Thursday, November 8, 2007

Plot/structure series--part I

In the past year I've done a lot of full-ms critiques and I also spent the summer revising my own book for structural issues, so I've had plot on the brain this year. One thing I've noticed is that there's a lot more schrift given to sentence-level issues (dialogue tags, adverbs, etc.) than to structural issues in writing education. I suspect, however, that it's at the root of agent/editor rejections such as: "I'm not feeling the stakes," or "I like the MC but I'm not sure I'm feeling his struggle," or "The middle sags," or "You have a nice premise and nice writing, but I'm afraid I don't have the time to devote to getting this up to par." I hope if someone else out there is working on this issue they can join in the discussion and exchange ideas. Major resources on this topic include editor Cheryl Klein's many talks on plot, Miss Snark's crapometers, editor Thomas McCormack's book The Fiction Editor, and Randy Ingermanson's Snowflake Method.

The first point I want to bring out today is the importance of boiling your main plot down into a short sentence (okay, maybe three, max). This is important when you're writing the hook of a query; it's also important for making your whole novel hang together. I found three expert formulas for this:

1. Miss Snark says:

X is the main guy;
Y is the bad guy;
they meet at Z and all L breaks loose.
If they don't solve Q, then R starts and if they do it's L squared.

In the book itself, I think it needs to be pretty clear who your main character is right up front. The reader doesn't have to know who the bad guy is, but they do need to know that there is one. And--notice the double complication? If your MC has to choose between stealing (and going to jail) and not stealing (and having a happy, carefree life), that's a boring plot. You need compelling reasons to do (or not do) each option.

2. Add to that this important point paraphrased from Elizabeth Bunce (and many other writers/editors): what does your character do to overcome his/her obstacle? (Note: not "what happens" to make the obstacle fall, but what does the MC actually DO?) Draw a straight line between desire, obstacle, and the MC's ultimate act to overcome said obstacle to achieve goal.

3. Randy Ingermanson's Snowflake Method, which is where you basically start with a single sentence encapsulating the novel, and gradually expand from there.

Assignment: Pick ten books in the genre in which you write and boil each of them down to 1-3 sentences. Then do that for your own manuscript.

1 comment:

Sarah said...

That is a hard assignment. :)

I have one sentence for my first ms, but it doesn't fit formula #1 because there isn't a "bad guy", not in the normal sense. Why did I make it so complicated? No wonder I struggled so much.
I can answer #2.

This becomes more challenging with multiple viewpoint characters in a book. I need to write the one sentence for my WIP.