Monday, July 23, 2012

Wordcraft -- Where did I park my plot?

Reading an overflowing inbox of stories for back to back writing workshops left me with an overriding question. Too often, after reading five, ten, even twenty pages of a novel, I had no idea where the story was going.

And these aren’t the only writers suffering from missing plot syndrome. The fearsome gong show at this spring’s DFW Writers Conference included more than one opening page that left agents asking, but what’s it about?

I think it’s a symptom of a deeper problem -- fear of foundering under all the freight the opening of a story must carry. In his guide to writing, Plot & Structure, suspense writer James Scott Bell tells us the beginning of a novel must “get the reader hooked.” Oh, and establish a sympathetic lead character, provide setting and context, set the story‘s tone, provide compelling reasons for the reader to keep reading, and introduce the opposition. No wonder we freeze.

Screenwriting guru Dan Decker complained in his Anatomy of a Screenplay that “novelists can write and write and write” while screenwriters are bound by predetermined lengths, and Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! guide to screenwriting insisted on setting, theme, and character within the first ten pages (translating to the first ten minutes of screen time). But even though books have longer page counts than screenplays, I’ve heard the same ten page limit mentioned by agents looking for novels. If they don’t say: first page.

Here’s a suggestion to get that plot moving -- open with the main character. Then add the problem she must solve. Practice to see how close you can get the two together.

Remember the character’s problem is not that she’s in a new school or at a new job or on a battlefield. Her problem is not that she’s unhappy or has a crazy family. It’s not even the antagonist, although he’s important, too. The problem is something specific and concrete, something potentially solvable, with enough power to draw her through an entire story.

Want an example? “Elizabeth Ferguson looked around at the Saturday-morning comings and goings of townspeople, and saw parents who had lost or were losing their kids, kids who had lost or were losing their minds.” That’s on the first page of Anne LaMott’s Imperfect Birds. Who it’s about -- Elizabeth -- and what it’s about -- the drug problems preying on her community’s children.

But you’re writing genre fiction, you say, and your critique group tells you to start with immediate, violent action. How about this: “I knocked on the green door and knew that in the next five minutes I’d either be dead or I’d have the truth I needed.”

That’s the first sentence of Jeff Abbott’s thriller, The Last Minute. The violent action hasn’t happened yet, although we know it’s coming. But violence is not the character’s real problem. His problem -- what the book will be about -- is his search for a particular truth, a truth he’s willing to knock on the door for, a truth he’s willing to die for.

A final example, this one from Linda Castillo’s mystery, Gone Missing. “My mamm once me that some places are too beautiful for anything bad to happen. . . I had no way of knowing that some predators come from within and beauty has absolutely nothing to do with the crimes men commit.” Now you know the essence of the entire book about crime within the Amish community.


Next Monday, guest blogger Julianne McCullagh brings news from this year’s Mayborn Conference sponsored by the school of journalism at the University of North Texas. Her writing has appeared in Loyola Press and the Mayborn’s Best of the West anthology.


Looking for a small press? After two years of publishing only nonfiction, Arizona press Moonlight Mesa Associates will start accepting fiction manuscripts this fall, probably in September, publisher Becky Coffield reports. See for details.

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