Plot: Where it Begins
On Monday I wrote about plot, and the three main parts of a story: the beginning, the middle, and the end. They’re the bits we all learn in elementary and middle school English class. Most, if not all, people can pick a book up off the shelf and identify those parts (unless, of course, it’s a Murakami novel, and in that case you’re better off just not worrying about it).
Beginnings are often the easiest parts to write when you’re sitting down to draft a novel or a short story. The first few pages, chapters, they come so easily and energetically, it’s hard to believe that all of that enthusiasm is going to peter out before you’re finished with the beginning. The middle starts feeling like a drag, and you find yourself avoiding moving on, instead staring blankly at the screen and poking out a few words on the keyboard before giving up and raiding the ice cream you’ve got stashed in the freezer.
Making sure that you’ve got a good starting point – a solidly crafted beginning – can help you make sure that you get past that roadblock.
I very much believe that a rough draft should be just that: rough. But there’s a difference between rough and sloppy, and it’s sloppy that gets you in trouble. Rough gives you freedom; sloppy gives you little to nothing to work with. Making sure that you have a few certain things in your beginning, no matter how rough your draft is, can make a world of difference.
1. Character. This seems obvious, but you’d be surprised. A main character is a must; in fact, it’s usually the first thing that we have mapped out in our heads when we decide to finally sit down and write. But you can’t just have the main character. If there are going to be other people in this story, we need to know who the people closest to her are, and we need to figure it out in the first 8,000 words.* We don’t necessarily need to know all of their back-stories, but we need to have a clear definition of their personalities.**
I don’t do this often, because I usually have a pretty good idea of where I’m going with my characters, but when someone seems a little too bland, I go to a 3.5 D&D character sheet and try to build it according to how I have the character in my head. No dice rolls, no point-buying, just arranging their traits as I think they would go. Sometimes it helps me give a little more depth to a character, sometimes it shows me that what I’m trying to do is force an extraneous, pointless character to participate in a plot that they really have no part in.
Sometimes that’s the problem, too – not that there aren’t enough characters, but that there are too many. Plots can get slogged down by too many people vying for attention from both the writer and the reader. One of the things that helped me to get deAngelis up and running again was to cut out half a dozen extraneous characters that I really didn’t need. If you’re struggling to develop too many characters, see whom you can put on the backburner until another story.
- 45 Master Characters, Victoria Schmidt (above)
- Writer’s Guide to Character Traits, Dr. Linda Edelstein
- Creating Characters, Howard Lauther
2. Setting. One thing that was really killing deAngelis for several drafts was because I had no idea how the location worked. I knew Jenna lived in a crappy apartment, I knew she frequented a bar, and somewhere there was a DMV and a police station. But I didn’t know how the city was set up, I didn’t know how big it was, what its population was, or how affluent it was (or wasn’t). I knew the time period, and I knew the time of year, but I couldn’t have told you if it was a Midwestern location or Northeastern or Southern. You would not believe how much difference this makes.
If you’re writing a modern story, it may help to find a map of a city that’s similar to the one you’re working with. For now, District 40 (the setting of deAngelis) is loosely based on Indianapolis. I’m from there, and while I’ve made some changes to it, having a general map to follow helps out a lot.
Check out the map of Middle Earth on the right. Yeah, there aren’t floor-plans of everyone’s house, and we don’t have an exact description of every nook and cranny of Minas Tirith, but looking at that map, you can roughly tell the distance between places (helping with traveling times when the characters are on the move), and it helps you feel more grounded in your story while you’re writing. If you’re not much of an artist yourself, you may try and track down a friend who will help you out. An old friend of mine, A Chroi of Fictionpress, designed all of the maps that we used while we attempted to co-author an epic high fantasy novel together. You can see them here.
3. Conflict. Your character’s challenge isn’t something that can be introduced during the middle, which is another issue that I find with a lot of would-be authors. The beginning is not just a character- and setting-introduction; you need to jump into the action from page one, if you can. In deAngelis, although Jenna doesn’t get caught in the thick of things from the very first moment, in the first three pages, I showed the reader what it was that was going to cause all of the conflict in the book: the murder of the steward of District 40, which somehow has something to do with both Jenna and the as-yet-unrevealed villain. Because no one in the story but Jenna knows that the villain exists, Jenna is the one being blamed for the murder.
Everyone’s heard the term in medias res, which is Latin for “in the middle of things”, and that’s what you need to do here: start your story in the middle of the action. The steward of District 40 is killed because of something he’s stumbled upon. However, I don’t need to show him stumbling on it, I don’t need to show his flight from his pursuer, I don’t even need to tell you the reason he was there (at least, not yet). The most interesting part, the best bit, is when he finally comes to terms with the fact that it’s over, he’s done, he’s going to die and the only thing left for him to do is make the most of the last few moments that he’s got left.
You can’t spend time dithering around. The audience that you’re writing for has been the patron of television shows and movie theaters for years, now. They expect an entire plot on the silver screen in no more than 120 minutes, and on television, things had better be wrapped up in 50 minutes or less. Your story has to be fast-paced and well done, and you can’t do that by spending thirty pages talking about your main character’s daily routine, which may include grocery shopping, visiting her mother every Saturday afternoon, and scooping dog poop out of the backyard.***
If you can pull together the basics of a story and make sure that they’re all present in your beginning, you won’t run into that depletion of enthusiasm, that roadblock that mocks you and this supposedly good idea you had for a book. Rough drafts are fantastic, exciting things, and you should have fun with them. But don’t let fun turn into careless; otherwise, your rough draft will be years in the making, instead of months.
*Assuming you’re writing a novel-length story, which usually runs 50,000 to 100,000 words. Most novels that I read tend to run between 80,000 and 100,000 words.
** Personality, not looks. I cannot tell you how easy it is to spot an amateur by this mistake. My biggest problem with a lot of the manuscripts I critique for this sort of thing is that people tend to think they need to differentiate their characters more with appearance than personality.
*** I can actually count on one hand the number of times I’ve read a scene where a character admits to having to use the bathroom. It’s like the magical disappearance of the need to poop that you find in every Star Trek series, evidenced by the magical lack of bathrooms.