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It’s important that we put aside one of the most persistent but misguided theories in literature – that there are stories that are plot-driven, and stories that are character-driven. In this instance ‘plot’ is used like a dirty word; ‘character-driven’ is seen as a mark of serious writing, while ‘plot-driven’ is thought to be written by hacks pandering to the marketplace.
In fact, no editor can let a writer slack off on one or the other; a good story is driven by both good plot ideas and good characters. They are equally important and can’t be separated out.
In this fortnight we will examine the notion of plot proportion through a series of videos, lessons and exercise. This lesson will help you identify the ‘parts’ of your story, show you how you can mould these parts so they are sign posted by clear transition points, and help you to determine if your novel has perfect proportions.
TOPIC ONE: Plot Proportion – A Video From Kim
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TOPIC TWO: Interconnectedness of Plot & Character
A story isn’t a story until it has people and problems. These two things (character and plot) cannot in any way be conceived outside of each other. An idea for a fascinating character means little until that character is challenged in some way, and a high-stakes plot idea means little if it isn’t focalised through three-dimensional people whose thoughts and feelings can be communicated to the reader. It’s your job to ensure that happens, that the relationship between the people and the problems is clear.
Characters give the heart and vertical movement, the ups and downs, of a narrative. The people create the emotional connection. At every point the reader is affected by what’s happening to them. The characters are then driven by the plot, which changes the character and moves their arc on the narrative trajectory. This brings about transformation from the person on page one, to the person they become at “the end”.
The problems create the narrative steps (the plot) and create the horizontal movement of the story from the beginning, through the middle and to the end. This movement sustains narrative interest and keeps the reader turning pages. The plot is affected by peoples’ actions and reactions as they decide whether to take on or run away from challenges.
In terms of reading experience, plot and pace are seen as the most important aspects of fiction. Plot and character are interconnected and the more related they are the better. It’s your job as a writer to trace this relationship between people and plot. This is where the notion of plot proportion comes into play.
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TOPIC THREE: Identifying The Parts Of A Story
If you get your plot proportions right, it provides an extra layer of enjoyment for the reader. This is not a science; there are no exact rules about how big each part of the plot should be, but there is a feel or rhythm to a story in which you set up the premise, develop it, and then resolve it. This is also known as the beginning, middle and end.
Readers expect, enjoy and want to find those story rhythms and see them played out. Beginning – middle – end is how we tell stories to each other and is primal to our nature. A book that has its proportions right will have a reader loving the book so much they never want it to end, but even though they don’t want it to end, they can’t stop turning the pages.
Roughly speaking, a quarter of the book is dedicated to the beginning, a half to the middle and the final quarter of the book to the end. Note these are rough measures and often the ending can be shorter than a quarter of the book.
The reader needs to know these distinct parts are there. That way they can enjoy the set-up knowing it is leading somewhere, and take pleasure being stuck in the middle, with the knowledge they’ll be pulled through the ending without getting bored. You want to avoid a middle where the reader thinks the story isn’t going anywhere.
Let’s look at the function of each part and the types of questions you need to be asking yourself as you examine your scene map:
The beginning is made up of scenes which introduce, and invite the reader in. It asks questions and hooks the reader in with the promise of answers. In the beginning a reader should get the first hints of the core conflict that will run the rest of the story. Use the below questions to help edit this proportion. They fall into three categories: character, setting and conflict.
- Do we have all we need to know about the characters for the story’s purposes?
- Is that information imparted without overwhelming the reader? Is it included in a way that makes it easy to read?
- Are the viewpoint characters established early enough? Are they established in the right order?
- Are they fascinating enough for the reader to keep reading? Will your reader want to spend lots of time with them?
- Do we have what we need to know about the setting for the story’s purposes? This relates back to world-building: do we understand the logic? Is there a consistency of setting?
- Have you put in detail without overwhelming the reader? Two pages describing a house are too much.
- Is the setting rich enough that readers will want to spend time there?
- Are the important aspects of the setting (i.e. ones that impact on the story) made evident early enough?
- Is the problem set up? Is there narrative interest early enough? Will the reader want to keep reading?
- Is what’s at stake defined?
- Are there mysteries or questions introduced which will later be uncovered?
The middle is made up of scenes which develop characters, conflict, and context. In essence, it escalates the conflict. This part often falls into two sections: the first half indulges in the world building and character building, whereas the second half is often more intense, with more drama and quicker pace, and pays more attention to moving the conflict forward. Scenes in this second section of the middle tend to be more action orientated, with little time spent on introspection and description. The middle, of all the parts, is the place where you must watch the pace of your narrative. You don’t want the reader to get stuck. Below are some questions to ask to help tighten this proportion:
- Does the middle show characters attempting to solve problems?
- Does it show the problems that arise in spite of/ because of these solutions?
- Does it have plot points that are not related to the core conflict? If so, can they be cut?
- Does the character begin to develop, and do they do so consistently?
- Is there more depth added to the setting? Are there places where there is too much white space and the author needs to add more detail?
The end resolves the character, conflict, and context. Authors need to give a lot of TLC to the ending as by this point in the drafting process they were tired and just wanted to finish. As a result the climax can come out flat. When revising you may find it helpful to start at the end and revise this part first, then go to the middle and then the beginning. Our beginnings are often overworked because we’ve read them a million times. Lavish the same kind of attention on your ending. You need to consider the below when looking at the scenes in the ending of your novel:
- Do you begin to position the characters for the denouement (depending on genre)? Do your characters move towards that final page? Is your plotting for this particular novel resolved?
- Do you spatially have the characters in the right place/setting for the final climax? e.g. country, city, building.
- Do you temporally have all your characters in the right place at the right time?
- Have your characters developed enough psychologically for the final hurdle? You need to make sure he or she has developed the right state of mind. Is there a sense that the character would plausibly act this way at this part of the novel? Have they developed sufficiently?
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TOPIC FOUR: Transition Points
To be able to distinguish the beginning from the middle, and the middle from the end, requires clear transition points between the three parts. These two transition points are like gear changes. You can hear them if you listen closely.
The first transition point is the scene that indicates the story is set up and ready to rock. The second transition point is the scene that indicates matters have become so intense that an ending is imminent even if the character is unprepared for it. These transition points help to create a pleasing and persuasive structure.
One clear example of transition points is Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The end of the beginning (the first transition point) is when Romeo realises Juliet, who he’s fallen for, is from the warring family. The end (the second transition point) begins when Romeo kills Tybalt. Basically, a disaster has happened and there is no way of escaping it. Each beginning, middle, and end is distinct in this play and can be inevitably felt by the audience.
Have a look at your scene map and ask yourself: What are your transition points? Which are the scenes that take readers from beginning to middle, and from middle to end? Identify these transition points and see how many scenes are in each of the three parts of your manuscript. Do you need to trim the middle or flesh out the ending?
You then need to consider whether each scene fulfils its role properly in the beginning, the middle, or the end.
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If you get your plot proportions right, artfully separating the beginning, middle and end, it provides an extra layer that fulfils the expectations of the reader in a most satisfying way. The reader needs to know these distinct parts are there. In a way, it frees them up to enjoy the set-up and take pleasure being stuck in the middle, because they know they will be pulled through to the end without being bored.
This exercise will:
- Help you identify and strengthen your plot proportions,
- Determine if each scene is in the right part and,
- Help you to identify the best transition points to signify the beginning of the next part.
WHAT TO DO:
Run the below checklist on your manuscript, using your scene map:
- Identify the two scenes which act as transition points between the beginning and middle, and the middle and end.
- Do your proportions look about right? Do a quarter of your scenes (roughly) fit in the beginning (before transition point one), a half of your scenes fit in the middle (before transition point two) and a quarter of your scenes fit in the end? Remember, the end part can hold less than a quarter of your scenes.
- Look at each scene and ask yourself: is it in the right place? Do all the scenes in the beginning set up the story? Do all the scenes in the middle develop the story, escalating conflict? Do all the scenes at the end lead to a resolution?
Use your findings as a guide to rearrange and strengthen scenes as needed so the story, as a whole, moves smoothly forward. Discuss your findings in the Plot Proportion Forum.
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