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Plot: Scene, Sequel and Summary

Have you ever heard the phrase ‘scene and sequel’, and wondered what it meant?

Scene

A scene is a unit of action. Something happens. A scene isn’t a person thinking about other characters, it isn’t a group of people sitting around talking about what did happen (or what might happen), and it isn’t a long passage of description following a character through a range of actions.

KM Weiland says each scene will have three parts:

  • Goal: what your viewpoint character wants
  • Conflict: why he or she can’t achieve their goal
  • Outcome: the build-up to the next scene

Sol Stein gives a useful list of questions to review for each scene:

  • Is the scene described in terms of the action that takes place? If there is no action, there is no scene.
  • Is each scene visible throughout so that the reader can see what is happening before his eyes? If the action is not visible, you are probably sliding into narrative summary of past events or offstage events.
  • Which character in the scene do you have the most affection for? How can you make the reader feel affection or compassion for that character in this scene?
  • Is there a character in this scene who threatens the protagonist subtly or openly, psychologically or physically?

Each scene should be from the point of view of a single character, the character who has the most at risk in the scene.

Sequel

Sequel follows scene, and also has three components:

  • Reaction: to the disaster in the preceding scene
  • Dilemma: what to do?
  • Decision: Determine a solution to the dilemma. This will formulate a goal for the next scene (or the next scene where this is the POV character)

There is some controversy over sequel. Some say:

The sequel—the second half of the Scene—sometimes gets shortchanged. But it is every bit as important as the scene, since it allows characters to process the events of the scene and figure out their next move. (KM Weiland)

Others say:

If you’ve used the ‘Scene & Sequel’ method of structuring, shrink the sequels. Most sequels need to be no longer than a paragraph. Often, a single sentence is enough. (Rayne Hall)

I’ve read novels with too much introspection, to the point that it brings the plot to a grinding halt. I’ve also read novels where it’s all go-go-go! action scenes, and no one ever stops to think about anything (acting without thinking is as stupid in fiction as in real life). So here is my entirely unsubstantiated view as a prolific fiction reader:

  • If it feels like there is too much sequel, cut some.
  • If it doesn’t feel like there is enough, add some.

The first quarter of the novel is introducing the reader to the characters. Deep point of view is a good way of helping the reader get to know and empathise with the character, and a way of providing us with necessary backstory. However, introspection should not be at the expense of getting the plot moving. The second quarter of the novel is the main character reacting to the first major plot point. Reacting. It therefore makes sense that they have a level of introspection, probably more than in the first quarter.

The third quarter of the novel, is when the main character starts to act rather than react, so there is probably less introspection. The final quarter of the novel is building up to the climax. The pace of the novel should be increasing: shorter sentences, more action—and less introspection. We want the heroine to defuse the bomb, catch the villain and get her man. We don’t want to bring the tension to a grinding halt a with a detailed and descriptive interior monologue about whether she should have chosen Plum Seduction nail polish rather than Cherry Crush and what might that symbolise. We. Just. Don’t. Care.

Summary

Narrative summary is telling, not showing, and telling should be kept to a minimum. We don’t need to know every detail, for example, of leaving the house, locking the front door, walking to the car, unlocking the driver’s side door, climbing in, then starting the car—unless the villain has hooked a bomb to the ignition, in which case giving this level of detail would ramp up the tension. But if it’s just a part of the everyday routine, we don’t need to know the details. Summarise, then move on to the next action sequence.

The key is to show the intense scenes and tell the less important transitions (the narrative summary) between important scenes. As a guide, if what you are writing has the possibility of present-moment dialogue, it is a scene and should be written as such. If not, you’re in summary. (James Scott Bell)

However, there are times when summary is useful. A short passage of narrative summary will slow the plot down, which can provide a welcome break for the reader if there have been a number of high-action sequences. Summary can also be useful when you have a lot of repetitive action (e.g. household chores, or routine actions at work). Show the action the first time, then use summary. 

 

This brings me to the end of this series on plot and structure. Next week we will start a series on publishing options. Sign up to follow by email to ensure you don’t miss any posts.

Plot: Ten Steps to Story Structure

KM Weiland is the author of two books on writing (Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel), and several works of fiction, including Behold the Dawn and Dreamlander. This post is based on the information in  Structuring Your Novel, available on Kindle, and which I highly recommend for Weiland’s understandable and no-nonsense way of explaining structure in ten steps:

The First Act

1. The Hook

The Hook will always be a question (perhaps explicit, but probably implicit), piquing your readers’ curiosity, urging them to read on and find out, “What happens next?”. This needs to be as close as possible to the beginning of the book—ideally on the first page, if not in the first line.

Your opening also needs to set the tone of your book (is it light, dark, funny, sad, deep …), and perform several other vital functions:

  • Introduce your hero and heroine
  • Establish the time and setting
  • Open with movement
  • Establish conflict

Weiland cautions against using prologues (because they force the reader to begin the story twice), dream sequences (considered Freudian), flashbacks, flashforwards or too much backstory in the opening chapters. Done well, these techniques can form compelling fiction, but they are usually not done well.

2. The Inciting Event

The Inciting Event (which may also be called the Inciting Incident) is the conflict which sets the story’s action in motion. It is most often found in the opening chapter, but sometimes the Inciting Event occurs before the story itself actually starts, and sometimes it won’t happen until late in the first quarter of the book. Be aware that if the Inciting Event doesn’t occur quickly, the story may begin to drag (and remember, if a story feels as if it is dragging, it is probably because the structure is off).

3. The Key Event

The Key Event is related to the Inciting Event. It is that moment or action when the lead character becomes engaged by the Inciting Event. If the Inciting Event is the start of a war, the Key Event is when the protagonist becomes personally involved in the war.

4. The First Plot Point

The First Plot Point is an event that changes everything for the protagonist.

The first quarter of your book lays the foundation of your entire story. Everything that is important at the end of the story must have been introduced in the First Act (equally, everything that is introduced in the First Act should have relevance and importance later in the story). Laying this foundation for future conflict is the most important function of the First Act.

The second function is to give your readers the opportunity to learn about your characters, about their goals and motivations. This is best done through the use of deep point of view.

The Second Act

5. The First Half of the Second Act

The protagonist is now reacting to the events around them. There must be no choice: they have to react to what has now become the status quo. There is no way back to ‘normal’.

6. The Midpoint

The Midpoint is your story’s second major plot point (or, as Randy Ingermanson says, your second disaster). The difference is that now your character is more equipped to handle what happens.

7. The Second Half of the Second Act

Now your protagonist is ready to go on the offensive, to take action against the antagonistic force. This Midpoint has changed the way your protagonist sees the world, so this is also where we will start to see change in their character arc (because character change, like conflict, is one of the hallmarks of good fiction).

The Third Act

8. The Third Plot Point

This is, once again, going to change everything. Whatever happens here is going to force your character to a low place. He’s going to finally have to analyze his actions and his motivations and get down to the core of his own personal character arc.

9. The Climax

Your Climax is the point of the whole story. This is where the conflict must finally be resolved, one way or the other. It will

probably start at around the 90% mark of the story, and finish only a few pages before The End.

10. The Resolution

The Resolution is the one final scene that shows how your character will react to the events of the Climax. These closing paragraphs have dual purpose: to leave your reader with warm feelings about this book, and to sell your next book.
The three-act structure, the Snowflake method, the ten-point method … What method of plotting do you use? One of these, or something different?

Plot: The LOCK Elements

Last week we looked at the GMC method of plotting and characterisation. This week we are looking at another acronym, LOCK, used by James Scott Bell to describe what he sees as the four key elements of a strong plot:

Lead – Objective – Confrontation – Knockout

Lead

A novel needs a lead character that readers can bond with:

  • We must be able to identify with the lead character, to relate to them on a human level.
  • We must have some sympathy for the Lead’s challenges, by putting the Lead through jeopardy or hardship, making them the underdog or making them vulnerable.
  • The Lead must be likeable. I’ve read too many books with an unlikeable hero or heroine. This is especially annoying in a romance, where an unlikable hero raises questions about the intelligence and discernment of the heroine (or vice versa).
  • There must be some inner conflict, an emotional struggle that catches our attention. Most of us avoid conflict in our personal lives, so there is a tendency to want to avoid writing about it. But:
We must not confuse conflict that can be ruinous in life with conflict that is the essence of fiction. Readers enjoy conflict because it is in fiction and not in their lives. (Sol Stein)

The reader needs to immediately know who the Lead character is, to enable us to build a relationship and develop empathy to their situation:

Ideally, the protagonist should play an important role in the first scene to avoid the reader mistaking another character for the protagonist. One of the marks of amateur novel-writing is a lack of early clarity as to whose story we, as readers, should be following. (Sol Stein)

This is one reason why prologues set in the past don’t always work: the reader is investing themselves in a character, only to find that character has no place in the main plot.

We also need to see what internal and external conflict the Lead is facing as quickly as possible:

One major problem with beginner’s manuscripts is that the protagonists aren’t pressured enough. And if a main character is not squeezed hard enough, we’re not really going to know him because we’re not going to have an opportunity to see what’s inside him. (Angela Hunt)

Objective

The Lead must have an objective, a want so strong he must have it or suffer deep loss. This gives the story forward motion. An objective could be trying to get something (e.g. in a romance, the hero and heroine are trying to get love), or to get away from something (e.g. in a thriller, the protagonist might be trying to escape the antagonist).

The objective can’t be resolved too quickly:

Everyone in your story should want something badly. Every major character should have their own script and personal goals that will, at some point, bring them into conflict with the world and/or with your protagonist. (Angela Hunt)

Confrontation

Opposition to the Lead’s objective: novels are about confrontation, about conflict. There needs to be adhesive, something holding the opposing parties together, something which prevents the Lead or opposition from walking away from the fight.

Without a strong opponent, most novels lack that crucial emotional experience for the reader: worry. If it seems the hero can take care of his problems easily, why bother to read on? (James Scott Bell)

A clear antagonist is important for confrontation. Just as there needs to be a Lead character, there needs to be someone in conflict with that Lead:

Your protagonist needs challenges to stretch and change him throughout his story journey, and that’s the role of the antagonist.(Angela Hunt)

Note that the antagonist isn’t necessarily a villain: it is the character whose goals are in opposition to the goals of the lead, causing conflict. In a romance, this might be the hero—she lives and works in the country; his career is in the city. This is actually more interesting than a villain, as there are compelling reasons for both views: neither character is wrong.

Knockout

The final battle, or the final choice, faced by your protagonist. Your objective as an author is to leave the readers satisfied, but in an unpredictable way.

As you can see, like the GMC elements, the LOCK elements are a combination of plot and character. A well-thought out GMC and/or LOCK will ensure you have sufficient conflict to drive your plot and allow your characters to grow and change.

Plot: The GMC Elements

GMC: Goals, Motivation, Conflict was first published in 1996, is now available as a Kindle edition, and is recommended reading. Authors who use the methodology tell me it’s changed their writing (yes, they mean for the better), and I believe them. I see too many manuscripts (or self-published books) with insufficient conflict.

The basic premise of GMC is that each character must have a goal—something they must achieve at any cost. They are motivated to achieve this goal, but some form of conflict gets in the way. The best characters have internal and external GMC.

Dixon envisages the GMC method being useful for several aspects of writing:

– plotting

– characterisation

– revision

Dixon says:

There is no right or wrong way to approach your manuscript, story idea, or revision. Seek first to understand the concept of GMC, and only then ask yourself how you can use GMC in your own work.

Commercial fiction readers expect your characters to have goals, to be motivated, and to face conflict. They expect you to answer four simple questions:

Who = character
What = goal
Why = motivation
Why not = conflict

The GMC for a character can be encapsulated in a single sentence:

[Goal] because [Motivation] but [Conflict]

This can be illustrated by Dorothy, from The Wizard of Oz: Dorothy wants to get home to Kansas (goal) because her Auntie Em is sick (motivation) but she must fight a witch on her way to the Emerald City to see the Wizard (conflict) who has the power to send her home.

Dixon recommends authors create a GMC chart for each character, then examine where the internal or external goals or motivations of each character product conflict with another character:

Character

Internal

External

Goal
Motivation
Conflict

Each character should have an internal and an external goal, motivation and conflict, and it is these conflicting character GMCs which give a novel its overall plot arc.

Goal

Important points to remember:

  1. Goals must be important and urgent. Failure will create consequences for the character.
  2. Multi-layered characters have both external and internal goals.
  3. The large central goal of a character is often accompanied by a series of smaller goals, which drive the action of the book.
  4. Characters goals can change over the course of a book.
  5. All the characters in your book should have GMC.
  6. Character decisions drive the plot.
  7. Goals are not always achieved by the characters. If you choose this structure, you must satisfy the reader in other ways.
  8. Multiple goals are like meteors. They should crash into each other and have impact on your character—forcing him to make decisions.

Motivation

Proper motivation is the missing component for many authors. In fiction we have to have our characters do things they wouldn’t normally do.

When someone tells you that your story is not believable, it isn’t because you sent the characters to a space planet. It’s not because your character cured cancer. It’s because your GMC wasn’t logical. Your GMC wasn’t appropriate to your characters. What the reader is telling you is, “I didn’t believe these people would find themselves in this situation or make these decisions.”

Conflict

Quick definitions of conflict

  1. Conflict is a struggle against someone or something in which the outcome is in doubt.
  2. Conflict is bad things happening to good people.
  3. Conflict is bad things happening to bad people.
  4. Conflict is friction, tension, opposition.
  5. Conflict is two dogs and one bone.

If the conflict could be settled by a short conversation between two adults, it’s a misunderstanding:

Misunderstanding could provide a brief minor conflict, but readers get restless when you try to extend a simple misunderstanding into the book’s central conflict … If your characters in rocky relationships can sit down and resolve some misunderstanding, then you don’t have conflict.

Equally:

Bickering is not conflict. Not only does bickering fail as true conflict, it’s annoying to many readers.

And:

A string of coincidences culminating in character stupidity do not make a believable story.

This will, however, guarantee you reviews commenting on your TSTL heroine (or, less often, TSTL hero). TSTL? Too stupid to live. In the days before ebooks, these titles were thrown at the nearest wall. Now they are just deleted.

Dixon also explains why I’m an editor, not a novelist:

If conflict makes you uncomfortable or you have difficulty wrecking the lives of your characters, you need to consider another line of work.

Have you used the GMC method? Did it improve your writing? How?

An Introduction to Plot

Randy Ingermanson states the essentials of fiction are plot, character, theme and building a credible story world. Although this series of posts will focus on plot, it is inseparable from character, and the two must be considered together (as you will see over the coming weeks). Ronald Tobias says:

Plot and character. They work together and are inseparable. To understand why a character makes one particular choice as opposed to another, there must be a logical connection (action/reaction). At times the character’s behaviour should surprise us, but then, upon examining the action, we should understand why it happened.

What is Plot?

Plot is the journey taken by the protagonist, a journey in which he or she must face a series of problems to arrive at a resolution, and experience personal growth in the journey.

Ronald Tobias distinguishes between plots of the body and plots of the mind. Plots of the body are action plots. They are focused on providing suspense, surprise and fulfilling expectation, and the main character doesn’t necessarily change and grow as an individual (think James Bond). Plots of the mind are character-driven plots where the focus is on the inner workings of human nature, such as romance or women’s fiction.

Plot is not the same as telling a story:

Before there was plot there was story. Story was the narration of evens in the sequence that they happened. Plot is story that has a pattern of action and reaction. Plot is more than just a chronicle of events. The listener asks a different question: “Why does this happen?” (Tobias).

Conflict

The basis of fiction is conflict.

All good plots come from well-orchestrated characters pitted against one another in a conflict of wills (Sol Stein).

Ideally, conflict should be a combination of internal and external conflict that drives both the external plot and the internal character arc:

We expect events to affect the main character in such a way that they force a change in his personality. Your main character should be a different person at the end of the book than at the beginning (Tobias).

Conflict produces character growth in real life—and in fiction. Testing our characters is the only way they can change and grow, and believable character change makes compelling fiction. This is a biblical principle:

We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us. (Romans 5:3-5)

A good plot has a combination of fast-paced scenes and slower-paced scenes. But there also need to be ups and downs in the plot. It can’t all be conflict, with the situation getting worse and worse for the protagonist, or the reader can start to find the book tiring (the opposite situation is a complete lack of conflict, which the reader is likely to find boring).

In order to be good to their readers, authors have to be willing to be pretty nasty to their characters. One of the first things any novelist learns is to raise the stakes. Think of the worst possible thing that could happen to the character, then make it worse (KM Weiland)

Equally, the reader needs to see some minor victories so they can believe the protagonist will triumph over the odds.

Structure

Novels need a structure to support the story . As a reader, I find it more enjoyable to read a novel with some editing errors but a solid plot and structure than an error-free manuscript with a plot that doesn’t engage me. When I’m reading for pleasure, I don’t necessarily notice the structure of the book, whether it exactly follows a standard three-act structure. What I notice is places where the plot begins to drag:

If a film or book seems to drag, it’s usually because it is off structurally (James Scott Bell).
Ronald Tobias describes the classic structure:
The beginning, commonly called the setup, is the initial action of the situation, presented to us as a problem that must be solved. The beginning defines your characters and the wants of your major character. Aristotle says a character wants either happiness or misery. This want (or need) is called intent.

Once you’ve established the intent of your character(s), the story goes into the second phase, which Aristotle called the rising action. The character pursues her goal. The action clearly grows out of what happened in the beginning. Cause, now effect. But the protagonist runs into problems that keep her from successfully completing [her] intention … reversals. Reversals cause tension and conflict because they alter the path the protagonist must take to get to her intended goal.

The final stage is the end, the logical outcome of the events in the first two phases. Everything—who, what and where—is explained, and everything makes sense. (Tobias)

This is commonly referred to as the three-act structure, and will be the subject of a later post. Next week we will examine conflict in more detail using the GMC method.