The Plotting Workshop: Tests, Allies, and Enemies

tests-allies-and-enemies

A couple of things are on the horizon for your hero, now that we’re moving into the second act of your story.

They’re going to meet some people, both allies and enemies. And they’re going to be tested.

The tests that your protagonist faces as they head into the special world of their story are meant to prepare them for what’s ahead and prove that they are worthy. They’ll meet the people who will support them in this part of the story, as well as those who will try to stop them from getting what they want.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone has a classic test scene just at the opening of the second act. Instead of automatically putting Harry into Gryfendor, the sorting hat hems and haws, listening to Harry begging silently not to be put into Slytherin. He could have gone either way, but he passed the test and was put into the ‘good’ house.

Dorothy Gale meets The Scarecrow, The Tin man, and The Cowardly Lion as she makes her way through her number one test–walking the yellow brick road to the Emerald City. She also comes in contact fairly soon after taking her first steps down that road with the Wicked Witch of the West.

You’ll want to read the “Tests, Allies, and Enemies” chapter of The Writer’s Journey.

ASSIGNMENT TWELVE

The Measure of a Hero

The purpose of the tests that you’ll be putting your protagonist through are there to both prepare them for what’s to come and prove their worth as a hero. These generally aren’t life-and-death level obstacles. Those come later. They’re more like stumbling blocks as your MC starts to navigate the special world of the story.

This first part of the second act is also the time when your MC will start to meet the people who will be important to the story–or when people he already knows solidify either into part of his team of allies or become his enemy.

Take out your notebook and label the next page “Tests, Allies, and Enemies.” Answer these questions.

  • How does the special world of the story contrast with the protagonist’s ordinary world?
  • How will your MC be tested? Think about what part of their personality or physical self needs to be poked a little, to prove that the hero is ready for the challenge of the story.
  • How does your protagonist cope with the special world? Do they handle change well or do they fight it? What are their go-to coping mechanisims? Will they work?
  • Who will your MC’s allies be and when will they meet them?
  • Who are your MC’s enemies? Think about the antagonists’ stakes and motives. Where d the enemies fit into the special world of the story?
  • Vogler writes, “No matter how many schools he has been through, he’s a freshman all over again in this new world.” Take a few minutes to write about what being a freshman in this new world feels like for your MC. What are they afraid of? Which table do they eat lunch at?

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The Plotting Workshop: Crossing the Threshold

crossing-the-threshold

Today we’re wrapping up planning the first act of your story by talking about crossing the first threshold.

A threshold is a doorway, right? As far as your story goes, the first threshold is the doorway between your protagonist’s ordinary world and the special world of the story.

Sometimes I call this part of the story the Lock-in and it’s the second key plot point in your story. If the Call to Adventure is a question, Crossing the Threshold is the answer. And remember, the answer (however grudgingly given) is always, eventually, yes.

Your main character has to cross from their ordinary world into the special world of the story. There’s no way around it. For the next couple of days we’re going to think about how that happens in your story.

You’ll want to read the “Crossing the Threshold” chapter in Christopher Vogler’s book The Writer’s Journey.

ASSIGNMENT ELEVEN

Getting to Yes

Sometimes the MC makes a decision to do something that locks them into their story. Think about Hagrid asking Harry if he’d like to come with him to Hogwarts or Luke Skywalker telling Obi Wan that he’s ready for Jedi training.

Sometimes it’s out of the MC’s hands. Dorothy Gale is literally lifted by a force of nature and placed on top of what might have been her worst enemy in Oz, the magical, special world of her story.

However it happens, no matter how many times or how hard your MC has tried to refuse the Call to Adventure, something is going to happen around the end of the first act that will force them to answer yes. Eventually entering the world of the story will be more compelling than trying to resist change.

Take out your notebook, label the next page “Crossing the Threshold” and answer these questions.

How does your MC cross into the story? Think about the imagery of the moment when the decision to go into the story is made. This is a big moment in your story, one that readers will remember, so make it sensory.
Is your MC willing to cross the threshold? Is there still something holding them back? What are the stakes if they cross? What are the stakes if they don’t? Do they have a choice, or is the choice made for them?
Are there threshold guardians? We talked about these characters before–they want to protect your MC or for some other reason keep them from crossing the threshold. Think about them again now that you’d thought some more about the first act. What are their motivations? What’s at stake for them?
How does your MC deal with their threshold guardian?
What does your MC learn from crossing the threshold? Maybe something about themself or something about their normal world that shows them that it wasn’t what they thought it was. Maybe they learn something about someone important in their life.
Crossing the Threshold is a set piece for your story. One of the major climaxes. It generally happens around the end of the first act. It’s okay to go splashy with this scene, if your story calls for it. Give your readers a strongly visual experience.

The setting might change at this point in your story. Harry Potter goes from the muggle world to Hogwarts. Dorothy goes from her Kansas farm to Oz. Luke Skywalker goes from his aunt and uncle’s moisture farm to the world of Jedi training. Crossing the Threshold represents a major shift or change for your MC.

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The Plotting Workshop: Refusal of the Call

 

refusal-of-the-callOne of the most entertaining bits of any story is watching the Protagonist try to wiggle out of accepting the Call to Adventure. At some point, the answer to the question of whether or not they will come into the special world of the story has to be yes, but they often say no several times before they get there.

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry’s Call to Adventure (his invitation to Hogwarts) is refused several times on his behalf by his magic-fearing, muggle aunt and uncle. They try hard not to let Harry see the letters addressed to him, all the way to going to a cabin on an island in the middle of a storm.

In the first original Star Wars movie, Luke Skywalker refuses at first to let Obi Wan Kenobi train him in the ways of the Force. It isn’t until his aunt and uncle are killed that he accepts his call.

If you have a copy, you’ll want to read the ‘Refusal of the Call’ chapter in The Writer’s Journey.

ASSIGNMENT NINE

Kicking and Screaming

More questions this week. They’re based on the ‘Refusal of the Call’ chapter of The Writer’s Journey. As always, read the chapter and answer all of Vogler’s questions to better understand this part of your story.

You might also want to read the section in The Writer’s Journey about Threshold Guardians (page 49-52.) A Threshold Guardian is a character who stands between your MC and their adventure. The Threshold Guardian might be an antagonist or an agent of the antagonist, trying to stop the MC from doing what needs to be done. It might be someone who could have been a mentor, if they were a little braver. Think about a parent or boss or teacher warning the MC against taking the leap into their adventure.

Harry Potter’s aunt and uncle are major Threshold Guardians. They try hard not to let him even know he’s had a call. They’re terrified of magic and that fear drives them to hurt Harry instead of being the caretakers they might otherwise have been.

There can also, sometimes, be a physical barrier between the MC and their adventure. Think about the way that Harry Potter has to run straight at a brick wall to the platform where he can catch the train to Hogwarts. Vogler uses the example of Belle in Beauty and the Beast being told that a certain part of the Beast’s castle is off limits.

Your MC’s personal, lived experience can also serve as a barrier. Something in their past might be making them reluctant to accept the call. Think about Luke Skywalker promising his uncle one more year of work at the moisture farm.

Take out your notebook, label the next page THE REFUSAL OF THE CALL and answer these questions.

  • What is your MC afraid of? I know you answered this one last time, but it’s even more important now. Your protagonist’s fear is most likely the biggest barrier they have to taking the leap into the story.
  • Is there a Threshold Guardian? Is there a person standing between your protagonist and their adventure? Is someone advising them not to accept the call? Who is the Threshold Guardian and why is it important to them that the MC not go into the special world of the story? Think about the roll your Threshold Guardian plays in your story. Will they eventually become ally or antagonist?
  • Is there a physical barrier? Does something in the physical world, like the wall between the muggle world and platform 9 3/4 in the Harry Potter books, stand between your MC and accepting the call?
  • Is your protagonist a willing hero? Are they gung ho about their adventure or are they more reluctant? Why?
  • Is there something in your MC’s past experience that is causing them to refuse? Do they have experience with whatever form the call is taking? Have they fallen in love before and been burned? Have they trusted someone in the past and lived to regret it? Did they make a promise they’ll have to break to accept the call?
  • When does your MC finally accept the call? Think about what that will look like. It might come easily, it might be a hard fought battle, but at some point your character has to move into the special world of the story.

THE LOCK IN

The moment when your character accepts the call to adventure is sometimes called the Lock In. This is the second of five key plot points in your story and is usually the climactic scene at the end of sequence 2 and the gateway between Acts one and two of your story.

If the Call to Adventure is a question, the Lock In is the final answer. After a refusal or two (or ten), the MC has to get to yes somehow. Sometimes it’s out of their hands. The tornado doesn’t exactly ask Dorothy if she wants to go to Oz, right? Sometimes they have to formally accept, like Harry Potter and his invitation to Hogwarts. Sometimes every option for refusing to change is taken away, which is what happens for Luke Skywalker when his aunt and uncle are killed. The journey between the question and the answer is one of the most important parts of your story.

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The Plotting Workshop: The Call to Adventure

the-call-to-adventure

I’m a story junkie. I read a lot. I love movies. I love good TV. There’s even something about me that makes other people want to tell me their stories.

And that’s okay, because if you tell me a story, you’ve found the way to my heart.

The crux of a story is the moment when the protagonist, our hero, goes from being their regular, everyday self in their regular, everyday world (whatever that might look like) into the adventure of the special world of what’s going to happen next.

The Call to Adventure is a question posed to the protagonist. Will you come into this story? The answer, eventually and in one way or the other, will always be yes.

Sometimes the Call to Adventure is called the Inciting Incident, and it’s the first of five key plot points in your story. It’s that important. It generally happens as the climactic scene at the end of the first sequence of your story.

If you have a copy, read the “Call to Adventure” chapter of The Writer’s Journey.

ASSIGNMENT EIGHT

The Question

The thing that calls your character from their ordinary world into the world of the story can come in a variety of ways. Like I said, it’s a question. So, it might come in the form of someone asking a question. Think of Hagrid showing up to offer Harry a spot at Hogwarts.

That someone often becomes a mentor to the MC. Hagrid, Obi Wan Kenobi, the White Rabbit, are all characters who serve as mentors and deliver the question of the Call to Action.

The call might be internal. A longing inside the hero, like an itch they are compelled to scratch. Dorothy is literally picked up by an act of God and put back down in the special world of her story, but the reason she isn’t safe in the storm cellar where she should have been is because she was drawn to run away by an inner longing for something she couldn’t find at home. Anyone who watches The Wizard of Oz feels Dorothy’s longing when she sings Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

For this assignment, you’re going to answer some more questions. These are based on Christopher Vogler’s “Call to Adventure” chapter of The Writer’s Journey, and just like when you were working on The Ordinary World, answering all of his questions at the end of that chapter will help you better understand this part of the storytelling.

  • What wakes your MC up? Something happens, in any story, that wakes your protagonist up to the fact that a story awaits. It might be subtle. It might be a tornado that lifts your house up and drops it in Oz.
  • What are your MC’s choices? Even Dorothy had a choice when her call to adventure came. She could have just hid under her bed and refused to come out. She could have decided to take her own path instead of following the yellow brick road. What choices does your protagonist have when the Call to Adventure comes? Make a list of every direction they could turn.
  • What is your MC afraid of? This is an important question, because it’s often the thing that scares them most that draws them into their story.
  • Does your MC think his life needs change? Some protagonists know on a soul level that change needs to happen. Others believe their lives are perfectly fine and the Call to Adventure hits them like a sack of bricks.
  • Does your MC refuse the call? Most do. Protagonists are just people, after all, and most people resist change. Even if they know it’s necessary, most refuse. Take a few minutes to think about whether or not yours does, and the reasons why.

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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.

Make sure to come by Facebook and share your work.

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

 

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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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The Plotting Workshop: What Inspires You?

Plotting a Novel: What Inspires You?

The Plotting Workshop is a month long course that will help you build a road map through your novel. It’s free. It’s super fun. And through the month of December, we’re going to work through it together in our Facebook Group. Exciting right? I’d love it if you joined us!

I’ll be posting the lessons here on the blog. You can also sign up for the free course on Teachable. (Signing up will trigger the lessons to be sent to your email address as well.)

Okay. Ready for this plotting a novel thing? We’re starting off with a bang. Momentum is an amazing thing that will get you through this process. And it starts right now! You have four assignments to get you through the next few days. Ready?

ASSIGNMENT ONE

Join the Tribe

So, the first thing I want to do is invite you to join the Ninja Writers Facebook. Click here to join.

We have a super engaged, vibrant Facebook community and I really hope to see you there.

ASSIGNMENT TWO

Gather Your Tools

Next thing is your supplies list for the course.

You’re going to need:

1. A tri-fold board. You know, the kind you used as a kid for science fair projects? I like the 40″ by 28″ size the best. You won’t want to go much smaller than that, and if you go much larger it gets unwieldy. You’ll use the board to make your plot board. I linked to Amazon so you can see exactly what I’m talking about, but I’ve seen these at the dollar store.

If you live in a country where tri-fold boards aren’t easily available, you can use any flat surface that you can use sticky notes on. Here’s a video that will show you how to make your own tri-fold board from recycled cardboard.

2. A Sharpie or other thick black marker.

3. Sticky notes.

4. A copy of Christopher Vogler’s book The Writer’s Journey. You’ll want to get this in the next week if you can. Try to get the third edition.

5. A wall or desk monthly calendar and some little stickers (or colored markers will work.)

6. A notebook. Any kind will do. I personally like composition books. Your notebook should be at least 5″ by 7″ so you have plenty of room to write. A three-ring binder will work as well, although it won’t be as portable. This notebook will be dedicated to just one book, so you’ll want a fresh one.

Not so bad so far, right?

This last requirement is a little trickier.

You’re going to work on plotting a particular story over the next eight weeks. You need, at least, a protagonist and a situation. If you’re not sure which of many ideas to choose, just pick the one that’s speaking to you right now. You’ll be able to use what you learn during The Plotting Workshop to plan all of your stories.

I’ll be using The Wizard of Oz and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as examples. I’ll also use my novel Viral Nation, so I can share my process with you.

ASSIGNMENT THREE

Tap Into Your Inspiration

Are you ready to get started?

I want you to make a list of at least ten stories (books, movies, even television shows) that inspire you. You can also list characters or tropes or places. Whatever inspires you. They don’t have to relate directly to the story you want to write, but you should keep that story in mind as you do this exercise.

Open up to the first page of your notebook and label it ‘Inspirations’ and start writing. (You might want to use your very first page or the inside of your front cover to make a table of contents to help you find your notes when you need them as we go.)

Here is my inspiration list for Viral Nation:

1. The television show Jericho
2. The Postman by David Birn
3. The movie The Minority Report
4. Minority Report by Phillip K. Dick
5. Robin Hood
6. Alice in Wonderland
7. The Ponderosa Ranch
8. Virginia City
9. The movie Stand By Me
10. Sons of Anarchy

Pretty eclectic list, right? That’s okay. That’s the way it should be. And feel free to go beyond ten. Sometimes the inspiration just flows and I end up with 20 or more items on my list.

When you’re done, start analyzing. What do your inspirations have in common? Are there any themes? Do you see a lot of the same type of protagonist? A similarity in setting? How about tone? Why do these things inspire you?

When I look at my list for Viral Nation, I can see that I’m inspired by a dangerous and uncertain future, the idea of time travel, young protagonists who are thrown out of their own time and place, tight bonds of friendship, Western towns. The idea of a future that devolves after some catastrophe into something that resembles a past time intrigued me when I was working on this manuscript. I was also drawn to dark stories, although several of them have bright overlays (like Robin Hood and Alice in Wonderland.)

Take your time with this exercise. It should really open your mind and your heart to the kind of story you want to tell. Leave some space to add to the list as things come to you over the next weeks. I find that once I open my mind to this kind of inspiration, stories and ideas that I can add to my list just start flying at me.

Your list might show you things that you didn’t even realize you wanted to write about. For instance, when I started writing Viral Nation, I had no idea that it would be about a tight-knit group of kids. All I knew was that I wanted to have sister and brother protagonists. But looking at my inspiration list, I can see it. Robin Hood and his Merry men, the kids in Stand By Me, SAMCRO in Sons of Anarchy–it’s right there. I was inspired to write about the way that people come together in crisis and how people find family where they need it.

Once you have your list of ten written, come share it on Facebook! I’d love to see it. (That’s your unofficial Assignment Three-B!)

ASSIGNMENT FOUR

Work for Stickers

I know this is going to sound weird, but I swear it works. Get out your calendar and start putting a sticker on each day that you complete your writing goals. If you don’t want to use stickers, you can use a marker to draw a little picture or even just mark off the days. Something that gives you a visual reminder that you’re doing what you promised yourself to do, and that might encourage you not to skip a day. Who wants to see a gap in their stickers, right?

I got the idea from Victoria Schwab and it has really helped me.

While you have your calendar out, think about your upcoming week and make a plan for when you’ll work on your novel. Even if it’s just an hour every Tuesday or half an hour during your commute to work or what have you — write it in. I wake up at 5 a.m. and write for an hour and a half before work every morning. (Figure out what works for you and your life. If you’re a night owl, 5 a.m. might not be your best choice.)

Use a pen on your calendar. You are your own boss in this thing, so hold yourself to a high standard and expect stellar work ethic.

Be realistic, though. You don’t want to promise yourself eight hours a day of writing that will leave you in a puddle on the floor by hump day. But also be firm. You’re going to have to carve out time for writing. No way around it.

My favorite way to work for stickers is with my FRED. You can get your own here.

If you’d like to sign up for The Plotting Workshop on Teachable (for free!) just click here.

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