Confessions of a Penitent Plotter: Finding the Bones of Your Book

Hello. My name is Leuca and I am a “pantser”. I can’t help it. Words just blast their way onto the page and I let them roar, full of energy, with no idea what will happen next. In short, I SPEW. What Nora Roberts calls, politely, a “discovery draft”. The emotions are pure; words are fresh. In this first effusion of story, characters build their dimensions organically, like blossoms unfolding. To me, my process is a thing of beauty.

Until – wham-o – it bogs down with a thud! Those lovely characters jerk to a stop, stare at one another and blurt: “What the #%*$ are you doing in my story?”

It’s time to haul in CRAFT, my handy toolkit of character tips and structure rules. Collected from many sources, I adapted them to a template I use to plot: Storytracker. Last fall I wrote a column about it and, to those of you who requested a download, I hope it’s propelling your protagonists into a happy-ever-after. If you don’t have a tool, here’s a guide to the elements.

Like most pantsers, I start with two characters, a setting and a thorny reason they are going to hate one another. I have a notion where they’ll wind up and three calamitous scenes that drive them off course. That’s it.

For a few days, I let the characters take root in my mind and begin to chatter, first to me and then to secondary characters they conjure up as buddies or foes. As soon as my protagonists meet and bicker, it’s time. If I don’t relocate them from my brain to a page, they’ll take over my brain. Thus, I write.

Halfway through my first book, I came to the stomach-churning reality that my characters had stolen my story and were wrestling me further and further from where I’d planned. Since they were doing an interesting job of creating lyrical twists, I let them have at it, but I devised a control mechanism to monitor rhythm and structure.

The Storytracker was born: an Excel spreadsheet that tracks character dimensions, plot points and, ultimately, points-of-view, scene-by-scene.

First, I build the cauldron: SETTING. Borrowing from Robert McKee, I choose LOCATION, DURA-TION, PERIOD and – the aspect often overlooked – political, socio-economic MILIEU. After all, even a simple “secret baby” plot is different set in an Iowa cornfield than in the gritty South Bronx.

Then, I inject fun: What kind of steamy hot water can I plunge these two really nice people into that will force them to spring up, sputtering, in mortal opposition to one another? Characters only reveal their true selves when forced to make an awesome choice – either between the lesser of two evils, or, if you’re a comic, two equally delicious possibilities. I need to force four choices to have a story.

TURNING POINTS

1. The Inciting Incident – “Cute Meet”. This sets up the whole story – opportunity knocks big-time within the first 20-30 pages. It happens in brilliant “shows” – no back-story prologue; no omniscient “tells”; no musings from the heroine’s troubled inner voice. Al-though it can happen randomly or by design, it must be the worst – or best – thing that could possibly happen; it forces an immediate reaction that changes everything.

The incident commits the heroine to an urgent objective goal, one crucial enough to drive 100,000 words. Since you have crafted a hero she hates at first glance, it prompts her to swallow her pride or revulsion to achieve it. There’s still no romance. The tricky thing about the cute meet is that it must kindle a suppressed longing she won’t ac-knowledge, even to herself.

2. Foiled Pursuit. Act one finale, 25-30% through the book. Our job as romance writers is to make the journey to that heart’s inner longings painful and tortuous for the soon-to-be lovers. If romance came easy, what would it be worth?

Every “turning point” is a reversal that drives the characters further from the objective goal and deeper toward the longing. In the foiled pursuit, outside forces – nature or secondary characters – intervene and do something unexpected. Again, the characters make a seemingly impossible choice. Make this big – something each would have said at the beginning, “I could never do that!”

3. Point of No Return. Act two finale, 60-70% of the book. This is the horrible soul-searching moment when the heroine realizes she has exposed her heart’s deepest wound; she’s vulnerable. Right away, she swears to do anything to cover up the longing, but that will drive her even further from the objective goal. The heroine (and/or hero) runs away, literally or figuratively.

4. Climax or “Black Moment”. Act three finale, at the 90% point. This is the darkest hour where the heroine makes the heart-wrenching choice between playing it safe and risking her comfortable space to win her greatest desire – the hidden longing. Often, the objective goal becomes irrelevant when the choice is made.

5. Resolution: Aristotle wrote that endings must be “inevitable” and “unexpected”, delivering what the reader hoped for on Page One, but twisted. Resolution may be unnecessary be-cause the climax was conclusive, but if you need to deal with a dangling goal or sub-plot, keep it short.

November is time for the National Novel in a Month challenge (www.nanowrimo.org). Start plotting using whatever tool works for you. Six weeks and counting.

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Leuca Stone is a long-time writer, first-time novelist whose new book is TIMBER FALLS about a beautiful scientist and a shape-shifting wolf.

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