Last week, we laid out the overall shape and structure of plot based on the reader’s reaction. This week, I want to look at the details that bring the structure to life. Starting, unsurprisingly, at the beginning.
When should plot begin?
This is a question I’ve heard asked a thousand times over. And the answer? Immediately. In its simplest form, the main plot is introduced on page one via the characters, situation, and setting. If there is anything about the characters, situation, or setting that doesn’t relate to the main plot, then the story has begun too early. On that same note, the story might begin in a manner that relates to the main plot, but then could veer into unrelated territory. I.E. too much backstory, character pondering, irrelevant incidents, etc. If this is the case, then the story might either need a new beginning, or simply be tightened up.
What about subplots? When should they begin?
That, of course, depends on the subplot and how it relates to the main plot. In other words, the best place to begin a subplot is when it makes the greatest impact in the story. Vague, I know. :)
The way I see subplots is this: they’re what round a story out, showing the reader the main plot from as many different angles as possible. For example, the main plot in THE ADORATION OF JENNA FOX is her journey to discover her heart and soul. One of the subplots is the heartless neighbor boy who relishes in violence. When these two plotlines are put together, Jenna’s journey becomes fuller, richer, and more heart-rending. Yet they are separate stories, tied together by a single thread. I think good subplots will enable the reader to make stronger connections to both the story and the characters. Therefore, they must be at least distantly related. If it’s not, then why bother?
Then how about plot twists? How many is too many?
I’m not sure there’s a magic number for plot twists. The best number is whatever works for your story. If it needs a zillion, then give it a zillion. Just make sure the reader isn’t going to get dizzy in the process...
Personally, I love plot twists. But only if they’re well done. I don’t want to see it coming from three chapters away. Not even three pages away. I don’t want to see it until I’m at most one page away, better if I don’t see it at all. But I never want to be asking myself "where did that come from?"
So, what makes a good plot twist?
That’s a good question. And a hard one. It’s hard not to say “it depends on the story,” which I’ve been saying way too much in this post. But, in general, a good plot twist will turn the story’s direction upside down while keeping the characters and situation true to themselves.
Twists are not sudden – often times there’s been subtle clues planted up to the twisting point, but the reader may not have picked up on them until after the fact. Twists don’t shift people out of character, either. If the twist requires a change in one of the characters, then that change has been subtly happening for many pages. I’ve read many a book where the big twist came out of nowhere and I was left scratching my head. I want to be able to see it coming, even if I don’t see it the first time. Especially if I don’t see it the first time, because then I’m guaranteed to go back and read the story again. What author wouldn’t want that?
Finally, what makes a good plot?
That’s a doozy of a question. Because, really, good plot is good structure, good subplots, good twists, good characters, good tension, good situations, etc. all rolled up in one. See? Doozy.