Book: Writing Vivid Plots - Professional Techniques for Fiction Writers (Writer's Craft Book 20) by Rayne Hall
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Rayne Hallabout this book: Here's an excerpt from the book.
Do you want to give your novel a powerful story line? Do you want to power up a draft you've written?
This guide shows professional techniques for developing and structuring your fiction.
In the first four chapters, I'll present four plotting methods to choose from: The Hero's Journey model, the Three-Act structure, the Goal-and-Obstacles approach and the Character Arc story. You don't need to adhere to them slavishly. Rather, I recommend that you take them, play with them and change them so they suit the story you want to write.
You can take two or more methods and layer them. You'll find that in many places the layers click together like they're variants of the same concept. Elsewhere they may contradict each other, and in this case, you simply make an artistic choice.
This book shows solutions to plot problems such as slow beginnings, sagging middles and flat endings, and guides you to write specific story parts such as the 'Black Moment' and the 'Climax'.
The focus of this guide is on plotting full-length novels, but there are also chapters on plotting short stories, series and serials.
If you're new to the writer's craft, you may find this book too advanced, and I suggest you start with a basic fiction writing guide. If you're an experienced author, you'll inevitably be familiar with some of the concepts I present. Treat those chapters as refreshers for what you already know.
I use British English, which may look strange if you're used to American word choices, grammar, punctuation and spelling, but I'm confident that you can follow the text. To avoid clunky 'he or she' and 'him or her' constructions, I switch between male and female pronouns. Everything in this book applies to either gender.
Now let's get to work.
CHAPTER 1: PLOTTING WITH THE HERO'S JOURNEY
Some stories are millenia old and still popular – that surely makes them the most successful stories of all times. Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) identified what these stories have in common, and found that they share a similar plot structure.
The structure is called 'The Hero's Journey'.
As modern writers, we can use the same plot structure – modified of course, to suit our times, our fiction and our readers – to create the same kind of power.
Here are the main stages of The Hero's Journey. See if you can recognise them in your story, or if you could structure your next book with them.
1. THE ORDINARY WORLD
The main character (MC) is in her accustomed world. This is an opportunity to show her surroundings, her skills, her values and her personality. In modern novels, this section is often very short.
2. THE CALL TO ADVENTURE
A 'herald' arrives telling the 'hero' that he must go on a quest. This can be the boss sending him on a dangerous assignment, a client hiring the private investigator for a job, an email telling him that his little niece has disappeared, or a solicitor's letter informing him that he has inherited a farm in the middle of nowhere.
The 'Call to Adventure' combined with the 'Ordinary World' can form the first scene of the novel: show the MC at work, and then his boss gives him the scary assignment.
3. REFUSAL OF THE CALL
At first, the MC doesn't want to go and flat out refuses. She has good reasons to decline the assignment: she isn't qualified, she doesn't believe it's necessary, she's retired and doesn't want to get involved with police work again, or she promised her husband never again to take a job away from home.
But she soon learns that she must go. She's the only one who knows the location of the bunker, the only one with the special skill, the only one the evil villain agrees to receive. Perhaps she needs to complete this mission because she failed a previous one, and this is her only chance to save her career or to regain her self-respect. Maybe the problem is partly her fault, because she let the serial killer suspect go last year, and now he's slaughtered several more innocents, so she'll never forgive herself unless she brings him in. Maybe she didn't believe in the cause at first, but new events tell her this is a serious and worthwhile undertaking. Perhaps there's social pressure on her to go – if she refuses, she'll be branded as a coward, or her neighbours will think of her as the cop who refused to help rescue the abducted child.
So she accepts the assignment.
This refusal and acceptance of the call can happen in a few dialogue lines, or they can spread over several scenes.
4. MEETING THE MENTOR
The MC gets valuable advice from a knowledgeable, wise person. He may consult a subject expert, get a thorough briefing from his boss, seek advice from someone who's recently travelled in that country, meet up with a retired colleague, or seek out someone who has accomplished a similar quest.
Often, the mentor is reluctant to give advice. She doesn't think that the MC is experienced/skilled enough for the task and warns him not to undertake the suicidal venture, or she doesn't want to share her knowledge with someone of the wrong gender/wrong skin colour/wrong tribal affiliations/wrong attitude. It's also possible that she has buried the knowledge deep in her memory and doesn't wish to have anything to do with those matters ever again.
This creates tension because the MC desperately needs the information. He must prove himself worthy of the mentor's guidance, or appeal to her loyalty or conscience to get her help.
5. PREPARING FOR THE JOURNEY
The MC gets ready for the adventure. Depending on the kind of quest, he may hastily snatch his service revolver and jump into the car, or he can devote weeks to careful planning and preparation.
Here are some things mythical heroes do to prepare. Adapt them for your story.
- The MC assembles a team/crew/task force to tackle the job/go on the expedition/hunt the killer.
- The MC acquires a sidekick who'll go with him on the journey, whether the MC wants this
companion or not.
- Visiting the armourer. The MC gets a special kind of weapon. Depending on the genre, this may be an actual weapon (a gun, a sword), a custom-made gadget or special equipment.
- He gets some magical, paranormal or spiritual item or blessing. Maybe a priest may bless the vessel on which he and his crew will sail, a witch gives him a potion to use in a specific kind of emergency, his father bestows on him his great-grandfather's courage-giving ring, a friend hangs a protective amulet around his neck, or the community presents him with a religious relic.
- Tearful parting from a loved one. The MC says goodbye to someone special. This can be a lover, a parent, a young child. The farewell is poignant because they don't want to part, and because they are aware they may never meet again. Perhaps the hero's beloved mother has cancer and may not be alive by the time he comes back. Maybe his wife is pregnant with their first child which he may not survive to see. Make this scene heart-wrenching.
6. CROSSING THE THRESHOLD
The MC needs to enter a new kind of world – another country, a new type of business – but she can't just walk in. There's a 'gatekeeper' who tries to stop her, for example, a ferocious dog attacking her at the entrance to the mansion, a receptionist who won't let her pass, or a manager who tells her she's not wanted in the department.
It's important that the MC doesn't show fear, and she doesn't employ violence against the gatekeeper or defeat him. Rather, she uses courage and wit to persuade him to let her through.
If possible, put an actual door or gateway into this scene to signify the crossing of the threshold.
7. LEARNING THE RULES OF THE NEW WORLD
Now the MC is in the new world, and he has to learn how everything works here. He may have to master the language, make sense of customs and rituals, understand taboos and grasp the hidden meanings of what is said.
Make the new world as different from the old as possible. Show the MC struggling, making mistakes, unwittingly causing offence, getting robbed or ripped off, learning and adapting.
This can be a single scene, or it may spread over several scenes. The learning of the rules can also take place in the 'Crossing the Threshold' scene or as part of the 'Trail of Trials'.
Surprisingly often, the first 'Learning the Rules' takes place in a tavern, pub, inn, bar or saloon. That's a natural choice. After all, if you were to travel to an unknown country to face untold dangers, you would probably spend a night in a hotel and get your bearings in a coffee shop too. It's the kind of place where strangers can learn about the new world before immersing themselves fully into that world – a sensible choice.
8. THE TRAIL OF TRIALS
In modern fiction, this section can spread over many chapters. Here are some events happening in myths at this stage. Adapt them to suit your novel.
- The MC gets tested.
- A duel.
- A tournament.
- The MC makes an enemy.
- The MC gains allies.
- After some problems, the team members learn to act together and trust one another.
- A new member joins the team.
- The MC proves himself a worthy leader of the team.
- The MC gets a new outfit/costume.
- The locals put the MC through some kind of aptitude test.
- The MC travels on a dangerous route.
8. APPROACH TO THE INNERMOST CAVE
The MC enters a danger zone – the vampire queen's castle, the lair of the wolves, the sadistic scientist's laboratory, the religious cult's secret initiation chamber. On the way there, the MC sees some spooky/ghastly/shocking things, perhaps evidence of abuse and cruelty. The deeper he gets, the more gruesome the sights. (The level of gruesomeness depends on the genre: Horror fiction may show dismembered bodies, Romance fiction won't.)
Consider an underground setting for this part of your novel – somewhere dark, deep in the earth, reached only after a long descent. How about a dungeon, a bunker, a canyon, a railway tunnel, an abandoned mine shaft, a storage cellar, the basement of a closed factory?
This is a section of slow pace and high suspense. Stretch it out, and keep the reader on the edge of her seat. If it suits your story, use sensory impressions to create a creepy atmosphere.
9. THE ORDEAL
This part often comes midway into the novel. The MC suffers physical, mental or emotional pain – or all three. Perhaps he got caught when he tried to infiltrate the villain's underground headquarters, and now the villain's henchmen apply torture to make him reveal his secrets.
Make this experience as painful and scary as your story and genre allow.
You can give the scene poignancy by making the suffering part voluntary. For example, the MC may suffer torture rather than reveal the secret, or he may allow himself to be abused in order to buy time for his friends to escape.
Sometimes the Approach to the Innermost Cave and the Ordeal are not physical actions but a descent into the dark part of the MC's own psyche.
10. THE INITIATION
This can be a positive or a negative event – but it is definitely an intense experience which transforms the MC somehow.
As part of the initiation, she may have to bring a major sacrifice or surrender herself in some way, and she may be granted something precious. She may become wiser, or be accepted into a secret society.
She may experience a form of death and rebirth, either symbolically or physically or both. Physically, this often a near-fatal injury or a near-fatal event, perhaps the direct consequence of the ordeal, or an accident during her escape.
If your story allows, make your MC lose consciousness for a while. Perhaps she faints at the wonderful/terrible sight of something during the initiation, or she lost so much blood during the ordeal that she passed out, or she was nearly drowned during the shipwreck and when she comes to she's been washed onto a beach. She might also survive a murder attempt that leaves her comatose for days.
Whatever happens, when she regains her consciousness – physically and/or symbolically, she is changed. The transformation is crucial.
11. SEIZING THE PRIZE
The MC now takes something precious (a special sword, a magical elixir, the secret code, the abducted princess, evidence of the government minister's corruption) and carries it away with him. He probably found this special something in the innermost cave during the ordeal or initiation.
In many novels, this prize is what he set out to gain from the start.
12. THE ROAD BACK
Now that she has seized the prize, she takes it back to the 'ordinary world' where it is needed or where it belongs.
But the journey back is not smooth. To start with, the evil villain won't simply put up with the loss, but goes after the MC to get it back. At this stage, there is also often a betrayal, as one of the MC's team turns against her, or is revealed as an agent of the enemy.
This section is the climax (or a climax) of the story. In some ways, it is similar to the 'Approach to the Innermost Cave – Ordeal – Initiation' sequence, but things happen much faster. You may have high speed action here.
There's often a confrontation with the villain, complete with physical fighting. If the MC has already defeated the villain earlier, then the villain comes back, set on getting revenge as well as on retrieving the prize. The MC may also realise that the baddie he defeated was just a lieutenant, and now he finds out who the real evil mastermind is, a twist which works great in Thrillers and Horror.
Again, the MC almost dies before he triumphs, and often a metaphorical or ritual purification takes place as the hero is 'resurrected'.
In some novels, the hero really dies at this stage. In this case, someone else (perhaps his sidekick, his lover or his team mates) take up his spirit, complete the mission and bring the prize safely back into the Ordinary World.
The climax can be action-based (e.g. in Fantasy) or emotional (e.g. in Romance) or a combination of both.
14. ARRIVAL BACK HOME
As the MC reenters the ordinary world, she may meet that same gatekeeper again, which is a good opportunity to show how she has grown and changed.
She has to remember or even re-learn the once-familiar rules of the Ordinary World which now may strike her as petty or strange. She may settle comfortably into her old routines, or she may chafe at the restrictions and yearn for the freedom and adventure of her quest.
Do you want a happy ending, a tragic ending, or a bittersweet one? Here are your options.
How do people in the Ordinary World respond to the prize – with gratitude, awe or indifference? In some stories, they don't actually care for the prize the MC went to such great lengths to obtain. The police chief suppresses the evidence, the newspaper editor decides not to run the story, the king pours the elixir down his castle's garderobe (latrine) shaft.
If they value the prize, how do they treat the person who brought it? Do they hail her as a hero and elect her mayor of the community? Or do they imprison her, demote her, or chase her out of town? Maybe they kill her the moment she arrives, snatch the prize and misuse its power?
How does the reunion with the loved one go? Perhaps they have a tearful, happy meeting. But the old mother may have died just before the MC arrived back, and the lover for whom the MC undertook the quest and risked her life hasn't waited for her but married someone else.
In your novel, you may have all these parts or only some of them, and they don't necessarily happen in exactly this order. Even the ancient myths don't all use the structure as it is. It's quite flexible, so adapt it. Sometimes several of these stages happen simultaneously, or one may be much longer than all the others.
The Hero's Journey is great for revising individual parts of a complete novel draft. Instead of structuring your whole book with this model, pick a section which needs more drama and depth. Consider which of the stages of The Hero's Journey it might correspond to, and use this for inspiration.
At the end of this book, I'll share the beginning of one of my books, the dark epic fantasy novel Storm Dancer, so you can see how I handled the 'Call to Adventure', 'Refusal of the Call' and 'Meeting the Mentor' stages.
preview: read a sample from this book
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