Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Going to the experts

I'm in the middle of my fiction unit for 218. And let's face it--everything I know, I learned from Fob. I've done a decent job of teaching character and character development, but I'm having a hard time teaching plot. It's just not my thing. . . and apparently my attempts have not been successful. Here are some of the questions/comments/concerns I've gotten from my students:

  • I usually know how I am going to begin and end the story, and I always know the climax and maybe one or two other scenes, but I never know how to write what comes in between that.
  • I need help writing good, satisfying endings.
  • How do I make my storyline both believable and entertaining? Are both equally important?
  • Where does plot come from?
  • What are good ways to begin a story?
  • I can create characters that are complex and developed, but I can't seem to be able to do anything with them.
  • How do I balance plot and character development?
  • How do you come up with the idea for a plot?

I know you are all brilliant, brilliant writers, because I've spent hours going over your writing. So what advice can you give my students, and what advice can you give me to teach these things? Or writing exercises that could help? Anything?

P.S. I love you all, and your wit, but I really need serious help here. Thanks. eg


Blogger Edgy said...

Well, There's always the DaVinci Crap approach, meaning that each chapter ends in a minor climax, all of them building to the primary climax.

Personally, I like plot to develop the characters. So if a character can fly a plane or can yodel, I don't really care unless they have to fly to the Alps and enter a yodeling contest to win the prize money necessary to resolve the plot issue.

I also think the plot should derive from what the characters want. I once derided one of my friends for writing a chapter wherein the portagonist and her best friend were treading water in the backyard pool. The scene truly accomplished nothing, and all I wanted by the end of the chapter was for the protagonist to drown. (And you all know that I actually told her that.)

I don't know what to offer in terms of writing exercises. I'll have to think about that more. Perhaps a newspaper clipping activity could help. What you would do is take an article from a newspaper, more than likely something from the front page. That event is the climax. The student then needs to write about the events that led up to that. They don't need to stick to the actual facts, only the end result.

Other thoughts?

10/25/2006 1:29 PM  
Blogger Th. said...


Although this won't do them much good for a class with deadlines, if they're serious about the craft, I find it helpful to set a piece aside when it's burnt down its wick and work on another piece instead.

Later, when I return, that piece that seemed burnt down is anxious to be written again.

Of course, I don't know that that technique would work so well when under contract either....

Something someone taught me once was that when things aren't working, have something go wrong. Anything! Things going wrong is what makes good plot.

10/25/2006 10:07 PM  
Blogger Master Fob said...

I will post a more serious comment later, but I just wanted to point out that "things going wrong" includes car accidents, which always work for me when I'm stuck.

10/25/2006 10:25 PM  
Blogger Tolkien Boy said...

* I usually know how I am going to begin and end the story, and I always know the climax and maybe one or two other scenes, but I never know how to write what comes in between that.

One of the most important things about writing is learning how to weave the stuff you want to write together. My suggestion is to write the scenes you know. Often, those scenes will suggest something to you that will help connect them. Map out the story in your mind. By doing so, you're likely to discover causes and effects that will help your story run smoothly.

* I need help writing good, satisfying endings.

Me too! Often, people try to write too much or too little to create an ending. If you don't know when your story has ended, it's likely that you're not sure what the theme of the story is. Try writing it down in one sentence. That might suggest to you where your ending needs to be, and what amount of strength it needs to have.

* How do I make my storyline both believable and entertaining? Are both equally important?

Yes, and no. Most of the most enduring stories are pretty much unbelieveable. However, each story has to exhibit internal consistency. You must create a world in which there are laws, and abide by those laws strictly. You must also let your reader know those laws, so that they will not feel you are pulling cheap shots later on. Dan Brown, for example, does not do this, and that's why he writes crap.

* Where does plot come from?

Th. has a good point. Plot always develops when something goes wrong in some way. I also think a good plot can be developed with sexual tension.

* What are good ways to begin a story?

I prefer in medias res, or Once upon a time. Just like a good essay or letter, a story is always strongest that grabs the readers interest from the start without spelling everything out for them. "Kathy was upset when Jack left her" is less effective than "When Jack left, Kathy ate three jars of peanut butter without tasting a single spoonful."

* I can create characters that are complex and developed, but I can't seem to be able to do anything with them.

Likely you are, then, as I am, very character driven. Make your characters suffer! Play out different scenarios in your mind. What would happen if your complex characters developed a cold? Or lived in a post-apocalyptic world? Or married a soldier? Playing God with your character's lives mentally or on a sheet of scratch paper almost always yeilds ways in which you can use the strength of the character to promote your own story.

* How do I balance plot and character development?

The masters don't care much about balance, because they do it at the same time. Remember, you're trying to talk about humans (or what have you) doing things, not describe humans and then describe the things they do.

* How do you come up with the idea for a plot?

If you already have characters, ask yourself a number of questions about those characters. Determine their strengths, but pay attention to their weaknesses. That's likely where the plot will develop. "What is this character's greatest fear?" is a particularly useful question in giving you an idea for a plot.

10/26/2006 1:00 AM  
Blogger Th. said...


Tolker's first suggestion has been very helpful for me. When I wrote Byuck, for instance, I had about, oh, a sixth of the book written before I began at the beginning and worked my way through. I arranged the prewritten scenes in likely order and fit them in as I went.

Another vital lesson that is hard to learn is the kill-your-darlings lesson.

One of the first Byuck scenes I ever wrote remains one of the very best scenes I ever wrote. But it's not in the book. No one in Fob has even seen it. It was emotionally powerful and wonderfully sculpted, but it just did not fit into the book I was writing. With it, Byuck would be much less. Maybe someday I can fit that into a different novel, but for now it lies murdered in the street like a literary Laban.

One endings:

Sticking the ending may be the most important part of a good story and for me, I often can't tell how my own stories end. Timmo, who I think only Mr Fob has met, had to have its ending rewritten and rewritten and rewritten before it was good--yet I had thought it was good all along.

It's frustrating to me, because lousy endings are what make me most angry when I'm reading my literary magazines. Yet I can't always tell about my own. This is why working with other writers is so important.

Tolkers's point re: internal lawabiding cannot be stressed enough. Most of the most impactful stories in my reading life have not been in strict conformity with The Real World, but they have been very strict to obey the laws of their own existance.

Breaking those laws is as POing as bad endings and pointless episodes, as Edgy pointed out.

10/26/2006 5:22 PM  
Blogger Th. said...


Sorry--that should have been on endings, not one endings.

10/26/2006 5:23 PM  
Blogger Master Fob said...

My promised serious answer:

-I start at the beginning, keep that wonderful ending in mind, and work toward it page by page. Often wanting to write the ending is what motivates me to slog through the middle. I just try to think of what interesting things could possibly lead me toward the end I've envisioned.
-The only way to write good satisfying endings is to practice. And to read them.
-Usually believability and entertainment come to me only after a lot of feedback and revision.
-Plot comes from really cool scenes that pop into my head, and then the effort to weave them together in a cohesive, interesting way. It also comes from real life experiences in which I have changed the names and the details to make them more interesting.
-A good way to begin a story is with a line that will capture your reader's attention and represent the voice, tone, and theme of your story. Good luck.
-I'm more of a plot-driven guy myself, so I tend to come up with a story, then try to develop characters that would likely inhabit that story. (As a side note, I realize that for a plot-driven guy, my stories tend to be plotless. That's because you're thinking of the parts where I'm trying to connect those great pieces of plot I started with.)


10/30/2006 10:46 PM  
Blogger Queen Zippergut said... I have never finished a story I cannot be of any help. But good luck with that!

I think you've received some really great advice and I will be referring to it myself when I decide to finish something I've started.

10/31/2006 2:41 AM  
Blogger Th. said...


I actually never know what the ending is exactly--only generally (and sometimes not at all). I have never written an ending ahead of time because I want it to be totally organic.

11/01/2006 7:07 PM  

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