Friday, December 11, 2009

How to Create a Plot Outline

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Recently a reader of one of my blogs asked if I might offer some insight as to how to outline the plot of a story. I’m glad to help.

I know of two methods by which you can outline the plot of a work of fiction. My favorite is known as The Hero’s Journey. It’s a method by which you identify twelve major activities the hero must undergo in your story. The other is a five-step method where you perform the same task, but focus only on the most important aspects of your story. I’ve outlined the two methods below.

The Hero’s Journey, those twelve steps your hero must face, are defined in its most simplistic form as follows:

1. Ordinary World – Your hero’s life prior to beginning his quest

2. Call to Adventure – The event that tells your hero a major life change is approaching

3. Refusal of the Call – Your hero’s attempt to ignore or forestall the Call to Adventure

4. Meeting the Mentor – Your hero meets the premier person who will assist him on his quest

5. Crossing the Threshold – Your hero moves away from his life and onto his quest

6. Test, Allies and Enemies – The people your hero meets who aid or hinder him during his quest

7. Approach to the Innermost Cave – Your hero stands on the precipice of fighting his villain

8. The Supreme Ordeal – Your hero fights your villain

9. Reward – The treasure your hero receives for defeating the villain

10. Journey Home – Your hero travels home and combats additional, lesser villains

11. Resurrection – Your hero proves worthy of the treasure he has received

12. Return with Elixir – Your hero reaches his home and received the accolades due him

The Five-Step Method is loosely defined as follows:

1. Identify your main characters then establish the setting and decide upon the major point of conflict around which your major characters will revolve.

2. Create the building action. In effect, you place your protagonist in the position where he must take some sort of action to quell the conflict you’ve established.

3. Bring the conflict in your story to a head. Here the conflict rises to the point of its highest emotion.

4. Lower the emotional level for your reader and your hero. Any loose ends are tied up and your story is moved toward its conclusion.

5. Define the formal conclusion of your plot arc or your story.

You can see the similarities between these two systems. I prefer The Hero’s Journey as it, to me, insures you don’t miss any critical scenes. Regardless which method you use, after you’ve created the basic storyline, flesh out those events you need to lead your hero from step one to twelve, or one to five if you prefer.

By first outlining your story and constructing those steps that must take place to move your story forward, you’ll enhance your chances of creating a well-structured and well-received story.

I wish you the best with this and if you have any questions, please post them in a comment. I’ll be glad to help.

Until my next post, I wish you best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Tips on Developing Plot in Your Novel

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Plot, according to Aristotle, is “the arrangement of incidents” that follow one after the other in logical order. Plot is the turning points of your story.

There are five basic plots from which you may choose. They are:

Man against nature – “War of the Worlds”
Man against man – Any Bruce Willis movie
Man against the environment - “The Day After Tomorrow”
Man against technology – “I Robot”
Man against religion – “The Da Vinci Code”

When you break down your story, it will fall into one of these major categories. (If it does not, please let me know about it.)

Your plot, the way you develop your story, will have four components or plot elements. They are:

Exposition:           The basic information needed to comprehend the story
Complication:      The mechanism that introduces the primary conflict point in your story
Climax:                 The turning point at which your characters solve this primary conflict
Resolution:           The series of events that bring your story to its conclusion

To create a persuasive plot you might consider the following tips.

Great plot is all about the conflict and the conflict is all about denial. Identify what your hero desires, then deny him that want. If your story lacks this fundamental, you have no conflict and your plot falls apart.

Think about the way you wish to design your plot. Can you create an unusual way to tell your story? Will you use flashbacks? Should you tell the story from a different point of view? Will your story be character driven, as in a coming-of-age story, or plot driven as in most thrillers? Should your plot be complex or simplistic? (Thrillers are typically more complex than a coming-of-age story, for example.) Imagine your plot if laid out in various ways and determine which works best for your story. Whichever technique you choose, remember it’s the conflict and characters’ passions that make your plot work.

Allow your plot to advance on its own. Each scene should follow naturally from the prior scene. Though they may be out of sequence chronologically, their order must make sense to your reader.

As you advance your plot, your “arrangement of incidents”, each such incident should escalate the conflict for your hero. Conflict should always be increasing. If it does not, the plot will not move forward.

Your characters should add to the plot’s development. That means events don’t just happen to them. They are instrumental in making the plot move forward. They change the “arrangement of incidents” by their own actions and motivations.

Your resolution need not be orderly.  In reality, it often works best if it is not. As long as you present your reader with a final emotional release by way of your plot, they’ll be happy.

If you take your time and develop an effective plot, your efforts will go a long way toward making your novel a success.

Tomorrow’s post will highlight one method for outlining an effective plotline.

Until we again cross paths, I wish you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Eleven Elements of a Successful Synopsis

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Many writers have more difficulty writing the three hundred word synopsis than the one hundred thousand word novel. The reason for this? It’s a different type of writing. Regardless, it is something all writers who hope for publication need to master.

Not all agents will require a synopsis, but should they ask for one, it’s wise to have it ready for them. To improve your prospects for having an agent offer you a contract, insure your synopsis has the following components.

It MUST have a strong lead sentence.

This should at least hint at the core conflict of your story. Look at the following examples and, if you were an agent, decide which opening sentence would peak your interest?

“Joe is a night watchman at the local peanut factory.”

“Joe, the night watchman at a haunted peanut factory, is about to die.”

The initial amount of time an experienced agent will give an unknown writer is numbered in seconds. The secret is to engage his interest right away, you’re chances diminish with each passing moment. As his interest grows, so does the time afforded you. Grab his interest from the very start.

Insure your synopsis is logically arranged.

Organize your synopsis as you did your novel. Expect to expend as much effort editing this as you did your manuscript.

Write your synopsis with as much precision as your novel.

What does an agent need to know about your novel before he’ll consider offering representation? As you might expect, he requires a good story with well developed characters, effective dialogue and an author with sophisticated writing skills. If he does not see any one of these things by way of your synopsis, the odds of his offering a contract approached zero. Therefore, you should insure your synopsis exemplifies your writing skills at their best.

Introduce your major players. The agent does not need to know Joe’s height, weight and other vitals, but rather his motivations. Why emotions move him in your story? Is it love, revenge, fear? Make sure the agent understands who your major characters are, how they are interrelated and the conflict that interweaves among them. You should have no more than three major characters in your synopsis or your novel.

Plot your principal conflict points. Joe does not sound like much of a character unless, as mentioned in the opening sentence, the peanut factory is haunted. Suddenly what happens to Joe rises to a higher note, as do his reactions to his profession and the nocturnal guests. Make certain the agent understands all the major turning points in your novel and how your characters react to them.

Write your synopsis in the present tense. This may be difficult if your novel is set in the past, but do it anyway.

Use strong verbs. Just like with your novel, insure your synopsis is as well-crafted as is your manuscript. You may wish to review my post from yesterday about this subject. It may help.

Eliminate adverbs and adjectives. You did this with your novel, right? For the same reason, effective writing, do the same with your synopsis.

Get the punctuation right. If you miss a comma it probably won’t kill your chances of success. But then again, why give the agent a reason to say, “No?”

Include Your Story’s conclusion. No, I don’t mean to rewrite the words, “The End.” This means the agent must understand what happens to your protagonist by the end of your story. No surprises, okay?

Taking the time to craft your synopsis with as much care as you did your novel will enhance your chances for landing that all-elusive agent. And once you do, I wish you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze