Kath here. We are very excited to welcome Martha Alderson, aka the Plot Whisperer, to Writer Unboxed today. Martha is the author of the new plot workbook: The Plot Whisperer Workbook: Step-by-Step Exercises to Help You Create Compelling Stories – a companion workbook to The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master. The third book in the plot trilogy: The Plot Whisperer Book of Prompts: Exercises to Get You Writing is coming out at the end of the year.
Martha has also written Blockbuster Plots Pure & Simple and several ebooks on plot. As an international plot consultant for writers, Martha’s clients include best-selling authors, New York editors, and Hollywood movie directors. She teaches plot workshops to novelists, memoirists, and screenwriters privately, at plot retreats, through Learning Annex, RWA, SCBWI, CWC chapter meetings, at writers’ conferences and Writers Store where she takes writers beyond the words and into the very heart of a story.
As the founder of Blockbuster Plots for Writers and December, International Plot Writing Month, Martha manages the award-winning blog for writers The Plot Whisperer, awarded by Writers Digest 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012. Her vlog, How Do I Plot a Novel, Memoir, Screenplay covers 27 steps to plotting your story from beginning to end.
We’re thrilled that Martha agreed to share her plotting expertise with WU readers. EVEN BETTER NEWS is that Martha is giving away her workbook–The Plot Whisperer Workbook: Step-by-Step Exercises to Help You Create Compelling Stories –to THREE lucky WU community members! Simply post a comment below. Winners will be chosen at random by October 20, and be notified by email.
With no further ado, take it away, Martha!
Pre-Plot for NaNoWriMo
National Novel Writing Month is fast approaching. On the off chance you haven’t heard of the international phenomenon, the official NaNoWriMo site explains: “National Novel Writing Month is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to novel writing. Participants begin writing November 1. The goal is to write a 175-page (50,000-word) novel by midnight, November 30.”
Whether a seat-of-your-pants writer or a plotter, writers who put a bit of time and thought into pre-plotting what they hope to write before jumping into the actual task are more apt to achieve their goal at the end of November.
If you wish to take part in NaNoWriMo next month and plan to prepare for the challenge this month, I recommend that at the very least you identify the 4 major turning points in your story—what I like to call the Energetic Markers.
1) The End of the Beginning scene
2) The Recommitment scene
3) The Crisis scene
4) Climax scene
Yes, you have to be flexible and toss out the pre-plotting ideas if/when the characters bully you into taking a different route. However, many writers find that the pre-planning structural support is comforting and allows them to persevere all the way to the glorious end of finishing the rough draft of your story.
Keep the End in Sight
As you mull over story and character ideas, keep the following in mind.
An opening line or scene or conflict or dilemma may catch your fancy but rather than linger there for very long, take the inspiration you’re given and stretch the ideas all the way to the climax of the story.
In other words, constantly ask yourself what the climax scene may look like. In so doing, consider the traits the protagonist will need to have in order to prevail at the climax.
Such a search opens possibilities for the traits she will be missing at the beginning of the story, the flaw she’ll have to overcome to be triumphant in the end and what traits she now has at the beginning that are going to interfere with her forward progress toward her goal. This exercise helps create the character emotional development plot arc of your story.
Pre-plot the major scenes necessary to write each week during November. The character exercise above serves you well in the Week One, which represents the beginning writing portion of the entire project. This is the time you’ll want to incorporate the traits she embodies at the beginning to foreshadow the journey she’ll undertake. At the end of the first week of November, you should be writing the End of the Beginning scene in preparation for writing part of the middle portion in week two.
During Week Two, you show the exotic world of the middle to the reader as the protagonist explores her new surroundings. This is also the time to deepen the relationship the protagonist has with the major antagonist(s)—be it internal or external. Pre-plot now the recommitment scene you’ll need to be writing at the end of week two in preparation for writing the second half of the middle in week three.
Week Three challenges both you in your writing life and your protagonist in the story. The energy of the story rises ever higher. The conflict intensifies. A death awaits you. Pre-plot the crisis scene now.
By Week Four of November you can see the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. Limping forward or forging ahead confidently, you write scenes that build up to the point of highest drama in your story, the crowning moment when the thematic significance or deeper meaning becomes clear to the reader—the climax. Just as it looks as if all is permanently lost for the protagonist, at the climax she delivers the gift. The climax generally hits a chapter or scene before the final page.
The climax determines many of the earlier decisions you need to make in your novel, memoir, and screenplay. The action the protagonist takes at the climax reveals what traits, beliefs, and skills are necessary for her to prevail. Thus, she is missing those skills at the beginning of the story and will need relearn or rediscover them throughout the middle. Some talents she will be learning for the first time but the true abilities necessary for her success at the climax are usually rediscovered after having been lost or buried due to her backstory.
In the last two days of November, write the resolution and then compare the beginning quarter of your story and the end quarter of your story. How do they tie together? Do both the dramatic action plot and character emotional development plot coalesce at the end for more punch and impact? How does the character change from the beginning to the end? Does the beginning foreshadow the final clash at the climax?
The exercise above is a backward approach to pre-plotting the protagonist’s character emotional development by deconstructing the end character to determine who she is at the beginning.
Most writers engage in a forward approach to pre-plotting a character.
You fill in a flaw, a strength, and five other character traits on the Character Emotional Development Plotline portion of the Character Plot Profile. See below *.
Either you begin writing first and the character reveals these traits to you, or you decide upon the character traits first and then construct a character using those traits.
However, there are some writers who pre-plot from the climax back to the beginning.
In order for the character to transform, her traits also transform. If the protagonist needs to tell the truth in order to achieve her goal and face her greatest fear, in the beginning she is the antithesis of honest. Throughout the middle, the reader learns all the subtle ways the protagonist lies to others and mostly to herself. Pretending to like something because someone in authority likes it, saying only partly of what she believes, evading a question rather than tell the truth, shaping her words to fit what she knows is acceptable, smiling when someone intends to be funny, agreeing when she has not even thought over the matter trip her up more and more often and cause her to react more and more emotionally.
By understanding who the protagonist ultimately becomes at the climax at the end, you are able to deconstruct the protagonist and thus, determine who she is as she begins the story and thus, better control when and where to offer deepening information about her throughout to the end.
*Character Plot Profile
Fill out the following profile for your protagonist and all major characters.
Dramatic Action Plotline
1. Overall story goal:
2. What stands in her/his way?
3. What does s/he stand to lose?
Character Emotional Development Plotline
Are you a “pantser” or a “plotter’? Are you planning to participate in this year’s NaNoWriMo?? Answer the following and you’re automatically in the running for a free copy of my new workbook: The Plot Whisperer Workbook: Step-by-Step Exercises to Help You Create a Compelling Story.
Great good luck to each of you!
Wasn’t that great? Portions of this article are excerpted from Martha Alderson’s new plot workbook: The Plot Whisperer Workbook: Step-by-Step Exercises to Help You Create Compelling Stories – a companion workbook to The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master (Adams Media, a division of F + W Media). Thank you, Martha!