Tag Archives: plotting

The Twisting Tale

by Kay Springsteen

I once had a dog named Hero. His tail was broken in three places before he even left his puppyhood behind because he had been born with tail bones that were on the brittle side. His tail had a natural curl over his back, then it twisted severely to the right, then to the left, and then back toward his rump. He never seemed to feel the breaks when they happened. He kind of just accepted them. One break happened when he was born. The second when he was about 8 weeks old and got it caught in the wires of the puppy pen. The third break we were never sure what happened. We went out for the evening and when we came home, he had another broken place.The twists and turns of his tail became woven into his personality. In the same way, the various twists and turns our stories take become part of the personna of the tale we are telling.

Most people read or write fiction in order to escape into a story that takes us out of our daily lives, and puts us smack in the middle of someone else’s life. Maybe we crave more excitement, maybe we want to forget the fact that our electric bill tripled this month. Either way, without a little creative storytelling, a few unexpected twists to the plot, or breaks in the tail, there is no story to tell. Enter the writer’s friend: The Plot Twist.

Who cares if we can relate because the heroine’s fiance broke up with her? That’s old news, possibly even happened to us once. So honey, suck it up and get on with life. But when the heroine who lost her fiance gets on a plane to track him down in a foreign country, meets a cute but somewhat shady French native. loses her passport, can’t get it replaced, and finds her cute new friend used her luggage to smuggle something through French Customs…THAT’S more exciting. In case you don’t recognize the scenerio, that’s French Kiss with Meg Ryan and Kevin Kline. In the same vein, how many Cinderella stories can you tolerate? Who really cares about the hooker on the street corner? But put one on a corner being picked up by an uber-rich hunk of a guy with a brooding nature, who wants to pay for the pleasure of her company for the rest of the week and then falls in love with her…that’s fodder for Hollywood, baby. That’s Pretty Woman. Writers take the mundane, everyday things of life, such as a group of men and women with a passion for fast cars, and spin it into an adventure of street racing, rivalry, murder, and high-stakes highway robbery (The Fast and the Furious).

So what can we, as writers, learn from Hollywood fiction? Everything. Movies are generally 1-1/2 to 2 hours of story with tight dialogue, visual stimulation and interesting plot twists. Watching how the story unfolds via the movie will give you an idea how to tighten your writing, how to develop plot twists.to make them hook the reader/watcher.

What drives your story, the characters or the plot? How do you decide where your story will take the reader and how? Do you plan the overall plot, the subplots, and the various twists ahead of time? How do you make sure the story flows without becoming too cumbersome?

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Ah, the Magical Power of Three

By Kay Springsteen

We’ve watched its magic in Charmed. We learn about the number three in church (the trinity). Celtic lore places great store in the number three as well – with the maid, the mother, and the crone. Three has been a number of power in many cultures throughout the ages. And it translates itself to art. When I was learning flower arranging, the basic rule was to work with threes – three main flowers, three complementing flowers. In the art of Bonsai, trees are encouraged to grow into rough triangle shapes. In drawing, painting, and photography, we have “the rule of three” and “the golden triangle.”

So, aside from the above mentioned TV show, how does any of this relate to fiction? Well, whether you’re a plotter or a pantser or whether you fall somewhere in between, you still have to follow one of the rules of story structure. If you just start writing and finish when you think you’ve written enough, it’s likely you apply the structure after the writing, but you still have to have a beginning, middle, and end to your story, no matter how many subplots you develop along the way.

As a photographer, I learned the rule of three/golden triangle as a way to set up my photographs in such a manner as to bring the viewer into the picture. In art, this is done by means of lines and shadows that make up lines. Sometimes, in a picture, the line is obvious, as in a road, and sometimes it’s not as obvious, perhaps being in the movement (yes, even still photos have motion) of the picture. Motion in a photograph is brought about by the way the eye sees it. You might think that people look at a photo, see the subject, and that’s the end of it, but in truth, in photographs, as in any picture (from oils painted by the masters to your child’s refrigerator art), the eye tracks the lines. The stronger the line, the easier to track, and the more understood the picture.

In the rule of thirds, the idea is for the main subject to take up roughly a third of the picture, either centered or off to the side. The strongest line in the picture should draw the viewer in and end up at the subject. Take the first picture below. This is a train on the D.C. Metro line. Can you see the obvious line leading to the subject? From the lower left corner to the back of the train, it’s the track. The next picture, petunias growing in the crack between the sidewalk and a many-centuries old building in Annapolis, Maryland, has a couple of lines leading to the subject. From either side, or an obvious sidewalk crack leading right from the front edge of the picture to the flowers. But what about lines that aren’t as obvious? The single droplet of water on the onyx stalactite in a Virginia cave? The edges of the rock formation itself – the very thing the water is dripping from. Now, note the picture with the long shadows, taken at Market Square in Annapolis. Of course, it’s the shadows leading from the front of the picture to the mid-point.

But what about the imagined lines? The golden spiral is another form of the golden triangle, and is also part of the rule of three. In this case, best illustrated by pictures of flowers (and if you’re interested enough to go looking, in hurricanes). Take this water lily. If you start at the lower left edge and follow the line of the petals, you will be following a spiraling pattern to the yellow center of the flower, even though that center is not the exact center of the picture.

We can follow these rules for lines as we lead our readers through our stories. The writer is basically taking readers on a journey. We want the reader to start at one place and end at another and experience all of the carefully crafted detail of the tale along the way. But how those readers get there is important so they do get the full experience. We want our lines to draw the reader completely into the story the same way a photo should draw a viewer in. We may direct them along a path or road, maybe make them take a detour or two, push them through some shadows and doubt, or even take them on a roundabout (spiral) path. But the strongest line – the main plot – should lead the readers from outside the story to being completely embroiled in the story and invested in the outcomes for the characters.

However we lead the readers, though, it’s important that we have some idea as we write and/or edit of basic story structure and the rule of three. Take the example of a three-act play, and adapt it for your novel (no matter how long or short this may be).

Act One:  The setup. Characters are introduced to the readers and sometimes to each other. The very beginning details of events (sometimes no more than a hint) are set in motion; the readers will see the inciting incident, even if they don’t recognize it as such until later in the story. This does not have to be a full third of the story; it can and often is much less than a third—I try to keep it to about a fourth, but it should definitely not take longer than one-third of your overall story or you will lose the reader to the boredom of the setup because this typically shows very little action.

Act Two:  This is the center point of your story, where the confrontation between characters and plot occurs, and in most cases is filled with fairly intense action, with any subplots shooting off from here, as well as introduction of red herrings in mysteries. The story must escalate through this act, in terms of action and what characters have at stake. My stories are typically two-fourths Act Two (half the story). Again, as with the photo lines, the readers have been led here either directly, as along a path or road, or indirectly with shadows and imaginary lines, and the line leading them in may be straight or curvy, so long as everything included here can be tied up at the end of the story. The point of no return occurs just about at the end of Act Two. The point where no matter what the possible outcome, the characters cannot turn back from their chosen course of action.

Act Three: After passing the point of no return, the final act (roughly a quarter of the story) begins to rush toward the end. This is the part you want to write so tightly that when readers get here, they will be driven to finish the story rather than put the book down for later. The final act, the one that includes the climactic action cannot lag. If you look in the spiral photo of the lily, you see the flower seems to wind tighter and tighter, the petals growing closer together. In Act Three, your characters definitely do not do mundane chores, or throw a casual dinner party just for the heck of it, nor do they take naps. Everything in Act Three revolves around the tension of the approaching climax. And, perhaps most important, this is not the time to introduce new characters. As a writer, you must be fair to your readers and the villain, whether she or he is recognized as such or not, must be introduced along with everyone else in Act One (or in very rare cases at the beginning of Act Two). You can’t just pull a convenient villain out of your hat. Nor, in the cases of a story without a specific villain, or where a circumstance is the villain rather than a person, not have some sort of foreshadowing that something (the particular circumstance) could possibly happen. For example, if the circumstance that’s going to be at the heart of the climax is an airplane crash, give a foreshadowing of it – depending on the genre, if paranormal, a character can dream it; if mainstream, a pilot or passenger can hear a noise or feel some turbulence, and so forth). Most of all, Act Three must resolve any detours you took with your characters, and with the climax must come resolution and a solid ending. Even if you are writing a series with a cliffhanger ending for each book, it is imperative that you end each portion of the story on a satisfying note for the reader. Finish off a subplot even if the main plot remains unresolved.

Remember the rule of thirds – beginning (introduction/inciting incident), middle (confrontation and subplots), and end (climax and resolution). If you follow the rule of thirds, how you get your readers from Point Start to Point Finish can be as simple or as complicated as you desire to make it – as long as the lines are there as your readers’ road map.


by Kay Springsteen

I just signed a contract on my fifth work with my publishing house, Astraea Press. This will be my fourth full-length novel there. What’s truly ironic about this particular novel is that it started out as a summertime weekly free read based on different weekly writing prompts a few author friends and I put together. Around the third prompt, the scenes I had written for the prompt took on a flavor, a style and a purpose. A story began to gel, and 80,000 words later, when I announced I’d completed it, my publisher asked to see the draft. WOW! The first, very rough draft went to her as requested and today she sent me a contract.

Now, I joined the writing prompt team for fun. I love the challenge of molding words and crafting scenes based on a prompt. We use one-object nouns as the prompt, and the word chosen must be used in some form in the scene we write. From the opening scene using the prompt “ice cream,” a good friend of mine, Kim Bowman (Wayward Soul, Astraea Press) kept telling me, “You have a winner here. Your characters are great. You need to stop using these scenes as summer free reads and just write the story.”

Of course, I scoffed. I hmmed and hawed. I didn’t see anything special at first. But then the characters developed more fully. I began to see a direction for them and a plotline began to develop. By the time we reached the fifth prompt, which was “cheese,” I was more than halfway into writing this book. Half pantsed (because of the prompts), half plotted, this was a new adventure for me, a devoted loose plotter. But the story moved very quickly. I felt almost driven to write it. My family and friends complained that I was quiet. They wondered if I was ill or if something had happened. In reality, this story was consuming me, demanding I write it.

It was an amazing feeling, knowing I was writing what would become a full-length novel, and it had all started with just the prompt of “ice cream.” I never know where my next inspiration will come from but never in a million years would I have believed a prompt about ice cream would be the start of Heartsent.

Readers: Does it ever interest you to know where the authors you read get their inspiration?

Writers: What’s the weirdest inspiration you’ve ever received and where did that particular inspiration ultimately take you?

Write from the Heart

I’ve been struggling lately with a short story I’m working on. It’s sort of romantic: a man helping a woman feel more free with herself. More accepting of herself and her desires. It’s also based somewhat on an event that happened to me about three years ago, and I’ve been meaning to write it for a while because the friend who was involved wants me to, and I like doing things for my friends.

But I’m writing it with the intent of submitting to a publisher that has certain requirements for its shorts. Certain word count, which is normal. Certain number of chapters; certain chapter length. Certain amount of sex within the number of words.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem with a publisher having requirements like that. I fully understand them, and I’ve chosen to live with those requirements by deciding to submit to this publisher. (And no, I won’t say which publisher it is, because I’m not trying to badmouth them and because I don’t want to jinx myself. So if you comment, please don’t ask or even try to guess.) The problem I’m having, though, is it’s restricting me in a way I hadn’t anticipated when I started.

There have been many conversations around the web about plotting vs. “pantsing”, or writing by the seat of one’s pants. A plotter may make meticulous notes before beginning a story; a pantster just sits down and starts writing, and sees where things go. I’m somewhere in between, I think. I sometimes jot down a sentence or two, like, “Orrin and Rachel go to a house party. Remember the socks thing.” (Which is what I wrote down before I started this story. And even though it’s at a house party, the couple only has sex with each other.) Then I start typing and see where things go.

With the requirements of this particular publisher, though, I can’t just see where the story goes, because I have to make sure it fits what they want. If left to my own devices, Orrin and Rachel would probably go to the house party, socialize for a while, discuss whether they really wanted to have sex there or wait till they got home, and then maybe find a room and get into the action. However, that would make the story too long and not contain enough actual sex for what I need. So I’m muddling through at about a third of my normal daily word count, because I’m determined to finish it and make it so good the publisher couldn’t possibly turn it down.

Determined, or maybe stubborn is a better word.

I love writing. I’m excited about trying to submit to this publisher, even if they ultimately reject what I send them. I’m just finding it more difficult to write when I’m writing to someone else’s requirements than when I write what’s in my head and heart.

My Creative Process

Earlier this week I completed a manuscript. I feel equal parts relief that I’m done, excitement because I can start another project, and sadness because although they’re not real, I know the characters just as well as I know myself. I’ll miss them because it feels like I’m leaving them behind.
I’ve had some people ask me where I get my ideas. Truth is, I don’t have an answer for that. I get them everywhere – from the news, from overhearing conversations around me. I love playing the “what if” game. I mostly get ideas when I’m not looking. Song lyrics can spark an idea, and sometimes it’s difficult for me not to abandon my current project and switch to another. Writing with two names it’s easy to do. I’ve gotten much better at sticking with my current WIP, only starting something new once the other is completed. One thing I can feel assured in is that I’ll never run out of ideas.
Before I start something new, I look through my long file where I’ve compiled ideas. Here I have potential titles for future books, ideas where I just write a sentence or two, or in some instances, entire paragraphs devoted to the story. I’m constantly adding to this file. Whether I’ll use the idea or not all depends on what I’ve written down. Thankfully I’m the only one who reads this messy file with all my odd notes and blurbs. LOL I’ve been fortunate enough to remember the jist of the original idea. Even if I don’t use it, I might flesh out an idea before moving on.
Once I find something that holds my interest, the real fun begins. I love fleshing out my characters. I’ll write an autobiography for my hero and heroine letting them tell me their story. It’s amazing the things you’ll find by just closing your eyes and letting your characters guide you. It’s a fun way to learn their back story, their values, and experiences with past relationships. This information is good in helping you discover their goals, motivations, and conflicts.
I’m neither a plotter nor a panser. I tend to fall in the middle between both. Therefore, after I’ve fleshed out my characters, I move on to working out the main points of the story. While writing my hero and heroine’s life stories, I have a pretty good handle on their goals, motivations and conflicts (both external and internal.) Since I like letting the characters guide me through the story, I only figure out the main points, which for me are when the HH first meet, first kiss, first love scene, points of rising conflict, (which for me there are 3.) The turning point for the main character, (when either the he realize their original goal really isn’t what they truly wanted,) black moment and finally, the resolution.
I then write a rough draft of a synopsis. Some of you are probably cringing, but including a synopsis is required for many publishers depending on story-length and publisher. For me, writing one before I start the story acts as another guide for me to follow. I don’t revise and add more detail to the synopsis until after the story is done.
I know it seems like a lot, but I have to know where the story is going. I use this structure as a guide, but I let the characters tell the story. I have the freedom to create as I will, without feeling confined to one plot. If the story changes as I’m writing, I must, on a subconscious level, know where it’s going. However, as long as I stay on track with the plot points I’ve set down, anything can happen. It took me a while to understand this, and to not let it frig. I’ve had to learn, and am still learning through trial and error. What makes writing fun is we all have our process. The amazing thing is, with all our creative ways specific to each of us, we all manage to create wonderful stories that entertain and satisfy.
So, what’s your writing process? Are you a plotter or a panser? How do you familiarize yourself with your characters? Does your process change with each project? The process I’ve shared is the one I use for novellas and longer works, but if I’m going to write a short story I write a little down for the characters and get their goals, motivations, and conflicts. What is the most difficult part of the creative process for you? Is it your characters? Plotting?

Starting Over

No, not in life, though sometimes starting a new chapter of one’s life can be great. You never know what you might find.

I’m not blogging about philosophy today, though. I’m blogging about writing romance novels, and that’s what this post is about. Starting a novel over.

Now, starting a new novel or story can be difficult enough. Coming up with a plot, characters, etc., and then staring at that blank computer monitor or piece of paper, can take a lot of energy. If you’re fortunate, once you’ve gotten through the preliminaries, the story flows.

But what if it flows in the wrong direction? What if your characters start doing things you hadn’t planned on, or things that don’t have anything to do with the plot you’re trying to write? What if your dialogue makes no sense, or the action is completely wrong for the people you’re writing about?

What if you’re trying to write a romance, and by chapter ten you still haven’ t managed to get your hero and heroine to kiss, never mind have sex?

That’s when you take a good, long look at your story, give your characters a heartfelt lecture, and scrap most of what you’ve written.

Let me tell you, getting rid of 30,000 words that you’ve spent hours creating is not the easiest thing in the world. I’ve had to do it twice so far. Once with my novella Deep Down, which was the one in which the hero and heroine refused to kiss. I’d written 90 pages at that point, and I ended up trashing all but about ten of them. It was worth it; Siren Publishing released Deep Down in January. But it really hurt having to delete all the writing that I’d spent so much time on.

I just had to do the same thing with the romance novel I’m currently working on. I’d written about 43,000 words, and when I thought about it, I realized that about 30,000 of them had absolutely nothing to do with the story I wanted to tell. Those words didn’t move the plot forward, didn’t give any insight into the characters… they were just kind of there. So I got rid of them. I couldn’t quite bring myself to delete them entirely; I copied and pasted them into a new document just so I’d still have them. They didn’t fit in this story, but I might be able to use them somewhere else later on. Meanwhile, what I’m left with will hopefully actually become the story I want.

Part of the reason I encounter this phenomenon is that I’m what’s sometimes called a “pantster.” In other words, instead of spending a lot of time plotting and planning my stories, I come up with a basic idea and characters and then write “by the seat of my pants,” so to speak. This occasionally leads to really great stories where unexpected things happen that improve the story vastly over what I’d thought it would be. Unfortunately, it occasionally leads to my having to scrap two thirds of what I’ve written because I didn’t have a clear enough idea of where I wanted the story to go.

So I sit here this morning trying to rebuild my story from the ashes of what it was. It’s going to be much better. The hero doesn’t have a superfluous car accident that only happened because I was trying to get words down on the page. The hero and heroine actually spend time working together like they’re supposed to, and will probably even kiss a little sooner than chapter seven, which is where their first kiss occurred in what I scrapped. I’ve trimmed off everything that didn’t move the plot to where I thought it should go, and now I’m trying to put in stuff that actually takes the reader where it’s supposed to.

Hopefully this time, the characters will cooperate with me and I’ll finish the story before my April 17 wedding, as planned. If not, I’ll just scrap it again.

And start something entirely different.