Big Plot

Before the post–just letting you know–I’ll be reading with other poets at 3:00 pm on April 14th at Byrd’s Books at 126 Greenwood Avenue in Bethel, Connecticut. These won’t be poems for kids, but I’d love to see you there, and there will be time to chat.

After my post called “Making It Personal,” on December 21, 2017, Melissa Mead wrote, I’m having the opposite problem. Plenty of personal conflicts, not enough large-scale dramatic action.

I asked her to explain the problem a little more, and she wrote back, Well, it’s those books I’ve mentioned about Malak, who’s half serpent-demon and half “angel,” basically. The first book’s mostly about his culture shock, and I think it works. But as the story goes on, it really ought to be less in Malak’s head and more about the larger ramifications of a half-demon living in the house of a Ward Minister (kind of like a senator), when the Ward Ministers are the ones who hire demon-hunters to protect humans from the serpent-demons.

I love getting deep into characters’ heads and writing from there, but I really should have more stuff happening out there in the wide world, too. More “fabulously difficult journey,” as Carley Anne said.

(Another reason why I love the comments on this blog–that the help we give each other lingers as ongoing support.)

Melissa Mead added, If anybody had ideas on how to work through consequences of having “the enemy” in your house, and how to balance Big Picture and Little Picture thinking, I’d appreciate it. I’m used to writing short-shorts, with a small cast + small scale.

The ever-helpful (I mean it!) Christie V Powell offered this: It might help to look at plot types: I like to refer to Christopher Booker’s Seven Basic Plots when I need help with the big picture plot. Overcoming the Monster (defeating a villain) and Quest (seeking and earning a goal) are most focused on big picture. The others are Rags to Riches (small person overcomes obstacles), Voyage and Return (wandering into a strange new world and seeking to get home), Comedy (relationships become tangled until one bit of clarity rights all wrongs), Tragedy (Overcoming the Monster from the monster’s point of view), and Rebirth (the Monster descends into darkness, but turns and is able to become light).

My WIP right now is being tricky because it’s got three POVs, so technically the big picture is the plot and all three of my main characters are actually subplots. Their families are seeking refuge from persecution, which is the overall story, and their character struggles are second.

Melissa Mead answered: Hm. I think this falls under Rebirth. At least the first book did…

Back to Christie V Powell: If the first one is rebirth, it seems like now he’s already become good and he needs a new plot. What conflict is he up against? Prejudice/bigotry (and if so, which character represents it)? Is he turning against his former snake-demon allies and stopping their schemes? Or coming to the rescue of other former friends who might be able to change?

Melissa Mead: Yes on the first two, There’s an overall arc that I don’t know how to explain without spoilers, except to say that I recently realized that all my books have been about outcasts finding home.

Jim weighed in: If the first book was a rebirth tale and the MC has been established as a “good guy” but there is still a lot of personal conflict and mistrusting characters “overshadowing” the MC then it seems to me that you’re set up for a “rags-to-riches” plot next. How can the MC prove his worth to the larger society? Usually it happens in two stages: first with help (e.g. Aladdin gets the princess with the help of the djinn), and then with the help removed (e.g. The lamp is stolen and Aladdin has to outsmart the magician on his own to get his princess back).

I’m more in Melissa Mead’s camp. For me, it’s cozy in my characters’ heads! The pesky, unpredictable world out there is scary! So, sometimes I have to force myself.

In The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre, for the first time in any of my books, I had to deal with enormous forces acting against each other: Lakti armies against Kyngoll armies, with a Bamarre rebellion in the mix. I didn’t–and still don’t–know how to write at this scale, at least not through a first-person narrator, and it would probably be the same from a third-person limited POV. I might be able to do it with an omniscient third-person POV. (So there’s a strategy I haven’t used: Write in omniscient third.)

Since I was stuck in first person and didn’t know how to do anything else, I kept the action within the range of my MC, Perry. She views the legions arrayed against her from a tower, but only for a few minutes, and that’s the farthest out I zoom my author’s telescope. There are two battle scenes. In the first one, she’s helping the field doctor. In the second, she’s doing something humanitarian, though I won’t say what and have to issue a spoiler alert.

In the second instance, though, the commander of the Lakti force is right where she is, and her actions ripple through the war and set off outsized consequences.

I do this again and again in the book. Small actions have big effects. So, I’d recommend as an approach to stories that play out on an enormous and daunting scale to keep the focus narrow but influential. When we do this, we can bring to bear our skill at the interpersonal stuff, which doesn’t go away just because the fate of the universe is at stake. Our characters are still themselves, still hampered by their limitations and empowered by their strengths.

Then there’s the follow-up problem with the narrow focus: how does our MC keep track of what’s going on? In Lost Kingdom, Perry has a magical aid that helps her travel quickly, so she can see some of the effects and maintain the momentum. But there are other possibilities, like newspaper or gazettes, messengers, letters. A magic one that crops up sometimes in fairy tales is talking birds. There are other magical or occult possibilities as well, like flying dragons or teleportation or ESP. We just want to make sure that our magical devices don’t make matters too easy for our MC.

Let’s take as an example Christy V Powell’s plot archetype of turning against former allies and apply the principle of small actions leading to large consequences. If Malak can prevail over even one snake demon, he’ll come up with methods that can be applied universally to snake-demons. Or this particular snake-demon is an important one, who’s critical to the survival of all the others.

We can start by LISTing the advantages and drawbacks Malak has in this struggle. On the plus side, he knows the way snake-demons plan and operate. He understands better than anyone how ruthless they are. On the down side, they’re individuals to him, with personalities, and he’s recently absorbed empathy. Will he be able to hurt them? If he does, will his new good side be destroyed? If he doesn’t, they will certainly kill him!

The stakes are high.

The setting can be small-scale, too, say the home of a Ward Minister, which will give Malak another advantage if he knows the layout better than his opponent. And a disadvantage, if the Ward Minister’s family, including the adorable three-year-old twins, are present and at risk.

Naturally, this leads to a prompt:

∙ Write a battle scene between a half-ogre-half-elf and a whole ogre in the mansion of a knight. The knight and his family can be there, or not. Think about the qualities of each character and the floor plan of the house. Include thoughts and emotions along with the action, but keep dialogue to a minimum. The results of this battle will reverberate through the worlds of elves and ogres.

And here are two more:

∙ Your ogre-elf is wounded but on the point of victory when the full ogre gets away from her. Write the pursuit. Think again about the setting and the qualities of your characters, and work in thoughts and feelings.

∙ Turn the tables. The full ogre appears unexpectedly, and now he has some new advantage. Your ogre-elf MC has gone from hunter to quarry. Write the chase.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. There’s been a part of my manuscript that’s been bothering me: much of the drive for my story (though not all), is that there’s a supposed legend which gives a date for when certain things will be ‘ended.’ Some characters believe in the legend, others do not; we don’t know the truth until the end of the story- but whether the legend is real or no, my antagonist believes it, so therefore, everyone has no choice but to act. How do I make a legend believable? Without the smoke and mirrors (and some old, wise, stereotypical cloaked guy rasping the legend’s words through the darkness, if you know what I mean). There are supernatural beings in my fictional world, and they are the first to hear of said legend, but I’ve been looking for ways to reveal bits and pieces to the readers, so that it’s believable, and straightforward. As far as legends go.

    • Maybe you could show signs that the legend could be true by having certain aspects of it line up with real-life events? Events that could be explained away, but also seem to carry the weight of prophecy to those who believe, i.e. a storm or an eclipse bringing darkness, or a kingdom whose rulers and heirs cannot survive past a certain age (perhaps due to a hereditary disease, OR, due to a curse/legend that seems to be coming to pass) or something to that effect. Something like this could make a legend seem real enough to sway many people into believing it.

    • Ditto what Angie said about having certain aspects of match up with real events. If people think “look the prophecy is right about x and y, it’s probably going to be right about z too”, they’ll probably believe it. In addition, you could also make the terms either general enough or metaphorical enough that anything could be interpreted as fulfilling it. For example, if a prophecy says something like “a dragon shall sit on the throne”, it could mean a literal dragon (like in Terry Pratchett’s book GUARDS! GUARDS!), a monarch whose house sigil is a dragon (like the Targaryans in Game of Thrones), somebody with a draconian personality, or just somebody named “Dragon”. I think any of these explanations would seem logical, especially if people are thinking about it after it occurs. There’s something in psychology called Hindsight Bias (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hindsight_bias) in which people tend to see past events as predictable, despite no evidence. I think that effect would be especially strong in the context of a prophecy, and it wouldn’t take a lot to make people go “yep, the prophecy definitely predicted that”.

      Also, does your antagonist have any particular reason for believing the prophecy? If they believe it because they want it to be true, they might also be affected by confirmation bias (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias) and perceive every little thing as a sign of the prophecy. I think as long as your characters truly believe in the prophecy and act accordingly, your reader will too. You could reveal bits of the prophecy to the reader by having some characters mention bits and pieces of the prophecy (like: “oh, hey, a red sun rises, just like it said in the legend) and maybe even discussing/arguing about it.

    • The legend could give some precursor proof (you know, things the legend says will happen before the rest of it starts), such as a lightning storm taking out a major building or the royal baby dying, that could all be happening. That would give the readers that little sneaking fear of ‘is this actually going to happen?’ Or a few of the smaller things the legend says will ‘end could actually get ended. Then the legend would seem to be starting to come true, if any of this makes sense to you.

  2. Superb♥Girl says:

    So, guys, just thinking about Gail’s prompt, what do you think a half-ogre half-elf would look like, in real life? This isn’t exactly an ask for advice; I would just love to hear some viewpoints.

    • Oo, good question! Let’s see…

      “I could break you like a twig, Half-Lost,” said the ogre. “Pale and plucked like the Leaf-People you are. The meat of you is weak.” He swung his cudgel of a fist. Irimu dodged just in time, and the ogre shattered the inlaid side table instead.

      He was right, Oak curse him. The broad hands and thick legs that the elf-children had mocked looked puny now. And his face had never been that raw-beef color. Although if he couldn’t find a way out of this mess, it would be.

    • I have a character who’s father is half-ogre, he looks like a normal elf. His father is larger than a normal elf, other than that he looks normal.

    • I think they would probably be very unevenly proportioned, possibly with the ogre face, but the elf ears and delicate hands. Or maybe they would be too small for an ogre, with an angel face. I think having a sweet-faced ogre would be interesting to write.
      I wrote a four-book series in which many of the characters were mythical biracials, and let me tell you, it was fun.

  3. Thanks, Gail and everybody else!
    Now I’m tempted to write some adorable 3-year-old twins. 🙂 Although there is an “angel baby” in book 2, and serpent-demon spawnlings are actually kinda cute.

  4. On the topic of little actions having big consequences, I remembered a poem I read when I was younger. I believe it goes like this:
    ‘For the want of a nail the shoe was lost
    For the want of the shoe the horse was lost
    For the want of the horse the rider was lost
    For the want of the rider the battle was lost
    For the want of the battle the kingdom was lost
    And all for the want of a nail’

  5. I recently read the screenwriting book “Save The Cat!” and it’s got me curious about something.

    The book spends the beginning talking about how to come up with an interesting story and plot. THEN it talks about developing characters to go with the plot.

    I’m the other way around. My stories grow out of who the characters are. How can I know what someone’s going to do until I know who they are?

    Which comes first for you?

      • Maybe this is why I have trouble with plot. I love to write about people just being themselves.

        How DO you make up a plot without knowing who’s doing what first? People react so differently to situations, depending on who they are.

        • I have a vague idea of character–usually a stereotype stand-in until I get deeper into character, plus some backstory. Also, I’m an outliner, so I’ll play around with all three before I start writing.
          So for the last story I drafted, the magic system came first, along with the vague idea of a woman who was trained by her now deceased mother. Then I mixed in the story of the early LDS church, which has always fascinated me, giving both setting and overall plot (persecution, then trek/pioneers, then settling a new home). I scribbled down some characters from real history, renamed them, figured out how they could be related, and chose three to be POV characters. I gave each of those three one of my flaws. With all that down, I was ready to write it.

          • This is fascinating. I’m a pantser who tends to get a mental “scene” with a character and go from there.

            Ex, here’s how my 3 complete books came about:

            Between Worlds: I misread a definition of “cantrip” as “a mischievous sprite,” but couldn’t find anything about Cantrips. So I made them up- but I needed one specific Cantrip to focus on. So, Miska!

            “Grant’s Book”: I read about the condition of acromegaly/gigantism, and wondered who in a fantasy setting would have this and what it would be like, and ended up with a book about a boy who runs AWAY from a circus. (There’s also a hen that lays golden eggs, magic beans, and a boy named Jack involved.)

            “Malak’s Book.” I wrote a short story about a half demon/angel. Then I saw a Crocodile Hunter episode with Steve Irwin holding a bulging snake and saying “This is a happy snake. He’s warm, he’s got a full belly…” followed by an Iron Chef episode with lamb sashimi. I looked at the quivering pink raw meat and thought “Who would want to eat that? That snake! Hey, what if those demons were reptiles who just wanted a warm place to sleep and a full belly? So that half-demon would look like…”

            I suppose it’s telling that I refer to the last 2 as “Grant’s Book” and “Malak’s book” rather than “The book with the circus and magic” and “the book with the demon battles and journey into 2 afterlives.”

            It’s so interesting hearing how different writers’ thought processes work.

          • LOL! An online writing group I’m in just started a conversation on just this topic.

            They have strict privacy rules, so I can’t quote anyone, but maybe I’ll learn some useful general stuff.

            The person asking works your way, Christie. I’m intrigued and baffled, because for me, working with a “generic character” is like saying “I’m going to make this cake batter with egg substitute, but before I bake the cake I’ll take out the substitute and put in real eggs.” But I’m seeing lots of people asking “How can you write about a character if you have no plot for them?”

            I wonder if there’s a story in this…?

          • For me, a character is defined by what they do. So, if I’m writing about someone, I need to know what they’ve done, where they’re coming from… their story, essentially.

            I know what crazy things I’m going to do to them, but how they react and how they form relationships with the other characters are the discovery–the ‘pantser’ part, if you will. I just had an exciting, planned scene where my MC and her griffin captor learn to communicate for the first time, but I had no idea that her love interest would be horrified by this, believing that the griffin would only manipulate her further, or that her best friend would be angry that she didn’t escape instead. I know that the two women are about to be locked in a room and will have to work together to get out, but I don’t know exactly how they’re going to react, or how long it will take them to work together. And I have no idea what that love interest is up to–he was supposed to be a minor character, but he keeps butting into the story.

          • Sounds like we’re coming at the same thing from different directions.

            Don’tcha love those minor characters who come to life and take over? Juliar in Between Worlds was supposed to say 3 words and be done. Um…Nope. 🙂

          • I’m with you Melissa, I get a “scene” and it turns into a story. I also have minor characters become important.

          • A person in the other group said that I can quote them, and this list has some interesting questions to ask while “pantsing,” so I thought I’d share:

            “I usually brainstorm the potential conflicts the character has:
            all of their relationships, past and present;
            personal hang-ups and baggage;
            things they love or hate that could be used against them;
            their values and morals;
            the situation they would be most afraid of;
            who they love/hate/envy/admire;
            what problems in the world of the book they would be the most or least suited to confront;
            the kind of character who would absolutely rub them the wrong way
            goals the character needs to pursue
            inner conflicts to exploit and trigger

            Then look for interesting collisions between these things. For instance. They would love to do a particular kind of job, and they get it! but the immediate supervisor is the type of person they absolutely can’t get on with. They notice or discover something that goes against their morals, and need to cooperate with or overcome the supervisor in order to right the wrong. That’s sort of an obvious one. then I would brainstorm the specific scenes I would need in order to carry off this general plot. Scene of hiring. Scene of character loving job, in which super ruins it for them. scene displaying/referencing the moral. scene in which they discover the moral challenge. scene in which they try to handle it w/o involving the super–and fail and so forth. “

    • Oh, I love “Save the Cat!” That book really made me understand plot structure for the first time, and now I see the STC beat structure in practically everything I read or watch.

      Usually I come up with a story premise first, then characters, then detailed plot. I feel like that sounds like a problem since conventional writing advice says that good characters are more important than plot, but it’s just always been the way I’ve done it. Looking back at my Story Ideas notebook, my evolution of story ideas typically goes like this:
      The premise summed up in a simple logline (when x happens, y must do z) -> Short blurb/query that summarizes the main plot/conflict -> general descriptions of characters -> plot points/detailed outline. Setting is usually somewhere between premise and plot details depending on whether the setting plays a major role in the story. My characters usually develop as the plot develops, and I don’t really get into the nitty-gritty character details (like goal, conflict, motivation, and all the other stuff in those character-building sheets you find online) until way later. I don’t know why, but I almost never come up with characters first. It’s always a plot/premise first, and then I build the characters to fit the plot.

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        Coming into this late–I usually start with an idea or a vague plot and look for characters who can go with it. For example, in my “Princess and the Pea” version, THE PRINCESS TEST, I looked for a character who might feel the pea under all the mattresses.

    • Aria Memori says:

      The way I tend to do it is the characters and the plot have to fit each other. But the character leads, and the plot does have to fit her. First, however, there must be a character and a fitting plot.
      For example, my WIP started with an idea about a mermaid who had the abilities of a flying fish. Then I got an idea from a little kids TV show-maybe the mermaid could rescue a royal mermaid from the hands of pirates using the flying fish abilities. Then I thought that the other mermaids might not like her abilities, so she’s often lonely.
      Of course I then had to make a mermaid kingdom that would shun mermaids like her. So that’s how the plot got started. After that, I came up with a way to hide her “abilities”- a special type of clothing.
      The plot and character came first. Then came the setting.

  6. Hi everyone! I have a comment and a question.

    My stories tend to start with a “What If?” question. For instance, “What if Jack and Elsa fell in love?” or
    “What if the Magic School Bus characters were fairies?” and I go from there.
    My next question is “How can I make the character’s lives difficult?” In my first Jelsa story an evil being corrupted the other Guardians of Childhood and they repeatedly attack my main characters. In my fairy story, the MC Lio is based off of Arnold from the Magic School Bus. Arnold is the “cowardly” one, and yet he is always put in situations that would be quite dangerous for a human, so with Lio, I put him in situations that would be dangerous for a fairy.

    Now for my question. Some time ago, I asked how to redeem a antagonist. This time, I wondering whether I SHOULD redeem a antagonist. Her name’s Medea, and she does a lot of really horrible things (though she does her best to cover it all up) and eventually she murders one of my MC’s.
    On the other hand, she has a tragic backstory, which makes her desperate for any kind of relationship.
    Medea is fiercely devoted to those she loves and she’ll do anything for them…but if they hurt her or betray her, she turns on them with a hate that is as strong as her attachments, (a lot like the Medea from Greek Mythology).
    My other characters will offer chances for redemption, but is this kind of antagonist even redeemable? What makes a bad guy redeemable or otherwise?

  7. I’d like some unique settings ideas for an upcoming novel. I have part of the story together in my mind, but I don’t know what the setting should be. It can be anywhere from sci fi to fantasy or whatever. I want the setting to involve some kind of vehicles (boats, spaceships, etc.), and it needs to have some loose society rules, but that’s just about all I know. Any ideas?

    • I usually start with places I’ve been and love, because I can picture them the easiest. You can find little details in your memories that make settings come to life. For example, I used to go hiking in desert hills in the Mojave desert a lot as a teenager, so I’ve used those in a couple stories. I was able to describe how the hills look like piles of rocks, how each strange shape makes you want to climb each one, how the light makes shadows that look like hiding places, how a dust storm makes ribbons that dance across flat surfaces… That gives me the landscape, and then I have my own continent with a timeline based roughly on the United States, so I can find the perfect era to set each story in (one is in the mid-1700s, one in the 1840s, one in the 11th century when Vikings explored our coasts).

    • You could cloud islands and flying ships to travel between them. Or colonies living on islands made of space junk, including old spaceships.

  8. Maybe something like an archipelago? That’s a group of islands, and when you mentioned boats that made me think of something like that. You could have there be a ferry system or something between the islands, and that can impact the way society is, like information takes longer than normal to spread across islands. Plus, with islands being disconnected from each other and all, there’s bound to be some rival society systems vying for control. Just like how in the Galapagos Islands, the different habitats make the tortoises all look slightly different, whichever island could influence its own little society.

  9. Thanks Christie V Powell for the links…the articles are very helpful (and I’ll remember that “Not all Tropes are bad”!)

  10. You could have cloud islands with flying ships to travel between them. Or colonies living on islands made of space junk, including old spaceships.

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