Happy late Mothers’ Day to all the mother’s out there. I had a wonderful afternoon barbecue with my family, though I missed my own mother who was on the road back from Florida. Luckily, it wasn’t windy. Today, when I swivel around in my chair to gaze out the window behind my desk I see gusts of wind pick up the desert sands and clay. The wind roars against the sides of the house. The dogs are outside playing, snapping at leaves and branches that blow across the yard. I’m thankful to be inside at my computer. I will spend several hours working on my novel, but this morning I decided to spend a little while with you.
I have two articles for you today. First, as a has-been pantster, I know how important it is to have at least a semblance of a plot. Not just the one in my head, but an actual, on paper one. I’ve worked hard at figuring out how to outline my work, and have settled on a beat sheet that seems to be working for me. It follows, in the article titled “A Beat Sheet Guide to Plotting.” Following that is a guide to conflict. We are often told what conflict is, but rarely what conflict is NOT. In that vein, I’ve put together a short guide called “What Conflict is Not.”
As the wind picks up, I will go to the door and let in my dogs. Then, I will get back to my novel, pulling out what isn’t conflict.
A Beat Sheet Guide to Plotting
I have to admit that I’m not a pantster. I plot. Actually, I really love to plot. I enjoy coming up with all the elements in each new work. I didn’t like the idea of outlining my story before writing it, but I came to realize that plotting knocks out some of the blocks that are inevitable while writing because you always know what’s happening next. Or, what should happen. Characters still can take on a life of their own and highjack the most carefully laid out plot. Also, a plot can help you with writing the dreaded synopsis because you’ve already figured out all those ‘turning points’. So, without further ado, let’s knock out that synopsis.
First, think of this sentence, which is your plot at its most basic: _____(1)______ need(s) to _____(2)______ because _____(3)________, but ______(4)_______ inhibits them. Fill in those blanks with 1 – your hero/heroine, 2 – their goal, 3 – why they need to reach that goal, and 4 – who/what is stopping them. You can fill this sentence in for each of your major characters, and for their opposition if it is a person/being or corporation/government. If you want to learn more about the ‘goal, motivation, conflict’ method you can refer to Debra Dixon’s wonderful work: GMC: Goal, Motivation and Conflict.
Next, find a good Beat Sheet on which to organize the main elements of your novel. You can easily find these online. Choose one that coincides with the number of pages you wish to write. Normally, there are fifteen sections to a good beat sheet, with some overlap. Here’s a breakdown for a 55,000 word novel/novella:
The Opening (pp 1-2)
The first two pages are meant to grab the reader by the throat and haul them into your book. Introduce your main character in a fun and exciting manner. Set the tone of the novel.
Presenting the Theme (pp 1-10)
By the end of the tenth page you should have introduced your main character(s), and the theme for the book. We should know it’s a romance because we’ve seen the hero and the heroine. If it’s historic or futuristic we should see the world-building. If it’s mystery/thriller/horror we should feel the creepiness. And we should know the primary goal. Get the farm back from the meddling new owner, take down the dangerous politician, find the murderer.
The Setup (pp 1-20)
This is where we begin to see the conflict. What is it that is causing your characters to distrust, or downright hate, each other? Make sure the roots of that are here.
The Catalyst (pp 20-24)
At this point, your characters have to make a choice. Are they going to give in, or fight for what they want? Now, the conflict is completely clear.
The Debate (pp 24-50)
Your characters are now digging in for the long haul. They are deciding what they have to do to resolve the conflict that has become apparent in the previous section. Also, they will begin to see the first of the obstacles that are put in their way. ( In a romance, the romantic attraction has become apparent)
Breaking Bad (p 50)
Your characters suddenly find themselves in unfamiliar territory. This might be both real and psychological. They react correctly and incorrectly as they try to find their way. (In a romance the tension builds. They may have the first big romantic interlude, yet keep fighting each other, denying the attraction).
Throught the Door (p 60)
Part two begins. The beginning is complete and the characters must now find their way.
Fun Times (pp 60-110)
The characters are beginning to enjoy their quest/adventure together. Things seem pretty good, but they don’t know what’s coming.
Midpoint (pp 110-125)
The story changes again as the characters buckle down to achieve their goals. They realize they need to refocus on what they want to achieve. This is often related to the outer conflict.
Bad Guys Coming (pp 125-160)
The pace quickens as the characters are heading toward their black moment. Use foreshadowing. Keep readers on the edge of their seats. Bring in outside forces that threaten the main characters.
All is Lost (p 160)
The Black Moment has arrived. The characters are suffering horribly. It doesn’t look like they can possibly reach their goal.
Dark Night of the Soul (pp 160-170)
The Black Moment has repercussions that extend several pages, as the characters try to find a way to the other side.
Breaking Through (p 170)
This is the beginning of the end. At this point things don’t look like they can get any worse, nor does it seem likely that the characters can win. They must push through this final door. (In a romance the love story and the theme story come together).
Finale (pp 170-185)
The characters overcome the black moment, realizing their goal. (In a romance they realize they love each other and want to be together forever).
Final Image (p 185)
The final scene provides the last image that you want to leave the reader. A happy character who has achieved his/her goal? A broken person? Or, in a romance the heroine and her hero achieve their happily ever after.
So, that’s it. You’ve built your plot using a beat sheet. Even pantsters can get a sketchy idea of what’s going to happen before you begin to write. And that ‘dreaded synopsis’? You’ve just made it easy for yourself. Turn your beats into full sentences. Maybe flesh out a few of those beats to turn your outline into prose paragraphs, and there it is: a synopsis.
What Conflict is NOT!
Conflict, conflict, conflict! How many times has a new, aspiring author heard that phrase. In writing a novel or story, yes, it is one of the paramount elements that will keep the reader engaged. Okay, what, then, is conflict? Or, for the purposes of this article, what is it NOT! Yes, it may be easier to eliminate the ‘nots’ before they tie your fledgling work into ‘knots.’ Following is a list of five knots to avoid.
Delays – Sure, there may be events that serve to delay your heroine’s progress toward their goal. It may even be another character sidetracking the hero with some unrelated conversation. NOT conflict. Both of these are just sidetracking.
Fighting or Disagreeing – Have you observed people arguing? Sure you have, probably done it yourself. Bickering, yelling, whatever, disagreement is just that. It is not conflict. It is two people who aren’t trying to understand the other.
Lack of Communication – Here’s a biggie, and another have you done it. Jumping to conclusions, simple misunderstandings, judging each other wrongly. All of these are examples of a lack of communication. Sure, they might add some spice to your storytelling, but they aren’t really conflict. They are, like disagreeing, simply people not getting along.
Trouble-makers – this is the interfering aunt, or father, or friend, or whoever. They are always giving wrong advice. If the hero/heroine is always listening to that person, and never stands up to their wrongness, then they just come across as weak. NOT conflict.
Not admitting to their attraction – if the character refuses to acknowledge their attraction, that is not conflict. That is the character trying not to like someone because they are ‘hot.’ WHY does the hero/heroine try to avoid that attraction? In this instance, THAT is the source of conflict. So not admitting to that attraction? NOT conflict.
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