Tuesday, January 25, 2011

"Building Better Plots", part 2

Here we are with the rest of chapter one’s questions, from Robert Kernen’s book.

7. Does my concept provide any realistic hooks that will make it easy for the audience to relate to?
Readers are given a look at how hard life is for 18-year-old Neal as a member of a street gang, before he meets Sandy. Readers are also shown how Sandy lost a family member to alcohol and a close friend to drug use.

8. What elements will they relate to? Even if you are writing fantasy or science fiction, you will want to give your audience some element to which they can connect their sympathy.
Neal’s feeling of being stuck in a lifestyle he realizes doesn’t have many options; his difficulties with trying to change, and to fit in among new people; and difficulties with accepting himself as he is. Readers should also relate to Neal’s lashing out when life continues to treat him cruelly. Readers should be able to relate to Sandy’s feeling of helplessness over the losses of his relative and of his friend; his attempt at righting those wrongful deaths through helping Neal; his fear of losing other people important to him if he doesn’t have some control over them.

9. Does my concept provide enough tension to hold the audience’s interest?
The $64 million question! It doesn’t have *enough*, yet. The initial tension of Neal wanting to get out of his hopeless lifestyle, but not knowing how, should be enough to start sympathy for him. Seeing how Sandy was affected by the losses of his relative and of his friend should be enough for readers to understand his desire to help Neal. After that, I need to have enough difficulties for both characters for readers to feel their time with the story is well spent.

10. What are those sources of tension?
So far, I have:
  • Neal gets out of the gang but knows they’ll kill him if they can;
  • Sandy appears to Neal to have offered to help only to ease his guilt over losing loved ones, and Sandy risks making Neal feel marginalized again, just like his cousin felt before she died;
  • Neal agrees to do rehab, then decides he can’t hack it and splits, then realizes he has to do it no matter how hard it is;
  • an under-educated Latino teenager from society’s lowest class tries to fit in with upper-class, white over-achievers;
  • Sandy’s ideas of how far personal responsibility should go are challenged;
and I think Sandy’s part in the story needs more tension.

In the current draft, Sandy believes Neal has a lot of potential and helps him realize some of it. In the process they become good friends. That means Sandy’s afraid to let him do his own thing because Neal’s life hasn’t settled down and Sandy might lose him too if he doesn’t keep a close eye on him. Neal starts to resent Sandy for trying to control him.

That’s fine, but as it stands, that’s not enough to sustain reader interest. Those themes have to play out against compelling action.

Currently, I have six months where the band tours and Neal remains in the house. The most compelling thing that happens to him is that his ex-gang rakes the mansion with automatic rifle fire. He starts drum lessons too, which is important for down the road, but that’s not going to keep anybody on the edge of a seat. This is the most serious problem so far, and now I’ve got a “tension” headache ;)

Next time, I discuss the issue of story perspective.


  1. You could always kill someone off--that usually provides good tension, or make the readers *think* someone was killed?

  2. Mysti, that's an option. I want to be careful with that because I have characters knocked off for real later on, and I don't want to overdo it. But pulling a smoke-and-mirrors trick is a possibility. Thanks!