The next step in my writing process is to take the idea, however large or small it might be, and turn it into a cohesive story that will follow an intriguing path from beginning to end.
First, the story needs a problem. The main character (MC) must face a conflict of some sort. This conflict can be internal or external; caused by nature, an antagonist, or the character himself.
Stories without a problem are boring. I’m sure you’ve read some; I know I have. You turn page after page as the MC meanders through a pointless narrative, and you’re wondering, When is this story going to start? When is something exciting going to happen to this character? Sometimes you might persist to the end of the book and then feel like you’ve wasted a portion of your life. Other times, you toss the book aside and quickly forget it, and you never recommend it to anyone.
So a problem must be created, and the MC must be the one to solve that problem. It’s dissatisfying to see a secondary character bail the MC out or to have some circumstantial twist occur to make everything all right. (That’s not to say that the MC can never have assistance from others—just that the story should not be taken out of the MC’s hands entirely.) How the MC gets from problem to solution is the main plot of the story, and everything that happens to her along the way to help or hinder her becomes the sub-plots, twists, and excitement. But always that problem has to be before the reader, making them care about the MC and turn the page to see what happens next.
I always want to introduce the problem fairly quickly. I don’t want my MC to wander aimlessly for pages and pages before giving them a goal. Hence, Ciara becomes the guardian of the mysterious Dragon’s Fire within the first few pages of the book. Kate discovers her father’s selfish plans for her and decides not to comply in the first chapter. Myrhiadh is given her task for Zandor before 20 pages have turned. The problems in Books Four, Five, and Six come up within the first few pages of the stories. My reader never has to delve too far into a book before finding something to keep them intrigued. Once that problem has been presented, the story builds upon it, becoming something that, hopefully, the reader can’t put down.
Right at the beginning of the plot, even before the introduction of the problem, is the hook—the initial “grab” of the reader to get their attention and to keep them with me while I introduce the problem. Sometimes, the hook is the problem, but it doesn’t have to be—sometimes it’s part of a subplot or an exciting excerpt from a character’s life that will play into the main plot only slightly. It must belong within the story, however—not just be a gratuitous “thrill” that is never mentioned again.
I aim to hook my reader with my first five words. Sometimes I succeed, as with Book Four’s dramatic opening: “She’s on fire!” (Book Four has two hooks. My Sneak Peek on the website gives you the second one.) Other times it can take a little more than those five words, though they always remain my goal. By the end of the first paragraph, I must have written something to grab my reader’s interest. Book One has a woman teetering precariously on a window ledge, 200 feet above the jagged rocks at the base of the cliffs. Book Two has a five-year-old princess on that same ledge, watching a naval battle taking place below her while cannon pounds the cliff. Book Three has a character imprisoned, screaming at a silent dungeon; she knows why she’s there, but the reader doesn’t. Book Four starts with a person on fire—literally. Book Five begins with a sense of Deja Vu, as we see a scene unfold that we recognize from Book One, but this is Book Five; wait, what???
Once the hook has been cast and the problem presented, the plot must move through its rising action, sub-plots and plot-twists to the climax and conclusion. And a whole lot can happen along the way. I like to have a basic plot drawn up before I start a book so that I have a general idea of where the story is going to go. However, that plot usually undergoes so many changes by the time the story is finished, sometimes the initial outline is barely recognizable in the book’s final form. (See the original plot of Dragon’s Fire below.) I like to say that my characters take over. I’ll be writing, and suddenly, something will happen that was not in the plot, but I’ll go with it, and before you know it, something entirely different is going on, but it works, and it’s fun and exciting, and so I just carry on from there. At that point, I adjust the remaining plot to make it work with what is now happening in the story.
Plots are alive for me. They grow and change, and seldom end up following the original path I set for them. Sometimes, I’ll get tired of developing a plot halfway through, so I’ll abandon it and start the story, not knowing how it’s going to end. The plot grows with the action, and the characters and I figure out where we’re going as we go. Sometimes, the best courses are plotted on the fly.
SPOILER ALERT!!! The following is an early plot outline for Dragon’s Fire, edited for length and readability. This outline is not the plot of the finished book, but it will still wreck parts of the story for you. If you haven’t read the book yet, STOP reading the blog here, get the book, and when you’ve finished it, come back to see how the original plot outline changed.
Bare bones. As it’s outlined here, this would never have made a story. It’s clunky, chunky, and downright awkward in places. But it was a starting point, and you can see the shadow of the final story within it. This was the guideline that got chopped, cut, embellished, rearranged, and set me on track to developing Dragon’s Fire into the book that is getting great reviews today.
It’s fun to look back at what I designed initially and see how it changed and improved. I had forgotten that Adrian started with a different name and that originally, Mya was engaged to Sean Bramston, and not sneaking around behind Kerrion’s back. As the story developed, and I saw what worked and what didn’t, I adjusted details to make things more exciting or to make them flow better. Notice, too, that Ciara doesn’t take a central role in this original plot. Here was the main character who was letting history write itself for her all the way through the story as she bent and bowed to circumstances, and she would have ended just as much a mouse as she was at the beginning. I made changes to bring Ciara to the forefront, developing her as a character and making her solve her problems.
Next time - Characters! (The imaginary people who take over my life, hold conversations in my head, and distract me at the most inopportune times and places.)