Friday, November 27, 2015

Plots – Part 4 “The Weaving of Arcs”

All plots have arcs.
An arc, in storytelling, is simply a path that a plot or character follows. When it comes to characters, a ‘character arc’ is how that character changes over the course of the story. The better the arc, the better the character.
Plots are similar. Arcs in plots are the changes the plot experiences as the book advances. If the plot never changes, you have a stagnant book. Like that mire-y puddle that always collects outside the back door; it sits there after the rain and does… nothing.

Most books have a “story goal”. This is what drives the plot. Some arcs involve a change in that story goal, as the character finds something new to pursue, or the arc may simply clarify what that goal is.
Other arcs change that goal entirely, or introduce a new one. Subplots are a common example. They introduce a short-term goal, such as the retrieval of a treasure map in a pirate story, or introduce goals which are not the main goal, but other goals that are desirable in addition to said main goal.

Many beginning novelists struggle with the length of their novels. What they hoped would become an average length book turns out to be a 14,000 word novelette. It’s not a bad thing, but there is a simple answer to the question “why?”
Quite simply, the novel contains only one arc, maybe two. The hero is introduced to the conflict, struggles against it, and succeeds in the end. That is one arc. The plot changes in two places: the first incident and the final climax. Again, this is not a bad thing. That is the basis of good story. However, good story doesn’t just stay at the base of what it can do. Good story exceeds its own foundations, rises above.

Many of our favorite books, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, The Stormlight Archives, and even The Hobbit contain more than one arc per book. In some cases, there can be dozens of arcs running simultaneously, as in the case of The Stormlight Archives. Now, dozens of arcs can be overwhelming. There is a very specific audience which enjoys that sort of book and many of us do not.
However, including two or three arcs in your story can increase your word count in addition to increasing the quality of your story.

Let’s return to Addy’s story so I can show you an example of arcs.
Last week, I edited out clichés and inserted some plot twists. Many of those plot twists turned into entire arcs in and of themselves.
For instance, when the invading army drives Addy and the others into the mountains, an entirely new goal is introduced: survive the harsh conditions. If this story was a book, that single twist could have added anywhere between ten and twenty thousand words easily.
Then, as they search for supplies to last the winter, yet another arc comes into play: a rebellion. There is a new goal: overthrow the invaders. All this time, however, the earlier goals - get away from the invaders and survive the mountains – remain. They all overlap and they transition into the new arcs with near seamlessness (I say near because this obviously is an imperfect story that I’m brainstorming as I go for no reason other than to have an example for this blog series).
When the rebellion fails, an arc comes to a close. The rebellion arc ends, and the first two arcs again take center stage. Survive the invaders, survive the winter. Then comes along a new arc: learning to be assassins. This arc should add plenty of words and more than enough time (months at the very least) to the story.

Arcs are your friend.
They’re easy to develop because they’re very similar to extending conflict. In many ways, arcs are the antithesis of victory. Instead of overcoming the impossible conflicts, the heroine is introduced to new ones. For every victory, she experiences two defeats.

That’s how a good story shines. It lets us watch as the heroine suffers defeat after defeat after defeat while giving us just enough light to never give up hope.
Then, at the very end, when given a choice between two bad things, we don’t want the story to stop. We can’t let the story stop.
When Addy has to choose: her family and friends or the villain’s capture, we don’t know what she’ll choose. We don’t want her to choose. But we can’t let her not.
All the arcs come to a head at the climax. The more arcs there are, the more tension and conflict there will be. The reader won’t be able to stop turning pages because every single scrap of plot and character development is hinging on this final scene.

And that is why I’m stopping here for the day.
After all, mustn’t give it all away at once, must we?

Does your story have multiple arcs? When do they converge? Do you have any tips on multi-arc stories? Leave a comment and share!

Friday, November 20, 2015

Plots – Part 3 “Twists and Turns”

Last week, I introduced you to the cliché-filled story of Addy, a princess who joins a rebellion that miraculously wins against a flat, unmotivated villain [Addy’s Uncle].

Shall we rejoin Addy in her quest? Perhaps we can inspire some changes which will help her story for the better.
Indeed, with a few plot twists and minor edits, Addy’s story can become a fairly decent story idea. Still cliché in some areas, but we’ll address those in the coming weeks.

First, however, we need to note a few important things. Plots twists are not always surprises. It’s common to think of a “plot twist” as one of those “Luke and Vader” moments where something is revealed to the reader that was not expected.
That is simply one form of a plot twist. A plot twist is simply a change in the story which provides more conflict, more tension, and makes it more difficult for the hero to achieve his goal. These are sometimes referred to as “disasters”. Yes, these disasters are often surprises, much like Vader’s revelation to Luke (which is, in fact, only a surprise if you watch those movies in the order they were released in theatres rather than in chronological order). They don’t have to be surprising. You can even let the reader see them coming, so long as we are still surprised at their magnitude.
For instance, the Balrog in Moria. Tolkien warned the reader, just as Gandalf warned the Fellowship, that entering Moria would result in bad things happening. However, no one expected the bad things to be just as bad as they were.
Plot twists offer change. It’s change that the reader expects, but it become a change that far outdoes the reader’s imagination.

Back to the story of Addy. Before we adjust the plot, I want to fix a few of the clichés involving characters.
Let us assume Addy is still a princess. However, she is perfectly content with her position. This will solve her cliché existence almost entirely.
Also, Tom is just some random peasant. Maybe he works for the cooper in the town. (Can we also assume this world is more developed than having “trees and stuff and a few random villages”?)

Now for plot changes.
Instead of her uncle taking over the country, how about a neighboring country finally makes good on their threat of invasion. They sweep across the land, desolate her father’s castle, and hang him from the rubble. Addy, along with servants, assorted peasants [like Tom], and her mother escape into the mountains.
From here, instead of finding rebels, they create their own little village and learn to survive in the harsh wilderness that is the mountain passes. They struggle to create a society. All this time, Addy and her mother mourn for the king’s death, a father and husband they lost too soon, in too harsh a way.
Then come problems. Winter is coming over the peaks, a harsh winter their settlement does not yet have the supplies to survive. So, Addy and Tom and a few others set out down the mountain to retrieve said supplies.
Along the way, they find desolate farms and desolate workers turned slaves for the invaders. Addy and Tom start a rebellious faction, return to the mountains long enough to bring back their people.
This rebellion picks up steam and eventually attacks the invader’s stronghold, a stronghold put up near the ruins of Addy’s father’s castle.
They are repulsed. Defeat is so strong the rebels disband. Many are dead, the rest are broken in spirit.
So Addy and Tom (perhaps her mother was captured in this attack) search for other ways to throw the invaders off their soil. It takes months, but they learn how to fight, how to be quiet. They become assassins.
In fact, they begin to assassinate the invader’s leaders. One by one, they take out the important people.
By the end, Addy is offered a choice: kill the invader’s king or let her mother and Tom die.
She has to choose: sworn duty or family.

Hopefully, by now, the reader is stuck to the book, unsure which choice Addy should make. They don’t even know which choice they would make.
This story still has cliché moments. But it’s getting better, is it not?
I’m going to stop there.
We’ll pick up the story again next week, but in the meantime, I hope the point is coming across. Even cliché stories, even cliché plots, can become decent storylines. A tweak here, a change there, extension of conflict, addition of words, scenes, even chapters, it can all add up to a story worth reading.

Do you employ nasty little plot twists in your novels? Do you make your readers stop and stare in shock? How? Leave a comment and share!

SPECIAL NOTE: Would you look at that? This is the fiftieth post. My how time flies. In addition, we're ten days away from the end of NaNoWriMo! How's it going? My story's plugging away and hopefully yours is to!

Friday, November 13, 2015

Plots – Part 2 “Clichés and All”

Last week, I introduced this series, and today I get into the thick of it.
For the purposes of this series, I’ll be “creating” a plot. We’ll follow a girl named Addy through all her adventures. Sound interesting?
Well, it sounds vague if nothing else. So I’d like to expound on her story a bit in today’s post. Today, we will fill her story with tropes and the common facets of plots known as clichés.

First, let’s establish the setting. There’s a country, and it has trees and things. It’s got one city (plus random villages that will pop up when convenient), where the king lives.
You know, let’s have our first real cliché, one that isn’t even plot related. Let’s make Addy royalty. She can be the king’s daughter. Yes. She is a princess now. All hail Princess Addy.
Even better, let’s apply what I like to call “Discontent Royalty Syndrome” to the mix. Addy now hates being called “Your Highness” and wishes she had less servants to pamper her (because everyone hates having other people do things for them).
Before we get on to the plot, let’s make sure she has a hobby… oh! She likes to ride horses far from the castle, without any guards. Because, after all, our medieval story world is so different from the real world that no guards ever follow the princess and she always rides without a sidesaddle because she’s such a tomboy.

I’d like to pause our story for a moment and talk about what is wrong with this setup so far. Hopefully you can catch my heavy sarcasm when I talk about a lot of this. But just to highlight:
-Main characters who are royalty
-Royalty who hate their position (let’s be honest… this never happens).
-Flat story world in which there are trees and things and random villages. We really ought to world build some, hm?
-Tomboy heroine. If there is any kind of cliché main character, it’s a girl who rides horses and acts likes she’d rather be a boy.

All of these things together are what makes this introduction to our story bad. On their own, most of them aren’t horrid. Characters who are royal aren’t bad in and of themselves. But constant use of them as main characters has suddenly made it predictable.
Now. Let us return to our story, and add some real plot.

Our story opens with a fight between Addy and her father. She storms off, goes for a ride, and returns to find her parents brutally murdered. Her scheming uncle takes the thrown and tries to kill her.
She flees. She finds her way to the forest (where there are trees and things, like random villages) and meets up with rebels who have decided to bring down her uncle.
Addy joins the rebels, discovers their leader is her father’s long-lost, left-for-dead stableboy. He trains her to fight with a sword, which she manages to catch onto in a day or two. If she’s lucky, she’ll also learn archery and hunting. The stableboy (we’ll call him Tom) and Addy fall in love at some point.
The rebels attack her uncle’s keep. They’re repulsed and Tom is hurt quite badly (yet somehow manages to get all the way back to the forest while bleeding out). Addy then leaves the rebels and sneaks into the castle (which, we find out, has a dozen secret entrances for no real reason) and almost kills her uncle. Pity stays her hand and she flees.
Again the rebels attack, this time they win. Addy is crowned Queen, her uncle is banished forever, and Tom kisses Addy in time for all the young girls reading the book to squeal as the last page ends.

Fantastic. We’ve written a book, people. Took me less time than NaNoWriMo will, that’s for sure.

Do you see what I’ve done?
I’ve done almost no work, yet I’ve recreated portions of stories, even entire novels. This matches quite well the storyline of several novels (some published, some not) I’ve read.
Surely you caught some of the clichés I stuck in:
-Main Character is orphaned at the beginning (potentially in the prologue, because orphans automatically equal empathy, you know).
-Evil relative with no motivation seizes power
-MC somehow finds rebels who let her join. This is unrealistic, for one thing, because the rebels are fighting the royalty yet they let one join. Okay.
-Convenient love interest. Tom is Tom, which means Tom is a random flat character who supposedly died but didn’t.
-MC learns necessary skills with ease. No one learns how to fight with a sword, bow, or any weapon in any short period of time. Years? Yes. Weeks? Not ever. Ever, K?
-The MC feels pity for the villain. Yes, the reader is supposed to identify with the villain at least a little. Yes, feeling pity is a good thing for the MC to feel. But should it stop them from finishing their job? This MC sounds too perfect, to me.
-Easy victory. I didn’t give details, but the ending in my little outline felt rushed. If the outline is rushed, imagine what the rough draft will feel like!

Time for the part of the post where I apply what I’ve made fun of to your life, right?
Does your novel have clichés in it?
Mine do. Every single one of my novels has clichés in it. Every novel does. There’s no way around them.
For instance:
-I have an MC who is an orphan (including but not limited to Main Characters in A Merchant’s Guard [1], Asher’s Song [1], Agram Awakens [3], and The Biography of a Very Bad Man [1]).
-I have rebel groups (including but not limited to Asher’s Song and A Merchant’s Guard).
-I have random dream sequences (including but not limited to A Merchant’s Guard).
-I have flashback prologues (including but not limited to Asher’s Song).
-I even have royalty as main characters (Agram Awakens).

See. Everyone has clichés.
However, it’s what you do with the clichés that makes all the difference.
-In my novels with orphans (especially Agram Awakens and The Biography of a Very Bad Man), the lack of parents isn’t the focus of the MC being an orphan. Their being an orphan is just a consequence of something else. Not to create empathy, but to create a realistic life for them. In fact, their being orphan’s rarely even comes up as necessary information. It’s a state of being, not a mental illness.

-My rebel groups aren’t automatically good guys (in fact, they’re generally considered bad), nor do they blindly accept the MC (in all cases, the MC either starts the rebellion or is considered a hostile by the rebels).

-Dream sequences… are clichés I’m working on.

-Same with flashbacks… see: everyone has something they need to work on.

-My royalty are content with their position, even envious of those with more power. They use that power (often in ways we might disagree with). It makes them human even as we disagree with them. They make me ask “would I do that exact same thing if I was in their place?”

Clichés are not the root of all evil. If they were, we’d be doomed.
What about Addy and her story?
Well, over the next few weeks, we’re going to improve her story. Piece by piece, we will turn her story into a near-passable plot.
That’s the best thing about plots.
No matter how messed up they might be right now, there is always, always, hope for them.

What about you? What kinds of clichés do YOU have to deal with in your novel(s)? Leave a comment and share! We can empathize with one another as we struggle through royal orphan clichés, right?

Friday, November 6, 2015

Plots – Part One “Introducing the Series”

 Welcome to the first post in my five part series on plots!
(Wow did that sound incredibly stiff and formal, pardon me.)

I’ve written most of these early in anticipation of NaNoWriMo this month. And I’ve already given you a Segway. So, without further ado, I give you:

An introduction.

That’s right; I’m introducing a series I’ve already introduced.
Here’s the deal: I’ve got four things I’d like to highlight later, given by these vague titles:
“Clichés and All”
“Twists and Turns”
“The Weaving of Arcs”
“Bringing it All Together”

Before I talk about those things (whatever they may be), I’d like to just talk about plots. Plots, to me, are the hooker. Others like characters, but I always judge by the plot. Without a plot, the mash of characters means nothing. They’re together to be… together. No story goal, nothing. (Yes, I realize slice-of-life stories are different, I’m writing one myself, but those aren’t my focus).

A plot is like a tapestry. It has hundreds of threads all woven together to make a masterpiece that will be admired forever. Each individual thread is different, unique. Without it, the tapestry looks wrong; it’s missing something vital.

Poorly-written plots are easy to spot. They fall apart dues to gaping holes in them. They’re templates of other books and the conflict is weak to non-existent.

I won’t spend much time on what makes plots bad through the duration of the series (rather, I’ll spend time on what makes them good), so I want to take a moment in this post for a quick list:

1. Lack of conflict. This is the most obvious of all problems in plots. When the conflict is low or weak or not there at all, I’ve no reason to keep reading. Oh, and character relationship tension doesn’t count as conflict until I actually care about the characters.

2. Plot holes. These tend to be more varied and harder to assign a solution. However, plot holes have one thing in common: laziness. The writer was lazy. They didn’t think it worth the time to work out said plot hole.
The hole can take any form, from Dues ex Machina talents, to paradoxes to timelines not matching in.

3. Clichés. Based on the titles of the other posts, this will come up later [next week]. Not all clichés are bad. However, the more there are, the worse it gets. In addition, not all clichés are created equal.
Some clichés for example:
     - The “Chosen One” main character (only they can save the world)
     - Prophecies (well, select ones are)
     - Rebels (why are so few peasants content with their leaders?)
     - Discontent royalty (does no one realize how royalty actually works?)

Plots are wonderful, beautiful things. They bring your Ally to the Heroin’s aid; create twist after twist after villainous twist. These simple devices turn the admirer into the love interest, the jealous kid into the dastardly naysayer of evil.
They can be weak, they can be strong.
And it’s up to you.