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.
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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.