Plot and Motivation

Plot and Motivation: No Plot Survives First Contact With The Enemy

Hey folks!  Between writing chapters for my next book (the last book of Three Seconds to Legend) and getting the next Starving Review ready, I’m behind on actual writing thoughts.  However, today’s writing inspired me to fire off a quick article for you folks out there.  Today’s Plot and Motivation deals with all of your hard work on plot and how it can all fall apart in a moment.

I think every writer would offer as advice that preparation and research is vital to writing.  Just as likely, every writer will also suggest that it is also vital to be ready to shift your plot and preparation when it feels wrong or when the actual writing starts to trend away from the preparation you have already done.  This is horribly contradictory advice to some and, on the surface, it is.  We say ‘prepare and plot ahead’ and then say ‘ditch that work at the moment’s notice’.  What does that actually me?

Experience in writing now makes me realize what this all really means.  At least to me, what this means is that to write something properly, to write about things we don’t know about, we have to research it to give it truth and to make it understandable and believable.  Also, for many writers, pre-plotting and figuring out a series of events before starting a longer piece can be very helpful in avoiding continuity and character problems later in the book.

However, with that said, the second bit of advice is critical as well.  What *that* advice actually means is that it is very possible to start writing a novel and, in the course of the practical application of your outline or pre-plotting or what not, realize that there are errors and flaws in what you had originally planned.  Was your original plot flawed?  Maybe but possibly not.  Things simply could have changed.  You could have had inspiration that makes some of your old ideas seem out-of-date now.  A character could seem different when written than your original conception.

When this happens, you are almost always going to be best off following that new inspiration or new idea.  You have to be unafraid of your instincts and unafraid of being able to change when the needs of the piece demand it.  The trouble some people have with this is that they are afraid of making changes that lead to a series of second-guesses that unravel their entire concept.  Overturning even the best ideas they have when those bad ideas hit.  It’s an understandable fear.  As with all things though, there is a vital middle ground and here it is the place where you, as a writer, realize when a new flash of inspiration is for the best of your book and when that flash is just a sizzle in the pan.

Until next time, good luck and good writing!

Plot and Motivation: Exposition in Motion a.k.a. Smoothing the Info Dump

My apologies for the quietude around these parts for the last few days!  There is a lot in the works for me at the moment.  Incorruptible is back from the editor’s so the last revisions and changes need to be made, I am still waist-deep in The Twelfth Labor‘s first draft, I have more content to write for Doppel, and there’s plenty of books to devour to try to catch up during my request hiatus.

Still, that won’t keep me from putting my hunger-addled mind to musing about more writing topics.  Today’s Plot and Motivation is going to tackle an approach to exposition that might help keep the Info Dump blues away.  So roll up your sleeves and let’s get to work!

Now, it is very easy to want to info dump.  Especially if you’re working in a genre or world that is radically different from the real world, a writer can feel tremendous pressure to get the reader up to speed.  After all, the plot is waiting and the readers need essential information to understand it, right?  Best to get all this exposition out of the way as soon as possible and be done with it.

The thing is that excessive exposition ruins your pacing, shooting dramatic tension in the head before it even has a chance to build.  It doesn’t matter where in the story you put an info dump, it almost always has this effect.  So how can you get your information across without leading to large blocks of explanations?

The first vital step is figuring out what exactly your reader *really needs* to know.  You would be surprised, perhaps, how little that can turn out to be.  Again, it is all about giving the reader the benefit of the doubt that they are smart enough to pick up on inferrence and foreshadowing.  You can get a lot across without directly saying every little fact.

Once you have distilled down the information to the bare essentials of what the reader needs, you can then distribute it into your plot.  The point is not to dole out all vital information in one sitting but to instead weave those facts into the flow of the scenes.  That isn’t to say you can’t bring up a factoid before it becomes vital.  If you do that, it will make new revelations seem more and more like sudden writing inventions as opposed to planned parts of the story.

However, you can usually find a way to bring up facts and exposition in a more staggered manner than in one solid dump.  It can certainly take time and several revisions to get it to where it needs to be, nuanced but not mystifying, but it’s well worth the work to do so.

Planning a staggered exposition like this not only helps to preserve pacing, it can also be used to heighten intrigue, raise reader interest in the story, and cause your readers to be more invested.  It becomes obvious to them early on that there are more facts, more history, more insights hidden throughout the book instead of being bored with all the need to know all at once.  They will want to dig deeper and continue to find out those facts, seeing if each new answer matches their own expectations drawn from the foreshadowing.  That reader engagement will do wonders for the enjoyment of your book.

This isn’t even the only way to tackle this problem.  What other avenues do you use to work in exposition in your writing?  Feel free to share with us below!

Until next time, good luck and good writing!

Plot and Motivation: How To Lose When Winning! a.k.a. Building Tension for Heroes

Wow.  Between the constant demands of being a Starving Author AND a Starving Reviewer, I’ve had so little time to just … write an article.  Well, I throw off the shackles of responsibility and, despite the fact I really should read my next book/write a review/write a chapter/edit a chapter/promote a book/do my laundry (pick your favorite three!), I am going to instead write a new chapter in Plot and Motivation!

In the past, we’ve talked about such tropes as the Invincible Hero and the Ace, archetypes that are, usually, invincible in traditional physical conflict.  Now, this is all fine, there are usually other approaches to add dramatic tension outside of the realm of action and direct combat and such.  However, what if you’re writing in the action genre OR a genre that relies on action/competition/conflict as the core plot element?  Well, again, easy answer, don’t use such overpowering archetypes or find a way to deconstruct the tropes.

AH-HA!  We’re not done yet!

What if you don’t have a choice about the character for some reason?  Or what if the constraints of the plot demand victory for the heroes?  For example, in a fantasy world, many conflicts could very well be life or death.  Defeat isn’t an option.  Or in a sports novel if there is a tournament the protagonists must win for the plot but there isn’t a losers bracket by the rules of the game?  There are situations where you can’t let the protagonists lose but you’re afraid of steering too far off the realm of believability into breaking your reader’s suspension of disbelief.

Well, the first and simplest solution is to simply make every conflict a challenge.  Heroes that don’t lose don’t have to be Invincible.  If you can capture the struggle, the risk, the difficulty of every encounter, you can still harness the dramatic tension needed to entice the reader but still not throw your plot off-line with strange explanations as to why things differ This One Time.  If you set rules or a tone for your world, it is important to keep with it.  Easier to make things very hard than to provide conspicuously out-of-place reasons.

A second closely related solution is to ensure every victory has a cost.  With some scenarios, this is simple.  Anything involving direct physical struggle or potentially dangerous situations is easy: injuries and wounds don’t magically disappear and even the best fighter is not untouchable.  In any physical activity, even non-contact sports, injuries can happen and fatigue can be a crucial factor.  Having to perform at one’s peak day after day in a hard physical activity is impossible, eventually wear and tear sets in.  Frankly, any extended effort, mental, emotional, physical, or spiritual, is taxing and should be presented as so.  In team situations, with multiple protagonists, the cost may be in lost teammates or defeated allies.  Even material costs are possible with tools, money, equipment, and ammunition as all things that can go away to make each step a bit more challenging.

A third idea, last on my short list, is to break the rules.  Yes, I know I said that it is important to keep world rules in place but, even in our own hard-set reality, exceptions and unforeseen events happen and rules we consider iron-clad by Mother Nature sometimes seem to be meaningless.  If you DO feel the need to take this route, it is important to point out that fact, that what just happened defied all expectations/laws of nature/rules of magic/etc., and then try to ensure it doesn’t happen again!  Rare once-in-a-lifetime events happen.  It becomes trite when that once-in-a-lifetime event happens twice.

While this kind of situation might seem rare, in some genres it comes up more than others.  Having to struggle with it myself in my latest writings, I had to think long and hard about it so I felt it fitting to share with others out there who may wind up dealing with the same issues in their own works.

If you have any comments or input, feel free to let me know!  Until next time, good luck and good writing!

Plot and Motivation: The Big Payoff! a.k.a. Resolving Dramatic Tension

Hey folks!

So many reviews so little time, not to mention my own projects (one manuscript writing, one manuscript editing), eats into a man’s time, but never let it be said that it has kept me from my duties as a blogger.  Grab a seat, folks, and make sure to sit on the edge of it because today’s Plot and Motivation is going to look at dramatic tension.  Oh My God Drama!

So, Starving Author, what is dramatic tension and why should we care?  Well, as most in the writing business know, dramatic tension is excitement and anticipation a person feels before the resolution of some action.  In the case of writing, substitute ‘reader’ for ‘person’ and ‘some action’ with ‘a plot point’ and you’re good.  In other words, it’s that anticipation and feeling built up that keep the reader reading and looking forward to the resolution of a plot point, be it a subplot or the main plot line.  In essence, dramatic tension is one of the greatest motivating factors to read a piece of sequential fiction.

There are, in my eyes, two major components to dramatic tension: the Build and the Payoff.  The Build is just what it sounds like.  It is the rising action, the layers of mystery, the array of antagonists that help build excitement and doubt.  It is the true definition of dramatic tension itself and that tension also often leads to the reader investing in the characters of the story as well.  If they feel the need to see the end of the plot, it is likely they will feel an attachment to the characters involved in said plot as fellow travelers down the plot river.


Plot and Motivation: Keeping Secrets and Mystery

As I mentioned in my update last week, the time I have spent reuniting with my biological family has been really enlightening about a lot of things, providing a big pile of new insights and topics that I could apply to writing.  In today’s Plot and Motivation, we’re going to take a look at the very tip of that iceberg.  Now, no doubt you’ve looked at the title and think that the story at the heart of this topic is a horrible one about family lies and secrets.  To be honest, it isn’t.  In fact, the story itself is a heart-warming one, but it showed to me just how easy it can be for there to be secrets and plots going on right under one’s nose.

The story in question is a good one.  My recently-deceased best friend Jon, my mother told me, had been the actual contact point she had first found when she tried to get in contact with me once more.  Jon, having been there when our family had drifted apart, engaged my mom in a long conversation and, once he was sure that everything was of pure intention, directed her to me and, without me realizing it, subtly influenced me to be more open to her approach this final time.  I never knew what he had done until just this past week, when Mom told me all about it.

It’s a beautiful story but where, you may ask, is the takeaway that can be applied to writing?  Well, first and foremost, it shows that, no matter how close a character may be to others or to a situation, it is entirely possible to plot a mystery around them, to have secrets withheld (good or malign), and have them unaware of it, no matter how intelligent or perceptive.  This means, obviously, that you *can* have a smart, perceptive, or deductive protagonist in a mystery and not feel like you are suspending disbelief or be forced to have them act in a counter-productive manner to sustain the mystery or secret for any length of time.  Often, the closer a secret is being held, the harder it can be to focus on it.

Also, this story is illustrative of the manner in which a plot or a scheme or a mystery can be carried out without anyone the wiser.  It all comes down to the approach and the events that you, the author, lay out.  It’s easy to go down the rabbit hole of feeling the need to create more and more elaborate twists and turns in an attempt to throw off a reader from the mystery’s resolution.  This, unfortunately, often ends badly as the plot becomes so convoluted and arcane that there is no ‘OH!  So that’s how it happened!’ moment for the reader.  The essence of a good, enjoyable mystery isn’t just keeping the mystery under wraps until the end, but providing enough clues and foreshadowing to make it possible to be deduced.  Yes, a very astute reader will figure it out early, but it ensures that everyone will ‘get it’ in the end.  No one wants to read a mystery just to have it revealed to have been a nonsensical plot that wasn’t confirmed by the story or that the story was so convoluted the facts were obscured.

I guess what I’m getting at in the end is that a good mystery is easier to put together than it seems.  Focus on the elements of secrecy and attention to detail, especially in enforcing a character’s point of view and knowledge of a situation, don’t overly complicate the plot for complication’s sake, and never forget the power of secrecy.  Obviously, there’s more to it than that, and if you have more tips for the would-be mystery writer, please leave them in the comments below!

Plot and Motivation: The C.A.B. – The Character Agency Bureau

Today’s Plot and Motivation was inspired by something I’ve noticed has been a major theme with many of my other articles: character agency.  If it’s something that has been a part of a multitude of other writing articles, then it has to be important enough to address on it’s own.  If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, character agency is the appearance that any particular character in a piece has control over his/her actions.

Now, on the surface, the very concept may seem odd.  How can a fictional character have any control over anything?  Obviously, yes, the author has ultimate control over and is responsible for the situations the characters find themselves in and their reactions to that.  However, your readers shouldn’t view it that way.  You should be able to create sufficient suspension of disbelief so that the readers don’t think ‘man, what is the author going to do with these folks next?’.  Instead, they should be thinking ‘how will the hero figure a way out of this predicament the villain has placed her in?’.  If you haven’t created that investment in the characters and generated that important appearance of character agency, you run the strong risk of loosing that suspension of disbelief.

Generating character agency requires attention on many levels of the story.  First and foremost is good characterization.  If the readers can’t relate to and understand the motivations of your characters, they will never believe them capable of making decisions in the first place.  A character with no personality has no motivation to make a decision at all, cutting out agency before we’ve even begun.

Flowing from that, the plot and scenes you create need to allow for the expression of that agency.  If every scene is railroaded from moment to moment, the characters have no agency because they can make no choices.  Strangely, it is often a bad idea to allow the choices of the characters to control the entire plot.  If they are never challenged, thwarted, or countermanded in their decisions at any point, you can break the suspension of disbelief in the other direction.  No one makes it through life completely on their own decisions.

A final important point of character agency is that the characters should be able to take the initiative in decision making.  This may seem a fine point to make, but if you take a character who mechanically moves through the plot only making the decisions put to him by other characters or forced upon him by the environment doesn’t show any real agency.  He/she is simply reacting to the environment.  A character with agency also acts upon his environment and is an active participant in your story.

The ultimate point is that even the most spineless or weak-willed person has beliefs and makes decisions, both reactive and independent.  Even if they are thwarted in those decisions, the fact that they make them is important to creating fully realized characters your readers will be happy to invest in and follow through your stories.

Plot and Motivation: Climb Aboard the Railroad!

After a brief break, it’s time to hop back in the saddle!  For that, we’ll start with today’s Plot and Motivation article looking at a plot device that is perhaps one of the weakest form of plot available to storytelling: the Railroad.  The Railroad or, more commonly used as a verb, Railroading is the simplest of plots, consisting of a straight line of events from Introduction A all the way to Denouement Z.  Now, that alone might sound a bit staid but not necessarily weak and that is true.  The other important element of Railroading, however, is totally negation of character agency.

I’m not talking necessarily about a ‘prophesy’ or ‘destiny’ as the conflict either.  Man vs. Fate can produce some impressive stories as a conflict.  A Railroad plot literally barrels through all other plot points, conflicts, and characterization to keep the protagonists moving forward.  The writer ignores all other considerations and allows no deviations.  Does the protagonist’s characterization run opposite of the course of action needed to further the Railroad?  Tough, the protagonist does it anyway and nary a word is mentioned about the antiethical character choice.  What about that subplot from a few chapters back that has returned?  It should logically disrupt the train and alter the …. oh crap, the author just punched right through it, dismissing it in a few pages.  All logic is thrown away because the author either doesn’t realize what he/she is doing or believes the overarching plot is too important to have happen in this particular way.

The reasons why Railroading is bad for your works are mostly obvious.  Constantly overriding established characterization weakens your characters and counters reader investment in them.  Ignoring other parts of your own plot is obviously sloppy writing and sends cracks through the suspension of disbelief.  Anything aside from the Railroaded plot is seen by the reader as a waste of time to read and causes plot fatigue and boredom as the reader starts to skip past anything that isn’t the main plot, knowing it has no consequence.

The most damaging thing about Railroading, in my opinion, isn’t immediately obvious.  The fact is that what the author thinks is the most important plot and the most important characters are not always what the majority of the readers identifies as such.  It is far from unheard of for the fans of a media series or a book to instead identify and love characters and plots the author had dismissed as secondary or unimportant.  If you Railroad through your works, you are trying to take control of what your readers like by shoving a particular thing in their face and, if they actually like something else entirely about your book, you will almost immediately alienate them.

So, always consider as you plot out your works to be aware of the possibility of Railroading, even if it’s just through a few scenes.  Always take into account character motivations, subplots, and the overarching possibility that what you think is important isn’t what the readers will think is.  If you have any questions, comments, or examples, please feel free to comment below.

Plot and Motivation: A Room Full of Chekhov

Today’s Plot and Motivation article is about a classic principle of drama: Chehov’s Gun (though it applies to far more than firearms, as we will see).  The best way to put it is to let the codifier of the principle, Anton Chekhov, put it this way:

Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.

What this means in broader terms is that you shouldn’t devote time to description or characterization that isn’t important to the plot of the piece.  It seems, like many rules of drama and plot, to be common-sense; why would any writer devote energy and pages to unimportant matters?

The problem is that sometimes what the author thinks is ‘important’ really isn’t, at least not to the plot and characterization of the story.  We are often blind to our own problems and anyone who has attempted to edit their own work will attest to this.  An author may decide that it is vital to the plot, for instance, that extra details need to be added to a character when, at the end of the plot, those details are never used.

Take, for example, an author is writing a story and decides to spend a whole chapter developing and describing the protagonist’s parents and their relationship.  One would figure, by the end of that chapter, that the parents will either be vital to the plot or that the plot (or a major sub-plot) might be the relationship between them itself or changes to that relationship.  And yet, the author then plows into a space travel yarn with the protagonist leaving the planet and never again are the parents or that relationship figured into the equation.

Why was it even included, yet alone taking up a whole chapter?  Perhaps the author had originally intended to reference it again, but the plot moved away from it.  Perhaps he/she thought there was some elemental characterization that needed to be shown but, in that case, would it have been better to find another way to do it using story elements that would be more important to the novel?  The point remains that once you introduce a plot element, especially if you devote real page space to it, you need to find a way to use it.

In a way, the principle of Chekhov’s Gun is closely tied with foreshadowing, something we talked about earlier.  They both serve similar purposes, so most principles using one should be applied to the other.  Both are vital tools and important rules to remember to use in your writing.

How many Chekhov’s Guns do you use in your stories?  Do you find there are exceptions to the dramatic rule?  If so, what are they and how did they work out for you?  Talk about it in the comments below.

Plot and Motivation: Foreshadowing and mystery

This morning, I realized I needed to do the reformatting work on the second edition of The Opening Bell and, in doing so, I wound up taking another look at the Prologue and Epilogue I had originally written for it.  I wound up taking both entirely out of the novel for the second edition, not because they were poorly written (they weren’t) or that they were unnecessary (though in a sense they were).  I took them out because I felt that they foreshadowed too much, especially the Prologue.  That then got me to thinking about the struggle between foreshadowing and mystery in general.

I think foreshadowing is a great thing, personally.  It helps provide a sense of logic to your plot and can give clever readers a feeling of satisfaction for noting the foreshadowing when it happens and the pay-off comes later.  I think the sense of logical consistency is the greater of the two benefits, especially in many kinds of genre novels.  Sometimes, the ‘rules’ of the genre can lead to a sense of illogic, but some proper foreshadowing can provide a trail for a reader who doesn’t normally read that particular genre to follow through the possibly confusing genre conventions.

The problem with foreshadowing is when it’s taken too far.  As a writing technique, foreshadowing is usually meant to be subtle, a trail of breadcrumbs that an astute reader can pick up on and follow.  The more experienced a reader is, the more he/she picks up on.  Every once in a while, a very direct application of foreshadowing may be called for or even used as a sort of red herring to obfuscate the plot instead of enlightening it.  However, if you find that you’ve not just scattered some breadcrumbs to follow but drawn a line in glow-in-the-dark permanent marker straight to the end of the plot, there may be too much foreshadowing.

It’s not foreshadowing if you have made an obvious arrow pointing at the heart of the mystery.  Instead, you’ve ruined that mystery for your reader.  This may not be too serious of a blow if your piece isn’t focused on the mystery, if it’s a side plot or a minor event in the main plot.  If the mystery you just revealed six chapters early is a critical point of the main plot, though, you have most likely shattered the dramatic tension caused by the mystery itself.  The reader is likely to become bored as he already knows the key plot points coming up ahead and his/her frustration at the protagonists for not also seeing the obvious plot point can lead to a breaking of the suspension of disbelief needed to enjoy the tale.  At worst, the reader will just sigh, close your book, and not come back to it.

That’s what I did with the first edition Prologue of The Opening Bell.  In just one page, I revealed a major character who is slowly built up to for chapters and laid out in the spotlight, straight down to a strong implication of motivation.  Thank God for second editions!

Plot and Motivation: The tired trope of Distress

With the second edition of my first books in the process of getting out the door and the editing wrapping up on the second round, I’ve been spending a fair chunk of time setting up the finale to my two trilogies.  That’s led me to spend time thinking about plotting, motivations, and the associated tropes with them.  I want there to be some hard choices made by the protagonists in both series on the course to the finale, to up the tension both for the characters and the readers, so my mind turned to death and danger in regards to the cast as a means of increasing that tension.  I’ve talked about the idea of death as motivation before, so I decided to write about my thoughts on the classic trope of the Damsel (or Dude) in Distress.

Now, you may be saying, ‘Now, wait, shouldn’t this be a Looking at Character article?  The Damsel in Distress is a stock character, not a trope.’ and to that I respond, ‘HA!  Most Damsels (or Dudes) in Distress aren’t characters, they are plot devices!”.  In fact, that is the main problem with their use in media: Male or female, the D-in-D trope turns a potentially compelling character into an object.  A prize to be fought over, a piece of property to be reclaimed, however you want to look at it, the character is clearly objectified.  Why dignify the D-in-D by calling it a character when all it is is a plot device?

If you are willing to make that concession and identify the problem of the trope being in the objectification, you’re still left with an important problem.  The fact is that the plot action defined by the trope (putting a loved one of the protagonist in jeopardy) might make logical sense in line with the motivations and abilities of the antagonist at work.  Why not use the most logical course of action in regards to the antagonists when to do otherwise could risk breaking the suspension of disbelief?

I think one way to help elevate the D-in-D trope out of the objectification gutter (someplace neither men or women need to be tossed into) is to present the incident and it’s after-effects without destroying the agency of the character put into harm’s way.  Even a simple passage as the protagonist finding the signs of an extended struggle from a kidnapping and evidence of escape attempts later can add some dignity and agency back to the D-in-D.  Another important point is to emphasize and flesh out not only the D-in-D-to-be before hand, but to emphasize the motivations of the protagonist outside of the obvious ones caused by this trope.  The distress caused to the Dude or Damsel should NOT be the sole motivation of the protagonist or else it further enhances the objectification caused by this trope.

Those are just a few ideas as to ways to make the D-in-D trope a bit more palatable.  Of course, the best way to avoid that pitfall is simply to find better and more complex ways to provide motivation for the protagonist and tension to the conflicts, but if you can’t, your duty as a writer is to find as many ways as possible to reduce the objectification caused by the trope and try to raise it beyond mere rote recitation of the story device as we so often see.  Fill out those motivations and characterizations and make sure never to fully deprive your characters of their agency.  Once the illusion of free will is shattered for the reader and they can see the rails on which the story runs, you can be sure they are a thousand times more likely to simply put the book down for some other kind of media.

Do you have any more ideas about how to use distress to characters as part of the plot without reducing them to objects?  Do you disagree with any of my ideas?  All debate is good, so feel free to speak up in the comments below!