Monthly Archives: January 2010

Pumping Up the Plot (Part 1): 6 Vital Signs of A Healthy Plot

"Elementary, my dear Watson: We want to pump you up!"

So you’re good at coming up with interesting characters. Or maybe you can describe a freshly mowed lawn right down to the chopped up tennis balls and cut-grass-mixed-with-dog-poop smell. But if all your writing mojo turns to Jello as soon as someone mentions the word “plot,” here’s a little something that might help: the 6 most important vital signs for a healthy plot.

Use this list if you’re struggling to come up with a plot and don’t have a clue where to start. Or use it to double-check an idea for a plot, see if it’s likely to go the distance or leave you stranded.

6 Vital Signs of A Healthy Plot

1. WANT / DESIRE: This is the lifeblood of plot. If you can’t identify what your character wants, you have no plot. If you know intellectually what your character wants, but don’t necessarily feel it, then you might have a plot—but probably not the strongest one.

What you want is to feel in your gut the ache or hunger or desire your character has for a particular person, thing, or course of action. Then you’ve got the beginnings of a great plot.

2. OBSTACLES: Figure out who or what stands in the way of what your character wants. If she/he can get what they want easily, you have no plot. If he/she cannot get it easily, but you’re not quite sure what the obstacle is, then you have a plot, but it’s still too vague. Sharpen and refine until you know exactly what the “wall” is.

3. TENSION: Want + Obstacles = Tension. If you can’t feel the tension, then you haven’t fully identified what your characters want or what the obstacles are. Go back and work on Vital Signs 1 and 2.

4. OPPORTUNITY: Your characters have to believe they can get what they want (even if it’s impossible). Otherwise, they have no reason to act. Make sure you give them some chance (real or imagined) to succeed, even if you snatch it away from them in the end.

5. SURPRISES / CHANGES: Only two types of plots are allowed to unfold in a straight line: boring ones and new ones. Since there are no new plots, and you probably don’t want your story to be boring, you should always be looking for twists and turns, unexpected challenges and surprises as you write. These are the touches that differentiate a simple plot from a complex one, and turn an ordinary novel into a page-turner. (Plus, they can make a story or novel a lot more fun to write.)

6. RESOLUTION: You don’t have to know exactly how your story’s going to end before you write it. And you can have whatever resolution you think is best: positive, negative, neutral, ambiguous, etc. But if you don’t have some kind of feeling for where the character’s want is going to lead him/her, what kinds of futures are possible for that character given his/her desires and the obstacles presented, your plot is going to lose direction.  “Starts out strong, but loses steam”—that’s the epitaph for novels written with no resolution in mind.

NEXT WEEK:  Pumping Up the Plot (Part 2) — 5 Exercises to Boost Your Plot-Writing Mojo

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New Writers’ Blog: Beyond The Margins – Check it out!

Another blog?! OMG, aren’t there like more blogs in the world than there are people in China? And what happens when all those people in China start their blogs?

Well, let’s face it: we can never have too many blogs. At least, good ones. And since I’m one of the main contributors for this new one, it’s got to be good, right?

Okay, there’s the whole “When are you going to actually update your blog” issue.  But this new blog is a group project, with 11 other writers. So no matter how stale my ideas get, there will be 11 other people making sure fresh material gets posted every day.

Beyond The Margins is the name of the new blog, and instead of trying to describe what it’s about, I’ll just reproduce its “About” section here:

Beyond The Margins is the on-line sounding board for a group of writers who met, taught, workshopped or otherwise communicated through Grub Street Inc., a nonprofit creative writing center in Boston. We have published novels, short fiction, poetry, newspaper and magazine articles, and our backgrounds and careers run the gamut from social work and medicine to journalism, law, graphic design, and metalwork.

Beyond The Margins offers inside information on publishing and tips on creating memorable scenes and great dialogue. We debunk the myths of freelance writing, deliver book reviews and interviews with authors and editors and agents, and take humorous looks at the craft, the industry and ourselves.

We hope the diversity of our voices, experiences and interests will inject energy and insight into all our posts. And we hope readers will feel free to join in the discussion. Because even if we’re passionate about what we write, the best material always comes from out there, beyond the margins.

Sounds great, huh?  At least, if you’re interested in publishing or have writerly aspirations.  Which it seems like 99.9999% of the world does. (Except for my dad, who’s always thought it would make far more sense for everyone else to write about him.  But that’s for another blog.  Or therapy.  Or a novel. Whichever comes first.)

Anyway, enjoy Beyond The Margins!

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