Books are created by two decisions: the story idea, and the choices of how to write the story.
The story idea is contained in the questions:
what do the characters want?
what are the obstacles?
how are they going to be overcome?
what is the tension in the story that keeps the reader turning pages to see how it turns out?
How you write the story is also a series of choices.
the structural choices are:
- where in the story calendar timeline to begin the story
- which characters to introduce to the reader and when
- what information to give to the reader and when
the presentation choices are:
- what to show to the reader in a scene
- what information to give to the reader within dialog and thoughts and memories of the characters, instead of doing a scene of the original event
- what to present to the reader as narration (tell the reader something)
Do you plot your books?
I do plot my books ahead of time in that I want one piece of paper as a road map, but I don't do a chapter by chapter outline. I build a book by building a set of interesting scenes.
To start: I want to start with an interesting premise. Hopefully a sentence that says what the book is about. A lady in witness protection falls in love with someone famous. (Danger in the Shadows)
A woman missing since she was sixteen reappears and wants to go home. (Taken)
A submarine commander falls in love with an gifted researcher. (Undetected)
Next, I think about the characters: When I answer the questions: Who is he? Who is she? it helps to have an interesting job for at least one of my main characters as that makes the book easier to structure, or I'll want an interesting job and/or an interesting backstory.
What has to be in the book? I make a list of scenes that have to be in the book because of that premise and because of that job or character backstory. They'll meet at the hotel, travel from Atlanta to Chicago, she'll see her brother, there will be a press conference, etc. Whatever the story premise and characters themselves requires to be in the book goes on the scene list.
What else do I want in the book? I add scenes that I want to have in the book because of the subject matter: the submarine book had some obvious ones, I wanted to submerge the submarine, surface it, have it dock, have a civilian tour it, I want to show what the day-to-day routine is onboard, etc.
I add scenes that are simply for me: If I have something personally interesting to me, say cooking, I might add more to my character by having him be a son of a chef and he likes to cook. Or if I want to have a dog in the story, I’ll give a dog to one of my characters and enjoy writing about the dog.
How does the book look on the calendar? I put those scene ideas on a calendar to see how the story flows. Have I taken into account holidays and how they might shape my characters actions? What about birthdays, anniversaries? Have I thought about the weather and the season of the year and how I can take advantage of that when I’m creating my story? The place and time that stories happen are useful to the writer as a backdrop for the scenes I want in the book.
I’m ready to write. I’ve got an interesting book premise, I’ve got a list of scenes that need to be in the book and I know the general calendar. Now I write my story.
A complex book has a lot of things that need to be present, a simple story, fewer things.
Plotting is really deciding first, what is your story, and then, what scenes are necessary for that story?
MAXIMIZE SCENE VARIETY
There are roughly 90 major scenes in a 100,000 word book.
List your scenes: who is there, what is happening, where and when does it takes place.
Strong stories have very few repeats in scenes.
How many repeats do you have in your list?
office, his home, her home, church, diner, running, driving, talking on phone
Eliminate as many repeats as you can without changing your story line
If there are three scenes at his home, set one in the living room, one in the kitchen, one on the back patio.
If there are several times they talk on the phone, then have one early morning, one late, one when he’s in a noisy place, one where he just woke up, one that is romantic, one that ends in a fight, one that is a missed call that goes to voice mail, one that is phone tag, one that has them getting together to talk in person, one that has them canceling a date.
What kind of variety do you have? can you add more variety?
Can you identify scenes in your story which are unusual, unique, and that rarely appear in other fiction stories?
Car accidents are in a lot of books
So take a car accident and try to modify it to get to an original take on a car accident.
Getting into a car accident that causes the car to crash into a barn and get buried in hay bales – that would be unique
Take the scenes in your book and try to develop the scene into something memorable.
Look at your list of scenes
What do you want to accomplish with each scene?
Where can you add more action without changing your story?
Characters need to be interesting, and they need to be doing interesting things
If the primary focus of a scene is your two characters talking together, then as writer take advantage of that. They can talk anywhere. So put them on a ladder in the rain trying to rescue a stuck cat, rather than at a restaurant table sharing a meal. Put them out at night with flashlights walking the highway searching for a lost dog. Give them tasks to do together. They are hauling out wet drywall from a flooded basement and talking while they work.
How many scenes have your characters trying to do something?
move a refrigerator, haul out a couch, paint a room, fix a window
How many scenes have your character confronted by danger?
Confronted by a problem?
Confronted by an obstacle?
Let a character’s actions speak for them
She’s kind – put a scene in where she’s walking an elderly lady into the hospital for a doctor’s appointment
She’s trustworthy – have her show up in bad weather with something to give him – “I told X I would make sure it got to you.”
She’s impatient – have her leave an appointment when he’s late by fifteen minutes and he has to reschedule to see her again
Show a character’s personality through their actions
List the names of the characters in the book – family, friends, co-workers, villains, etc. You should have no more than 5 to 7 key names, and 15 to 20 people overall.
There are roughly 90 major scenes in a 100,000 word book. Assign your characters to scenes throughout the book based on their importance to the main characters.
Fit family, best friends, co-workers, into as many scenes as possible – their presence in person, phone calls, notes from them – whatever fits what your story has going on. Proximity to your main characters = importance of the person.
Check to make sure a character who is in three scenes in the beginning of the book is also in three scenes in the middle of the book and preferably at least one scene at the end of the book. Look for balance in how many times characters appear in the story.
By the one-third point in a story, every character who will be significant to the storyline should be known to the reader. The main characters may not have met this person yet, but your reader will have had a scene where they know about this character. Don’t surprise your reader in the sense that a character, or a plot problem, or a plot solution, appears for the first time in the back half of a book.
If a character is important to the end of the book, introduce him in the beginning of the book (something thinks about him, mentions him, talks to him on the phone, etc); have him appear as a character of some significance to the story by the middle of the book (either he has appeared in person, or someone is in a dilemma because of him); then give him a stage at the end of the book.
A book needs a ratio between the major story threads or you have left a part of your story underdeveloped.
Take your book text and highlight the text into one of 6 colors reflecting these 6 categories. Then cut the book apart by color and do a word count for each color.
In a 100,000 word romance story, this is the approximate percent you want for each category when you are writing an inspirational romance.
The text is either:
1) the major characters history / backstory (5% - 10%)
2) the main characters relationship development, friendship and romance threads (25% – 30%)
3) plot / action scenes with the main characters (25% - 30%)
4) transition / reflection thinking scenes / time alone (5% - 10%)
5) other support characters scenes, family, friends, co-workers (10% - 15%)
6) faith threads, prayer, talking with God, thinking about faith matters, church (10% - 15%)
LESS IS MORE
Rewrites are all about condensing your words and paragraphs so that they have maximum impact.
Take your story and list the main points you want your reader to know about your characters, that you want your characters to know about each other, and that you want your story to convey to the reader as its message. It’s important that this list capture what is important to you and be as complete as possible.
his father was murdered
he likes baseball
she’s afraid of the dark
she’s decided he doesn’t trust God
work down the list and look at your story for each item
highlight in the book the passages which convey that item the reader
try to eliminate any duplication
don’t say the same information twice
don’t let your story linger.
It is more effective to go to the heart of the matter, hit it hard, and immediately move on.
take for example the item on the list: she’s decided he doesn’t trust God.
you want to hit the topic straight on, hit it hard, and immediately move on
Don’t ease into it. Let her be direct. “You don’t trust God.” And then let her walk out of the room. They will have another conversation about what she said later on, probably even a fight. “I don’t agree with you.” but the key to the story telling is to set the point out there and move on. That next conversation may not occur for another five pages.
You are more effective with 4 words from her - “You don’t trust God.” - then you would be with a page of his thoughts as he wrestled with the idea of God being trustworthy or not. Let her put the problem into words efficiently and cleanly. Then spend the page on his thoughts as he wrestles with her point.
The book should be very efficient at naming the problem – 4 words – and give 200 words to him trying to sort out what to do about that problem – and give another 200 words to the two of them talking about the problem together. The key to fiction is the forward motion your characters are making. The key to fiction is not the problems themselves, but how the characters react and overcome the problems.
Pay special attention to eliminating duplication. It doesn’t mean a significant point doesn’t show up in the story in multiple places. What it does mean is that every passage has to focus on the topic from a different angle.
If you have a scene with him alone, thinking about his father’s murder, then you should eliminate any other scene in the book that is him alone, thinking about his father’s murder.
instead, give the reader a scene with him talking with his mom about his father’s murder, and what happened to the man who pulled the trigger.
MORE REVISION HELP
If you have a tendency to rush to begin scenes:
Start slower to give the reader a sense of the building drama that is about to unfold. Think of it like the music score in a movie, the music begins to cue you in that something big is coming even before the action erupts so that the viewer will anticipate what is coming.
For example: instead of a car accident scene starting with the 911 call, back up in time and start the scene with her driving and rounding a curve and realizing the car behind her was approaching too fast and then the impact and the surprise as her car was hit. Create anticipation.
If you have a tendency to change points of views within the same scene:
As a writer you don’t have to try as hard to write descriptions and small movements and capture facial expressions when you can switch points of view and give the reader what both characters are thinking as a scene happens. So your story doesn’t read as rich as it could. Your reader can also often get confused, thinking a passage is what one character is thinking, when you’ve switched and its the other character having the thought.
In the rewrites, build more story components into your chapters so your characters can express themselves, but you can also keep control of the point of view changes. Think of every scene as having 5 possible segments. You don’t need to include all five segments in each scene, but you should keep as many as you need to help your story be complete and have good movement.
The 5 segments are:
pre-scene setup – her point of view and what she is doing
pre-scene setup – his point of view and what he is doing
the scene – in the point of view of either him or her, but no changes mid scene
post-scene reflection in her point of view – thoughts observations and decisions she makes
post-scene reflection in his point of view – thoughts observations and decisions he makes
I will often write the core scene itself from his point of view, and then from hers, to see which version of the story I like best.
If you have a tendency to pause the story to explain information:
here’s your dilemma:
- your character already knows everything which has occurred to this point
- your reader doesn’t know any of it
A writer often thinks all the information the character knows has to be given to the reader quickly in order for a reader to follow the story. You want to avoid that instinct.
Let your characters live their normal lives, doing, saying, thinking, feeling what they would in real life. Then tuck information the reader needs to know into those scenes. Give out information slowly as the story unfolds, so that the reader is allowed to catch up with your characters. Resist the tendency to pause the story to give information.
In fact you want to create open questions in a reader’s mind precisely so you can answer them later. What happened? is a wonderful way to keep reader’s turning the page.
Show me what is happening – this lets me be part of the story.
Tell me less.
If you want to get a topic out in the open, have someone ask a question which brings up a memory, which starts a conversation, which gives a character a chance to share a fact from their history.
The reader can learn information at the same time the other main character does.
Rewrite with two thoughts in mind:
- cut out the information which is not relevant to the chapter outcome.
- simplify to the heart of the matter.
When you do leave in a telling passage, remember the goal with a telling passage is information density. Less words tends to mean more clarity and better writing.
THESE BOOKS HAVE BEEN USEFUL RESOURCES