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Writing tip: defining the plot structure

Lilly Birdsong By Lilly Birdsong Published on November 1, 2015

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As a writer, I often find it helpful to break up my story into acts. This won’t be the first time you hear of splitting up your plot into acts. Sometimes I do this very loosely, and it just flows out naturally when writing. Sometimes I just break it up simply so that I can keep in mind where I’m going when I’m writing.

Going back to the character’s motivation, what is your character’s goal?

Presumably, your character is going on a personal journey to achieve this goal. They will meet with some resistance, something that they’ll need to overcome.

I like to think of it this way:

  • Setup and Backstory
  • Journey
  • Climax
  • Aftermath

Some people will talk about resolution. This is also definitely something to keep in mind. If you want to end your novel by leaving your reader feeling comfortable and happy, then you’ll succeed in resolving the conflict of your story within the confines of your novel.

There are many, many stories, however, which never reach resolution.

This is not a cop-out - this is a choice.

There is often a difference here between a Western (North American) and Eastern (Asian) thinking on whether stories need resolution or not. The typical Western audience wants resolution. We want things to be neatly wrapped up, so that we can finish the book, or leave the theatre, feeling happy and comfortable.

In the Eastern viewpoint, it’s preferable to leave your story unfinished. Not because you plan on following up with a second novel, but simply because you want your reader to think of the ending themselves.

One of my favourite Japanese movies is a movie called After Life. If you haven’t watched it, then check it out. It’s a beautiful exploration of reviewing one’s happy memories after death, in a place that people go after they die. The ending is ambiguous. So when you finish watching it, you have to decide how you think things will work out.

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There are other books and movies which are written this way. It’s more of a snapshot-of-life kind of philosophy. One can argue that even Catcher In The Rye is such a book.

So, I leave it up to you. It depends on the type of novel that you’re writing, and you need to think to your audience. If you’re writing a romance novel, then you want the reader to finish the book feeling happy, and like everything is resolved. It’s a feel-good book. But if you’re writing something that you want to really challenge your reader, and keep them thinking, then you want to have an aftermath for your climax, but not necessarily full resolution.

So. I start by thinking of the major arcs. I define each arc in a single sentence.

Then, I go back and think about those arcs, and how my character and my environment affect the journey from one stage of the arc to another. So instead of going straight from arcs to outline, I sit on it. I ponder. I explore.

Then I break it down. Sometimes, I just write. But sometimes, I can’t write fast enough.

There are sometimes, when you’re so into your story, that you’re literally watching it unfold around you. This is the ideal. In this case, I’m not going to stop the flow, go hang on, I need to outline this. I’ll just write.

But if I can’t write fast enough, and I’ve just been sitting there typing at full speed for hours, and I need to get some shut-eye, then I might pen down a few notes about what I was planning to write for the next few chapters. A few lines each max.

Sometimes I find that if I write out a full outline first and then write, then I’m once again trying too hard to fit into that plot. I like it to be natural.

You might go back later on an editing pass, and say to yourself, gee, there’s a gap here. Something missing there. That’s okay - go back and add it. Slash things also when you need to. But try not to over-edit to the point where it ends up being a Frankenstein of a story.

There’s another thing I like to do, that you’ll either completely relate with, or scoff at.

When I’m falling asleep at night, I like to think of the next chapter in the story. Or, I like to think about a plot element I haven’t totally worked out yet.

I find that my mind is really open and creative when I’m just on the edge of falling asleep, and sometimes ideas come to me then that are insightful and amazing. I always keep a notebook next to my bed for just that reason. If you say to yourself, oh, I’ll just write that out in the morning - guaranteed the next morning you’ll say to yourself, what was that thing again?

It’ll never come back out the same way again.

Sometimes also, first thing when you wake up, you might be inspired by a dream you just had. But for most people, dreams fade quickly. So get that notebook next to your bed - just in case!

I am a Sci-Fi writer. I love drinking whiskey, hanging out with my 2 cats, and kickboxing. Check out Children of RIVA if you're interested in my work. Oh, and in my spare time I work ... Show More

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