RSS Feed

Tag Archives: plot

The Dynamics of Time Travel in Fiction

Posted on
Back to the Future - Novel Conclusions Writing Blog - Literary Blog - Time Travel

Back to the Future Day via Google Images

Today is a red-letter date in the history of time travel stories – the day Marty and Doc went to the future!  In honor of Back to the Future Day, we are going to explore the basic dynamics of time travel in fiction.  What are the consequences for your characters of the possible rules of time travel?

Each fictional universe works with different time travel rules, but the basic rules fall into 3 categories:

  • Changeable Timeline
  • Resistant Timeline
  • Predetermined Timeline

Changeable

A changeable timeline gives the characters much more freedom – and much more ability to screw things up.  Examples of a changeable timeline include stories like Ken Grimwood’s Replay and, of course, the Back to the Future series.

Although the mechanics are different, both of these stories offer characters the chance to change the future.  In Replay, Jeff and Pamela play out their lives over and over and keep waking up after death at age 18 in 1963.  They make different choices in each lifetime to unravel a mystery they are trying to solve.  In Back to the Future, Marty and Doc are working to rectify their accidental changes to the timeline and change the future back to what it should have been.

Resistant

A resistant timeline, such as in Stephen King’s 11-22-63 or Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, offers the author a very interesting framework for the plot.  11-22-63’s narrator Jake Epping, in an effort to change history, tells us again and again, “The past is obdurate.”  Stephen King uses the obdurate past as an antagonist.  Diana Gabaldon in Outlander, meanwhile, uses the resistant past as sometimes good (e.g. I can’t do too much harm) and sometimes bad (e.g. what if I accidentally prevent someone important to me from being born?).

Predetermined

Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife and JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban both provide great examples of a predetermined timeline.  A predetermined timeline sneaks up on our characters; they may know what is coming and have no way to change it.  Or perhaps they know they have to do something but must figure out how to do it.

In the Time Traveler’s Wife, part of the sneakiness of the plot lies in how sometimes Claire knows what’s coming and sometimes Henry does.  In Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry and Hermione only realize just in time what they need to do to save their friends – and they have to figure out on the spot how to do it.

Each of these approaches comes with its own positives and pitfalls.  Which is your favorite?  Which dynamics of time travel did I leave out?  What are other examples of great time travel stories?

Building Complex Characters

Posted on
Cain and Abel - Building Complex Characters - Compelling Characters - Novel Conclusions - literary blog - writing tips

Cain and Abel by Titian via Wikimedia Commons

This post contains affiliate links that help this blog continue to be awesome.

One of the best things about good stories is great characters.  In a memorable story, the main character shares the stage with a cast of other similarly complex characters.  We don’t need to have 20 super complex characters, unless you’re writing some kind of epic, but we should definitely have more than one, and almost definitely more than 2 or 3.  Side note/disclaimer: I don’t like stories about man vs. nature where it’s literally just one dude/dudette against the elements, a la Robinson Crusoe, Castaway, Hatchet, etc.; those stories are great naptime inducers.

How do we create these complex characters?

  1. Each of your main ensemble characters should have their own character arc.  That means they have an objective or three.  This is even better if their objectives clash directly with the main character’s objectives – plot fireworks!  For example, in Roald Dahl’s Matilda, Matilda’s little buddy Lavendar wants to be just as cool as the upper grade kids, and this character arc has some serious unintended consequences for Matilda.  When Matilda is falsely accused of being behind one of Lavendar’s pranks (a prank she set up to get in with the cool kids), the ensuing events are set in motion with no turning back.
  2. Be very strategic in your choice of details.  Although it’s very important to include details about our characters (this is something we really must do), a little goes a long way.  In Lois Lowry’s The Giver, a telling detail about main character Jonas’s best friend Asher does double duty, not only revealing a bit about Asher, but contrasting it directly with Jonas:  “Jonas was careful about language, not like his friend, Asher, who talked too fast and mixed things up, scrambling words and phrases until they were barely recognizable and very funny.”  Jonas’s attention to detail and thoughtfulness are thrown into sharp relief when held up next to his sloppy, funny best friend.  (For more on detail, check out last week’s post about character tags).
  3. Dynamic situations.  Situations where characters are forced to reevaluate their stances or their past decisions – these are some great character-revealing situations.  Severus Snape, of Harry Potter fame, presents a fantastic example.  When he finds out that the woman he’s loved since childhood – Harry’s mother, Lily – is in danger, he becomes a double agent.  Even though he carries a deep dislike of Harry, carried over from his hatred of Harry’s father, he changes the course of many lives in his time as a double agent, Harry’s especially.
  4. Your plot should not be able to stay the same if you removed one of the characters.  The characters and plot ought to be so intertwined that you cannot remove a character without affecting the plot.  Can you imagine Top Gun without Maverick?  Not so much.  If you can remove a character without affecting the plot, that character probably didn’t belong in the first place.

How else can we create complex characters?  Who are some of your favorite complex characters?

Related Links

Raising the Stakes

Posted on
Cliffs at Étretat by Gustave Courbet via Wikimedia Commons

Cliffs at Étretat by Gustave Courbet via Wikimedia Commons

With National Novel Writing Month looming (frequently known as NaNoWriMo), I’ve been thinking quite a bit about outlining.  Last year, I participated in NaNoWriMo without an outline, and the results were less than stellar.  Having an outline helps me write the nitty gritty of the story itself more quickly and more cleanly.

There are all kinds of resources out there to help you outline, but what matters most is what you put inside the outline.  One of the most important things holding your plot together will be the stakes and the ensuing tension those stakes develop.  The stakes for the same situation will be completely different depending on your character.  All of the Bennet girls in Pride and Prejudice had a strong stake in finding good marriages – as soon as their father passed on, they would be penniless and basically homeless if they didn’t have a (good) husband.  On the other hand, Jem in Rachel Ward’s Numbers had no such stake in a good marriage; in fact, I can imagine her scoffing at even the idea of getting married.  The stakes are completely different based on your characters and their objectives.

According to former literary agent Mary Kole, author of Writing Irresistible Kidlit, there are two different types of stakes, public stakes and private stakes.  Private stakes impact your character’s core identity.  Your main character may become completely torn up when her family loyalty is put on the line and she is unable to fulfill her role as the protector of her family (think Katniss in Hunger Games, contemplating her death and what will happen to her family if she dies).  Public stakes, on the other hand, bring in the larger world and the character’s relationship with it.  If the Bennet girls in Pride and Prejudice don’t get married, and get married to the right kind of men, they will be pitied as burdens on the community in addition to being penniless.

Many of the best kinds of stakes are a mixture of public stakes (relationship with the world) and private stakes (personal identity).  In Numbers, if Jem doesn’t share her secret, she may not be able to unravel the mystery in time to save Spider; however, if she does share her secret, people may not believe her, causing further consequences.

It’s important to ratchet up the stakes little by little as we go along, but we also have to take care not to go too far overboard.  Too far overboard can make us move into the realm of melodrama.  Melodrama happens when the characters’ emotions run too high to match their objectives.  If Johnny scratched his hand on a rock, he’s probably going to be irritated but not irate.  If the emotions run too high to match what’s happening, we may lead readers into farce.  Sounding like a sketch on SNL by accident is much worse than sounding like one on purpose.

What are our takeaways?

  • Ratchet up the stakes little by little
  • Include a mixture of public and private stakes
  • Don’t be melodramatic

What else would you add about raising the stakes?  How do you include stakes when you’re outlining?

Related Links

5 Ways to Tighten Up Your Plot

Posted on
Plot - Back to the Future - Indiana Jones - Novel Conclusions literary writing blog

The Ramifications of Time Travel via tapiture.com

There are many different successful writing styles that get books to fly off the shelves, but most successful fiction books need one thing to really work: a solid plot.  In my opinion, calling an author a tight plotter is one of the highest compliments.  A few authors that are great at this are Stephen King, Suzanne Collins, and George RR Martin, among others.

With a tight plotter, we’re hooked into the story, we encounter some crazy obstacles along the way (that totally make sense at the end of the story – I’m waiting on this one with Game of Thrones, Mr. Martin), and we solve whatever we’ve come to solve, while tying up most loose ends in ways that push the plot forward.  I like to think of it as a complex puzzle that doesn’t fully make sense until you put in the last few pieces – that’s some classy plotting.

How can I tighten up my plot?  Of course, I can’t give any in-depth advice about this without actually reading what you’ve written.  However, a few things generally always apply.

  1. First of all, make sure you actually have a plot.  This is a post in itself, so I’ll point you to a couple of experts in the meantime.  See Nathan Bransford’s Do You Have a Plot? and Mary Kole’s Writing a Hot Plot.
  2. Kill Your Darlings!  What does this mean?  (And why do I hear it so often???)  This means that there may be a few extra secondary characters just hanging out in your story that don’t really do anything for your main character or your story line.  If the character is present in your story, their presence should matter.  Does this character affect my main character in any important way?  Does this character move the plot forward?  If your main character has a best friend and a sister that fill the same role, perhaps that character can be combined.  If you have an evil neighbor named after that teacher you hated just to spite her, perhaps that character should be cut.
  3. Are the stakes high enough?  Obviously the stakes will be different depending on the genre.  However, are your stakes high enough for the reader to care?  If, in Jurassic Park, the story was just about whether or not the dinosaur theme park itself was viable, that’s not particularly exciting.  When suddenly our main characters’ lives hang in the balance, that changes the stakes.
  4. On the other side of the coin, are the stakes laughably high?  Remember to work within the confines of the world you have built.  It’s okay for your characters’ goals to seem a bit unreasonable (like Katniss surviving the Hunger Games or Scarlett O’Hara getting her family through the Civil War alive), but not laughably unreasonable (like Katniss learning to fly or Scarlett becoming president during the Civil War) – unless you’re writing parody or satire, of course.
  5. Cut out extraneous scenes.  How?  Go through your story scene by scene.  Does each scene push the plot forward and/or show readers something they must know in order for the story to work?  If this scene doesn’t fit those criteria, why is it in my story?  If you can’t answer the “why,” the scene might be ripe for the chopping block.

These ideas are just the tip of the iceberg.  What else can we do to tighten up plot?  What can we add/take out/change to make our plots tighter?

Related Links

Inciting Incidents and Why They Rock Your Plot

Posted on
Sparkler - Ignite - Inciting Incident - Novel Conclusions writing blog - writing tips

Sparkler by Josh Wickerham via Wikimedia Commons

What’s an inciting incident and what makes it so important?  Why are writing teachers always talking about them?

First of all, let’s get on the same page about what an inciting incident is.  It is that moment at the beginning of the story when something changes and sets the plot in motion, or, as Mary Kole puts it in Writing Irresistible Kidlit , it is “the event that takes your character from his sense of normal (life and business as usual) and launches him into the main conflict of your story.”  This usually takes place at or around the end of the first chapter, sometimes sooner.

In Natalie Whipple’s Transparent (yes, the book I mentioned a couple weeks ago – it’s awesome!  Check it out!) Fiona’s father is trying to force her hand to get her to murder someone, and she has to run away or become a killer.  This catapults us into the story.  Although invisible Fiona has done her dad’s bidding before, she’s never had to kill anyone, and this pushes her and her mother to take action and run away.  It pulls Fiona and her mother out of their normal and into a world of conflicted plot awesomeness.

In Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler’s The Future of Us, Emma and Josh log on to the internet for the first time – and discover their Facebook pages, fifteen years in the future.  Facebook hasn’t even been thought of yet, but their careers, spouses, kids, and status updates are all there.  Every time they change something in their present, something in their futures changes, too.  Aside from the fact that this is such a cool concept, it also causes Emma and Josh to act very differently in order to create the futures they want.  They just don’t know what the unintended consequences will be.

In Ender’s Game, Ender is accepted into Battle School, and his life completely changes.  He is not allowed to see his family again for several years, and he’s going to be trained to be an isolated child warrior.  This moment defines him.

Why are these incidents so important?

  • They give the reader a feeling for the flavor of the book
  • They tell us something about the main character – and if they don’t tell us something about the main character, they should.
  • Most importantly, they kick off the plot of the story.

What are your favorite inciting incidents?  What else is important about this moment at the beginning of the story?

P.S. One of my favorite inciting incidents is the Reaping in The Hunger Games (awesomely plotted, Suzanne Collins!).

P.P.S. Check out my guest post over at The Art Abyss, How Perseverance Helps Creativity Blossom.

Who’s Driving Your Story?

Posted on
Divergent - Veronica Roth - Novel Conclusions - literary blog - writing tips

Divergent via veronicarothbooks.blogspot.com

Is your main character (MC) driving the action in your story?  What makes this particular story belong to this particular character?  Is this character just a victim on the sidelines, or is this character taking action to drive the plot forward?  Writing your character as proactive instead of reactive drives the plot and gives us reason to root for the character.  It’s okay if your MC is failing (in fact, road blocks are great building blocks to plot) as long as she is trying to do something to get where she wants to go.

In the “Q&A with Veronica Roth” section at the end of Divergent, author Veronica Roth tells us that she gave herself one primary rule with regard to her main character, “Beatrice is the agent… she’s always choosing, always acting, always moving the plot by her behavior.”  Active, rather than passive, characters help your plot to be both more character-driven and more action-driven.  In Divergent, Beatrice, or Tris, drives the action at the beginning of the story by choosing her faction.  There must be a reason that this exact character is telling this story.  What is so special about your MC that they deserve to be the one telling this story?  What is it about them and their experience that makes them the person to follow?

In The Hunger Games, Katniss drives the action at the beginning of the novel by volunteering to replace her little sister at the reaping.  Katniss made a hard choice, but it was her choice.  If she had originally been chosen for the reaping instead of her little sister, The Hunger Games would not have had the same emotional pull (and we as readers might not be rooting for Katniss in the same way).  Although Katniss is caught up in the Games and definitely sometimes in a reactive position, she still continues to take action to drive the plot.

Why have an active rather than passive MC?

  • Readers want to root for the main character more if they are trying to help themselves.
  • We get to know the character better through their actions (showing vs. telling).
  • Hard choices reveal the character’s innermost traits (Beatrice’s desire for independence, Katniss’s love for her sister).
  • This story belongs to these characters – there’s no way it could be told in the same way by anyone else.  The characters become more memorable.

What are your favorite stories where the character drives the action?  Do you think this is something that is important to move the plot forward?

P.S. Check out this old post from Nathan Bransford about character choice.

What’s So Great About Unreliable Narrators?

Posted on
The Sixth Sense - Unreliable Narrator - Novel Conclusions - literary blog - writing tips

The Sixth Sense via Wikipedia

Every narrator has a perspective.  Even with novels written in third person omniscient point of view (where you as the reader know everything that’s going on, even things the main characters don’t know), there is a perspective there; the author has chosen which story to tell.  In first person and limited third person, we get to know the main character through his or her perspective – the way they views things, people, and events, the way they act.  Having a unique perspective gives the main character life.  Sometimes, this unique perspective extends so far that the main character is an unreliable narrator – they aren’t seeing what’s really happening (or, in some cases, they are omitting key information).

Why would you write a story with an unreliable narrator?  Well, let’s examine this a bit.  M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense gives us a clear example of an unreliable narrator.  (WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD) In this movie, we follow troubled child psychologist Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis’s character) as he helps a young patient, Cole, who claims he can see dead people.  Crowe is especially determined to help Cole because he failed to help a patient with similar delusions in the past.

As we get wrapped up in the story, we as an audience are completely taken by surprise – at least, I was – to find out that Crowe has been dead for the large majority of the movie and that Cole is the only one who can see him.  Crowe was an unreliable narrator because he was showing us not just a one-sided version of events but an intensely one-sided version of events.  The ending takes us by surprise because the main narrator was only showing us a very, very limited view of events.

What’s so great about unreliable narrators?

  • They allow for twists in the story that make sense (rather than twists that just feel like contrived plot devices).  When well-written, it creates that wow factor that can be so hard to come by.
  • We as writers get to fill the story with “Easter eggs.”  Think of all the incredibly cool things you can find re-watching The Sixth Sense.
  • It’s fun to get into the mind of a truly idiosyncratic character.
  • We as writers are solidly in control of the framing of the story, even more so than with a regular Joe type narrator.

A key point here is that the writing needs to be solid in order for this to work.  If the writing is tacky or shoddy, an unreliable narrator might just make the reader want to put the book down.  Of course, the writing needs to be solid for any story to work properly, but you already knew that, didn’t you?

Have you read or seen anything you enjoyed with an unreliable narrator?  What did you like about it?

Related Links:

%d bloggers like this: