Plot and Structure: Beginnings

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Ask the Author: Mia Northrop via aarongansky.com. “When rewriting and removing whole chapters, what do you physically do with the text? Do you cut it and paste it into another document for reference just in case, delete it and say goodbye or something else?”

Aaron: We talked about this in my short fiction class at Blue Ridge. For me, it depends. If there’s something salvageable, and I really love the writing, I’ll keep it. That is, if it will work in a different project. If it’s something specific to a character in the book, I’ll keep it in another file (which is really easy to do in Scrivener). I usually call this “leftovers.” But if I know it’s not usable, and it was just me “clearing my throat” so to speak, then I’ll simply delete it. I’ve gotten very good about being very calloused with my work.

Al:  This hasn’t happen to me all that often, but I did write a book sold to a publisher who felt it was too long for the price they wanted to charge. I had to remove 2 out of every 5 pages (40%). Very painful and I don’t want to do that again. I created a new document called TERMINAL JUSTICE CUTS and pasted all the cuts there. A few years later, I was able to use a chapter I cut in another novel. Of course, I had to rework it, but the bulk of the chapter was usable. You never know what the future holds.

MJ: I have one master folder that has the rough draft of each chapter, because when my book is finished soon, I want to remind myself of “before” and “after”, how far I’ve come. I also have one document where I copy and paste some of what I’m deleting. I just keep the parts that I think I want to use later or in another book. I also add notes to the document if I have one or two lines and nowhere to put them yet. Then as I use it or decide it’s not usable, I delete it completely.   

Plot and Structure: Beginnings

  • Basic terms
    • Prologues: A scene that sets up the story to follow. It may or may not involve the protagonist. It often occurs outside the plot’s timeline. Not every book needs a prologue.
    • Epilogues: Wind up of details of the plot post climax.
    • Denouement: The period in the plot line where the strands of the story are tied up.
    • Inciting incident: An event at the beginning of the plot that introduces the conflict.
    • Plot Points: A major development in the plot that forces the protag to even greater involvement/danger.
    • Rising action: action that leads to the climax
    • Climax: The point where the plot hits the fan.
  • Provide Context
    • Where and when are we? It’s important to know up front, otherwise the reader will form their own opinion, and if they’re wrong, they’ll be confused and frustrated. 
    • You don’t need to spend an entire page developing the setting. Just give us a quick glimpse, so that we can get our bearings. 
    • Too few novels do this, and leave their readers feeling disconnected.
  • Provide Conflict
    • Conflict is the essence of fiction. Without it, there is no story.
    • Not every conflict necessitates a dead body or a depressed main character or a gunfight. Conflict can be something as simple as a traffic jam or as complex as the ending of a marriage.
    • And there should be minor conflict in each chapter, along with the main story conflict. MJ uses what she calls the “hangnail conflict” – it’s that secondary irritant that keeps distracting our protagonist from the main conflict.
  • Provide Character
    • Two important characters should be present on every first page—the protagonist and the narrator. (Al: The exception to this is the prologue.)
    • Character’s desire must be clear. What if it’s a novel of self discovery and your character doesn’t know what they want at first?
    • Voice of narrator must be engaging. Do we want to hear this person tell us the story?
    • First person POV, narrator and protag are the same. Not so in third person.
  • Detail
    • The easiest way to demonstrate your ability to write is with great detail. The more detail you include, the more your reader will trust that you know what you’re doing. They’ll cease to read and begin to experience.
    • Al: Don’t over do it. Too much detail too fast bogs down the reader and the flow of the story. Give necessary detail up front then add additional detail as the story develops.
    • For more on how to find the right balance of detail, check out Naming the World.
  • Voice
    • Establish a strong narrative voice. Sometimes, the story is only as strong as the person telling it. Make sure your narrator makes it worth our while.
    • Al: The best way to learn this is to study the best writers. Read the first two pages of several good books. Analyze the approach. What did the writer do. Remember, the author may have spent more time on those pages than any other.
    • For more on voice, check out Write to Be Heard.
  • Provide Clarity
    • There is nothing more frustrating in fiction than being lost or confused. While it may be a byproduct of improper, lazy reading, more than likely it’s because we’ve dropped the ball as writers. Regardless of the cause, a confused reader will ALWAYS blame the author. Therefore, our prose MUST be clear at all times.
    • Al: Never forget your reader.
  • Asking and Answering
    • A good first page will bring up several questions, but it will answer several (but not all) as well. If you only ask questions, we won’t trust you to answer them. Try beginning with an unexpected first line and following it up with a more detailed explanation that, in itself, raises more questions. (Think, The Violent Bear it Away, Flannery O’Connor, 1960) O’Connor begins with a long first line.

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