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Conflict and dilemma are mainstays of good storytelling. I call it the pressure cooker effect. The higher the temperature builds, the closer to the climax when the plot bursts wide open.

Novels can be described as a series of scenes chained together. Each scene has a beginning, middle and end. Each chapter, except for the last, might end on a note of expectation like a hook to keep you reading. The climax is usually followed by a quick denouément.

Short stories concentrate a plot into a shorter version but still carry the elements of a hook, conflict and conclusion that a novel contains. Short stories communicate themes and ideas in fewer words, but can still be just as effective. Flash fiction uses economy of words but still aims to deliver a punch.

Endings mustn’t be arbitrary or come out of left field. A new character who rides in at the last moment on a white stallion and saves the town doesn’t always work. “Deus ex machina” is when a surprising or unexpected event changes the story line to tie up loose ends or resolve issues. I believe instead that plot should be constructed to be believable and have its own sense of logic. The ending can still surprise but has threads throughout the story, so it is feasible in some respect.

Credibility is where reality meets imagination. If we can accept the premise, the story line follows. If the opening line reveals animals can talk, we must stretch our minds to accept a different set of rules and boundaries that work in that fictional situation. In “suspension of disbelief,” the reader accepts not only the premise but also any fantastic elements as part and parcel of the plot. The reader chooses to buy into the story in order to be entertained, engage his or her mind and explore something new.

The setting of a story can also play a role in the plot. It may create a mood or be used as a metaphor. The presence of rain might foreshadow the next scene or add tension. Man versus the elements is a strong story line in which the setting plays a huge part. Some examples are traveling to the North Pole, climbing Mount Everest, or surviving a tsunami.

When working in any genre, pacing is important. I think it's best to vary the pacing in a story to create interest. The lengths of your sentences can increase or decrease the pacing. Dialogue can put us in real time as the action in the story. If you take time to establish the environment around your characters, you can slow the pacing but also enrich your story.

Laughter and fear both make our hearts beat faster and give us a thrill. Have you noticed when you see a thriller movie, every once in awhile something happens that makes you relax a little before the next big scene? Or music in the background builds tension and you know something's going to happen? This roller coaster effect entertains us.

However, books aren't limited to Hollywood effects and endings. In novels, words describe the visuals, sounds and smells and set the tone of mood and emotion. Readers develop their own impressions and visuals. The imagination of the reader is ignited by the written word.

In forming your story line, make room for play or strategy as in a chess game. Each puzzle piece of information may move a story forward. How does circumstance affect your characters? Create moments where the characters struggle with difficult choices.

Mystery novels make us second-guess the next clue or outcome of the story. My father claimed he could read the first chapter of a crime novel and tell you who did it. Red herrings didn’t fool him.

I believe stories should not be A to B or a direct route from start to finish. I think it's best that they detour along a more challenging path. Many stories have come before the ones we are writing now. Well-crafted stories offer a new angle or twist.

To write stories about hospital emergency rooms, scientific advancement, espionage or other specialized topics may require some specific knowledge or vocabulary. If you are describing war in a historical setting, you may need to know something about military operations, artillery, battleships or airplanes of that time period. If your facts are incorrect, readers will pick up on it.

Let me say something about politics. If you are writing about politicians, foreign policy, the sale of arms to foreign countries, war, political unrest, 9/11 or any topic that may implicate or blame various leaders, be prepared for some resistance or controversy. If you feel you want that type of reaction by all means write about what’s meaningful to you.

My idiom of the month is “the plot thickens” when you consider all your options. When you outline your novel and take a good look at where your story is headed, become the architect of your story. Structure scenes and design events that are meaningful, entertaining and produce strong responses from your reader. Choose your plots with deliberation and be conscious of pacing. Instead of one story line, maybe consider three that overlap and converge. Or if you are writing a historical novel, consider using flashbacks instead of writing it chronologically.

Next month, stay tuned for more on novel outlines.

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The following comments are for "Musings: by Sandra Yuen MacKay"
by sandra

@ Sandra
I have a question, and as a writer, I will probably sound quite stupid.

What is "flash fiction?" Can you give me a definition and some examples that differentiate, say, a short story and a piece of flash fiction?

I've read some of the pieces here at litdotorg, and I have to admit: I just don't get it.


PS: As always, a wonderful column. I'm noticing that the more you focus on monthly output, the stronger your writing becomes. I think you're growing!

( Posted by: OchaniLele [Member] On: June 1, 2009 )

Hi Sandra
I enjoyed reading your article and the plot always thickens. I'm talking about what you wrote and my next action inside my novel. It's fine being a writer but what if for the duration of writing a novel the writer had to become a killer ,on paper, that is. It means going against all that we as citizens believe in. Who starts killing people but that is what we do to our characters to make the blood flow and to taste the action.
You've touched on many topics in your musing. That's good. Every reminder that we must go for credibility, dialogue that works and a story line in a state of flux means no eas time for the writer. Come to think of it the reader has to watch out what is happening or they'll miss the vital clue. Double win I think on the entertainment side.
Have you noticed how in a fair number of films the story or POV is told by one person. One of the characters tells the readers what is happening or their impression and it is only through that person's eyes. Only what that person sees or hears is related.Doing a novel in the same style has wonderful benefits as the finished novel is then more polarized in line with a potential film script or film. Also the mental images will be sharper.And the 'swings' throughout the plot will often keep us guessing.
The type of images we see are akin to those we see when we watch drama at the theatre. I love the shouting and the confidence shown by actors. All they do is read words then say them and something 'magic' happens.The tone and the emotions are everything to being believed. Also it's where detail counts, detail in the correct amount adds conviction.
Ochani asked about Flash Fiction. Everything you mentioned about a novel applies to the flash fiction market. Apart from a start, middle and finish there must be a shin shred of life in there somewhere. Too much and its dulled, But enough and the reader lingers over the last word or words an with luck gets the implications.
The length varies from 6 words to anything up to 1,000 words. I wrote some pieces each 50 words long and all seven were accepted by a newspaper. There is a market for the flash fiction writer and Orchani ought to try his hand. He might even get hooked on it.
That's my few words on the topic of flash fiction. I'll let you explain in more detail what is involved. Thanks Sandra.


( Posted by: Cleveland W. Gibson [Member] On: June 1, 2009 )

Musings on that novel
I must ask a question about novel writing and seek an answer from you. What is considered by you the worst crime of all with novel writing? Is it a bad 'hook', poor characters and a failure to create a plot and so on? Is there one thing that will stop you from reading a novel? I'm sure a lot of readers would love to put that knowledge to good use.How to keep the pages turning? We need to know.
Best wishes
Cleveland W. Gibson

( Posted by: Cleveland W. Gibson [Member] On: June 1, 2009 )

@OchaniLele, Cleveland
Hi Cleveland,
Loved your posts. To me the greatest crime in novel writing is if it doesn't entertain and hold my interest. I think there are so many facets and ways of telling a story. Some stories dwell on character so much they don't have a concrete end result and things are left kind of in the air. This can be maddening for me but like life, there are no definitive answers sometimes. Open-endings are realistic. They make you ponder and ask why.

Hi OchaniLele,
Thanks for your comments! Cleveland had some good points about flash fiction. I'm published some here on Lit.Org. Flash fiction are like vignettes that tell a story under a 1,000 words. Some flash fiction is between 50 to 100 words. Cleveland told me about a website called "Flash Me Magazine" where you can submit and sample flash fiction.
The challenge of flash fiction is to be succinct. To me good flash fiction puts me in right in the scene and gives some kind of insight or glimpse into that particular event or the characters involved. They should have a beginning, middle and end.
Flash fiction may be immediate and quick but if written well, there should be some sort of dramatic tension. So you see, flash fiction or micro fiction is an art form in itself.
I've read some flashes that were so obscure I didn't get it. I needed a four hundred word explanation to understand a 200 word flash. That's the downside I guess.

( Posted by: sandra [Member] On: June 1, 2009 )

Excellent article Sandra especially when it evoked so many questions, that would excite me as a writer. I was thinking about my own approach in writing and feel that it is very important, like a painter, to create with words a visual picture in the reader's mind. This picture can also evoke feelings and reactions, as well as something that is often missed in the topic of story telling and that is humour. Humour is a subtle and delicate subject that takes a lot of craftmanship. I hope one day you can find a way to describe in a Musings Column some pointers to your readers how to hone this skill into their stories. A few thoughts from a constant fan of your Column, Gale.

( Posted by: Gale [Member] On: June 1, 2009 )

Thanks Gale! I will take your suggestion and maybe in the future I could write something about humour.


( Posted by: sandra [Member] On: June 2, 2009 )

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