characters that don’t all sound the same or wooden. Settings and descriptive passages have to have the right blend to create a scene without becoming boring and losing your audience. Timelines and plots have to be workable and believable. Skills have to be wielded artfully to create the right tensions at the right times. Climaxes have to have that ‘on the edge of your seat’ feeling, and there has to be a satisfactory ending with all the plots coming together and being resolved. There’s also research, backstories, and making sure the book satisfies the purpose of writing it in the first place.

A writer can become quite lost during the process and can benefit greatly from an experienced and trained individual to lead the writer through. A mentor can’t write the book for the writer, but can guide the writer through the darkness with quality advice and constructive criticism. It’s a mentor’s job to ask questions, possibly ones that the writer hadn’t even considered before. The answers may not be a simple yes or no reply. The answers may not come instantly; they may need to be explored and considered for some time before a satisfactory response is given. What the writer needs in this instance is a sounding board.

Imagine trying to find your way through an unknown location in the dark and without a torch or map. A gentle hand on your shoulder and a comforting voice steering you home would be a blessing, and that’s the mentor’s job. It’s not to write the book for you, and it’s not to tell you what to write. It’s to guide you. A mentor could be a fellow writer, a teacher, or even an editor. They can all help light the way, but make sure it’s someone that you trust and has skills and experience in writing.

Workshop groups are a great idea and can provide many voices offering opinions. It can help the writer understand the audience’s interpretation and if it’s what the writer wants at a particular point or overall. If the majority of the audience think in the same way but it’s different to the writer’s intention, then the writer has the opportunity to adjust the work. While workshops are important and hold invaluable learning attributes, many participants can be inexperienced writers and may not see all the angles, which is why it’s important to seek out professionals as well.

In workshop environments usually you’ll find one or two people that will offer plenty of feedback, but it may not be specifically what you are after. You have to be firm and ask for feedback on the specific element that you’re concerned about. Take it all in, but make sure your questions are addressed.

Pick a mentor that you can connect with, someone who understands the story you want to tell and your style. If you have a clear idea as to where you want your story to go, don’t feel pressured or bullied by others trying to get you to change it for their own reasons. It’s good to explore other options and possibilities, but if it’s not what you want your story to be about, or you don’t want your character to experience a suggested event then don’t include it. Be true to yourself and to your work. If you end up changing it drastically just to please other people, you may find that you no longer love that story and the enjoyment to write it will evaporate.

Mary Broadhurst © 2014