We often have frustrated first time novelists on our courses. They are trying to complete a book, but they haven’t thought about plotting. (See The Top 10 Tips for Plotting and Finishing a Book)
But I’ve decided the most common problem for first time authors is their inclusion of an unrealistic, unworthy, or absent antagonist.
Yes, your hero will always be his or her own worst enemy, but you need an antagonist to help your protagonist realise how strong he or she can be. There is no conflict without an antagonist. There is no reason to write a book if you do not have an antagonist. It would be easier to write a diary or an essay. Imagine watching The Matrix without Mr. Smith. The antagonist provides physical and psychological setbacks. He or she introduces points of resistance and stands between the protagonist and his or her story goal.
The antagonist’s function is to try to prevent the protagonist from achieving his or her story goal. The antagonist raises the stakes for the protagonist and causes excitement, tension, and a plot.
Writing Tip: The antagonist is as important as the protagonist. If you don’t have an antagonist you don’t have a plot. (There are some great tips for writing about antagonists in 10 Essential Tips for Writing Antagonists.)
Alfred Hitchcock said that a great story is: ‘life, with the dull parts taken out.’
A plot is not about:
- contented characters who live a trouble-free existence
- an author / character’s interior thought processes
- an author / character’s philosophy of life
- an author trying to send a message
- a character battling the elements, or society, or a life condition
A plot is about:
- characters whose lives have been turned upside down in a negative way
- characters who act and react
- characters who talk, breathe, eat, argue and interact with other characters
- characters whose actions and words show a story
- a character who takes on another character who may represent or personify, society or a life condition
If you are an exceptional author, you may not need a plot. The rest of us do.
Writing Tip: Remember your reader.
Except for some select experimental works, every piece of fiction requires a story, or plot. The complexity of this plot is determined by both the writer and the genre. For example, a thriller is always plot-driven, requiring an intricate story with twists and unexpected complications, while a literary novel can center on a much more straightforward plot that is subservient to character, language, and theme. No matter the genre, however, the story is what draws the reader into the writer’s fictional world. I’ve provided a few guidelines to help you succeed with your story.
littleawkwardwriter asked you:Do you have any tips for writing development? I have trouble putting in “filler” I just want to jump straight to the action! And then I don’t provide a clear enough background on the characters and it just gets messy.
Here’s why I don’t like the word “filler”: it’s filler.
Okay, here, let me explain. The term “filler” has this connotation of “unnecessary fluff”, or any scene that’s added in just for the sake of padding your important events. If you’re looking to add more filler, then you’re probably putting too much emphasis on the story arc over the character arcs.
Largely, most of the time, usually, a scene should do one of two things: develop the plot arc or develop a character arc.
- Plot Arc: the inciting incident, rising action, climax, and denouement of the story.
- Character Arc: the inciting incident, rising action, climax, and denouement of the character. More than one of these can exist in a story.
Character arcs happen within the story, which means your characters are developing at an arc separate from the plot. When an event takes place, it will ripple through the plot, but it will also ripple separately through your character(s).
This means that, while your story develops, your characters do, too.
In a sense, action is simply when stuff happens, which means development is action, and action should (largely, most of the time, usually) be happening without pause throughout your entire story. This is also why “aftermath” scenes should often be cut, because nothing furthers development in aftermath scenes (largely, most of the time, usually). Stephen King recommends you trim all the unnecessary fat of your story, which constitutes all unnecessary fluff, or anything that has zero development.
If you’re struggling with putting more of your characters in the story and making it interesting, think about these things:
- How is your story reflecting in your characters? Characters are reflections of real people, and when events happen, we tend to take them in and orient ourselves around what happened. That event becomes a part of us, influences the decisions we make, and changes us. How are the events of your story showing in your characters?
- Conversely, how are your characters reflecting the story? How are your characters’ decisions impacting what happens? How are they driving the plot? Think about how active their role is in regards to what’s happening, or how passive.
- What is your character like in the beginning, and how do they change by the end? How do they evolve and what triggers it throughout the story? How are you showing this?
- What characters stick with you and why? What are the most memorable characters in all of fiction for you? What makes them memorable?
Your plot is important, but action isn’t only when people are crossing swords or showing up for the court hearing or standing up in front of ten-thousand pairs of eyes. It’s what happens in-between, the stuff that brings us to these moments, the build or escalation, that only the characters can show us.
For more stuff on how to fatten your story, look at bulking up that word count and when a plot isn’t strong enough to make a whole story.
Hope that helps! Good luck!
As in a game, it is crucial we know what is to be gained or lost in the battle or during the journey. Literally, what is at stake? Life? Love? Money? A precious plot of land? The loyalty of an old friend? A wish? A curse? The whole world? Galaxy? Universe? All of time itself trapped in a magic snowglobe held in in the paws of a jaunty hedgehog? Further, what are the conditions of victory? What will mean loss? These don’t need to be perfectly clear (nor must they be correct), but both reader and character should be able to guess at them, even if the guess is wrong.
Not long ago, I pulled out a piece of writing I’d started over a year ago that I’d abandoned shortly after realizing it just didn’t work. I thought maybe taking another look at it, so long after I’d actually written it, would help me see it in a different light.
I started to read and quickly realized what the problem was. I didn’t start the story in the right place.
Plot develops out of conflict, either external, such as a person or an event that precipitates a series of actions the main character undertakes, or internal, driven by the protagonist’s wants and/or needs. How that character, and others, makes choices and otherwise responds to stimuli determines the course of events.
The traditional structure of a plot is linear, in which the protagonist’s actions are charted in a more or less straight line, although many stories shift from that person’s point of view to that of one or more other characters as the tale progresses. Others involve one or more flashbacks, introducing new elements to the overarching plot.
In one sense, there are innumerable stories; looking at storytelling another way, various analysts have discovered variable finite numbers of basic plots (such as the quest, which is ubiquitous in all genres), though these types have a seemingly infinite number of variations, as a visit to any large bookstore or library will attest. But stories almost invariably follow a simple pattern, in which rising action propels the protagonist through a series of complications that result in a climax, followed by the falling action of the resolution.
At this point, the character, or at least the character’s circumstances, have changed, though most readers (and writers) find it most satisfying if the character has experienced significant growth or change and has accomplished a palpable goal, such as a physical journey that has allowed the character to achieve some reward, or an intangible goal that still satisfies the reader’s desire for the protagonist to undergo a metamorphosis of some kind.
Writer Annie Lamott created a helpful mnemonic catechism, ABCDE, to help writers remember the basics. Here are the elements:
Seriously, click the link and go read the article. Seriously.
Also, check out our post on the Hero’s Journey and monomyth!
Do it for a reason! Progress your plot, make people cry, show loss of innocence ect.
I don’t really like the ‘Not much is happening here, DIE’ thing.
I answered an ask yesterday about killing characters [HERE]
The general consensus is: make the death matter.
No redshirts please!