Building a Story #1
Plotting Your Story
by Deb Brammer
What makes a good story? This question doesn’t have an easy answer. Good grammar is easy to define. Good plot and style are more subjective. Ideas about this change with time, from person to person and editor to editor.Trends in publishing change dramatically over even a few years. Editors try to feel the pulse of the publishing industry to see what sells but sometimes book sales surprise them too. A well written book may go nowhere while a book that seemingly offers little potential becomes a best seller.
This year I read a much acclaimed novel and felt it had only 200 pages of plot in its 600 pages. In another Christian novel that won an award, I felt the characters were good but very little seemed to happen. I’m sure you’ve read similar books.
So I, Deb Brammer, am not the authority for what makes a fiction short story or novel good. You may disagree with me. Enjoy the smug feeling that brings. But don’t dismiss these ideas too quickly, without good reason. I am sharing my opinions, but they are based mainly on a general consensus from writer’s conferences and books on writing. Many successful books and stories are written according to these principles. So why would you want to throw it all away and make it harder?
Though this is my own material I have learned from workshops at writers’ conferences by Lee Roddy, Carole Gift Page, and Coleen Reece and gained experience from many sources.
Here are three good books I strongly recommend. Though two are sometimes out of print, you can usually find used copies of them online.
Plot & Structure (techniques and exercises for crafting a plot that grips readers from start to finish) by James Scott Bell (Writer’s Digest Books) in a newer book about plot. It deals more with novels, but many of the principles are also applicable to short stories.
Writing for Children and Teenagers by Lee Wyndam (Writer’s Digest Books) has 11 good chapters on writing stories.
Fiction is Folks by Robert Newton Peck (Writer’s Digest Books) is the best book on character development I know of.
Some people don’t like formulaic fiction and object to rules in writing. Or maybe you just want to write freely and you resent structure. Good writing is a blend of creativity and discipline, structure and surprise. If you master your weak areas, you can display your strengths.
Where do you get ideas for stories? In “Getting Started Writing for Publication #2” I said that ideas are like muscles. The more you use them, the more you have. If you are one of those creative individuals who are blessed with lots of ideas, thank the Lord for this gift. Here are some specific ways to spark new story ideas.
Coleen Reece likes to start with a colorful character, an intriguing situation, or an interesting incident that you know about. Then play the “What If… Game.” What if this character had to work with someone who was his opposite? In this situation, what if the worst possible thing happened? What would that be? Keep asking yourself “What if?” questions until you have many things that could happen to that character, in that situation, or in that incident. Choose the ones that work best for your story.
Robert Newton Peck sometimes begins with an issue that raises a lot of emotion. What kind of characters would be involved with a situation that deals with that issue? How would they have to fight to stand for that issue—or would they fight? What would they do? What does the other side do? (Fiction is Folks, chapter 9, “How Characters Multiply”)
You might want to start with stories from your life or ones you’ve heard about. How can you fictionalize them to make them stronger and better?
Examples from my fiction books:
· Peanut Butter Friends in a Chop Suey World I started with a situation I knew well. Amy, my protagonist, left rural America to live as an MK in Taiwan. I knew what coming to that mission field was like from an adult’s point of view. I thought about how I felt, and watched the reaction of MK’s, and wrote my book. (My own daughters grew up in Taiwan and didn’t have to deal with many of the issues Amy did.)
· Two Sides to Everything. I started with a fictional New Zealand character in my mind. I grew to love Uncle Hamish and his fictional possibilities years before I actually started plotting the story.
· Moose began as a sequel to Two Sides. My editor preferred a stand-alone book for a higher reading level. I loved Josh and Carlton and had learned to tolerate Neville. The story in my mind was about them and I couldn’t write it about anyone else—at first. But in time I learned to love two new characters—who happen to be a lot like Josh and Neville.
Let your ideas run wild. Think of all the things that could happen. Write down seed ideas, good and bad. Play with it until you have characters you love in situations that scare you. Choose situations that make you care what happens. When they all begin to come together into one story, you are ready to go to the next stage.
For more help on getting ideas, see my article, “Getting Ideas Exercise.”
When an editor asks you to tell what your story is about in one sentence, that’s your theme. You can let your ideas, good and bad, run wild with possibility, but at some point you have to figure out what you want to say.
The theme shouldn’t shout at the reader. Your story will be more effective if your theme isn’t too obvious. Theme is like the string for a necklace. No one admires the string. They admire the beads. Yet the string holds the beads together to make a beautiful necklace. In the same way everything in your story hangs on your theme. Your characters prove your theme. Your action and dialog forward your theme. Even descriptions enhance the theme. If a scene doesn’t promote your theme it is unnecessary. (Carole Gift Page)
Lee Wyndam likes to use a theme that gives a short synopsis of the story.
Here’s a theme sentence from one of her stories.
“Understanding and helpfulness overcome suspicion and distrust and lead to friendship. Understanding and helpfulness suggests the characters; suspicion and distrust suggest the problem; overcome, the conflict and the outcome; and lead to friendship, the resolution and happy ending.” (page 60)
Notice a theme like this could be used over and over again in different situations with different characters. Here are two other universal themes: Honesty is the best policy. Through wit and courage the small and weak can overcome the big and bad. (David and Goliath)
Examples from my books:
· Peanut Butter Friends: Truly caring about others overcomes cultural barriers and personality differences and leads to friendship.
· Two Sides to Everything: Kindness, humility, and patience overcome mean-spiritedness and distrust and lead to friendship and learning.
· Moose: Loyalty and genuine friendship overcome immaturity and hard feelings and lead to spiritual progress.
· Current project: Trust and faithfulness win over doubt and difficulty and lead to spiritual success.
Never state the theme in words. Show it, don’t tell it. All the parts of your story should point to your theme and further it.
What should the plot of a good story include? Boil it down to a few sentences and this is what you get: The protagonist wants something. The antagonist works against him. Conflict builds to the dark moment when it looks like the protagonist will not succeed. The protagonist usually overcomes obstacles which leads to an outcome that proves the theme and satisfies the reader.
Now let’s look at the various parts of that formula.
The protagonist needs to be someone the reader can identify with. He should have weaknesses as well as strengths. No one wants to read about characters who never struggle. The reader should like him. The protagonist needs to want something for a good reason. If he is denied the something he wants, he will face a big loss that the reader can identify with.
The antagonist is another person, or something in nature, or even the person herself. The antagonist keeps the protagonist from getting what he wants for a good reason. That produces the conflict.
The protagonist struggles against obstacles which become greater and greater until he faces the most challenging obstacle when it looks like he will lose. That is the dark moment. The protagonist usually wins against all odds and proves the theme.
Here is a checklist for plot:
- Who is he? Is he likable? Does he have strengths and weaknesses?
- What does he want?
What goal does he have? OR
What situation does he want to change? OR
What decision does he need to make?
- Why? What are the stakes? What will happen if he doesn’t succeed? It must be important.
- Who is she? She should be a mix of bad and good.
- How does she work against the protagonist to keep him from getting what he wants?
- Why does she work against him? She must have a good reason.
What stands in the way of the protagonist getting what he wants? No conflict, no story.
Kinds of Conflict:
- Person vs another person
- Person vs nature or environment (fire, hurricane, wild animals, the aging process)
- Person vs self
A good story will have internal and external conflict.
Don’t make it too easy, or keep adding the same kind of conflict until the reader gets weary of it. Many times the magic number of struggles is three. The protagonist loses the struggle two times, but achieves it the third.
Save the biggest conflict for last. It must be the biggest problem that needs to be solved.
The protagonist must solve the problem. He may have help, but he is the crucial problem-solver.
The various kinds of plot have different possible endings.
- The protagonist achieves his goal. OR
- The protagonist fails to achieve his goal. OR
- The protagonist switches goals.
- The protagonist changes the situation. OR
- The protagonist accepts the situation.
- The protagonist’s beginning decision is re-confirmed at the end. OR
- The protagonist changes the decision he made at the beginning. OR
- The protagonist delays making a decision until the end.
To make this easier to understand I will now give examples from various books I’ve had published.
- strengths. Cody is a stable Christian teen. He cares a lot about Moose.
- weaknesses. He is average, unpopular, and afraid to speak out for Christ or for any issue at school. Many readers can identify with this.
- goal. Cody wants to help Moose get a good start in his Christian life by going to camp.
- Why? If he doesn’t, Moose could go back to his drinking buddies and never grow much in his Christian life.
- another goal. Cody wants to be a missionary in a few years. By discipling Moose with friendship Cody will show if he’s ready to begin that process.
- mix of bad and good. Moose is trying to do right but he struggles with old habits from before he was saved. He offends people wherever he goes. He gives Cody and Christianity a bad reputation which forces Cody to choose his loyalties.
- Why does he work against Cody by not wanting to go to camp? He finds it hard to live up to the high expectations of Christians. Some Christians look down on him. He knows it will make it hard for Cody if he goes to camp.
Person vs person
Being a friend to Moose puts Cody on bad terms with his other Christian friends and Pastor Walters. He has to choose who to be loyal to.
Person vs self
Cody struggles with his leadership role, with indecisiveness and not knowing what to do, with various wrong attitudes. He has to choose between doing what’s best for the team and what’s best for Moose.
Person vs environment.
Natural dangers are revealed as the story unfolds, though this is not the main kind of conflict in the book.
Warning! This next part will spoil the book if you haven’t read it.
Goal—Does Cody achieve his goal or switch goals?
Cody has several kinds of conflict.
- The contest pits Cody and the Grizzlies against Luke and the Coyotes. Will they win or lose? They lose, but because they persevere as a team and win the respect of the others, they don’t feel like losers. They switch goals.
- The cougar puts them in physical danger and staying on the mountain overnight does too. But they survive.
- Animosity between Wesley and Moose runs throughout the book and is solved when Moose rescues Wesley and they learn to respect each other.
- This is the strongest conflict. They could lose the game and have to clean toilets. If so, it looks like Moose will he hate camp and never want to go back to church. If so, all is lost. They realize when they get stuck on the mountain that they have lost the contest and it looks like Cody’s attempt with Moose has failed. But Cody refuses to give up on Moose and his leadership helps the team learn to work together and enjoy each other. In the end all of this has affected Moose to the point that he inspires the team to finish the race. We can tell that Moose is going to move ahead in his Christian life. Cody achieves his goal.
Peanut Butter Friends in a Chop Suey World
Goal—Amy wants to be a good missionary.
At first everything is new and she is fascinated by all the differences between her home in Wyoming and her new home in Taiwan. She tries hard to be the model missionary, but gets some things wrong.
Then she gets tired of the differences and tries to hide in the subculture of her own American world.
Finally she accepts the differences, good and bad, adjusts, and learns to be friends with different kinds of people.
This is a normal, healthy cycle people often go through when forced to make cross-cultural adjustments. At the end of the book Amy still has lots to learn, but achieves her goal because she has grown as a missionary.
Two Sides to Everything
Goal—Josh wants to change the situation.
Josh wants to play in the band at the Wylie Bush school, but others warn him that will hurt his popularity. He wants to be a friend to Carlton, but he is warned of the same thing. People always obey Neville so they don’t get beat up. Josh wants to change their thinking and “fix” the situation at the Wylie Bush school by showing people how ridiculous their ideas are.
Ending—He switches goals.
He learns to listen to people and learn from them. When he decides to overcome evil with good he finds that he can even learn from his worst enemy.
*Excerpts are used by permission of Bob Jones University Press.