Writing Hacks #9: Use plot points to map out your story structure

Plot is a massive topic and one I’ll frequently return to in Writing Hacks. Today, I want to talk about macro-plotting and using plot points to anchor your major story destination points to help keep your novel’s shape. I would always recommend that you write knowing how your book is going to end, but more than that, you should know (at least roughly) what your major plot points are along the way. As we’ll see below, most plots will follow an approximation of this standard plot diagram below:

It can be helpful to map out your novel visually. For one it gives you an easy reference and lets you ‘see’ the overall shape of your novel. These things are great motivators too, keeping you on track and more likely to finish. Each time you hit a milestone it’s a ‘Well done! you’re one step closer to finishing! Plus, when you’re dealing in bitesized novel chunks you are by default not wrangling with the while massive lump of novel all at once. Let’s breeze through this example structure.

Setup – Typically this will establish the status quo, who is your point of view character(s). Your job here is to also get across location, time and place (using direct action) to situate the reader in your novel. Some sense of what your PoV character wants or is lacking, subtly conveyed, would make for a strong setup.

Plot Point 1 – Inciting incident: This will be either something borne out of your PoV character’s action; e.g. The trod upon dogsbody finally quits their job, a happily married woman finds herself inexplicably following someone she finds attractive. Or it is something that happens to your character; e.g. a river bursts its banks forcing a family to move out of their flooded house and in with cantankerous relatives. Either way, something happens to upset the status quo and creates conflict or dilemma with your PoV character.

Rising action – This is simply development and further smaller plot points that move the story forward. Sub-plots emerge and your PoV character’s desires and wishes are frustrated and prevented. Complexity increases.

Plot Point 2 – An emblematic major moment in the novel. There will be a small climax that will be bigger in significance than the inciting incident in Plot Point 1, but not as big in significance as the climax in Plot Point 3 to come. This will give the sense of rising drama and is critical to the build up to the climax.

Plot Point 3 – This is the key period of drama in your novel, the moments you’ve worked so hard to build up patiently. It will be the key point of drama or crisis for your PoV character. In police procedurals, it’ll be the scene where the detective finally confronts the killer he/she’s been chasing. It’s the moment when the husband realises he’s lost his wife forever or when the fight between two warring armies takes place. Things may be happening fast but here you need to maximise the dramatic payoff. Don’t rush through this, depict the full action and emotion of what’s happening.

Falling action – This is the fallout of PP3, a warrior is picking through the dead army, sombre but victorious. The husband is wondering how he can live without her, the detective has the perp in cuffs but is scarred mentally from the confrontation.

Exit music

Plot Point 4 – You’re cantering towards the finish line now, so what’s the exit music to your novel? Is there an emblematic moment? A medal ceremony to laud the heroic warriors. The husband crying into a photograph while on a bench? The detective hitting the bottle? This is your moment to leave your novel’s last impression on the reader…or set up the sequel.

Mapping out your novel doesn’t mean you can’t be flexible

I find mapping out a novel at a macro level extremely helpful. That doesn’t mean that the plot points are set in stone forever and can never change. Sometimes in the process of writing you think of a better idea and that’s awesome! You just re-plot, checking that everything still fits together as a whole- or if not you start again. Some people find it helpful to map out the minor plot details in this visual way too, with detailed graph annotations that serve as a turn by turn sat-nav for their novel. I’ve seen amazingly detailed excel charts of each character’s plot arcs, people who use revision flash cards and sticky notes. However you do it, you need to find a method that works for you and that might take some experimentation and trial and error. So try a few different ways and see what works best for you.

Happy plotting

CH

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Writing Hack #3: How to get character depth

Think of your favourite ever novel or TV series. Now think about one or two of the main characters. They’re interesting right? They’re complex, like a real person? If you took that character out of the novel or off the screen and placed them in a setting of your choosing I bet you could predict exactly how they’d behave or react to certain events. That sort of character is called lots of things; a three-dimensional character, a character with depth, well-fleshed out, rounded, complex and so on.

But how do you make an idea in your head become this brilliant character? Of course there are many techniques but today let’s look at one writing hack that for me, makes the biggest difference most quickly.

Three contrasting character traits

Got a character in mind? In your head they are probably already complex. Don’t have a character? Well you can even start with the traits and a character may emerge around them. Let’s pick three contrasting traits and see where it takes us. Let’s say someone is;

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  • Submissive
  • Jealous
  • Hysterically witty

Now i’m imagining a girl with an older sibling who’s better looking, successful but is actually not as clever. Or a guy with an idiot boss whose job he is desperate for but isn’t quite bold enough to get. You’ll now start to see why there is often a debate about whether you can separate out plot and characters as separate concepts. They are intrinsically entangled. To a large extent, character is plot.

Using these three contrasting character traits as an authorial technique, the character has an instant level of complexity borne out of their competing emotions and desires. The key is to have contrasting emotions, one negative and two positive or vice versa. You have three positive or three negative key traits and you get a one dimensional character who’s just good or just bad – BORING.

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Breaking Bad as an example

Let’s take another example, but now someone from recent pop culture, like Walter White from the series Breaking Bad. For those who don’t know the premise, here it is really quickly: Walter is a nice as pie high school chemistry teacher with cancer, a pregnant wife and a disabled son and in some financial difficulty. Worried how they’ll survive after he’s gone, he uses his expertise as a chemist to manufacture crystal meth and enters the murky world of drug dealing to secure his family’s financial future.

Traits change as a character develops but at the start of the series before Walter truly breaks bad, what three key traits does Walter have? For me, he’s a…

  • Family man: Walter loves his family and feels a massive responsibility to safeguard their well being. He would do anything for them, in fact it’s that very thing that gets him into trouble.
  • Downtrodden genius: Walter is an under appreciated genius – his job well beneath his intellect. He also founded a startup that went into the financial stratosphere just after he left. He’s justifiably bitter about it, and to cap it all, he has to work at the car wash to supplement his income and even wash the cars of some of his rich students.
  • Liar: Walter is a pathological liar.

So someone who is a family man is also a liar. From just those two traits you can start to develop plot. He lies to his family. Why? To protect them. Thus we get conflict, intrigue. The third trait adds more depth; not just that Walter has a skill, but also that he’s been overlooked and under-estimated his whole life. Here’s his chance to prove people wrong.

Let’s recap

  • Picking three key contrasting character traits will add depth and complexity to your character.
  • Try to think of two positive and one negative, or two negative and one positive to create friction, conflict and intrigue.
  • Be specific with the traits. Being simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’ won’t help you. Think about what defines your character traits and ask yourself, why are they like this? In that, there is plot.

Got your three character traits? In next week’s post i’ll talk about how to best reveal  how your character has these traits; with direct action of course.

If you want to support me then grab a copy of my People’s Book Prize shortlisted spy thriller Orca Rising and review it on Amazon by writing something nice and colouring in all the stars 🙂 If you’d like some assistance with your writing why not check out my critique service.

Until then. Adios.

CH