I’ve enjoyed getting to read Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell over the past few weeks, and I thought I would paraphrase some of his advice from that book. If you’re struggling with the fundamentals of narrative and storybuilding, his work is an excellent one to pick up. There are tons of great websites you can check out with various free tips and pointers, but P&S won’t break your bank and it’s a fairly straightforward read that I can stand behind.
Anyway, here are a few of the pointers I took away from the book, combined with my own observations from the industry.
1. Introduce a new character – It is amazing the new life that a story can take on just by adding a new character. Sometimes a new good guy or bad guy can breathe an entirely new level of depth into your story and sometimes you can get a whole chapter or two just out of developing that character. While writing my upcoming sci-fi novel The Last Cup, for example, I was reading the Game of Thrones saga and somehow Varys worked his way into the story. Now, if you’re a GofT fan and you know that character, you know that he is one of the best things about that saga. My equivalent character is not a blatant rip-off (he only appears in a few chapters) but he nevertheless manages to singlehandedly carry pages worth of dialogue on his shoulders. Another character was inspired by Nina Sharp from the television show Fringe. Character inspirations don’t have to be obnoxious retreads of popular characters (I don’t recommend that) but basing one of your creations on a similar person in popular media can be a great way to get through to the finer points of that character, including voice, personality, and (most importantly) motivation.
2. Add a Subplot – I say tread lightly here and map out subplots beforehand. Subplots must be inherently fascinating by their own rights and must ultimately relate to the greater story in a meaningful way. Subplots can drag a story down because readers will not always see the immediate benefit of a subplot and you may lose a reader’s interest if you dwell on a subplot for too long or incorporate too many seemingly futile minor subplots. My book The Notice includes two subplots and one of them, admittedly, doesn’t seem very relevant until the very last chapter, where it finally pays off with a twist ending. In The Last Cup the subplot is much more involved and also pays off in the ending in a way that I can’t wait to show people, but if a subplot ultimately doesn’t affect your reader on some kind of personal or emotional level, consider just how useful your subplot actually is. I’ve now heard multiple agents say “every book can be a bit shorter” and subplots are often a useful place to trim. The question is, could your book survive without said subplot or is your subplot simply too explosive to omit? It’s a risky gamble for sure, but many writers pull it off with gusto.
3. Skip Ahead – Anyone who knows me and has witnessed my writing process knows that I’m a huge fan of leapfrogging. If you’re bogged down by a chapter or section, try skipping past it to the next most interesting part. If you’re a rigid outliner like I am, then this shouldn’t be too difficult for you and ultimately should have little impact on the coherency of the story (edits are useful for patching up anything that doesn’t feel like it flows appropriately). If you’re like me, stopping for too long can make it more difficult to get the writing train moving again later. Also, you will probably benefit from writing a more interesting chapter because it will then be easier to go back and connect the pieces. For me, it’s always easier to stitch together good material than to blaze forward without a map or motivation.
4. Focus on the Stakes – When in doubt, take a moment to remind the reader of the stakes. If you’re writing a vampire novel, then this whole section is probably a big fat delicious pun, right? But the middle of a book is always a great place to remind the reader of the choices the protagonist is making, will make, or has made and emphasize the consequences of those decisions. The middle is also a good time to go ahead and tie subplots into those stakes or add a new layer of complication to the consequences of the choices the character has made. You don’t want to suddenly flip everything around but maybe you can take one aspect of the main plot and turn it on its head, which is something I just decided to do with The Last Cup (no spoilers) and that decision has now propelled me towards the final third of the book. At the end of the day, the stakes are what keep your reader invested and add that layer of suspense to your book. They bind your story and are fundamental to your reason for telling it in the first place.
Once again, if you’d like more advice, feel free to cruise by your local bookstore and pick up Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell. Most of these thoughts are my own, but his book has some useful advice on techniques for crafting beginnings, middles, and ends and how to brainstorm techniques for making your story your own. I don’t endorse riffing on other writers’ work but a little burst of inspiration from a book you’re reading or a movie you just watched can be the jumping off point for you taking an idea and carrying in a completely new and wonderful direction.