Beginnings and Endings

One of the first books I ever read on the art of writing emphasised the need for a good opening line, opening paragraph and at least ten opening pages to catch the reader’s attention. It’s advice I find difficult to disagree with. Writers need to arouse their readers’ curiosity.

Here are some of the best opening lines that do precisely that:

‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ — 1984 by George Orwell

‘They shoot the white girl first.’ — Paradise by Toni Morrison.

‘It was a pleasure to burn.’– Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.

‘All children, except one, grow up.’– Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

And how can we forget those fantastic opening lines from the classics:

‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’–Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

‘Call me Ishmael.’ — Moby Dick by Herman Melville

‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.’ — A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.

One can only wonder at the wordcraft of these classic writers and want to emulate them. However, the best time to do this is not when you’re writing the first draft of your story. It is when you have finished your story and can re-write a suitable start. Firstly, if you try to use a clever opening from the start, you may never get past that opening line. You maybe setting yourself too high a standard, particularly if you’re trying to emulate these classics. And secondly, once you have completed the story, you’ll have a different perspective on how the opening should link to the ending.

That brings me to the endings. There are some writers that can start writing a novel without understanding how the story will end and believe the joy of writing is in discovering that ending. These are the writers who see themselves as ‘pantsers’, and don’t like the idea of plotting in advance. If that works for them, then fine. But I could never write entirely that way myself. Once I understand the what the central conflict of the story is going to be about, the next most important element is the ending. The ending sets the direction of the story, and for me, if I don’t know the direction in which the story is going, and the big points along the way, then I can’t write. That doesn’t mean that I won’t change the story ending during the process of writing if I see a better ending in sight. I’m constantly thinking about it and ways I can improve it. And in three books I’ve published I’ve always managed to improve on my initial ideas.

Story endings are hard to create. They must have an element of surprise, but at the same time give the reader the emotional experience they expected. Many romance novels have a ‘happy ever after’ ending. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t have an element of unpredictability. For me, endings are much harder than beginnings and require just as much polish and finesse as the openings. A good opening maybe a good reason for a reader to buy your book, but a good ending will ensure he buys your next one.

If you’re a new writer or an experienced writer let me know what you think. What is harder, the beginning or the end of the story?

New Years resolutions for writers

Happy New YEARChristmas has come and gone and soon it will be New year. It’s a time to reflect on what we have achieved over the last year and make plans for the new year.

In 2018, I published my third novel, AndroDigm Park 2067. It’s a darker story than my previous sci-fi novels and in a slightly different crime sub-genre.  It’s set in a corrupt future world struggling to deal with new android technology. If you’ve read it, I hope you enjoyed it. If not take a look on amazon. It might just interest you.

I also started work on the story for my fourth novel. To date there has been a lot of thinking and planning about the storyline, but not a great deal of typing. Should I be worried? No. It’s how I work.

Let me explain. All writers are different. At one extreme are the plotters who develop detailed plans of their story before writing it. While at the other extreme are the ‘pantsers’ who simply get under the skin of a character and simply follow him/her wherever they go. In practice, many writers fall somewhere between these extremes with some element of story planning taking place before writing. But that might be a notebook with notes, character sketches, and a bullet point lists of  plot points, or it could be a twenty-five page outline and detailed scene list. Planning comes in all shapes and sizes.

Pantsers emphasise the need for writers to write. Here is some advice of some great writers:

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
― Ernest Hemingway.

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”
― Stephen King

“Planning to write is not writing. Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.”
― E.L. Doctorow

Clearly, if you are writer you have to write. If you’re going to write a novel, you need to start it and then follow though until it is finished. Unfortunately many potential writers never get beyond ‘start’. But how much of the story do you need to know before you start? E.L Doctorow’s view is that you only have to plan a short distance ahead:

“[Writing is] like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
― E.L. Doctorow

However, Doctorow’s analogy is not complete. If you’re driving a car at night you normally have a good idea of the your final destination and the route you’ll need to take to get there. In this case, the route is analogous to the main plot points or storyline of a novel. But the point that detailed planning only has to take into account a short distance ahead is not a bad one, provided you know the direction in which the story is going.

So how much of the storyline do you need to know before writing? John Irving offers an answer.

“Know your story before you fall in love with your first sentence. If you don’t know the story before you begin the story, what kind of story-teller are you? Just an ordinary kind, just a mediocre kind — making it up as you go along, like a common liar?”
— John Irving

I couldn’t agree more with Irving. You might not know every detail of your story but you should know sufficient detail to articulate who and what your story is about, the major plot points and the ending.

Pantsers and plotters also have different views on the importance of plot.

“Remember: Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations. Plot is observed after the fact rather than before. It cannot precede action. It is the chart that remains when an action is through. That is all Plot ever should be. It is human desire let run, running, and reaching a goal. It cannot be mechanical. It can only be dynamic. So, stand aside, forget targets, let the characters, your fingers, body, blood, and heart do.”
― Ray Bradbury

I happen to like Bradbury’s analysis of plot even if it is not entirely accurate. His emphasis on plot is that it is character driven and in that sense he’s absolutely right. But he overlooks that the resulting plot has a cause and effect pattern to it. Plot points are not random events, but they give meaning to the story.  The English novelist E. M. Forster explains:

‘A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality – “The king died and then the queen died” is a story.’ But ‘“the king died and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it.’

So how do these words of wisdom from great writers help me form my New Years Resolutions? Should I target word count, scenes, milestones or other targets?

Mmm… Maybe like previous years I’ll give New Years Resolutions a miss.


Story structure

Recently I started to map out the key scenes for my next novel using a three-act framework. I used a software program that’s designed for screenwriters called Control Writer. It uses a horizontal map of the key elements of a three-act structure to put scene cards under each caption in a natural time order pattern as follows:

  1. Opening scene
  2. Setup
  3. Inciting incident
  4. Movement to resolution
  5. Plot Point One
  6. Act 2: tier 1
  7. Midpoint
  8. Act 2: tier 2
  9. Plot Point 2
  10. Climax
  11. Resolution
  12. End Scene.

The software is flexible and can be adapted easily to accommodate an eight sequence approach by introducing new captions at 6A and 8A for two additional sequences in the Second Act.  Or you can adapt it to any framework you like using your own captions. Anyone of course can do the same thing manually using cards and cork board, or by using the same captions in Scrivener’s cork board, which is my next step in my story development. But before I get there I want to experiment and play with the story structure until I know it works, and for me this is the quickest way.

The point I am making is not that a writer needs to clever software to design a story. The same thing can be done with cards on a table, floor or cork board. The important thing is to see the story pattern visually and think non-sequentially.  If you have a great idea for the mid-point write the card and place it under the mid-point. If you have alternative ideas for an ending place the cards under Climax. You can choose which one later when you have more of the story filled in.

But I’m a pantser I hear you scream–planning is a left-brain activity, and creative writing is a right-brain activity. What happened to listening to the character and where they want to go? Didn’t Ray Bradbury say a writer should follow along behind the main character and see where he/she takes them?

Many great writers like Ray Bradbury and Stephen King are natural story tellers and don’t use outlines. But that doesn’t necessary mean they don’t work on the story, prepare notes, or have a good idea where they are heading before they start writing. If you’re happy pantsing and your stories work, then fine. All writers should use the tools that work for them. But if you’re not finishing your stories, or are unhappy with them, you might like to try this type of visual planning. You might be surprised by how it spurs your imagination on.

But knowing there is a three-act structure with two main turning points at the end of Acts one and two and a mid-point doesn’t help you write a story?

True. But all stories have a natural pattern: a catalyst leads to a quest, which leads to complications, a series of crises, a climax, and denouement. The three-act structure sets out the main tent poles for this pattern and if you incorporate the eight sequences, the pattern comes to life. The sequence structure I use for my genre is as follows:

sequence structure

Still not convinced? Maybe you write a different genre and this structure is too much like an action-based story. Then adapt it to the eight or so sequences that reflect the natural phases of your story. All stories follow a natural pattern irrespective of genre: catalyst, complications, crisis, climax, and denouement. Great writers find it ingrained in their DNA. The rest of us need to work at it.

Do you still need to write an outline? That’s up to you. A series of scene cards with one or two sentences on maybe enough of an outline for some. For others they may well wish to flush out more detail synopsis either before they start writing or before writing each scene. I find that there is a certain amount of work on plot and character that has to be done before the story finally  forms in your head.  But the only rule you need to follow is that there are no rules. It’s up to you, the writer, to determine what works for you. After completing three novels I’m just beginning to find out what best works for me.

So what works best for you? Let me know what you think.



The five core elements of story

For a long time I have wondered what distinguishes a great story-teller from the rest. Clearly, great story tellers are blessed with great creative skills and imagination. Many of the basic techniques of writing  such as structuring, using dialogue, grammar, point of view, and voice,  can be learnt. The creative  skills of story telling are much more difficult to develop, but not impossible. The first stage is to find the concept or idea from which you can develop a story.

The great concept or idea

All great stories start with a great concept. What if there is a school for wizards? (Harry Potter). What if a dystopian society forced children to kill each other in a tournament for entertainment? (Hunger Games). What if a cop waiting for retirement is paired off with a partner with suicidal tendencies? (Lethal Weapon). What if a plane carrying the president is hijacked? (Air Force One).

But how do you find these killer ideas? The answer is to find that one great idea you need to generate lots  of ideas, most of which will be rubbish. But eventually you will find that gem that stands out from the rest. The first step is therefore idea generation and here are some of the techniques that can help:

  • Day dreaming – I do this a lot. What if… an alien artifact was found in your garden… What if a new cold drug remedy had the side effect of giving autistic children mind reading powers… Good ‘what if’ questions will almost always lead to further questions to hone the concept further. Write down your ideas however silly they seem. Let them germinate with time and grow. Revisit the ideas after a passage of time and you might see them in a different light.
  • Collecting odd ideas – from news and other sources in a journal/notebook. Ideas that are not written down will be lost. Don’t lose them.
  • Turning an existing story idea on its head. What if the antagonist is really a good guy after all? What if the macho male hero is a child, a female, a seventy-year old, a paraplegic, someone with OCD. How does the story change? What if the ending was changed into a tragedy?
  •  Combining ideas from different stories into something new. A love story and titanic. (Sorry, that’s been done). Die hard on a battleship. (Sorry, that’s been done too.) Die hard on the Titanic? Sounds crazy…. change it.  Die hard on a nuclear submarine… Keep changing it until something works.
  • Free writing. Just write with a pen and paper, what comes into your head for ten minutes without stopping to think. Believe me, it works. It helped me find the idea behind my debut novel. You will write a lot of rubbish, but it is the precious gems of wisdom within that rubbish that you can salvage and use.
  • Idea association: take a silly idea and examine the consequences. The silly idea may springboard to another idea, and so on until you reach an idea that may not be so silly.

Developing the concept into a working story proposition.

Once you have found that great concept, it’s easy to get excited about it. But a concept alone isn’t enough to build a story on.  At best it’s only likely to be one core element of your story, and you need five core elements working together. These are:

  • The Protagonist’s Characterisation
  • The Big Problem or Opportunity that sets up the central conflict
  • Opposition – Antagonist Forces and Obstacles standing in his/her way
  • A Story World.
  • A Satisfying Resolution.

So for example, our idea about a dystopian society that forced children to compete to the death in a tournament is an idea or concept about the story world. We still need a main character (Katniss Everdeen), a problem she faces (survival), and antagonist(s) (the tributes, the games organisers, and President Snow) that get in her way, and a satisfying ending (she and Peeta both survive).

The relationship between these five core elements and their related factors can be set out as follows:


The Protagonist – Characterisation

All great stories have a protagonist that the reader can connect with. The reader doesn’t have to like the character, but they need to empathise with the struggle they are going through. Empathy factors are important. A reader is more likely to empathise with a character that is funny, clever, an underdog in jeopardy, selfless, resourceful and resolute. Katniss Everdeen ticks most of these boxes. But it’s possible to build empathy even with nasty characters if they have some redeeming qualities. For example, in Psycho, Hitchcock killed-off the main character half way through the movie and invited us to empathise with the killer, Norman Bates.

A key factor in connecting the reader to the main character is how he/she relates to other main characters and, in particular, the love interest, who will often play an important role in the main character’s inner story.

A character should never be perfect. Most have a flaw or emotional wound at the start of the story, and they learn from their experiences and change by the end of the story. This is the transformation arc, which is often related to the theme of the story. Not all stories have a transformation arc, but those that do are usually more satisfying for the reader.

The Big Problem or Opportunity 

All stories are about a protagonist who desperately wants something or who wants to stop something from happening. It’s what drives the protagonist and what drives the plot forward.

The problem or opportunity is introduced to the protagonist in the first act by the story catalyst. The Catalyst  is the point in time where the protagonist first becomes aware of the big problem or opportunity that will become the central conflict of the story. It is a jolt or shock that eventually causes the protagonist to act and changes his/her world forever. The late Blake Snyder describes catalysts as: telegrams, getting fired, catching the wife in bed with another man, the news you have three days to live, the knock on the door, the messenger.

Not any old problem/opportunity will suffice. The problem/opportunity needs to be difficult, and intractable, since once the problem/opportunity is resolved the story is over. Also, the extent of the problem may not be fully understood by the protagonist until the latter stages of  the story. For example, Luke Skywalker, in Star Wars: A New Hope, initially wanted to take a couple of droids to Alderaan with the plans for the Death Star, but ended up rescuing a princess and blowing-up the Death Star.   Erin Brokovich just wanted a job with Ed Masry’s law firm to support her kids, but ended up with a $2m bonus from a $330m legal settlement.

This escalation in the intensity of the problem/opportunity during the course of the story is part of a great story’s DNA. It creates reader tension about the protagonist’s uncertain future, which won’t be resolved until the climax.

For the reader to care, the protagonist’s problem should be life-changing and the consequences of failure life-threatening in a literal or figurative sense. For example, a young teenage girl volunteers to take her sister’s place in a brutal tournament where the tributes compete to the death (Hunger Games); or  a New York cop trapped in a building with terrorists has to stop them blowing up the building and everyone in it (Die Hard).

Antagonist forces and opposition

All stories are about conflict: a struggle between what the protagonist wants and the obstacles that stand in his/her way. The stronger the antagonist forces are against him/her, the greater is the reader tension. Weak antagonists make for boring stories. Imagine Sherlock Holmes without Moriarty, or Batman without Joker. Strong antagonists bring out the best in heroes.

The obstacles that stand in the protagonist’s way may be physical/natural, supernatural, opposition from antagonists  with different goals or competitors with the same goal, or it may be just his/her own shortcomings.

Story world and context

All stories take place in a story world – a setting, a time, a social environment with its own set of rules and conventions. Context will also be a factor in determining the genre: e.g. Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Historical fiction etc., or tone, as in a tragedy. One of the easiest ways to change the look and feel of a story is to change the context. For example, what would Hamlet or Macbeth look like in the 25th century?

Satisfying resolution

For a story to work it has to have an emotionally satisfying ending. But no one wants an ending that is too predictable. Some element of surprise is therefore necessary. Meeting these two conditions is difficult and requires a lot of thought and planning from the outset.

Playing with the Core Elements

It doesn’t matter where a writer starts with his muse. Any one of the five elements will do. But eventually he/she will need to address them all to find the shape of their new story. Once you have all five core elements of your story, you can flesh out the detail of the big moments of the plot. You will already know how the story starts and ends, and the opposition that the protagonist needs to overcome, which should be more than enough to give you the seeds of a good outline.

And lastly...

Still struggling to find that killer idea? Don’t despair. It’s important to understand that most stories are not new, but have been told a thousand times before. For example, Alien, Beowulf, Jaws are all what Blake Synder describes as ‘monster in the house’ stories. But to the reader or audience they feel very different. The Hunger Games and The Running Man are both stories about authoritarian societies televising a tournament to the death for entertainment, yet they feel very different. Similarly, West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet are the same story written in different social contexts.

The fact that many stories share similar patterns and features is not surprising. Christopher Book suggests that there are just seven basic plots to all stories. The late Blake Snyder  stated that most Hollywood movies can be categorised under ten simple genre, each defined by three simple requirements.  Chris Hoth and KC Moffat did a similar exercise to identify ten different story types based on the type of story tension, and they argue that most stories are a combination of one or more of these different story types.

So the trick is to find a combination of elements that makes your story feel new and interesting. If the story doesn’t feel new and exciting then perhaps modifying any one or more of the elements may give the story a different look and feel.


Word count targets

computerFor a new writer there is no shortage of books and articles on the art of writing. Advice from successful writers is everywhere, much of it very good, such as:  ‘show don’t tell’;  the importance of first line, the first page, the first ten ages; the importance of developing three dimensional characters; character arc; and story structure. The list goes on and on. But one piece of advice that sticks out from the rest is that ‘a writer should write’.

Here are some of famous quotes:

“Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.” ― Louis L’Amour

“Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.”
—Ray Bradbury, WD

“It is by sitting down to write every morning that one becomes a writer.”
—Gerald Brenan

“The Six Golden Rules of Writing: Read, read, read, and write, write, write.”
—Ernest Gaines

It is hard to disagree  with this premise.  Many people want to write a book, but never get started. Of those that do, only a few complete, and even fewer are published. Successful writers therefore have to have remarkable perseverance to finish and publish a book.

Now consider  the time frame for writing a novel. The average novel is 80-100,000 words. The words will not be completed unless the writer writes them. If a writer writes at 5,000 words a week then a first draft could be produced in say 16-20 weeks. At  a more sedate speed of 2,500 words a week (or 500 words per day)  as some suggest, a first draft can be produced in  a more realistic 32- 40 weeks.

Thus because of the time it physically takes to write a book, many writing gurus focus on word count,  urging writes to set targets and monitor performance against targets. If you’re the kind of person that likes to set specific achievable goals this might help you. But you may also end up producing 80-100,000 words of garbage. Of course, all first drafts are crap and you may end up trashing 20% and rewriting the rest. And if that gets you to your goal, fine. But what if you trash 80% or worse realise that the story just doesn’t work? Worse still, what happens if your initial idea for the story isn’t thought out and you end up in a blind alley? You are staring at the screen and nothing is coming into your head.

What these famous authors don’t tell you is that they understand the fundamentals of their story before they start to write. They may not have a formal outline of their story or all the details figured out. But they do understand the fundamental drivers of their story to write continually at these rates of word count.

Furthermore, I believe there is a direct link between the amount of story preparation a writer  completes before writing and the word count he/she can achieve. Let me give you an example. In my previous blog I referred to the use of story boarding and a twenty page scene outlining to plan my third novel. It was an experiment to see if I could improve my workflow through more detail planning. In the first seven days of writing using the outline I achieved some 25,000 words or 3,500 words per day and I didn’t feel I was working particularly hard. Did I stick absolutely to the outline – no. I moved some scenes and introduced others. But having a story plan helped me see the impact of these changes on the story as a whole.

Of course, this worked for me. If you’re the kind of writer that hates to plan and think through the story before writing it, then you’re bound to disagree. If you’re Stephen King then you’re so talented it won’t matter. For lesser mortals, and particularly new writers that see the task of writing 80,000-100,000 of story as daunting, then you might like to spend more time preparing your story before you type ‘Chapter 1’.







Story boarding

In my previous blog, I put forward the view that a writer should know his/her story before he/she starts writing. Once a writer has a story concept, a character with a goal, a source of conflict, and stakes at risk then they have basic ingredients for a story. But as any chef knows, ingredients can be put together in a million different ways to produce very different cuisine.

For some writers the ingredients are enough for them to start writing and see where their characters take them. And some very successful authors write this way. For me, there are still too many different paths a story could take and I need to feel out which is best path before I commit to write.

There are lots of ways a writer can do this: working on character  sketches and story lines for each of the main characters, identifying the key scenes, obstacles  and story turns that will impact the characters, and working back from desired ending. My favourite approach is story boarding –mapping out the key elements of the story line on scene cards.

There are many different ways you can do this. You can use a whiteboard marked out into four equal vertical sections, being Act 1, Act 2 (i), Act 2(ii), and Act 3. Scenes can then be added using post it notes to each area of the board as the scene ideas unfold.

An alternative approach is to use 5 x 3 cards and lay them out on the floor, or on a cork board.

Or you can use a powerful program like Scrivener to do the same thing . This is the cork board view of Scrivener for the first Act of my book, Alien Hothouse. Each card is colour coded to tell me the point of view character for each scene. Scrivener is an amazingly powerful piece of software for any writer and my chosen medium for writing all my books. But the purpose of my blog today is not sing the praises of this software, but to explain the storyboarding approach.


Alternatively, you can use storyboarding  software designed for screenwriters. I have experimented with one of these products, Plot Control 2. Here is same first act mapped out under Plot Control 2. (There is also a further version – Plot control 3 that allows the main headings to be modified)


The main difference between using this approach and a cork board is that the scenes are entered under twelve different captions:

  • Opening scene
  • Setup
  • Inciting Incident
  • Movement to Resolution
  • Plot Point One
  • Act 2: Tier 1
  • Midpoint
  • Act 2: Tier 2
  • Plot Point 2
  • Climax
  • Resolution
  • End Scene

Of course, if you wanted to use the same kind of structure in Scrivener it is quite easy to do so. You simply set up the twelve structural elements as though they were twelve  chapters. As a personal preference,  I like to use Plot Control 2 to ‘mess about’ with the scenes until I have the makings of the story and then I set up the the appropriate scene structure in Scrivener.

For my latest novel, I have taken the process one step further by turning the scene cards into a twenty page ‘treatment’ by adding further detail to the scenes. It is a bit like layering in further elements of detail as the story gets clearer in your mind. Hopefully, this should make the writing process more efficient.

No one can tell you which writing approach is right for you. But if you haven’t looked at storyboarding you might like to try it. You don’t have to use expensive software. You can use a pack of cards or post-it notes on a whiteboard, or  Scrivener. The approach is the same. It gives you a helicopter view of your story.

Planning a Novel

Writing a novel is no easy process, even if you have done it before. Recently, I completed the first draft of my second novel. It still needs a substantial edit, but that is best done in a month’s time when I am sufficiently distanced from it to edit it objectively. In the meantime, I have started planning my third novel.

As any writer knows, writing a novel involves a significant investment in time. My first novel took two years to publish; my second took a year to reach the first draft. Even if you are one of those writers than can churn out a novel in three months, it’s still a significant investment in time. Consequently, before you start any novel, you want to know you have the right story to invest in that will have a chance of success. How you do that is something I have pondered many times.

Recently, I bought The 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction by C.S. Lakin to see what she had to say on the matter. I chose it partly because of the subject matter and partly because I had been impressed by her earlier books (Say What? The Fiction Writer’s Handy guide to Grammar, Punctuation, and Word usage and Writing the Heart of your Story The Secret of Crafting an Unforgettable Novel). Having read a host of similar books on writing I wasn’t expecting anything startlingly new;  but what I think makes this a great book is that brings together all the constituent parts and explains how they link together. C.S. Lakin identifies four primary pillars and eight secondary pillars to the construction of a novel. While all the pillars are important, it is the four primary pillars that shape the story. These are identified as:

  • Concept with a Kicker
  • Conflict with High Stakes
  • Protagonist with a Goal
  • Theme with a Heart

For sake of completion, the secondary pillars are:

  • Plot and Subplots in a String of Scenes
  • Secondary Characters with their Own Needs
  • Setting with a Purpose
  • Tension Ramped to the Max
  • Dialogue–Compressed and Essential
  • Voice–Unique to each Character
  • Writing Style–Concise and Specific
  • Motifs for Cohesion and Depth

For those of you who have read books on the art of writing fiction, none of these pillars will seem to be particularly new, although you might argue about their order of importance.  I for one would have put Plot Structure  as one of the primary pillars that hold the story together. But that’s me. C.S. Lakin explains her view: “…plot isn’t one of four essential corner pillars. Why? Because plot is the vehicle for the other pillars. Plot is what happens in a string of scenes, one scene after another. Plot itself isn’t a pillar of novel construction, but the way scenes are constructed to unfold the plot is.” Hmm… still not convinced. But whether Plot Structure is a primary or secondary pillar is perhaps a matter of semantics. Later in her book she explains that her book is not about plot structure and that there are other books on the subject.

What I like about C.S. Lakin’s approach is the holistic way she says the primary pillars should all work together. If any one of them is missing, the story will fall flat and fail. Different writers may intuitively start with a different pillar, but they will all need to develop each of the pillars for the story to work. For example, a writer may start with an idea for an interesting character, but a character alone doesn’t make a story. The character needs a goal. There has to be a source of conflict that frustrates the character’s goal and there has to be consequences (stakes) if he/she fails. There has to be something different about the story (the concept) that makes it both interesting and exciting (the kicker) to the reader. And there has to be point to the story (the theme). This holistic approach to story development is not necessarily new; it uses many of the ideas and approaches already used in the movie industry. In fact, the idea of a concept with a kicker is another way of describing a killer logline. This is a one-line description of the story often used in the movie industry to pitch a movie proposal.

So how does a writer discover a ‘concept with a kicker’ or a killer logline that makes for a great story? First, a concept (or what some call a ‘premise’) for a story is more than just an idea. Ideas are easy. For example writing a novel base about London in the 17th Century is an idea. But it doesn’t envisage a protagonist, or a source of conflict. Writing about a baker falsely accused of starting the Great Fire of London might be the basis of a concept for a good story.

A concept is therefore more than an idea or setting for a story, it needs a character with a goal, a source of conflict to frustrate that goal, and consequences for failure (stakes). In practice, most stories are simply variants of a limited number of archetype stories, which follow a well-trodden pattern. Take the typical romance novel. We all know the guy’s going to get the girl in the end. So why does one romance author write a blockbuster and another fails? Maybe it’s because they are just good writers and have a huge fan following. But it may also be because the best writers always find something unique or at least different to tease their fans with. For example, Stephanie Meyer practically invented a new genre of vampire romance novels with her Twilight series. Before that vampires were just nasty creatures in horror stories. Many writers have followed in her footsteps, but simply haven’t had the same success. So, the best writers can always find something new.

Sometimes a new concept with a kicker can be found by taking an archetype story and telling it from the point of view of an unusual protagonist (for example, Maleficent, a variant of The Sleeping Beauty), or by setting it in an unusual location or time period (for example, Titanic — a love story on a sinking ship). Sometimes a new concept can be found by changing the theme of the story. For example, the dark tone of G. R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones is very different from the up-beat themes normally encountered in fantasy novels. So, before you start to write your story, you need to think carefully about the four pillars. Is there something about the concept that is new or different from other stories that will appeal to your audience? Does it have potential conflict in bucket loads and dire consequences for the protagonist if he/she fails? Does it have a likeable (or at least interesting) protagonist with a burning goal that will drive the story forward? And is there some message or theme that underpins the story?

Getting the four pillars right won’t guarantee the success of your story. There is still the small matter of how you deliver the story and many of the eight remaining pillars address many of these issues. But the reality is if you don’t have solid foundations for your story it will most likely collapse.

Have you started a novel, and if so, have you considered how the four pillars apply to your story?

Daydreaming again? It’s work.

Add subtitle textYou’re staring out the window, letting your imagination go, when a family member interrupts and asks you to do something. “I’m working,” you protest, and then immediately realise it was the wrong answer. So you put your thoughts aside and do as they request. Sound familiar? It happens to us all. And I would never suggest you should ignore family. But contrary to what anyone else thinks, daydreaming is real work for a writer — just as much as tapping on the keyboard.

Have a great idea for a story? What if in some future dystopian world children are forced to fight to the death for some television show? A story starts with an idea like this, but the idea alone is not enough. It needs to be nurtured. It needs a hero or heroine. In this case, it is Katnis. What makes her special? She volunteers for the games to protect her younger sister. What does she desire? Survival, of course. What are the consequences if she fails? Death — a pretty good motivator. But the consequences of success also gives her a dilemma; she can only survive if all the other competitors are killed. Let’s add a complication to make it more interesting. What if she falls in love with one of the competitors? Now that creates an interesting dilemma. How is the story going to end?

Some of you will recognise this storyline. It’s Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. I’m not aware of how Suzanne Collins developed her story, but the approach above is still an excellent example of how an idea can be developed by simply asking questions to draw out the story. A story needs a concept that gives rise to a source of conflict: a television show where children fight to the death. A story also needs an interesting character: Katnis. And together they give the premise for the story. We now have a dramatic question that will drive the story: will Katnis survive the Hunger Games?

So how far should a writer daydream (I mean plan) before he or she starts to write their story? The answer is that each writer is different. It’s all about what works for you. Some writers would be happy to start writing at this point and find the story organically as they write. They simply put themselves in their character’s shoes and let their character take them on their story journey. This is sometimes referred to as pantsing – writing by the seat of the pants. Others might want to flush out just the main turning points of the story: what are the main obstacles and crisis that their hero/heroine will  have to face? And yet others might not be happy to start until they have a detailed outline breaking down all the main story beats and scenes, and some detailed character sketches. We are all different.

But whether we are writing a minor scene organically or developing an outline of just the main story beats, the creative process is much the same. It’s about asking questions and looking for the answers. At this point of the story what does our character want? What’s stopping him/her getting it? What will they do? Will they succeed and what are the consequences of their action? Where does this lead them next? The process is a natural one driven by character desire and a logical pattern of cause and effect.

Even if you are an ardent pantser that hates the idea of using an outline, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t spend time story planning before starting. Let your imagination soar. Spend time with your characters. Consider alternative plot lines. You might just come across something special. There are many ways of planning, without necessarily using a formal outline. One of the best books on planning is Janice Hardy’s Planing Your Novel: Ideas and Structure. It’s a series of workshops that will take you through the planning process. Another useful book is Randy Ingermanson’s How to write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method. It’s a ten-step process towards the development of a story. It’s a process of taking small steps to build up an outline. The first step is a one-line description of your story,  the second is a one-paragraph summary, the ninth is a four-page outline. You don’t however have to use all the steps. It’s up to you.

Another interesting approach is Harold Page’s Storyteller Tools. He uses Conflict Diagrams and something he calls QABNs (Question, Answer, But Now) beats to drive out the story flow. For example: ‘The king is killed by dwarfs’ army, but the princess escapes their clutches. Will she find the wizard and persuade him to help her defeat the dwarfs? But first she must …But…” It’s a bit like writing a summary of the story using questions and ‘buts’. It’s an interesting process that helps discover the storyline.

Whatever process you use to discover your story is up to you. There are no rules; no ideal process. It’s what works for you. But all stories start in the muse. Keep a notebook for those ideas that crop up. You might not use them now; but they may have value later on. And don’t forget to daydream. It’s work after all.

Bad guys aren’t necessarily all bad

Unless you’re dealing with satanic supernatural characters, an easy mistake for new authors to make is to assume that the antagonist has to be the epitome of all evil. In practice, the bad guy may well think he’s his own hero. He just sees things differently from the good guy. Like the hero, he has a back-story that explains why he is what he is; and a goal – which usually brings him into direct conflict with the hero/heroine. The goal might be to:

• feel love, or be respected.
• control, or rule others around him.
• become wealthy.
• possess something, or someone
• satisfy his lust, or desire.
• extract revenge.
• satisfy some deep religious, or political conviction.

Some of these motives are not necessarily all bad. But, unlike the good guy, the bad guy may be prepared to go to extreme lengths to achieve their goal – well beyond the boundaries of the law, or acceptable behaviour. The point I am making is that once you understand the goals of the antagonist, his behaviour is quite logical. In the antagonist’s mind his behaviour is justified. They think it’s his victim’s fault for being weak, or for getting in his way, or failing him, or being different. Some antagonists may justify their behaviour by labelling their intended victims as being less than human: they are communists, or fascists, or some racial or religious group that doesn’t meet their standards. And this is seen as a reason to persecute, or destroy them.

This isn’t to say that the antagonist cannot have some redeeming qualities. Even Norman Bates (“Psycho”) loved his mother. And have you noticed that some of the Bond villains have pets; they may want world domination, but they love their pets. Some of the most despotic leaders from history may well have been family men at home, only to be monsters to others.

To fully understand the antagonist role in the story, his story needs to be told. He shouldn’t just turn up in the final scene to be destroyed by the hero. A good example is Anakin Skywalker’s path to the dark side in Star Wars Episode II and III. There are early hints in the movie where Anakin is talking to Pademe about the need for strong leadership that betray his political leaning. But it all starts when Anakin tries to rescue his mother from the Tuscan Raiders. When he gets to the campsite, he finds that the Tusken Raiders have tortured his mother to death. In revenge, he slaughters everyone at the campsite, including the women and children. He later confesses his actions to Pademe. Later, in episode III Palpatine places Anakin on the Jedi counsel, but the Council deny him the rank of Jedi Master. This makes him resentful of his Jedi masters. Then when Pademe becomes pregnant, Anakin has premonitions of Padme dying in child birth. Palpatine convinces him that the only way to save her is to turn to the dark side. Anakin becomes Palpatine’s apprentice, and is re-christened Darth Vader. After which he kills the Jedi children in the temple and his path to the dark side is complete.

It isn’t just movies that detail the antagonist’s story. Dan Brown is one of the experts at giving his evil antagonists a story of their own. Take Silas, the albino religious killer, from the Da Vinci Code. In Chapter ten, Silas experiences a flashback of his father beating his mother to death when he was seven. Silas blames himself for letting this happen, and stabs his drunken father repeatedly until dead. The boy flees to live in the basement of a dilapidated factory eating stolen food. When he was twelve a girl twice his age mocks him and he pummelled her within inches of her life. At eighteen he is caught by two crewmen steeling food. He kills one, and is caught by the police before he kills the other. He is sent to a prison in Andora. Twelve years later an earthquake destroys the prison and he escapes in a railcar. He is found beaten again and wanders to be taken in by a priest. He saves the priest from a thief’s beating. The priest names him Silas. From then on he sees his religious calling and will help the priest build his church and do his every bidding.

So what can we learn from the Dan Brown? If you’re going to have dangerous psychotic religious zealot, like Silas, you need to explain why they are like that. Silas first appears in the fourth paragraph of the prologue killing the curator of the Louvre. But this is not the place to explain Silas’s character. There is too much going on. We see him again in Chapter two phoning the ‘Teacher’ and telling him that he has killed four people; and later he is seen inflicting pain on himself as a religious cleansing ritual. We now know that he is a religious psychotic killer. But it is only in chapter ten that we learn about his background.

In between these chapters there is of the course the story of Robert Langdon, the protagonist, who is brought to the Louvre by Captain Fache and suspected of being the murderer of the curator. By the end of chapter 18, Langdon and Sophie (the grand-daughter of the dead curator) have escaped from Fache and are on the run. The protagonist story and the antagonist’s story have been brilliantly sandwiched together in the first 124 pages. Can anyone put the book down at this point? The Da Vinci code is also a great example of what an author needs to do in the first Act: introduce the characters, and set the story question of what the story is all about.

If your novels are going to have evil antagonists, then it’s important that you understand the antagonist’s back-story. How he/she became what they are today and what is driving them. You also need to think carefully about how the antagonist’s backstory will be revealed, and when it is best to reveal it. In the case of the Da Vinci code, it was the ‘stone towers of the Saint-Sulpice’ that triggered the memories of him in prison and how he got there. There is quite an art to doing flashback scenes and the best way to find out is to follow great fiction writers.

Not all stories have a human antagonist; but those that do need to develop the antagonist’s character and provide a glimpse of why he is what he is.

What a novelist can learn from the movies

It’s almost eight months since I published my first novel and I’ve only just written the opening scene of my second novel.  It might seem a long time in planning, but I haven’t been working on it full time and I wanted to make sure that I had the right story and I understood my plotline and characters before I got started.  Knowing how I would start the story was easy; figuring out how it would end was much more complex.

Imagine that you were asked to plot the end scene of Star Wars, without knowing the detail of what came before.  You know the good guys are going to win and the death star will be destroyed, but how will they do it? Or if you’re writing a romance, you know the hero and heroine will get together, but how will it happen?  Endings are perhaps the most difficult to plan-ahead and outline.  Yet without some idea of the ending it is impossible to prepare a workable plot outline.  Of course, we could always write the end scenes first; there is no reason why any novel should be written chronologically.  But I suspect there are few authors that actually do it that way in practice.  (Let me know if you do!)

Recently, I read about a famous crime fiction author who said he never knew which character was the murderer until he had finished his first draft.  That’s real organic writing or ‘pantsing’.  And he’s not the only famous writer who has confessed to not knowing his ending before starting their first draft.  Of course, there are many writers, who don’t outline their work because they see it as unnecessary or too restrictive.  To them story telling may be as instinctive as riding a bike.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean that these master storytellers haven’t prepared, or haven’t thought deeply about their characters and story idea before they start; or for that matter that they don’t consider story structure when editing the next draft.  For lesser mortals that are still learning the craft of storytelling, some form of outline plan or story structure is helpful.

One of the fun ways of understanding story structure, oddly enough,  is by watching movies. Yes, it’s a very different  medium from writing, but movies are all about storytelling; and a novelist has to become a good storyteller.  Much like a novel, a movie is an emotional rollercoaster where for a short time we grow to empathise with the hero or heroine as they face the trials and tribulations of their story and at the end, if the movie is any good, we will end on an emotional high. How they produce this magic in 90-120 minutes of film-time, requires a great screenplay, great acting and direction, plus the odd $100 million or so.

It’s therefore not surprising that many of the great books on storytelling are directed at screenwriters and not at authors.  But many of those same books are just as relevant to authors of fiction.  Two of my favourites are ‘Save the Cat’ and ‘Save the Cat Goes to the Movies’ by the late Blake Snyder.  The latter book analyses the stories of many of the great blockbuster movies into their components or beats.  It’s a great read and if you haven’t already come across Blake Synder’s Beat Sheet before you will find it fascinating.  It will also change the way you look at movies.  Another great book is John Truby’s ‘The Anatomy of Story’, which takes a slightly different approach. Truby sets out a twenty-two step story structure that sets out the most dramatic way to tell your story.  Again a fascinating book and a lesson in story structure.

There are also some books aimed directly at authors of fiction that take ideas from the screen and apply them to the novel. Three  good examples are Alfie Thompson’s , ‘Lights! Camera! Fiction! A Movie Lovers Guide to Writing  a Novel’, and Alexandra Sokoloff’s  ‘Screenwriting Tricks for author’s’  and ‘Writing Love; Screenwriting Tricks for Authors’.  Each book does exactly what the titles suggest.

Now it’s time that I got back to writing that novel.