The Plotting Workshop: Ordinary World

ordinary-worldI want you to take a minute right now and think about a time when you had an adventure. Maybe you took a trip or had a whirlwind romance or got caught up in some traumatic event. It can be something that was over in an hour or something that lasted years.

Here’s an example from my life. When I was fourteen, I spent several weeks in Costa Rica with my best friend, Belerma. We stayed with her mother, who lived in a little town called Puntarenas.

Now–think about what your life was like just before your adventure.

I had just moved from my mother’s house to my father’s house, which was a heart wrenching decision and was still raw and painful. We all lived in Southern California and at that time I’d say that my family was middle class. I was in the summer before eighth grade, so I was only one year removed from a miserable elementary school experience. I was quiet and studious, I read close to a book a day and I spent a lot of time practicing with my swim team. A lot of the time, I isolated myself in a story or under the water. I was also nursing a baby eating disorder.

That last paragraph? That was my ordinary world. Every protagonist has an ordinary world. Of course, ordinary for your Main Character might not be ordinary for you or your reader. Your MC might be a cop or a serial killer, a nun or an astronaut. Who ever they are, the next part of this course involves figuring out where they come from.

This lesson has one assignment.

You’ll want to read the chapter called “The Ordinary World” in Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey to prepare for this week’s assignment.

ASSIGNMENT SEVEN

The Starting Point

Your first task is to read the chapter in The Writer’s Journey called “The Ordinary World.” At the end of the chapter, there are some questions. They are all useful. I’ve come up with a few below that are based on the book, but if you can, work Vogler’s questions in as well.

Some of them ask you to think about stories from your own life or favorite movies and books, rather than directly working on the book you’re planning. If you’re having trouble understanding the concept of The Ordinary World, his questions will help.

Okay. In a minute, I’m going to give you my list of questions. Unlike when we were working on character and setting sketches and you used the questions to guide your free writing, I want you to actually answer each of these.

First, let’s talk about story structure a little bit.

One of the things that makes a story a story is change. The MC starts out in their life the way it always is, something happens to call them into the special world of the story, they go into the story, and they come back out on the other side in a new normal that will stick around until the next adventure changes them again.

A classic story arc looks something like this:

Right now we’re focused on the little flat part on the left. You’re going to answer some questions that will give you a little more insight into your story itself, how you want to open it, and where your MC is coming from.

If you’re writing a story with two main characters–a romance, for instance–you can ask these questions for both.

Ready? Open to a new page of your notebook, title it The Ordinary World, and answer these questions.

  • Title. Here’s my confession. I suck at titles. I always have. It relieves my title-writing anxiety to know that I can just come up with a placeholder working title. Sometimes that’s just the name of the main character. If you have a good title, write it down. If you don’t, just pick something for now.
  • Opening Image. Do you have an idea in your mind of how you want your story to start? If you have any movies on your inspiration list, Google around and see if you can find the opening scenes for them. Watch them and notice how they draw you in. I bet they make you want to watch the movies again. Opening scenes in a book can be as cinematic as opening scenes in a film. Describe your opening image.
  • Will your book have a prologue? Go ahead and write a few lines about it and why it’s important.
  • What does your MC want? This is the external motivation for your character. It can be something physical or something emotional. Think about how what your character wants can direct whether or not they enter the special world of the story.
  • What does your MC need? This is the internal motivation for your character, and again it can be physical or emotional. This need might be what drives your character forward, even when going back seems like the safer choice.
  • Does your novel have a theme? This might sound like a platitude, but it can help center your story planning. Harry Potter’s theme might be that heroes come from unexpected places. The Wizard of Oz’s theme is repeated over and over: There’s no place like home. One theme for my novel Viral Nation is ‘family is where you find it.’
  • What are the stakes for your MC? What do they stand to lose if their ordinary world is upset? To choose Hogwarts, Harry had to risk making his only family and his caretakers hate him even more. In my book, the MC had to upset her ordinary world in order to save her brother’s life.
  • How is your MC broken? Stories almost always happen because the MC is broken in some way. They are missing something and that missing something leads to the adventure that’s about to happen to them. How is your MC broken? How have they been dealing with that brokeness so far?
  • Christopher Vogler asks you to think about your story’s dramatic question. Will Harry be victorious over Voldemort? Will Dorothy get home? Think about the overarching question that your MC needs to answer.

Once you’ve answered all of those questions, sit down and think about the things that have built your MC’s ordinary world. Most of this list will be things that happened off the page, before your story starts.

This list for my novel Viral Nation looked something like this:

  • Reno is surrounded by a wall, built before the MC was born to keep the people who survived a terrible virus healthy.
  • That virus killed nearly every human being on Earth when the MC was an infant.
  • The MC’s mother died of the virus. Her father and brother survived, although each is scarred in his own way.
  • The MC has autism. She has a service dog and her older brother is her main support.
  • Everyone in Reno needs a daily vaccination to keep the virus from coming back.
  • The vaccination was brought back from the future by a scientist who found a time portal deep in Lake Tahoe. A submarine brings those who can travel back and forth with news from the future.
  • The US government is defunct and the world is run by the company that makes the vaccine.
  • The MC’s father is an executioner.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone might have a list like this:

  • Harry was dropped on his aunt and uncle’s front stoop when he was an infant.
  • His aunt and uncle are muggles who hate magic and are afraid (rightfully so) that Harry might have some. Their son is horrible as well.
  • Harry’s parents died mysteriously.
  • A wizard and a witch brought Harry to his aunt and uncle in the hopes that they’d take care of him and keep him safe from the man who tried to kill him, and did kill his parents.
  • Harry is completely unaware of is own power.
  • People in the wizarding world know who he is. He’s a legend there.

I think you get the idea. You’re going to learn a lot about your protagonist during this assignment. You need to know where they’re coming from before they move into the special world of the story.

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The Plotting Workshop: 5 Key Plot Points

5-key-plot-points

So far, you have a list of characters, a list of settings, and a list of situations (those awesome plot bunnies!) And you’ve picked one of each and put them together into the core of your amazing, shiny new story idea.

Now, I’m going to teach you the method that I use to test my story ideas to decide whether or not they merit an entire novel. Trust me when I tell you that you don’t want to find out that all you’ve really got is a short story or a scene, when you’re several 1000 words in.

Nothing sucks worse than suddenly realizing that your story has no where else to go.

So, here’s what I do. I assign my story idea the 5 Key Plot Points. You can read more about them here.

I want to make something very clear. At this incredibly early stage, you are NOT tying yourself into exactly how your story has to go. You can (and probably will) change things as you continue to plan and then write your novel. Your final story might not resemble what you’re going to do today at all.

All I want you to do is show yourself that there is at least one way that your story can get from Once Upon a Time to Happily (or not-so-Happily) Ever After.

ASSIGNMENT EIGHT

Today I want you to open your notebook and make some notes regarding these five key plot points as they relate to the idea you’ve developed over the last few days.

Inciting Incident

I like to describe the inciting incident as a question posed to the hero. Will you enter this story? This is usually the first thing that happens to your character in the story that is way outside their ordinary world.

Lock-in

The Lock-in is the answer to the question. The answer, always, has to be yes. It might be a grudging yes. It might be a kicking-and-screaming yes. It might be a yes that looks like the hand of God reaching down and flicking your character into the story like it or not. But the answer will be yes. The Lock-in scene is the scene where your MC finally realizes, one way or the other, that they’ve entered the world of the story.

Mid-point Crisis

The Mid-point Crisis is the second biggest moment of your story. In tone, it mirrors the end of your story. If you’re not writing a tragedy, it’s going to be a big win for your hero. If you are writing a true tragedy (the only positive outcome for your hero is death), then the Mid-point Crisis will be a big, dark, loss.

Main Climax

The Main Climax of your story is the transition between Acts II and III. It is opposite in tone to the end of your story. It’s the biggest moment of the whole book. If you’re not writing a tragedy, it’s a scene that is often called the Dark Night of the Soul. It’s the darkest, all-is-lost scene for your hero. If you are writing a tragedy, this is going to be where your hero has a big win.

Third Act Twist

The Third Act Twist is my favorite. It’s the scene, sometime after the Main Climax, that turns everything around from the tone of that climactic scene to the tone of the end of your story.

Here’s an example

Let’s take this character, setting, and situation:

A female police officer who lives and works in Incline Village suffers from an eating disorder is called to a domestic violence situation while she’s binge eating in her cruiser.

5 Key Plot Points for that idea:

Inciting Incident

The binge in her cruiser is the inciting incident. She’s never allowed herself to act on her eating disorder while she was in uniform before. It was a strict rule that she’s broken for the first time.

Lock-in

When she arrives on the scene of the domestic violence situation, she passes out. The husband is a nurse and winds up having to take care of her. She locks herself into the story idea when she agrees to falsify her report about the domestic violence in return for him keeping her episode a secret.

Mid-point Crisis

The MC has been ‘scared straight’ by the incident that night. She is certain that she made the right decision, even though her dreams are haunted by the woman she betrayed when she falsified the report about her abuse.

Main Climax

The woman that the MC failed to protect is nearly killed by her husband. The truth about what the MC did comes out and she is publicly shamed, faces criminal charges, and loses her job. She descends deeply into her eating disorder.

Third Act Twist

The woman who was nearly killed, and who made what the MC did public, needs the MC’s help. She needs the MC to testify about what she saw the night when she responded to the domestic violence call at the woman’s house. The MC is reluctant, but in the end agrees.

I hope that helps you to see how this process works. You aren’t writing your story. You don’t have to go into deep detail. Just a few lines about each of the plot points is fine. This exercise took me about fifteen minutes to do. I’m sure if I actually wrote this story, it would barely resemble this little outline. And that’s okay.

What I know now is that I could write this story and that it is a big enough idea to support an entire 70,000 to 90,000 word novel.

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The Plotting Workshop: Situation

situationOkay, so far you’ve made a decent master list of the characters and settings that, before now, were just kind of pinging around your brain like pin balls. You’ve picked one of each, like ordering Chinese food (one from A and one from B . . .), now it’s time for the last component of a good idea.

The situation.

You know who your story is about. You know where (and when) your story is going to take place. Today we’re going to talk about the why and the what of your idea.

For this, you’re going to do two things.

ASSIGNMENT SEVEN

Plot Bunnies

Get out your notebook and start to list some situations.

Sometimes these are called plot bunnies. Little ideas that dig in their claws (or their sharp little teeth) and insist that, someday, you write a story about them.

I saw one on Facebook today. What if people aged to 18 and then stopped aging until they met their soul mate, so they could grow old at the same time? What if platonic friends moved in together, and started aging? What if . . .

See how that works?

“What if” are the magic words.

Don’t try to rush this list. Your brain might seize up and it’ll feel like you’ve never had a good idea before at all, ever. If that happens, start with stories you’ve already written, just to get the creative juices flowing.

Once you have your list made, pick a situation for your hero.

Once you’ve chosen your plot bunny, start writing about it. Just like with character and setting, start with a simple description, then guide free writing with questions. Here are some you can start with:

  • What is missing in your hero that is highlighted by this situation?
  • How are the people who are important to your hero involved in this situation?
  • What is the first problem that the hero will face because of this situation?
  • How do they usually cope with that sort of problem?
  • What emotions does the situation bring up?
  • How does your hero generally cope with that emotion?
  • What are the stakes for your hero in this situation?
  • Use your five senses to describe the situation in as much detail as you can.

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The Plotting Workshop: Setting

setting

Now that you know your characters more intimately, maybe you’ve had some thoughts about where their story takes place.

Setting is so important. Think about Harry Potter and you instantly imagine Hogwarts, or the cabinet under the stairs, or Diagon Alley. Can you even think about The Wizard of Oz without picturing Emerald City or a dusty farm in Kansas?

In my novel Viral Nation, I had a few main settings. One was an abandoned casino in Reno called the Dinosaur. Another was the Ponderosa Ranch theme park in Incline Village. Another was the Company headquarters, in downtown Reno. Lastly, the Veronica–a time-traveling submarine docked at Lake Tahoe. The casino in Reno called the Bazaar that serves as the goods distribution center for the city.

There were a few more minor settings as well. The Main Character’s house. Her school. The vaccination bar where the characters have to be at a certain time every day. The main street in Reno.

The overall location for Viral Nation is the Reno/Tahoe area of Northern Nevada. Location can become almost like another character in your story. For instance, in my book the Truckee River bisects the city and affects a lot of the characters’ movements. There’s also a wall around the city, which becomes like a looming presence.

This time around you’ll have one assignment, again very in depth.

ASSIGNMENT SIX

Location, Location, Location

On a fresh page of your notebook, make a list of every location you’re pretty sure will be a part of your story. Look back over your character notes for ideas. Where does your MC live? Work? Play? Will parts of the story take place there? Don’t forget to list the overall location or locations for you blog (Oz and Kansas, for instance.)

Now, just like you did for your character sketches, give each location a page or two. Start with the basics, a physical description of the setting, then use the questions below to guide a free writing exercise.

  • How is the setting important to the story?
  • Would the story change if the setting changed?
  • How does your MC tie to the setting?
  • Why is the setting important?
  • Are there any scenes that you know have to happen there?
  • Which characters belong to this setting?
  • Is this your MC’s setting or are they introduced to it?
  • How does the setting affect the MC?
  • How does your MC affect the setting?
  • Does your setting change over the course of the story?

Is there any research you need to do about your setting? You can start that now. Make a list of resources you’ll use and questions you need to have answered before you start to write.

If you’re writing about a place that you’ve never been, you might have to set aside time before you start writing for you research. For instance, my friend Heather Petty wrote a novel called Lock and Mori with a teenage Sherlock Holmes as the protagonist. London played a big part in her story, so she had to do a ton of research ahead of time to make sure she got the feel of the place right.

If you’re writing a fantasy novel, you might be making a setting up out of whole cloth. Again, that will probably take you more than an hour or two. It’s hard to imagine that C.S. Lewis developed Narnia in an hour, right?

Take the time you need, but don’t let yourself get bogged down and unable to move forward. I have this theory that the human brain will play all kinds of tricks to keep a writer from writing. Writing is hard! Endless research feels like writing, so it’s easy to convince yourself that you’re writing even when you haven’t added to your word count in a year.

We’re going to move deeper into The Writer’s Journey, so if you haven’t picked up your copy yet, you’ll want to now. In the next assignment, we’re going to start talking about your character’s ordinary world.

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The Plotting Workshop: Character Development

The Plotting Workshop: Character Development

Hopefully your inspiration and set-up assignments put you in the mood to really start to dig into the fundamentals of your story. Because today we’re talking about character development.

You’ll see below that I don’t have a formal character worksheet. My brain doesn’t work that way. I like to let my characters unfold on their own–which means guided free-writing. I’ll give you some questions to ask yourself to keep your notes flowing.

ASSIGNMENT FIVE

Who Lives in Your Story?

For this assignment, you’ll want to look at the character archetypes in The Writer’s Journey. If you have time to read all of book one, which talks about different types of characters, that would be great. At the very least read the section called “The Archetypes” and the section called “Hero.” (Page 23-39 in the third edition.)

Over the course of the next few days, you’re going to spend some time thinking about your story’s main characters.

You’re always going to have a protagonist, or main character (I sometimes use the abbreviation MC.) This is the person whose point of view your story is told through. Harry Potter is the MC of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Dorothy Gale is the MC of The Wizard of Oz.

You might have two protagonists. If you’re writing a romance, for instance, you might toggle between writing in the point of view of the hero and the point of view of the heroine. Sometimes you have a POV character, but they are still telling another character’s story. For instance, in my book Viral Nation, the MC is Clover Donovan. Some of the book is written in other points of view, especially that of her brother West, but the story is always Clover’s.

You need to spend time this week thinking, for sure, about any point of view character.

Also, you’ll need to do some work on the antagonist. That’s your MC’s rival or the story’s villain.

Who else is important to the story? A sidekick? A love interest? A gatekeeper–someone who keeps the MC from getting what they want, for their own good? Who are your MCs allies? Who is trying to hurt them?

Start by making a list in your notebook of every character you’re certain your story will need. It’s okay if you don’t get everyone, but you want the biggies for sure.

Now, give each character a page in your notebook. Your MC and the other main characters get two pages. You’re going to have more notes for them.

If you were writing Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, for instance, you might want a page for Harry, Ron, Hermione, Dumbledore, Snape, the Weasley Family, the Dursleys, Hagrid. Maybe, if you were just starting to write, you might not know about all of the characters and that’s okay. You can add characters as you need them when you’re writing.

Now all I want you to do is write the characters name at the top of the page. Write their age and a physical description. I don’t use character worksheet. They feel too confining to me. If you like them, Google will kick up dozens if you ask it to.

After the name, age, and description, just start free writing. Here are some questions I ask myself during this exercise. They should guide your free writing, rather than being a set-in-stone worksheet.

  • What do you know about this character?
  • Who are they when the story starts?
  • Where do they live?
  • Who do they live with?
  • Who do they love?
  • Who do they hate?
  • What do they like to do?
  • What annoys them?
  • What do they do with their time? (Work, school, etc?)
  • What does their family look like? (Mom/dad/siblings, no family, foster family, cobbled together family?)
  • Are they a flee-er or a fighter?
  • How do they manage in a crisis?
  • What are their flaws? (Even a hero has flaws.)
  • What makes them heroic? (Even an antagnoist has a hint of heroism in them.)
  • What is their deepest secret?
  • How have they been hurt?

You don’t have to make a list of these questions and answer each one. It’s better to just let the details flow. Use the questions if you get stuck and to make sure you’re building a well-rounded picture of your characters.

You want to think about what the character wants and what they need. You’ll go into this more in depth for the MC later, but for now just think about what’s important to your characters. Why do they do what they do?

You’ll want to do this for the MC, the antagonist, and maybe one more main character (a love interest, another POV character.)

For more minor characters, you still want the stats–name, age, description–but you don’t have to delve so deeply into their psyche. Instead, make some notes about their role in the story. Why are they there? How do they move the story forward? You don’t even a main character who you could lift out entirely without causing a rift in your book, so pay attention to how your main characters are integral to the story. Make sure you know how they tie into the MC.

Back to the Harry Potter example, you might want bigger, more in depth character pages for Harry, Ron, Hermione, and Voldemort. Whoever else you could think of before you’ve started to actually write would get a smaller treatment that pays more attention to how the character serves the story and the MC.

This course is very fast paced, so you may only have time for your hero today. That’s okay. You can round things out with your other characters later.

Rule #1 is NO FREAKING OUT. You’ve got this.

We’re working through The Plotting Workshop live in our Facebook Group through December. Join us!

If you want to see this whole course on Teachable, for free, click here.

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