PlottingWritten by Jeff Heisler
How do you plot a novel? You read your favorite book and writer put twists and turns in just right places. The pace was perfect. The excitement built to end and them WHAM- What a finish! How heck to they do that? It's not as hard as you think- really. In fact, plotting is one of easier and most enjoyable tasks involved in writing your novel. John Grisham agrees. He once told a reporter he loves to plot- but hates writing. I can understand why. When you're plotting you see story clearly in your own mind. You begin to ask yourself- what if this happened? What if that happened? It's like kindergarten playtime all over again. So if it's so easy how do you do it? I'll tell you, but first you have to know that there is no one single method that works for all writers. You have to get an understanding of what others do and then make process your own. Here's how it works: Step 1- Write your book in two sentences or less. That's right- two sentences. Remember when you looked at movie listings in paper and they had these two sentence descriptions that told you what movie was about. That's what you have to write first. Why? Because golden rule of writing is to know what you're writing when you write it. Sure, you can get around this and throw out pages and ideas as you go, a lot of writers have. I think that's wasteful. I've heard several stories of great writers submitting their manuscripts in large trunks- thousands of pages. "The story's in there somewhere- they tell editor." Look- no editor in today's publishing world is going to bother with that. You have to have book done and edited to perfection BEFORE you send it in. That's why you need to write your story's plot in two to three sentences. Anything that you write or plot later must relate to those sentences or they need to be cut- period. Here's an example: Moby Dick- Ahab, a whaleboat captain bent on revenge against white whale that mauled him, spurs a tired crew across ocean in a grand hunt. Ignoring dangers of sea he becomes consumed with revenge and will do anything to get it. There it is. Hundreds of pages boiled down to two sentences. Melville should have done this exercise himself. He grew as a writer as he wrote more and more- culminating in this great literary classic, but even Moby Dick is flawed in a fundamental way. Melville includes an entire chapter that reads like an encyclopedia of whale biology. There is no story whatsoever in this chapter- just diagrams and descriptions of whales. It is often called least read chapter in all great literature. Perhaps if Melville had kept heart of his story in mind he would have left that chapter out- or at least put it in an appendix. Boil down your story into 2 sentences and stay within those sentences. Do this first. You will have to do it eventually when you submit to publishers and agents- so you might as well do it now and benefit from sharp focus it provides. Step 2- Get out your index cards. Get a bunch of 'em, whatever size you like. Now sit and think about your story. Are there scenes and events that pop to mind? Jot them down. No detail here- just enough to remind you what card is about. Write cards in any order. The LAST thing you want to do is to force yourself to think of these scenes in a linear way (see my column on writer's mind for more detail.) Just jot down every scene you can think of. Some scenes will give you ideas for others. Just keep going. When you're tired put them down and review them later. Add more (don't take any out, even if you've decided you probably won't use them.) Keep adding cards and scenes until you just can't think of any more ideas. By now you're probably excited because you're getting a great view of story and you can't wait to start writing. Well- wait anyway. There's more to do. Step 3- Organize your cards. Now's time to put them in order. Keep two things in mind- first, unless you're doing weird things with timeline- everything should be linear. Event A should be followed by event B and so on. Don't do B,T,Z,P,A, or some darned thing unless you really, really know what you're doing. If this is your first book, I wouldn't even think about it. A-B-C, 1-2-3. Keep it nice and simple.
SuspenseWritten by Jeff Heisler
He had never killed a man before. Looking down at lifeless body at his feet, Harold wondered if it would be last time. Want to know more? Good. Thatís point. So how do you create this suspense? Itís easier than you think. Just keep two things in mind when you construct your story- conflict, and question. Conflict drives all fiction. Thereís no story without it. Let me show you an example of writing devoid of conflict. Helen sat comfortably in her easy chair. She had a bowl of warm popcorn in her lap and a soda on end table. A few yards away her television flickered as she surfed channels looking for something interesting to watch. She settled on a documentary about Amazon. Sheíd always like documentaries. As evening passed popcorn ran out and soda can emptied- but she didnít mind. She was comfortable. After a few hours she stood up, stretched, and gathered her popcorn bowl and empty soda can. She set them both in kitchen sink and slunk off to bed.
So, do you want to read 300 pages of this? I didnít think so. Now watch this.
She didnít know he was there. While microwave rattled, heating a bag of popcorn, man moved furtively down hallway. Helen waited for popping to slow. She opened microwave, and emptied warm bag of popcorn in a large plastic bowl. She grabbed a soda from fridge and walked to living room. She didnít suspect anything was wrong when she picked up remote and surfed dial for something interesting to watch. There were no suspicious rustles or creaks. No shadows moving in distance. Just her house, empty and neat- just like always. On tube a documentary on Amazon flashed into view. Helen put remote down and settled deeper in her chair. Just another Sunday night. Another cozy, uneventful Sunday night.
From Helenís point of view- itís same scene. From readerís point of view thereís a big difference. The second scene is loaded with conflict. Notice that conflict doesnít have to be visible to characters, but it must always be visible to reader. In second example, reader knows that Helen is in danger. As they read, voice in their mind screams at Helen- ďThereís a man in house! Look out!Ē The conflict is felt by reader even if itís not felt by character. Keeping reader in grips of this conflict creates a ďpage-turner.Ē