The plot thickens – how to use plot and structure to make your book unputdownable

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The plot thickens octopus typewriter

I haven’t blogged in a while. I want to say I’ve been really busy with new projects, (which is true) but there is really no excuse, I only have to read my own blog about the last absence I had from writing to see that.

That’s why I had to bring you guys something really special this week to get us all motivated on our writing journeys again. And what better way to do that than by looking at plot.

Plot is the thing I struggle most with when writing stories and so recently I decided to enrol in a course run by Toni Jordan,  a well known and best selling Australian author. Bottom line is, her course was completely amazing and when I got home I started reorganising/shredding up my story so that the plot would be used to its maximum potential and make the book unputdownable. Of course, if you want all the information she gave us you’ll have to do one of her courses yourself (highly recommended) but I thought I’d share with you a few simple (you’ll be kicking yourself for not seeing all this obvious stuff in your own work) tips she taught us that really helped me when looking at my plot.

SEE ALSO: Why an absence from writing does not make the heart grow fonder

But first of all what is plot?

Plot is a term used to describe events that make up a story. Basically it is the main overarching scheme of a book that’s created by the choices the writer makes about which events to include and in what order.

The structure on the other hand is the way the plot is expressed on the page. For example, The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas has a conventional plot but an unusual structure with a new character introduced to tell the next step of the story.

The plot then could be described as the spine of the book, the thing which gives the narrative, drive. Toni Jordan said, ‘the clearer you keep the spine, the better.’

Planner or pantser?

I’ve spoken about planners and pantsers before in my blog on freewriting. But just to recap, writers generally put themselves into two categories planners or pantsers (or architects and gardeners).

SEE ALSO: How you can free yourself with freewriting and create a creative compost heap

Planners – know what they’re writing about and generally work off an outline. They say true planners go into such detail, their plans contain more words than their final work. And that’s ok because we as writers need to know more than our audience does a la Hemmingway’s iceberg theory. Planners can also be called architects. Toni Jordan mentioned that only 20% of writers are true planners.

Pantsers – are writers who fly by the seat of their pants. They write their first drafts with a vague idea in mind and watch it develop into something as they go. Pantsers are also known as gardeners. They plant the seed of an idea and then watch as it grows into a tree.

Whether you fall into the planner or pantser categories or maybe even if you’re a bit of both, the essential aspect of plotting is to make sure you have a deep understanding of plot in general. I think this is where pantsers often get it wrong. They can write themselves into a corner and not figure out how they can get out of it because their understanding of plot in general is lacking. A great way to develop this is by reading. Toni Jordan said a huge eye opener for her was when she first judged an award. She had to read 40 books cover to cover in six weeks. After that process she said it was as if she had x-ray vision and could see the backbones of the books lifting out of them. Of course you may not be able to read this many books, but by reading a book you’ll only improve the way you see plot.

Plot problem #1 – the boring protagonist

In the course, Toni Jordan said that 9 out of 10 times when there’s a problem with the plot, it’s because the protagonist is boring.

Basically the protagonist is us, the writer. We see the story through them and so they can often possess parts of ourselves or reflect our own world views. But what we have to think about is making them special. What makes them worthy of us listening to their story? And do you know them well enough to tease this out of them using the plot while at the same time not giving them the same characteristics and beliefs as you?

One activity I found really helped me to get underneath my protagonist’s skin was to ask the following questions about them:

  1. This one is the most obvious and if you’ve ever done a writing course then you’ve definitely come across this question. What is your protagonist’s goal? What do they want most in the world?
  2. In your protagonist’s eyes, what is a fate worse than death?
  3. How could the worst thing be the best?

Plot problem #2 – not using the plot to force the character to reveal themselves

The next problem that can occur is that the writer is not using the plot to push the protagonist to reveal their true self. Characterisation of character is all the personality traits we can see on the outside. But what writers need to do is use the plot to dig deeper and pull out the character’s true self. When people are pushed by circumstance what is left is the true heart of them. As Jordan said, ‘People don’t change, they are revealed.’

To push characters with plot we need to look at the three levels of conflict.

3 levels of conflict

The three levels of conflict are:

  1. Inner conflict
  2. Interpersonal conflict
  3. Physical conflict

I thought I’d look at the conflict in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone as an example this is because: a. most people have read it and b. as a fantasy it is pretty chockers with conflict!

  1. Inner conflict. Harry ultimately wonders if he’s good enough and this is a common theme throughout the series. This can be seen when Hagrid finally delivers his letter from Hogwarts and the whole idea is summed up brilliantly in the movie when Harry says, ‘I think you’ve made a mistake. I mean, I… can’t be a… a wizard. I mean, I’m… just… Harry. Just Harry.’The second inner conflict is at the sorting hat ceremony where Harry tells the hat ‘not Slytherin’. This conflict is the physical representation of Harry’s inner conflict throughout the series and indeed the true conflict faced by all of us which can be summed up by Dumbledore when he says later on in the series, ‘Dark times lie ahead of us and there will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right.’ The sorting hat scene is important because of what is to come. Eventually Harry proves that he will choose what is right when the Mirror of Erised reveals the location of the philopher’s stone to him. The sorting hat ceremony is a foreshadowing of the inner conflicts Harry has throughout the series where he’s forced to question who he truly is and whether he is ‘good’, especially important when we get to book five.The third sign of inner conflict is when Harry first encounters the Mirror of Erised. The inscription around the top of the mirror translates: ‘I show not your face but your heart’s desire.’ When Harry looks into the mirror he sees his parents and other members of his family who have all passed away. Harry longs for a connection with his family but how can he reconcile the past and forge a new future? As Dumbledore tells him, the mirror ‘will give neither knowledge nor truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible’. His advice concludes with one of my favourite quotes from the series. ‘It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.’
  1. Interpersonal conflict. Harry has many interpersonal conflicts in the novel including ones with:
  • The Dursleys
  • Draco Malfoy
  • Professor Snape
  • Hermione Granger
  • Harry’s opponents in Quiddich (namely the Slytherins)
  • Professor Quirrell
  • Voldemort
  1. Physical conflict. Firstly Harry’s physicality is a conflict in itself. ‘Harry had always been small and skinny for his age. … Harry had a thin face, knobbly knees, black hair, and bright green eyes. He wore round glasses held together with a lot of Scotch tape …. The only thing Harry liked about his own appearance was a very thin scar on his forehead that was shaped like a bolt of lightning.’ Even the lightning shaped scar is a sign of physical conflict—of both what went before and what is to come, causing Harry pain when he’s in the same vicinity as Voldemort. There is the physical conflict with the troll that attacks Hermione, the physical conflict with Malfoy—namely when he takes Neville’s rememberall, the physical conflict of getting Hagrid’s dragon to Charlie Weasley, the conflict in the Forbidden Forest where he comes up close to Voldemort’s shade drinking the life of a unicorn and of course the conflict in quiddich especially against the Slytherin team as well as Quirrell who bewitches Harry’s broom. The final physical conflict takes place when the three friends break into Fluffy’s room and begin the series of tests set up to protect the stone. The final conflict comes when Harry must face Quirrell and Voldemort on his own.

Theme

I would like to do a complete post on theme, so I wont say much but at this point it’s important to look at themes. Knowing the theme of your story inside and out is essential as this is what will guide you when editing. Basically a scene that highlights or expresses the themes of the novel stay in and those which don’t are taken out.

The main themes in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone are:

  • Family, friendship and loyalty
  • Belonging
  • Humility
  • Desire
  • Courage
  • Necessity of rule breaking once in a while. Basically challenging the norm and institution.

4 levels of plot

Once you have an interesting protagonist, you’ve identified the levels of conflict and the themes, the next thing to look at is the four stages of plot. These are:

  1. Inciting incident – this can be defined as the dynamic event that radically upsets the life of the protagonist and awakens their desire. This inciting incident could come at different stages in the story, either very close to the beginning or somewhere a little further in. Toni Jordan gave the example of Pride and Prejudice, with the inciting incident happening on pg2 when the family find out that Netherfield Park has been let by eligible and rich Mr Bingley. The other example she gave was The Lord of the Rings. This inciting incident, when Gandalf throws the ring into fire is already about a hundred pages into the story. This is because the audience needs more information about the world and the characters before they can understand the significance of this moment. In Harry Potter the inciting incident comes when Hagrid finds Harry and the Dursleys in the Hut-on-the-Rock and gives Harry his letter from Hogwarts. This is the moment Harry decides to embrace his wizarding heritage and goes with Hagrid to Diagon Alley to purchase school supplies.
  2. Crisis – this is the moment when the protagonist has to step up. There are a few crises in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone but the main one is the moment when Harry realises someone is going to steal the stone. Dumbledore is away and so he and his friends decide they’re going to stop the thief themselves, beginning a chain of events when they enter the trap door beneath Fluffy propelling us to the climax.
  3. Climax – this is where everything in the plot has been leading to. It is the moment when the three levels of conflict all intersect. In Harry Potter the climax is the moment Harry has to face Voldemort alone.
  4. Resolution – basically the wrapping up of the story. In Harry Potter this is combined in Dumbledore’s speech to Harry, Griffindor winning the house cup and finally Harry realising Hogwarts and the people he has met there are his home.

Six act story structure

To help you set out the plot of your story, it’s really helpful to use Michael Hauge’s six act story structure.

six act story structure by Michael Hague

In this way we can see approximately how clever stories work. This is not to say you can’t subvert plot or structure norms, it just means you need to know this stuff inside and out before you do so.

So what are the main things to take away from this post?

  • Plot and story structure are two different things.
  • The most common reason for a boring plot is a boring protagonist.
  • When thinking about your protagonist make sure you ask the three questions of what they want, a fate worse than death and how could the worst thing be the best.
  • Use your plot to force your characters to reveal themselves
  • Make sure you identify the three levels of conflict.
  • Conflict works best when your inner and physical are juxtaposed eg Harry is small, young and unsure if he’s good enough vs Harry ultimately has to face the most powerful dark wizard in history.
  • Be clear about your themes and only include scenes that serve them.
  • Identify the four levels of plot in your story and where in the book they fall.

I’m going to leave it there for now and do a follow up post next week on theme as well as one in the next couple of weeks on subplots. I hope though you’ve gotten something out of this post—the course was absolutely amazing and I couldn’t wait to share some of it with you.

Have you used any of these plotting techniques before? Have they helped? What book have you read that has an ideal plot? Let me know in the comments. 

And don’t forget to check out Toni Jordan!

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