Plot vs. Situation & the Dramaticus Arcasaurus

WHAT IS IT?

Whenever you talk to writers, at some point, the conversation inevitably steers itself to: “What’s your manuscript about?”

And then one hears about the misunderstood girl who is in love with a zombie-werewolf hybrid, the guy who can’t wait to get married, the couple who loses their home, etc.

And then I wanna go: “Yeah . . . but what’s the plot?” Because all those things are concepts.  Situations.

 

Not this one, thank God.

 

Let me say that again, now that you’re done looking at the Situation: 

Those are situations—not plots.

WHAT IS A PLOT, THEN?!

By plot, I mean the main thread the MC (main character) has to follow.  The quest.  There must be a conflictAnd if you don’t have these things, you don’t have a plot.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately because I’ve been doing a lot of critiquing/editing as well as trying to finish my WIP (work in progress), and it’s come up.

Yes, Harry Potter is about a boy who finds out he’s a wizard and the trials and tribulations that go along with that. Self-discovery, blah blah blah. However, while that factors in to the plot, that alone is not enough to sustain a novel.  There must be some sort of journey the character has to go on.

J.K. Rowling is nice to us in that way, because if you’re looking for the “plot” of each of her books, she gives you a hint in the title.  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s StoneHarry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

Point is, each book has its own plot.  And while Harry’s situation—the fact that he’s a wizard and “the boy who lived” and all that—helps him through the plot, it is but a small factor.

Here’s a blog post wherein I did a complete breakdown of the arc of the first Harry Potter book.

Bottom line: Each book must follow its own dramatic arc.  And if you can’t figure it out, then there’s probably no plot—or it’s not strong enough.

DRAMATICUS ARCASAURUS

Here is what my whiteboard looks like at the moment:

 

You're just looking at the purple line - don't worry!

 

Scared yet?  (You: That’s the most jacked-up dramatic arc I’ve ever seen!)

You may have noticed my ‘roided-up dramatic arc* has a few extra humps.  What I’ve done here is take the regular dramatic arc (exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution) and mesh it with Blake Snyder’s 15 beats of the three-act structure of every successful story** (opening image, setup, theme, catalyst, debate, break into II, B-story, fun & games, midpoint, bad guys close in, all is lost, dark night of the soul, break into III, finale, and final image).

Snyder’s structure follows the regular dramatic arc, but it does a more thorough job of establishing what author David L. Robbins would call “bases” by breaking things down even further.

 

Aww---little baby Harry!

 

For example, while Snyder’s “opening image” and “setup” fit nicely where “exposition” sits on the dramatic arc everyone learns in fifth grade Language Arts, I wouldn’t necessarily say Snyder’s “catalyst” is the same as the “conflict.”

To me, the “catalyst” or “inciting incident” (or whatever you want to call it) is the thing that sparks some change in the main MC’s life.  [Harry P. gets the owl post/learns he’s a wizard]

But that’s *not* really the same thing as the “conflict” of the story, which is the actual thing that sets the plot in motion. Here is what I wrote for “conflict” in the HP#1 plot breakdown post I linked to above:

CONFLICT

  • They learn of the attempted robbery of the Sorceror’s Stone from Gringotts Bank
  • This incites talk of why someone would want to steal it (because it has the power to give a wizard what he wants most) as well as who might want to steal it (He Who Must Not Be Named—a.k.a. Voldemort)
  • Harry learns from Ron and Hermione that people say Voldemort is planning to return to power

And I would agree (it’s always nice when I agree with myself!) now.  The “plot” of HP1 has to do with finding the Sorcerer’s Stone—and, actually, that also helps the overarching plot of the entire series, which is defeating Voldemort. The “conflict” is, the stone is missing, yo—and it’s up to Harry & his posse to find out who has it and get it back.

NOW . . .

I’m not trying to say that writing a book is as mechanical as following a formula—of course it’s not.  Your characters always surprise you, and you always change things.  But if you take a look at these things—study them a bit and apply the concepts to your own WIPs—you’ll have an easier go of the initial planning and writing of your book if you figure out the bare bones of your story and they follow the arc.

It will help you with pitching and querying too, because agents and editors want to know the situation AND the plot . . .

 

. . . and probably not Snooki at all.

 

*Click here for a brushup on dramatic arcs.

**Click here for more about Snyder’s 15 beats.

***I’m not saying plot yourself silly.  I am with David L. Robbins and his “baseball writing” on that one.  But if you’ve got all these ingredients *before* you write, you’re pretty much guaranteed a tight plot and a satisfying story.

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Pointers from the Pros: Author David L. Robbins Talks Plotting & Outlining

Pointers from the Pros” gives tips from authors and publishing industry professionals on everything from craft to querying to their experiences on the road to publication.

I’m speaking at the 35th annual Southeastern Writers Association conference in beautiful St. Simons Island, Ga., this week and taking copious notes at the sessions.  Although I can’t go to all the faboo classes, I’m sharing some tips from some of those I’m lucky enough to attend.

Here is what historical fiction author and James River Writers co-founder David L. Robbins* had to say about plotting and outlining.

Robbins. (Photo by Adam Ewing)

BASEBALL WRITING

  • Think of a successful book as a home run.
  • In baseball, in order to hit a home run, certain things have to happen, or it’s not a home run: player has to hit the ball and run all the bases.
  • Main characters need to run the bases of their stories—and they each do it in different ways.
  • Design a specific character that will run the bases—and then, run alongside him.  Record how he does it.
  • You might only have four bases; you might have 40.  But let those be the only parameters, rather than outlining.

IT’S ALL ABOUT CONTROL

  • Don’t write 900,000 words.
  • Physically control as little as you can, and let the rest have a certain autonomy.
  • However, don’t let your character keep running into right field; control him.  Get him to second.
  • The Juggler
    • With several items in the air, it looks like chaos.
    • The juggler only has two things in his hand at a time; yet, he still controls six or seven in the air.  He knows the orbit and the momentum.
    • Books we love demonstrate this: The reader loves the sense of chaos, but that’s because the writer has absolute control.

RECOLLECTIVE VS. RECORDATIVE WRITING

  • Recordative: Run the bases with your characters & record what they do.  There’s an immediacy to your imagery when you’re recording something.
  • Recollective: If you use passive verbs, there’s a detachment.  If you’ve outlined too much, you’re remembering what the character did, rather than experiencing what he did—and the reader will be detached.

ON OUTLINING

  • Don’t do it!  When you outline, you’re following a recollection when you go to write.
  • He’s a fan of pivot points (the “bases”).
  • Outlines hobble or hamper characters.  Let the characters surprise you.
  • An outline makes them run to first base a month before your character actually gets there.
  • Know generally where the book ends, and figure you’ll get there—be in the moment.
  • It’s insecure writing if you need to outline too much.

Don't let your paint brush drip!

ON BEING AN ARTIST

  • Manet didn’t decide where to put a brush stroke; he just did it.  Have your brushstrokes.
  • Set out the pivot points (bases) and trust yourself as an artist.
  • What’s in the character’s head, heart, & how he’s going to get there is all brushstroke for him.

*Click here for my SWA Presenter Spotlight on Robbins.

Live from SWA All Week

I made it to St. Simons Island, Ga., last night—unscathed—and I’m gearing up for my third year at the Southeastern Writers Association conference (35th year for them!).

As my regular blog peeps know, I have returned this year as an instructor (my session on journalistic writing is Wednesday, so if you’re here and you want to catch it, come on down!).

All week, I’ll be blogging about my adventures as well as sharing notes from the sessions I attend—so stop back.

With only about two hours underway:

  • I announced to the entire conference I have poison in my room
  • Author David L. Robbins told me I have Justin Bieber hair

What will tomorrow bring?

Do you see it??

If you missed my SWA presenter profiles and interviews, click here for a complete list.

SWA Presenter Spotlight: David L. Robbins

As I announced in December, I will be teaching a workshop on journalistic writing* at the 35th annual Southeastern Writers Association conference next month.

To gear up for that, I am featuring interviews and spotlights with this year’s presenters.**

Next up is historical fiction author David L. Robbins.

ABOUT THE PRESENTER

This born-and-raised Virginian is another lawyer-turned-author success story—although, unlike John Grisham or Steve Berry, Robbins only practiced law for one year.  Actually, even less than that.

Robbins. (Photo by Adam Ewing)

According to his Web site, the College of William and Mary alum quit practicing law two weeks before his one-year anniversary of becoming a lawyer.  His father had stipulated that Robbins would have to pay him back for law school if he quit before one year; however, in a final act of negotiation, Robbins got his father to allow for the equivalent of a two-week vacation.  Well done!

Currently, his fast-paced novels include: Souls to Keep (HarperCollins) as well as War of the Rats, The End of the War, Scorched Earth, Last Citadel, Liberation Road, The Betrayal Game, The Assassins Gallery, and Broken Jewel (all Bantam).  His current work-in-progress is called The Devil’s Waters.

In addition to being an accomplished novelist and Latin classical guitar enthusiast, Robbins is the founder of James River Writers, a writing organization based in Richmond, Va.  He also teaches creative writing at the College of William and Mary—his alma mater—and will be this year’s Advanced Fiction instructor at the 35th annual Southeastern Writers Association conference.

THE INTERVIEW

Although Robbins and I were unable to coordinate our schedules for an interview, here is an excerpt from an interview he did for James River Writers, which may offer a bit of insight in terms of what Robbins will be highlighting in Advanced Fiction at SWA in June.

JRW:You mentioned at your book release event that although you are adamant about not using back story, you did this anyway. When is it necessary for an established writer to break the rules and what caused you to do it here?


DLR: I’m adamant about pacing. Back story, dream sequences, narration, flashbacks, all of these and more are devices which exist on a plane not concomitant with the story itself. While the reader is ensconced in them, nothing happens to the characters in real time. No jeopardy, no progress, no action. No pace. So I recoil—usually. In Broken Jewel, I used a lengthy recollection—and I believe it is some of the most beautiful prose in the novel, to be honest—to express a father’s checkered history with his son. The entire passage is a bad idea that worked. This demonstrates that there are no rules in art, only default settings. It is necessary simply for a writer to have a working knowledge of the “rules,” so when they are broken, this is done with control and intent. I did it on purpose. That’s my only explanation.

JRW: When writing historical fiction, how do you keep history from controlling the plot so that the protagonist can do his or her job which is to instigate the action rather than react to events?

DLR: Design active protagonists instead of victims. Immature writers often rely on plots where their characters are buffeted by events, villains, heartless nature, or bad mojo. The key is to write a tale from the perspective of main characters who drive the action, not merely survive it. Do this, and you’ll never have the problem of a character being overwhelmed by history. In fact, if you’re clever, you can even invent characters who actually explain some bits of heretofore veiled history. So that’s how it happened! See?

For more information about Robbins, please visit his Web site.

THE PLUG

Join us at the Southeastern Writers Association conference in June in beautiful St. Simons Island, Ga.  For the 4-1-1, please see their registration page as well as my post.  Reserve your spot today!

*To learn about the workshop I’m teaching, click here.

**For more SWA Presenter Spotlights, click the appropriately-named category in the right-hand sidebar.

Conference Corner: Southeastern Writers Association

Interested in writing?  Want to come see me?  I’ve got just to conference for you: the Southeastern Writers Association conference.

THE 4-1-1

The 35th annual Southeastern Writers Association conference will be held June 20-24 in scenic St. Simons Island, Ga.

The full conference fee is $395, and it includes:

  • Up to three manuscript evaluations
  • One-on-one critiques with instructors
  • Entry into up to 15 contests (in fiction, poetry, nonfiction, inspiration, humor, romance, juvenile writing—children’s through young adult—science fiction and fantasy)—cash prizes for winners!
  • Access to all workshops, evening speeches, and open mic night
  • A one-year membership to SWA

WHY YOU NEED TO REGISTER NOW

While registration is open until the conference takes place, you’ve got just one more week to take advantage of the manuscript evaluations and contest entries—the deadline is April 1.

WHY SWA?

Held at the beautiful Epworth by the Sea in St. Simons Island, Ga., SWA’s annual conference is the perfect place to soak up some rays along with some writing knowledge from seasoned professionals.

As well, at $395 for a four-day conference, SWA is a steal.  Check around; most other conferences and writers’ retreats charge extra for manuscript critiques and contests.

ADDED BONUS

Did I mention I will be teaching a workshop on journalistic writing?  Come heckle me!**  To learn more about my workshop, click here.

Go easy on me!

I LIKE YOU AND EVERYTHING, BUT WHO ELSE WILL BE THERE?

This year’s presenters include:

To learn more about these presenters, click here or click on the presenters’ names above to see my interview series featuring several of them.

For more information about the Southeastern Writers Association conference, please see their registration page as well as my recent post.

Again, you must be registered by April 1 in order to gain full access to all this conference has to offer, so reserve your spot today!

**Actually, while I would love to see you, I’d rather you didn’t heckle me!