Sunday, May 22, 2011

Robert Kernen’s “Building Better Plots”, part 16

“Many writers construct stories without ever clearly identifying [major plot points] and without looking closely at how they propel the audience forward.”

Argument accepted. This has been my problem, as mentioned in the previous post in this series. I had a bunch of scenes, some related, some not, most written independently of each other. There’s more to a good novel than just a bunch of related scenes. The relationship must be *intimate*.

Kernen suggests identifying each major plot point in my story. For a novel, he says I should have 6 to 10 such points. Ihhhh, wow. That’s all? I’ve started a tentative outline for this draft; I have almost 2 pages and I’m still describing early stuff. Granted, some of what I’ve included is to jog my memory for when I actually get to the writing part, but apparently I’m now confronted with my another problem I’ve struggled with before: condensing. I have to understand the details of how characters get from point A to point B, and I have to include that in my outline so I know how to write each scene. However, that doesn't mean *all* of that is important for anybody else.

Kernen describes the objective of major plot points this way:
  • How does this event advance the story?
  • Does it lead the protagonist and the audience toward the climax?
  • How does this event increase the tension and suspense of the story?
  • How does this event affect the development of the characters?
  • Where does this event need to lead the protagonist emotionally/mentally for the plot point to be successful?
Maybe I’ll copy those questions onto another sticky note for my computer screen. If you don’t have a program for sticky notes, a physical note will work.

Kernen then goes on to list some general examples of early, middle and late plot points, such as: the protagonist questioning the status quo; a secondary (and previously neutral) character showing herself to be an enemy; and the protagonist finding a hidden strength. As I read each of Kernen’s examples, I immediately think of scenes I’ve already written. On one hand, that seems good. On the other, I worry that I haven’t put those things in the best places. I guess I should think through what my major plot points are.

I am kind of confused as to exactly what counts as major in my own project. For example, everything starts after Neal leaves his street gang, but is that the first plot point? Without Sandy’s involvement, Neal wouldn’t have made that move. Those two characters interact with each other for the rest of the novel. Is Sandy’s offer of help the first plot point, or should it be included in Neal’s action?
  • Spurred by a beating, and an outside offer of help, Neal leaves his gang.
Or is it:
  • Sandy offers to help Neal. (Is that a hair I need to split now?)
  • Neal leaves his gang.
— then additional points that show how those two continue to feed off each other? Wait, here’s a clue. My plot points should ideally pull off several goals, and the strongest ones will have an intersection of forces. I should bring together setting, characters, current subplots, and the timing.

What Kernen doesn’t mention is that the relationship among these elements has to be clear to me at all times, but when they first show up, readers may not recognize them as important. That’s okay, because it allows for “ah ha” moments. “This character tried to sabotage her sister’s job interview. Ah ha, that’s why she said, during the birthday party days before, that sometimes you have to take fate into your own hands. She actually hates her sister.”

Okay. I’m off to mull over my plot points. I’ll have a report next time.

Coming up — Kernen didn’t say I had to have 6 - 10 major plot points on my *first effort* at listing them.  I have 20. :D

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