Monday, November 10, 2008

The Devil’s in the Details...

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.

13 comments:

C.R. Evers said...

great info!

Christy

Mary Witzl said...

Every time I read one of your posts I get inspired and I want to take my new knowledge and do something with it. But then I sit down to write and suddenly I'm muddled again; I always seem to start my stories either too early or too late, and along with creating information dumps, this is probably my biggest Waterloo.

One of the hardest things for me to figure out when I was a kid, studying English and writing stories for homework, was how to make different paragraphs. To me, everything was connected and it was hard for me to see where one topic ended and the other began. It seems I'm still muddled over this...

Jacqui said...

Mary, in On Writing, Stephen King spends a whole chapter talking about paragraph splits.

Tabitha, your analyses of how to structure plot are always careful and instructional. I think your point about plot twists needing to be set up so they are surprising, but you COULD have seen it coming it a great one.

beth said...

Excellent....very good stuff!

PJ Hoover said...

You have some great insight, Tabitha! I love the first page must have the plot, characters, and setting only! Yes, heard it before, but it's so helpful to hear again an again. And again.

Tabitha said...

Christy - thanks! :)

Mary - I had the same problem when I was a kid. And I actually think you're still right in that everything is connected. Everything in writing is most definitely connected. I think spacing things apart should be seen as just that (spacing it out). I used to think it was disconnecting, and could not for the life of me figure out how to do it. :) But once I started to see it as spread out instead of disconnected, things got a bit easier.

Jacqui - thanks! I've heard much about Stephen King's ON WRITING, but still haven't read it. I think I really should... :)

Beth - thanks!! :)

PJ - I think the easiest way to learn something is by repetition. And if that means I need to hear the same thing over and over until it sticks, then so be it. :)

Anne Spollen said...

Your comment about the plot twist made me think of The Sixth Sense.

Here's what I wonder - do writers separate out the literary elements before they sit down or do they just hit the page running? It seems that good stories, since the beginning of time, just have that natural arc and keep your interest.

Does that make sense?

Carrie Harris said...

Gosh, yes. And now I've got to go and look at my first chapter. Yes, AGAIN. :)

Tabitha said...

Anne - what a perfect example! Wish I'd remembered it. :) And that natural arc makes perfect sense. I'd imagine the literary aspect of things depends on the writer. For me, it's all in my head before I start writing. But I have a writer friend who doesn't her story is complete until the second or third draft.

Carrie - LOL!! :) I think the beginning is looked at more than the rest of the story because it's so important. I wish there was a better way, though, because I get so sick of it after awhile. :)

Marcia said...

Such good information. When I get some time to think, maybe I'll have something better to say. :)

Tabitha said...

Nah. When you get some time to think, think about the story you're writing. That's more important than my blog. :)

keri mikulski :) said...

Love plot twists too.. Great stuff. Thanks.

Tabitha said...

Thanks Keri! :)