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Help with plotting...

When you need help to plot the seemingly unplottable ...

Learn from the masters. When, in their youth, they needed help to plot their material, they consulted their masters, so you're entering into a 'continuity of the generations' stretching back to Chaucer and beyond.

Writers across the centuries have not merely invented the wheel, they've found fifty different patterns for its spokes, and twenty treads for its tires (or tyres, depending on which system of spelling you'll need to use.)

In this article, I'm just going to look at the broad points of plotting. If you find the lever and fulcrum you need here — exactly what you need to help to plot your material — you're in business. But we examine the whole theory and execution of plotting in the WRITE! segment, so if you're still stuck (or get stuck again), follow this link and bookmark the page, for help to plot the most elusive story thread.

When the beginning of a novel (or story of any length) is refusing to 'gel,' as yourself one question: What makes the plot go? Alfred Hitchcock had an answer to perfect, it's still clockwork. He called it the 'McGuffin.'

The McGuffin is the 'device' which makes events, people and places coalesce into a story. When you have this element identified, tagged and labeled, the beginning of your novel will usually suggest itself. But it's not always as easy as it seems! For example...

What would you call the McGuffin of Moby Dick? If you said, "A white whale," you actually missed the point. It's Ahab's insanity, the crazed hunger for revenge, which drives the plot forward, and is the reason for the next 400 pages. Melville's McGuffin shapes the book's opening. The Peaquod is hiring on and heading out, under a cloud of gloom and doom: the foreshadowing of disaster is already perceptible. If Herman Meville ever needed help to plot his signature novel, his author's preoccupation would not be with a whale, but with Ahab's insanity. What would you call the McGuffin of Treasure Island ? This one's hard to miss! Billy Bones has it; everybody wants it, they'll kill to get it, and Jim Hawkins is literally caught in the crossfire. The existence of a secret treasure map drives the novel. Given Billy's turning up at the inn, complete with map, no one would need help to plot the first six chapters or so — they race along, sparkling like champagne.

The same 'device' drives Star Wars (the Death Star plans), and National Treasure (the clues to the Templar hoard), and even Fellowship of the Ring (Bilbo has it, Gollum and the Nazgul want it, they'll kill to get it, and Frodo is caught in the crossfire!)

So, regarding the opening of your novel — take a tip from Hitchcock. Find the McGuffin. And do see the WRITE! segment, the nuts and bolts of how to get any plot up and running, no matter how uncooperative it's being.

If the McGuffin is the 'ignition,' getting the story off to a strong start, all plots need a full fuel tank if they are not going to run down in the middle. Popular science fiction writer David Gerrold likens a well-structured plot to a three-act play. When you need help to plot the core of the work (and occasionally we all do, don't feel sheepish about it), take advice from another veteran professional...

A good plot has three clearly distinct segments: a beginning, a middle and an end. Think of it as the three acts of either a stage play or a classically-structured movie. In the first act you (the writer) "get jack up in a tree." In the second act you "throw rocks at him." In the third act, you "think of a way to get him down."

David Gerrold nailed the 'system' with the same clockwork precision as Alfred Hitchcock and his McGuffin, and here is much of the help to plot to unplottable that you need — albeit in a nutshell. Remember, link through and bookmark the in-depth page in case you need it later.

The McGuffin is the creature that chases Jack up the tree. In 'formula romance' it would be the problem keeping hero and heroine apart (or at loggerheads). In the classic western, it's the demon railroad being driven through, and ruining, the prime cattle range. In the SF novel, it's the killer virus that just arrived on the returning space probe. No matter the 'dressing,' there is always a plot device doing the job of backing the principal character(s) into a corner out of which he, she or they will have to fight, struggle or argue. In a courtroom drama, the hero is wrongly accused of a crime. In an action thriller, s/he is suddenly on the run from enemies, the law, or both...

So ends the first act, and you might easily know how the story turns out. You might have glimpsed the ending even before you backtracked and worked out where it all began. Now — a little help to plot the middle, please!

The midsection of a novel (or movie) can be a paddle through shark-infested waters. Some novels start well, end well, and seem to wander in circles in the middle. One only stays with it because the characters have become familiar and appealing (and maybe you skipped ahead to see how it turns out, and since you know good stuff is coming, you'll sweat through the tedious or repetitive parts).

The object is to keep up the pace and tension ... throw rocks at Jack. But, what kind of rocks? How many? How much rock-throwing is too much? What will readers 'buy' as good drama, and how much is over the top into sheer melodrama?

The middle of a book is where the risks of over- and under-writing are highest. You can't afford to ramble (people just stop reading), but you don't want to rush it (if you do, the book reads as if you were bored with the material yourself and scrambling to get through it).

You're hunting for just the right rocks to throw. If this section of your story is problematical, you'll need a layer or two more help to plot your way through the minefield than can be included on this 'quick start' page. Examine the nuts and bolts, the building bricks of fiction. Rest assured, there ain't a story that can't be worked out, and every writer occasionally needs some degree of help to plot difficult material. You're in good company.

Are you through the minefield and stuck on the home stretch? Nothing is worse, because you feel so close to done, and then a hurdle appears before you, and all at once you're looking for ways around, or under, or through. In fact, the only legitimate way is to go over it. Under and around and though are possible, but they involve cheating. You'll be pulling 'the rabbit out of the hat' trick, and some readers will notice. Some will feel let down.

And the end of the book is no place to shortchange people who have been with you for hundreds of pages. If you know you need help to plot your way through this, get help, don't cheat. (More on this later.) The end of the novel is critical, because it's the part you readers are most likely to remember, since it's the part they read most recently. The end has to be excellent, not just good, because this is the same reader you want to leave salivating for your next novel.

At the end of your current work, you're trying to score the impulse buy for your next book. The next time your reader sees a novel of yours on the shelf, you want the immediate sale. In traditional marketing, they refer to such customers as 'warm leads.' In online affiliate marketing you're said to 'own' this particular customer. The same applies at the bookstore, or if you're doing a newsletter to promote your next book. Think of your readers as your customers. After he has spent three decades on Hollywood's 'A-list' you'd have to trust Harrison Ford to know what he's talking about. You might have heard him mention how he regards his viewers as his customers ... and this is the key to success in the entertainment industry. Fiction writers are part of the same industry, and the same ground rules apply to Harrison Ford and yourself!

So — be honest, now! — need help to plot a fantastic ending? Don't be embarrassed to admit it. Teams of writers work on Hollywood movies, each one dissecting what the others wrote, to decide what worked (and didn't), and why (and why not). These tag-team writers have already re-re-reinvented the most high-tech wheel in history, so take your lead from the best of them. James Cameron.

Titanic. Aliens. The Abyss. The Terminator. Look past the fact that three our of four are SF; the genre is of no consequence. The 'Cameron Cascade Finish' is a model that is applicable to any genre, equally useful in the romance, the western, the actioner. You haven't seen these movies? Rent a couple. (Grit your teeth, if you don't care too much for SF. You need help to plot your own novel's big finish, so suffer for your art a little, okay? It's only a couple of hours.)

These movies have a lot more to them than the SF element. (If you really cant bear SF, watch The Abyss, which is also contemporary, a love story, with the US Seals, plenty of humor, the sea, deep ocean diving, heavy industry, politics ... plenty of 'meat and potatoes' for everyone before you add the SF element. Rent the director's cut, if you can.)

But (important!) watch these movies with shrewd, critical eyes. Identify the McGuffin, note the rocks that are thrown 'at Jack' in the middle, and the elements of the 'Cascade Finish.' The help to plot your way to an unforgettable ending for your novel isn't in any one movie; it comes when you see the model, when you actually catch sight of the mechanism of plotting working! At that moment, you make a huge breakthrough. It's an epiphany. You'll never look back.

I'm going to explore the mechanism of the 'Cascade Ending' in the whole thing, nut by nut, bolt by bolt, in other posts. If you're still stuck, or get bogged down again — or if you're fascinated to get into the machinery, find out what makes it tick...

Here's a wealth of practical help, from experienced writers, to plot your way out of the minefield!
  • Back to basics: what is a plot, anyway?
  • The skeleton of the story: the bare-bones plot line.
  • Plotted yourself into a corner? Stumped? Generating fresh plot ideas!
  • Writing a plot outline ... one of your best marketing tools.

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