Wednesday, March 16, 2011

“Building Better Plots”, by Robert Kernen - part 9

I should be able to describe the conflict, the crisis, and the resolution in one sentence or a few words each? Because I’m a bunny person, the example of Kernen’s that I’ll use here is The Velveteen Rabbit.
Conflict: rabbit wants to be alive.

Crisis: rabbit sent to incinerator after child gets sick.

Resolution: rabbit learns that to be loved is to be alive.

Pretty simplistic, huh? Out of only that, a heartwarming tale grew. The way the story was told made me really care about that rabbit. Kernen says that writing out these phrases and keeping them in sight will help if I lose focus and give a “clear awareness of your plan.” Sooo, what do I come up with for those three elements?

Conflict: Neal wants to start a new life; Sandy wants to purge his demons.

Crisis: Neal feels unable to leave his old lifestyle behind; Sandy faces personal limitations.

Resolution: Neal accepts himself as he is; Sandy learns that caring sometimes means letting go.

How’s that? I’m not sure Sandy’s plot is enough. Maybe it’s just that Neal’s issues are more obvious and dramatic. When I think about drafts of Sandy’s important scenes, they feel pretty good. I’ll just keep in mind that his arc may need work, as I progress.

Kernen also uses Gone With the Wind as an example of good plotting, but really, by choosing something as huge as the Civil War, half of Mitchell’s work was already done. That’s almost guaranteed to draw people in, especially once it’s personalized with Rhett and Scarlett. I use the 1992 Los Angeles riots, but that doesn’t have quite the same built-in impact. Well, maybe I’m selling the idea short.

I’m going to touch on why the riots were as much about class as race. Since readers will already have seen Neal deal with those issues, there should suspense and sympathy when the issues explode.

Regarding Gone With the Wind, Kernen says that readers are “compelled through the story by the vastness of what is at stake for the characters.” Put that way, I have a good grip on Neal’s part in the story. At times his life is in danger; to stay alive, he has to stay at least one step ahead of forces that have taken direct aim at him. Once we reach the crisis point, he also has to protect his friends and family members.

Sandy’s source of sympathy is, as I’ve said, less dramatic. At first he wants to clear up guilt over his cousin’s and his friend’s deaths, then he genuinely wants to --

Wait, that ties into the issue in post #6 of this series. It would be more believable if Sandy felt Neal had a clear goal for his future but needed help getting there. Just wanting a grocery store job doesn’t do it. Sure, on one hand, Neal might not aspire to something that you or I might; he didn’t have role models who took paths that might be open to him as well.

Neal will say something like, “I want to do X, but can’t afford the training.” Then Sandy can respond with, “I can’t set you up for that, but I can get you started in the business end of the music industry. You’ll learn skills you can take to a lot of places.”

I actually felt a piece of my plot puzzle fall into place.

Oh yeah, that’s why I want to write a novel: when ideas click, it’s so much fun!

Looming ahead, “what’s my motivation here?”


  1. Wow, I'm still baffled at how well you can dissect your story - that's great. I could never do it! :(

  2. Hi Steph. Can I call you that? I find Kernen's book helpful for gaining some distance. It's odd, you have to love your project but not so much that you can't recognize when something needs to go. For me, it's been a slow process to step back and be more objective. You can do it too! Thanks for your comment.