Is your plot skeleton showing?

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

I started writing short stories eighteen months ago. Seduced by the competitions and submission opportunities, I thought it would be easy money and acclaim – spend a week (or a weekend) writing 500-3,000 words, hit send, and wait for the shortlist nominations to roll in.

Ha.

Needless to say, the reality does not match the fiction. When my initial efforts failed to fire, I got frustrated. But I was still seduced by the bright lights, so I kept writing and submitting. And then something strange happened – I fell in love with the short story form. And I committed myself to teaching myself on how to write a great one.

And that’s when I started reading short stories. I know, I know – how did I think I could write a short story when I wasn’t reading them? Like I said, I was naive – I thought I could just apply my novel writing sensibilities. It was still writing. It was just with less words.

Ha.

I’ve been trying to uncover and distil the magic behind great short stories for a year now. And it was only last night – while I was sitting in a French bistrot in the middle of Sydney, drinking the perfect Hendricks G&T, reading Lincoln in the Bardo, and waiting to see George Saunders at the Sydney Writers Festival – that I got a taste of it.

And, happily, it’s something that can be applied to both short stories and novels.

 

Decoding the Special Sauce

George Saunders is a master storyteller. I’ve read and re-read so many of his short stories, and each time I find myself challenged, entertained, enlightened, inspired, and (to be honest) a little awestruck. When I first tried to figure out the special sauce ingredients, I could see the things that other people had found: efficiency of prose, specificity, sensory details, evocative nouns and verbs, authentic dialogue, empathetic characterisation. But, for me, I still couldn’t figure out the super secret ingredient.

It’s like this. Geppetto was a fine craftsman; he could carve the most beautiful puppet, perfectly shape it and paint it – but without that fairy and her sparkly wand, Pinocchio would have stayed a pretty lump of wood.

You can have a strong plot and turn a pretty phrase, but that only makes a story good. You need something else to make it great.

It’s all about the plot

So, last night, as I was sitting there, reading the first few pages of Lincoln in the Bardo, it all came together in one KO sucker-punch. The magic ingredient – the thing that makes  a good story great, the je ne sais quoi that (is part of what) makes George Saunders a literary genius –  is how the plot is treated.

Anyone who has read my blog before knows that I am obsessed with plot – how to create a compelling, coherent, plausible arc of character development and events that tells a story of change, growth, and resolution. Having a plot is essential for good storytelling – stories have to have purpose and meaning, otherwise they are just pretty words on the page (and pretty words on the page do not make a story).

Knowing how to plot is important, but (as I learned last night), how you show it is just as important.

With Saunders’ work, you can sense the plot is there but you never see it. There’s a strong sense of structural integrity, of the story moving in a certain direction and with purpose, but it never makes itself openly apparent. Lincoln in the Bardo is a classic example of this – there’s no narrative exposition; the story is told, not explained. The plot is always inferred – through character actions and dialogue – never shown.

The Red Bow (which you can read here) is another brilliant example (and perhaps my favourite Saunders’ short). Throughout the story, you’re never in doubt about the plot,  but you never see it directly – it reveals itself in a process of discovery and you discover deeper layers of it as you read.

woman with black and white body paint covering half of her face with her hands

IMAGE by Joshua Fuller on Unsplash

 

Exoskeleton vs Endoskeleton

The plot is the skeleton of any story, but stories can be exoskeletal (skeleton on the outside) or endoskeletal (skeleton on the inside). And the best ones, in my opinion, are endoskeletal – always hinting at the plot (a sense of purpose and direction, a sense of structural integrity and solidity, a sense of shape and dimensions) but never actually shining a direct light on it.

In this way, a great story is a sleight of hand – a watch that hides its mechanisms below the face, a magic trick that never openly reveals its secrets, a puzzle to be solved. It is a decadent meal at a fancy restaurant without knowing the recipe, the sensation of rain on bare skin without analysing the chemical composition of the water droplets, the magic of listening to a piece of music on the radio without needing to understand the science and technology behind the recording and transmission.

The plot never pushes beyond its role as structure into narrative. (Bones protruding from the body is never pleasant – better to cover them with flesh and skin and hair).

So, while plot is something that every writer should know intimately, it is also something that should never be directly shared with the reader. When plot skeletons start showing, it is a red flag that you have moved into explaining the story, rather than telling it.

Monica Ali, in her judge’s report of the 2018 Bridport Prize, wrote:

Reading through this year’s entries I thought a lot about what makes a great short story truly great. The best ones make the back of your neck tingle. They make you feel newly alive to the world. They suck you in fast, and they do it by weaving character, setting, story, voice, dialogue and whatever other elements of the craft, into a scene that makes you wonder what will happen next, what has happened before. Many of the less successful stories, though fluently written, relied too heavily on narrative summary, so that the reader was kept at a distance, relying on second hand information instead of watching the story unfold.

There’s a lot of writing advice out there about “show don’t tell”, but maybe another way of saying that is “tell the story, don’t explain it”.


WHAT ABOUT YOU? ARE YOU STRUGGLING TO BE PLOT-STRONG, BUT NOT PLOT-HEAVY? TELL ME ABOUT IT IN THE COMMENTS!

 

Divided Elements - Book 1 and 2
You can now purchase Resistance, the award-winning first book in the dystopian Divided Elements series, and its sequel, Rebellion,  from awesome bookstores and ebook sites around the world.

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Is your plot skeleton showing?

Energising your plot

One-sentence theme: Working with narrative energy to improve story pacing 

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

As most of you know, I’m in the second act doldrums of my current WIP (but not for long, because the break into the Act III is just around the corner – take that, writer insecurity!). Like most writers, this is a time of despair, and self-loathing, and doubt, and pretty much staring at the page and cursing its blankness. But also, for me, it is a time of introspection – I’m the sort of person, when faced with a problem, will keep attacking it until I solve it. I don’t cut knots off, I tease them out.

I’ve been stuck, this week, in a chapter where nothing really seems to happen. There’s a lot of things in motion, and there’s definitely forward momentum, but it’s all one foot in front of the other (some more hesitantly than others). When, if I were to follow my own advice of ‘every scene needs conflict’, it would be more a case of one step forward and then two steps back (preferably because something big and terrifying and intimidating had shoved it).

So here I am, in this problematic chapter (which comprises three scenes of 400, 600, and 300 words, respectively), and I’m trying to figure out what to do with it. I’m close to the my third act, where I know the action and conflict will come on in spades; I don’t want to manufacture conflict when all I need to do is really drive these characters to the trigger for Act III; I know that I need to keep things at a sufficient level of tension to not let this sucker drop below the lifeline threshold (and commit my poor WIP to the slow death of a saggy middle).

And anyway, I started thinking, what if every chapter needed conflict, but every scene just needed energy.

(Now I fully appreciate that this may just be me indulging in delusional wishful-thinking – so call me out in the comments if you need to. I’n kind of just spitballing this in a stream of consciousness, so we’ll see how it plays out…)

max-bender-560106-unsplash
Photo by Max Bender on Unsplash

Two primary types of energy

When we talk about energy, we are talking about two primary types:

KINETIC and POTENTIAL

Kinetic energy is energy possessed by something in motion.

Potential energy is energy possessed by something because of its relative position to something else.

So far, so good – it’s easy to see how both concepts can be applied to fictional narratives: scenes with kinetic energy have direct, obvious, tangible conflict – bodies and things in motion; scenes with potential energy have the promise of conflict only because of where they sit in relation to other scenes.

Image result for types of energy
Graphic by Aniruddha Pochimcherla

If your scenes hold kinetic energy – you’re all good. You have pace, you have drama, you have in-your-face conflict. There’s no risk of saggy middle, go do a celebratory dance and leave the rest of us miserable writers alone.

But, if your novel has a run of potential energy scenes, you may be drifting into second act trouble. And if you have this run of potential energy scenes in the first or third act, well then, you’ve got bigger problems than I…

So, let’s check out these potential energy subtypes and see if we can apply them to fictional narratives. And then let’s evaluate whether that helps us ascertain whether we have a problem or not.

Four types of Potential Energy

So, obviously we can’t use the literal meaning of the Potential energy subtypes. But we’re talking about fictional narratives, so I am going to use a little creative licence.

Let’s say Chemical energy is romantic tension. No action, no sexy-time, no sneaking kisses behind the gym – but the almost-kiss, the lingering looks, the brief touches, the racing heart. There’s an energy in the scene, not because there is action, but because there is no action. Just the potential for action is enough (and maybe better) – the hint of the tension possibly being realised.

And let’s say Nuclear energy is a ticking time-bomb. The countdown to an inevitable disaster – the Titanic bobbing up and down before it goes under, the flashing numbers on a explosive device ticking down, the deterioration of a terminally-ill patient, the continued regression of Benjamin Button.

We could shape Gravitational energy in one of two ways: a) as the coming together of two objects, reluctantly and/or against their will  – the tension of opposite things occupying the same space (but without direct/realised conflict, remember); think Ann Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis in Colossal just eyeing each other off; and/or b) as one thing going through a metamorphosis of a sort and transitioning (without resistance) between two states or environments (like falling from air to earth); think of scenes where a character is processing a revelation, like Elizabeth Bennet reading a letter in Pride and Prejudice. Not the aftermath, mind you; not the part when her world is turned upside down, just the part where there is the hint (or the promise) that it will.

And we could treat Elastic energy as the stretching of something away from its home, its destiny, its true North, just before it is inevitably snapped back. Like Scuffy the Tugboat (incidentally, I have (in my adult years) grown to hate that book, despite its beautiful prose, because of its depressing message of ‘don’t dream beyond your limits’), or like Jonah in the Bible.

That all seems to work, so what now?

Yes, it’s quite the neat little package, isn’t it? All these things have energy – and seem to be very reasonable alternatives to their kinetic counterparts. I mean, who doesn’t love simmering tension in a hate-to-love story or the thrill of a race against time?

Oh, and, great question.

So, as I was writing this, I came to the conclusion that potential energy in fictional narratives works the same as in reality: It’s stronger a) when it is closer to the object it has a relationship with, and b) when the object it has a relationship with is strong in and of itself. 

In narrative terms, this means your potential energy scenes lose energy the more you distance them from kinetic (action) scenes. And that they have less energy if the nearby or related kinetic scenes are weak themselves. Moral of the story: Don’t run a lot of potential energy scenes together. And make sure that you boost your kinetic energy scenes to give your potential energy scenes more gravitas.

So, your problematic chapter is fixed, then?

Sadly, no 😦 While this was incredibly helpful in identifying ways to imbue ‘sequels’ or reaction scenes with energy, I’ve realised that none of these potential energy types are in my three bogged-down scenes (and that I’ve broken my own advice and linked them together in one, horrendous run). So it’s back to the drawing board for me, but I hope it’s been reassuring for you.

Let me know what you think in the comments! And don’t forget to share on social media. 

Energising your plot

Forget the Goal – Your character just needs conflict

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Everyone has seen them – the pithy pieces of writing advice that can fit on a 940×780 pixel sized square, perfect for posting on facebook and inspiring a new generation of authors. Show don’t tell! Every character should want something! Every scene needs a goal! Wait, what? Every scene needs a goal?

 

I have always struggled with that last piece of advice. My characters are usually pretty clueless at the beginning of the story and are entirely reactionary in the first part of the second act, so goals never really seem to fit. 

Maybe it’s my inability to get past the definition of a goal. A quick google search defines ‘goal’ as the object of a person’s ambition or effort; an aim or desired result. Embedded in this definition is a sense of knowing, of conscious decision-making with a specific end-point in mind, of a plan or strategy to get something or somewhere. And that just doesn’t work for me.

Yes, yes, I can hear you saying – “just replace ‘goal’ with ‘want'” – and that does seem, on the face of it, a nice solution. Everyone wants something, even if it is to just sit around all day in the sunshine ignoring the problems of the world. But even ‘want’ implies a sense of knowing – a want is really a goal without a plan for achieving it.

And, besides, if we focused on building a story around our character’s wants, we might end up with a novel about someone who just wants a glass of water. Not really interesting right?

“But it could be interesting,” I hear you say, “if there was a monster standing by the sink, or if the character had a deep-seated phobia about water, or there was only one glass of water left in the entire world and a hundred other people were bidding for it.”

Excellent points! And I am so glad you raised them! Because, that is what is at the heart of this post – forget about the goals (and the wants) – what every character needs, what every scene needs, is conflict.

And if you have conflict in every scene, you don’t need to worry about articulating the character’s goals or wants. Sometimes the conflict will naturally uncover them – Kasie must sell her soul for the last glass of water in the world (implies that what Kasie wants is that glass of water, also implies her goal (since a plan is involved) to successfully sell her soul and outbid the others), but sometimes it will uncover something else.  Anaiya is secretly playing her forbidden music in the Edges to avoid being detained and executed – this is a summary of the first scene in my book Rebellion (Divided Elements #2). There is no clear goal and even the want is ambiguous – Anaiya’s wants are in conflict with one another. She wants to avoid detention and execution, but she also can’t deny the part of her that needs to make music. It is the conflict (and not the wants) that is more interesting and more critical for the story development.

 

CATEGORIES OF CONFLICT

So, what type of conflicts are there?

I’ve come up with two major categories (I’ve also come up with a range of types – but am leaving that discussion for a future post):

  • Direct threat: Antagonistic force that requires defeating for the character to progress. Can be proactively engaged, but is more likely to be engaged reactively. Must be defended against or pre-emptively attacked.e.g. A fire outbreak closing in on a house. Demands engagement. Can not be avoided. Requires direct combat – either defensive (stopping it from reaching the house) or pre-emptive (trying to put out the entire fire). Must be defeated if the  house and the character are to survive (and the story progress).

    e.g. A super villain terrorising a city. Demands engagement (won’t stop until the whole city is razed to the ground).  Is actively attacking either the character or what is important to the character. Can be proactively engaged (typically the case with superhero narratives, where the protagonist will actively seek out and defeat the evil force), but is typically only engaged when the protagonist (or what they value) is directly threatened.

    e.g. An illness that becomes debilitating. Demands engagement. Is actively attacking the protagonist. Must be defeated.

  • Passive obstacle: A permanent or temporary barrier that requires removal for the character to progress. A challenge to be overcome. A detente between two forces that must be resolved. Must be proactively attacked.e.g. The memory of a dead husband stopping a character from dating again. Doesn’t demand engagement – there are two ‘wants’ in opposition – the character wants to remember her husband and wants to find happiness with someone else. One of the two opposing forces must be (fully or partially) removed for the character to progress, e.g. she could give up on the dating scene, could try to re-animate her dead husband, could undergo hypnotherapy to forget her husband, etc.

    e.g. Two destinies competing for realisation – is she destined to save the world or condemn it to a black hole of oblivion? A detente between two equally-compelling forces. What will she choose? What is required to tip the balance one way or the other (in effect, limiting (partially removing) one of the options).

    e.g. An inability to score the grades necessary to make it into the starfleet academy. There is nothing directly attacking the character, but there is an obstacle that needs removing and a challenge that needs to be overcome. Must be proactively engaged, otherwise the status quo will remain.

 

Interestingly, these two categories can be articulated as either POTENTIAL conflicts or REALISED conflicts. Potential conflicts are those that are hinted at – where the preconditions for actual conflict are present, but the catalyst has not been triggered (e.g. the bomb is present, but the fuse hasn’t been lit). Whereas REALISED conflicts are those that have been triggered and are actively in conflict or opposition with the character or are actively challenging them.

 

PUTTING IT INTO PRACTICE

The best thing about these categories is that you can use them in the plotting or revising stages of your novel. A case in point, this is what I get if I apply them to my recent novel, Rebellion (Divided Elements #2):

Scene 1: Anaiya plays her forbidden music in the Edges to avoid detection – which will only lead to detention and execution. There is a conflict within her – part of her revels in her new Heterodox existence, finds joy and inspiration in creating music, thrives in her growing Air identity; part of her is terrified that her Heterodoxy, her blatant flaunting of the strict rules that govern Otpor, will lead to her death – just like they lead to the death of her mentor (and original Heterodox Resistor), Kane 148. REALISED PASSIVE OBSTACLE

The conflict is amplified when her music and presence is discovered by a character from her past. Seeing Kaide brings back painful memories and stirs up uncomfortable emotions of guilt and regret. But, it is his realisation that Anaiya’s realignment back to her original Fire Element has failed that generates the real threat – with that knowledge he could send her to the Execution Pillar. POTENTIAL DIRECT THREAT

 

UPDATE: A reader contacted me via email to talk about their struggles with switching away from the ‘goal’ mindset and focus on ‘conflict’. You can read their question and my reply here.

 

What about you? Do you also struggle to find a character’s goal/want for every scene? Does thinking about it in terms of conflict make it easier? Let me know if you apply this to your own novel – I would love to hear if it works for you!

 

Divided Elements - Book 1 and 2


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The award-winning first book in the dystopian Divided Elements series is now available for free! Click here to grab your copy.

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Forget the Goal – Your character just needs conflict

Time for Reflection (2) – What I learned about first drafts

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Recently, I was feeling all kinds of nostalgic about nearing the finish line for Divided Elements | Resistance, and decided it was a good time to reflect on all the big lessons I have learned as a first time author. Last week I talked about the very sage advice of setting up your author platform (seriously, if you haven’t already done this step, add “start wordpress blog” and “set up at least one social media account” to your list of things to do). This week, I want to talk about the lessons I learned (and some I should have avoided) and the things I figured out for myself in writing a first draft.

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Lesson 1: Gnothi seauton. (Or, for the non-ancient Greeks, “know thyself”)

This is a lesson I had to figure out for myself and one I’m still trying to fully figure out. Every writer is different – in what we write, in how we write, in why we write. Inspiration for story ideas will come to each of us differently. There are those of us that start with a character (e.g. I want to write a story about your average suburban girl who has found street cred and a way to brush off her legacy of schoolyard geekery via zombie hunting), those that start with a genre (e.g. I want to write a supernatural dark comedy), others that start with a theme (e.g. I want to write a story about love overcoming prejudice), those that start with a setting (e.g. I want to set my story in post-apocalyptic Australian suburbia), and those that start with a premise (e.g. I want to write a story about a  zombie hunter whose mum has just started dating a zombie).

Each of these starting points represents a key aspect of the story you are about to write. Regardless of whether you are a plotter (someone who structures their story before they write it) or a pantser (someone who writes by the seat of their pants without a roadmap), figuring out each of these is important for determining your story’s trajectory. Knowing your character is a starting point. Knowing your character, and the setting, theme, and tone (indicated by genre) of their core conflict (indicated by premise) – that’s trajectory.

Figure out yourself, figure out the gaps, and figure out the story trajectory. A story about a surburban zombie hunter in a paranormal mystery is a very different story to a one about the same hunter in a coming of age story or a dark comedy.

Lesson 2: Don’t write shitty first drafts

The old adage ‘write shitty first drafts’ abounds in writer circles. I agree with its underlying sentiment – “just write!” – but don’t agree with its call to action.

For me, ‘write shitty first drafts’ belongs in the same proverb bag as ‘he who hesitates is lost’. But, for every pithy idiom is another to contradict it –

“Look before you leap!”

“Haste makes waste!”

“Measure twice, cut once!”

“A stitch in time saves nine!”

I am not one of those writers who can vomit out words and then spend an inordinate amount of time going back and editing that word vomit into shape. I prefer to get my stories mostly right and then undertake strategic edits to fix problems that are the exception and not the rule.

Having your story trajectory sorted will help with not writing word vomit – so will these other awesome tips:

  • Read and watch and listen to good stories. When I get stuck or feel that the quality of writing (or dialogue, or setting description, or exposition) is sub-par, I read a few pages of a writer I admire or a book that I see as a benchmark. It serves as inspiration, motivation and a quick ‘how-to’ guide.
  • Understand story structure. Regardless of whether you are a plotter or pantser, you need to recognise that the human brain is pretty much hard-wired to absorb a story in a very specific way. It seeks out certain patterns and conventions. It’s why romance readers demand their happily ever after, why thriller readers demand their moment of ascendancy for the antagonist, why mystery readers demand their subtle clues and red herrings.
  • Know your end-point and where you want to go. This one is a little trickier (as I note in the next lesson)

Lesson 3 – Don’t go in blind. But, don’t plan too far in advance.

Okay, hard-core pantsers, you may look away at this point – this is one for the plotter-leaning amongst us (like most things, I think it is more accurate to think in terms of a Kinsey-like scale of plotting/pantsing, rather than strict binaries).

I love story structure. I spend each new novel planning stage extrapolating an outline from the bare premise I start with. I think you need a game plan before you run out on to the field. That said, I don’t think you can anticipate everything in advance. If your story writing process is anything like mine, your characters will have a way with assuming control of your story and shifting it along unexpected tangents, or your research will uncover some new and exciting aspect to the story that seems to shift its tone or direction.

You need to have a plan, but you also need to be flexible and open to new directions.

My approach goes like this:

  • Figure out my story trajectory and use that to frame the broad parameters for writing. Everything should be consistent with the trajectory, and the trajectory should be wide enough to allow for some deviations within the lines.
  • Outline (and write) in stages. Typically, I outline (and then write) each gap between the five key turning points. This gives me some structure to write to (which makes for much more productive writing sessions), while also allowing for new tangents, developments and ideas to be picked up in the next part of the story. Outlining in stages also helps me to keep fresh the key points I need to be hitting in each part of the story.

 

Well, that was cathartic! Hope you found it helpful 🙂

 

Image courtesy of DangerPup via Flickr Creative Commons

 

 

 

 

Time for Reflection (2) – What I learned about first drafts