The Writer’s Bag of Tricks (Part Four)

Basic Plot Structure Continued: The Point of No Return

The purpose of the Point of No Return scene in your plot is to force your character to move toward the final goal according to the plot type you have chosen. For Overcoming the Monster, the Point of No Return scene forces the main character to pursue the only course of action available to them that will allow them to engage and defeat (or be defeated by) the monster.

The Point of No Return is the result of the inciting incident, which is that singular event which so disrupts the character’s reality that there is no going back to daily life. This incident creates the domino effect that creates the flow and arc of the novel. It is this scene that will define your whole story concept and where the reader will know exactly that the story is about Overcoming the Monster, or The Quest (Lord of the Rings), or The Voyage and Return (Alice in Wonderland), or Rags to Riches (Cinderella), etc.

It is also the Point of No Return scene that concludes all the story set-up. All foreshadowing, clues, introduction of your main character, introduction or hints of your antagonist, etc…should be written into all the set-up chapters prior to the Point of No Return Scene. Remember that these 10 Scenes are not the first 10 chapters of your novel. These are scenes which ensure your storyline works from beginning to end.

Note also that whatever your main character’s central and overwhelming problem is in this scene is the same problem that will only get worse until it seems incapable of being solved. Your character must face the enemy and defeat it or die. It’s always victory or death, in the end. Always.

Let’s look at Star Wars Episode IV again. We left off with Luke rushing off to warn his family after meeting with Obi-Wan. Luke learned of the impending danger from Imperial Forces because they tracked the droids carrying important information to Tatooine, which is Luke’s home. Now in the Point of No Return scene, Luke returns to the farm and finds his aunt and uncle dead (inciting incident). Luke then decides go with Obi-Wan to fight the imperial forces (Point of No Return). There is no way back for Luke. He can only move forward.

You plot and characters hang on the Point of No Return Scene.  It is one of the most important scenes in your novel and is that single scene which can make or break your plot.


Next time: The Main Complication.

The Writer’s Bag of Tricks (Part Three)

Basic Plot Structure Continued

So let’s choose a plot type that we want for our novel. I chose Overcoming the Monster, but you can choose any plot type that you want, and apply the plot structure to that plot type. The Overcoming the Monster plot type is where the protagonist sets out to defeat an antagonistic force (physical, spiritual, social, etc…) which threatens the protagonist and / or the protagonist’s homeland.

We need to break our novel down to the basic elements of our plot so that we can consider what needs to happen for our story to work well. I find that the easiest way to start is to use The 10 Scene Tool (See The Writer’s Little Helper by James V. Smith Jr.), and the first step of The 10 Scene Tool is to set up the first five scenes. Note that the first five scenes are not the first five chapters of the novel. These are the five basic scenes that will ensure that the plot is consistent from beginning to end. We will go through these scenes one at a time.

The Opening Scene

The first scene to work out is the opening scene. The purpose of the opening scene is to create a compelling hook so that your reader is immediately invested in the story. The hook begins in a clear moment of action (or interaction) but reveals enough information to entice the reader while maintaining intrigue. Don’t hide things from the reader, or make it too difficult for the reader to understand what is happening. If the reader is clueless about the events occurring on the page they will put the book down, and that is not a good thing. You want your reader turning pages.

The opening scene puts the reader in the protagonist’s point of view. This could be first person or third person etc… (I will discuss POV later in this series) but the reader will see the events of this scene through your main character’s eyes. We learn the protagonist’s motivation(s) and we also learn what is at stake for the character. There should also be a hint of foreshadowing of what will happen at the end of the novel. Creating some foreshadowing will help your story to arc successfully.

If we apply this opening scene to our plot type of Overcoming the Monster, our opening scene will show our main character living daily life when they learn of some great threat. Some complication of events will move the character forward. This will relate to the inciting incident which is the event that sets your character on the road toward defeating the monster.

In the movie Star Wars, Episode IV we see Luke Skywalker (point of view character) with Uncle Owen purchasing droids to work on the farm (daily life). Luke accidently sees the hologram of Princess Leia (hook) and her desperate plea for help from Obi-Wan Kenobi. The droids escape and Luke goes to look for the droids (the complication that gets the character moving forward). He meets Obi-Wan and learns more information about the battle between the rebel army and imperial forces (stakes). He learns that the imperial army is now close and immediately leaves to warn and protect his family (motivation).

Next time: The Point of No Return Complication

The Writer’s Bag of Tricks (Part Two)

Continuing the discussion regarding plot from last week, I was contacted on social media yesterday by someone else with plot issues. Their story was episodic with no regular plot structure and their story also had no inciting incident. This means that the story had no specific beginning, middle or end, and the possibility that it will sell is slim. First of all, I give them props for recognizing that their book has issues and is not ready for publication.  With a little guidance, they will learn what craft elements to focus on in order to begin revisions. Secondly, they asked great questions:

How does someone come up with a plot?

How do you know if your plot makes sense?

How do you know if your plot works for your genre?

These are all good questions, and I hope to answer them over the next few posts.

Plot Structure Basics

You may have seen something similar to the Freytags pyramid below. There are several versions floating around the internet if you care to look. The purpose of these images is to try to explain how plot structure works within the novel.

plot structure

Freytags – pyramid

You may look at something like the above pyramid and see an image that makes complete sense to you. You are able to take that image and know exactly what direction your story must take. But it doesn’t work for me personally because even though I am a visual person, I can’t take that image and translate it into a cohesive plan that I can break down to create a story chapter by chapter, scene by scene. Technically, the image perfectly and logically explains the basics of plot. It’s just not my gig.

Plot structure

Plot Structure

Above is another version of plot structure. This image gives you an X and Y axis to help you understand plot and structure for the novel. You can see the visual bumps of the rising action and see on the graph where x equals time and y equals tension, and how the climax equals the greatest amount of tension. This chart makes plotting look like a math problem. I was never great at math so it is still difficult to internally translate the image into a plan for a new novel. I mean, I can do it, but it ain’t easy. This graph makes more sense to me because I can see the crises points. But it still is not overly clear.

In educational circles, these types of plotting visual aids may be useful for some people to help them critique a story, or understand the overall structure of a particular novel. These images do provide the concept that the story tension and conflict should continually rise throughout the novel until the climax, and the story should then end quickly after the climax. Every story thread should also be resolved. You can easily see that there are separate crisis points that arise throughout the novel and you can see the three acts structure (beginning, middle, end). Again, this image provides more information about basic plot structure, but it still doesn’t make the task of plotting a new novel any easier.

So how does a writer select their plot type and work out the details of their story, chapter by chapter, scene by scene? Next week I will begin to break plotting down into manageable steps.

The Writer’s Bag of Tricks (Part One)

I was contacted recently by a friend of a friend. You know how that works. Somebody tells somebody else that they are writing a novel, and somebody says, “Oh, I know an editor. You should contact them to help you with…” Fill that in as you like. Now, I don’t at all mind helping writers of all levels. I’ve given countless hours of my personal time helping writers transform stories into better versions of said story. I do this because I want everyone to be successful. I do it because I care. I do it because quality matters. In the situation above, it was clear to me that this particular writer needed to learn some craft elements before they published. Their story had no plot.

As a writer, it is important to make sure that your story is the best possible story it can be before you publish (either self-publish or traditionally publish). If your story starts out good, but ends poorly, or if it starts out good but sags in the middle, then the story isn’t as good as it can be, and you have work to do. If the story doesn’t make sense, you have work to do. It the story is boring, you have work to do. Your responsibility as a writer is to learn your craft to the best of your ability so you can create the best possible reading experience for your audience. You do want to make a sale, don’t you?

The thing that keeps your story from sagging in the middle or from ending poorly, or from being boring, is plot. This should be the first thing that you put into your writer’s bag of tricks.

Plot, for all practical purposes, is the events that happen within a story from beginning to end, and it includes the order that the events happen. Plot forces something to move somewhere, and plot forces something to change. It could be your character, or your setting, or any other variation. Plot means something happens.  And something has to happen.

If you look on Wikipedia you can find The Seven Basic Plots and an explanation of each plot type. You can also find The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations by Georges Polti explained on Wikipedia. And there are tons of books on plot available at your public library, and tons of writing resources on the internet. Just look around.

The general idea of the plot types  is that every single story can be broken down into one of these plot types, and that writers can use these plot types to help themselves create a story that moves something. It’s the plot that can make your story dynamic. It is the plot that can make your reader turn the page, even at three in the morning when they should be sleeping because they have to get up and go to work in three hours.

Let’s be clear. Plot is important. Learn it.

Knowing the plot types will help you plan and write your story. If you know what has to happen on the page, it will help you make things happen on the page and figure out the hows and whys. And you will save days, months, and years of writing unpublishable meandering words.

Take the time to learn the plot types, especially as they relate to your genre. Make something happen on the page so your readers can’t put your story down.

(more on plot next time)