I recently “purchased” (it was free) and started reading an e-book on how to plot.
“The Plot Machine: Design Better Stories Faster,” by Dale Kutzera
For the most, it was worth what I paid for it. Many of the points it made were obvious to anyone who has done any reading at all, much less writing. Several other points were among the first, and most basic, techniques any writing book will mention.
Since it was free, I didn’t expect much from the book. Even if free, there is still a time cost, and I invested that cost to get some additional insight into how to effectively plot a novel.
One point it made changed my viewpoint, and I think will have a deep and profound impact on my writing.
The book pointed out that while a novel is more complex that a short story, both should follow the Three Act format. In this format, the First Act is setting up all the pieces. The Third Act is resolving all the conflicts and returning all the pieces to their resting places.
The book says the Second Act: *that’s* what makes or breaks a story.
What makes a story good is what obstacles have been placed in the path of the protagonist, and how the protagonist resolves them. These obstacles make a memorable story. This is where most of the action occurs. This is where the protagonist’s character is honed or revealed.
The book when on to explain that, in fact, it is the Second Act that defines your characters. You want to put them through hell to make an interesting story, but they need a *reason* to go through the hell instead of just giving up. They need a *reason* to be in the position to go through that hell.
As such, deciding on the conflict first can make it clear who your character should be. And deciding the conflict first makes it more obvious how to make the resolution more dramatic and effective.
Okay, maybe I’m reaching with this by embracing the book’s suggestion. Maybe it won’t work for you to write the conflict first. Maybe it won’t end up working for me to write the conflict first.
But too many of my stories have foundered when they reached the conflict stage. I had a great beginning. I had a decent ending. I couldn’t get through the middle. Too often, the conflict didn’t match the motivations I established at the beginning. Or the method of overcoming obstacles didn’t match the character I established at the beginning.
You could say that this just because I write poorly, and I’d have a hard time arguing that. On the other hand, I think of a character and a starting point, and think I have a story idea. Perhaps, instead, I should think of the conflict a character is going to go through, and think I have a story idea.
Looking at this from a different direction: I love twisty, complex plotting. I have a “story idea” right now that I want to turn into a twisty, complex plot. So I’ve come up with all my main characters, the universe, the starting motivations, and now I want to add complexity. I can’t really get started on it. I can’t figure out how to put these characters into seemingly no-win situations where they have to dismantle the Destruction Engine piece by piece to avoid their destruction and win the story.
My plan was to start writing and add complexity.
I now think a better idea is to start with a complex, seemingly no-win situation and write backwards, figuring out how the protagonist got into this situation.
For example, I’ve been watching a few Chinese Spy/Suspense television serials.
In one, Protagonist 1 is drawn into the spy world to work for the Chinese Nationalists (who are resisting the Japanese occupation), and from there, gets drawn into being a Communist spy inside the Nationalist organization…because of the temporary partnership to resist the Chinese. His older brother (Protagonist 2) is a collaborator working with the Japanese government…but is actually a Nationalist spy working to undermine the Japanese, and is Protagonist 1’s superior in the National spy organization. At one point, Protagonist 1 is given the order to assassinate his older brother, Protagonist 2, for being too effective as a collaborator. He didn’t know at that point that not only his older brother a Nationalist spy, but the order itself came *from* his older brother (who, having ordered it, knows how to avoid it, but it helps him gain additional credibility with the Japanese). When it is all over, however, Protagonist 1 learns that his older brother is actually his superior in the *Communist* spy ring that’s inside the Nationalist spy ring that’s resisting the Japanese. He’s been acting according to his training and character, but he’s been moved around like a chess piece, based on his older brother knowing him, and being his superior two layers deep.
I don’t think you can build in that sort of complexity as you go. I think you have to start with that incredible situation, and then work backwards, adding layers to the complexity as you move earlier in the story.
In another, the protagonist is just a normal Nationalist officer in what seems to be a National Guard/Reservist unit.. They are getting ready to go to the front line to fight the Japanese. His unit’s commander is out of action while recovering from surgery, and the 2nd-in-command is leading a cabal of the top few officers to surrender and collaborate with the Japanese. The traitor has one week to do it, before the Commander recovers and returns to duty. A junior officer (not the protagonist) discovered this, and formed a group of officers and NCOs to resist (the Iron Fists). The protagonist joins, making 30 in all, and they are set to meet at 9pm on a certain date.
At 8:30pm on that day, the protagonist is getting ready to leave for the meeting when the 2nd-in-command traitor locks the HQ down. He then orders the protagonist to lead the arrest of the 30 cadre members who are mutinying. Meanwhile, the Iron Fist group, lacking two members, decides to start the meeting with the 28 who are present.
The protagonist arrives on the scene, and tries to make noise to alert the Iron Fists inside. It doesn’t work. With no other choice, he leads the charge. But the first thing he does is shoot out the light. With the lights out, he trips a few of the capturing force, throws a bench out the window to help the Iron Fists escape, etc. But it is all for naught, all 28 are captured.
The traitor officer knows two people didn’t arrive, and knows the protagonist did some weird stuff. Plus, there’s another officer who isn’t in his cabal. So he sets the 2nd officer to torture a confession out of the protagonist. The 2nd officer is, of course, the 30th Iron Fist (who was also locked up in the HQ building and couldn’t go to the meeting, and so was spared). He finds out that the protagonist was Iron Fist #29, and vows to help him.
But the issue facing them both is, “Who betrayed the Iron Fists?” All 28 in captivity are executed within a day (to silence them), so Iron Fist #30 begins to suspect the protagonist, despite the protagonist being Iron First #29.
The Traitor officer has two military representatives in custody, one Nationalist and one Communist. He finally decides (for a couple of reasons not worth explaining now) that *they* are the two missing Iron Fists, and so stops worrying about the protagonist and the other officer. Except these two officers aren’t part of his cabal, so he doesn’t completely trust them.
To strengthen his position, he decides to get a hostage: the Commander’s mother. So he sends a team to escort her from her home (a day away) to his location. He puts the protagonist in charge, sets the 2nd officer to watch him, sends one of his cabal officers along to watch them both, and sends along the two military representatives as hostages. They will go near a Japanese stronghold, and the cabal officer will give the Japanese the two military representative hostages to seal the deal that allows the traitor cabal to deliver the entire unit to the Japanese.
So along the way, the protagonist is trying to help the two military representatives escape without letting the other officers know he is doing it. At the same time, Iron Fist #30 officer is trying to help them escape, but not letting the other officers know he is doing it, and doesn’t see the protagonist doing anything to help, which deepens his suspicion that the protagonist betrayed the Iron Fists.
Everything that happens puts the protagonist in a no-win situation. If he does anything to help get the word out, the cabal officer will kill him as a traitor. If he works too hard to follow his orders, the unit will be handed over the Japanese, and he betrays his fellow Iron Fists. But when he helps the military representatives escape, he can only help by throwing some things through the window to them, and pre-positioning some escape aids, which they attribute to Iron Fist #30 who was actually able to make contact with them and tell them he was going to help them escape.
I hope that’s clear. It’s pretty twisty to watch, and hard to explain. Basically, because the protagonist is trying to remain undercover, all his very risky attempts to help get attributed to other officer, so he is still considered a traitor by the people he supports, yet if he is any more overt, the cabal officer will kill him.
Again, I don’t think you could add in this complexity as you go. The best way to write this (I think) is to start with a no-win situation: your protagonist is in a situation where if he acts overtly, he is killed; if he doesn’t act overtly, he betrays his principles. What does he do? He tries to act *covertly*, right? So how can we make those efforts not help? Add in another person who gets credit for it, *and* that person suspects him. Okay, what kind of person would have the freedom to act *and* be in a position to matter in this sort of betrayal drama? A young officer who is the Commander’s favorite, highly principled and motivated.
Then you just add in misunderstandings from there, working backward.
Well, time to see if it works. I’ll report back in a later post, either way.