Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
September 2015

Kickstarting Your Plot

I've seen a lot more manuscripts that start with action coming too early, making no sense, than books that meander along without a plot for a hundred pages. Both are certainly problems in a book, but I'm going to talk about the former problem here. If you start a book with the major plot problem, the worst villain in the piece, the insoluble problem, and the dark night of the soul, you've nowhere to go. The book will end in a few chapters and you'll have a short story instead of a novel. So what do you do? The key is to start with a problem, but not the epic problem of the rest of the book. A small problem, so you have time to introduce the protagonist, the world, the magic, and the stakes. So your readers will care when all hells breaks loose halfway through the book.

You need a protagonist with a problem. Why? Don't you want a protagonist who is nearly perfect in every way, strong enough to deal with the massive problems coming, and courageous enough to face them head on? Well, simply put-no. If you have a character who doesn't need to change, then what is the point of writing the book? Why should anyone read it? Readers read in part because they want to see how to go through big life changes of their own. Reading is less about escape than it is about learning a lesson in a way that makes sense and can be applied to real life.

So start with a character who has problems. Maybe start with a small problem that the protagonist is aware of. We're all of us blind to our own problems, right? So the bigger problems will become apparent as you skillfully show the protagonist dealing with a smaller problem. It can be a family problem or a village problem, a problem at the magic school or a problem in the space station. Readers then get to see the protagonist in action.

Sure, you want your protagonist to have some good qualities, just not too many. You need the protagonist to be competent enough to deal with this small problem. It can't just be solved by luck or by someone else. But you can have the solution not be entirely certain because of the stuff that will shortly be coming down the pipeline that you will be hinting at because you're the all-knowing writer and you know what foreshadowing is good for. It's good for making the readers pay attention to the details and to being tense even when there's no reason for them to be tense. It's good for making sure that they realize there are bigger things at stake than appear in this small problem.

In some ways, I like to think of this kind of a beginning as a novella. You could potentially sell it by itself to a magazine because you're introducing the protagonist and the world and you're going to solve a small problem. You do world-building, but you do it lite, because there will be more to drop in as the story goes along and it's necessary. This piece can stand alone, but it leads to the rest of the story and it grabs the reader because it has just enough plot in it to keep them turning pages.

Sometimes this little novella is a romp, all fun and games with lots of sly humor. A heist of some kind or a minor scuffle that shows hilariously the friendship between the protagonist and the main side kick. It doesn't have to be humorous, though. It can also be deadly serious, but turn out not to be as important as it first seemed. Or it can turn into a massive mistake that drags the protagonist along on an adventure they never would have headed off for on their own.

When I write, I often have this novella plotted out in my head, though I don't necessarily know what the rest of the novel is going to be about. I like to let the story and the protagonist lead me into the bigger problems that inevitably come, because life is all about big problems as soon as you are smart enough to notice them. And as your protagonist lives a little, hopefully they will see more problems around them, maybe problems that don't seem to have anything to do with them personally, but the more they see, the less they find they can turn away from them.

Writers who have trouble with plot can often find a way into it by using this method. You stir up a little bit of trouble and then more trouble rains down naturally. Or you create a protagonist who is the kind of person who can't sit still and let the world happen to them, and so goes haring off toward adventure. Then you as the writer just sit and take notes rather than dictating to the character what will happen. Even characters who might seem like they're not the type may find out that life leads them in a direction they don't expect. Your job as a writer is to make sure that it makes sense.

In my experience, life is less about throwing myself off a cliff and seeing what happens and a lot more about peering off the cliff day after day and then finally realizing that there's a way down if I get the right equipment and do the right exercises and practice my heart out. Life has dealt me a lot of things I didn't expect and didn't plan on, but looking back, I'm pretty sure that everyone around me would nod and say that if I didn't see it coming, they did. We usually have the lives that we are ready for, that we are making ourselves to match, even if we don't know it.

Your characters have a list of problems and weaknesses and a list of skills and strengths and your job is to make a story about how they figure out a way to make each one of them come out in a test of one kind or another. The tests need to be all different kinds. Try brainstorming what might work if you're an outliner or if you're stuck. And then think about what would be the worst possible thing for the protagonist and try to figure out how they would deal with that. Because we all have worst possible things happen to us. We want the characters in our fiction to show us the way through that, since there's no way out for us, either.

Writers say frequently that a character needs a goal, and that's true. But at the beginning of the book, it's always the wrong goal. And halfway through the book, it may still be the wrong goal. It's OK to let your character change their mind, and change their mind again. We all do it, right? It's a very human thing, to not understand ourselves, and to realize once we have the thing we thought we wanted that it isn't what we wanted anymore, and has only shown us how foolish and immature we were when we thought we wanted that. So we figure out a new goal that's more mature -- at least for a little while. And then we fail and fail again until we realize that it's less the world that needs to change and more us that needs to.

Another way to put it is that plot is two steps forward and three steps back. It's using a sword tentatively at the villain first, and thinking you're winning, and then realizing you're not, that you've fallen into a trap and in ten seconds, you're going to die. It's accepting that and embracing the trap. Or pulling one of your own. Or throwing yourself into the trap early just to see if that will throw the villain off. It's less about making progress forward and more about making mistakes and realizing who you are. It's about dancing on the edge of the cliff and then skydiving off it in the most beautiful way possible, embracing the end that's coming.

What I'm saying is stop being afraid of writing a plot that takes you and your protagonist to unexpected places. Don't be afraid that your protagonist is running around in circles and not getting anywhere close to an ending for most of the book. Let it be messy and unpleasant as hell. Let your protagonist whine a little (or a lot). It's not a straight shot from the beginning to end with clear steps along the way. It's not like getting a degree in college, though I've certainly had moments when I wished that it was (and that my life was like that, too). Write a plot that goes backward and makes your readers wonder if you can really pull it off. Find an ending hiding in the beginning.

And most of all, trust your characters to show you the way. Let them tell you who they are and why they are so confused and useless. Your characters are the ones who should be making the plot, not you pushing it on them. Your protagonist needs to make things happen at some point, but first needs to make a big mess so that there's no turning back. There needs to be a reason to make things happen, and there needs to be a reason that your protagonist feels compelled to act. So work on that first, before you have a battle scene or the asteroid that's barreling toward the earth.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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