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ASK THE EDITOR What Makes an Effective Plot

By Susan Malone

February 2001

We talked last month about how to begin a novel, so let's continue on with what makes an effective Plot, and how to keep a tale moving. Plots are really the simple part. The difficulty comes in the telling-creating the story effectively and believably, with the right cadence pulling all the elements together.

You can outline any book out there (including your own) by simply jotting down what happens in each chapter. But is that the Plot? Or the Storyline?

The Plot is the gist, the point, and part of the theme of the book, and the Storyline is how you get from point A to point B. I.e., the Plot is the entire forest, and the Storyline, the trees. Both Organization and Structure come into play here as well, the Organization being the umbrella that the Structure bolsters up.

So once you have your Plot clear in your own head-boy finds girl; boy falls in love with girl; girl dumps boy; boy spends rest of novel trying to win girl back-the real work begins in regard to the telling of the Plot, otherwise knows as the fleshing out of the Storyline.

Several factors come into play within the specter of creating interesting and believable Storylines and Plots. The first and most important (in that everything else hinges on it) is Focus. What I see most often is stories that ramble. One might begin with a bang-up cliffhanging scene, which really pulls in the reader and sets a great tone, leaving us champing at the bit to turn to the next chapter. But then that next chapter drifts off to Brazil somewhere (a setting which then never reappears in said book), often with different characters entirely, and the thread of the narrative is lost. What happened to your Plot? Your Storyline? The Protagonist in whom I've just invested my trust to take me through the course of this book? In other words, where are we and who the heck are THESE people?

Or, the narrative is going along fine, except the writer keeps drifting off on tangents that sort of relate, but don't add anything to the Plot, the Characters, or both. An old adage in this business says to not take readers down a road that doesn't lead directly back into the main stream. They may just take that road and not come back (i.e., put down the book and not pick it back up). A good litmus test for EVERY single scene in the book is: Is this vital to my Plot/Characters? How does this further the Plot/Characters? Can I lose the scene and lose nothing of real value? Do your own outline once your first draft is finished (genre writers most often outline beforehand, but Mainstream and Literary folks seldom do). Make certain every tangent carries with it a thread of the narrative, which is vital in making the entity as a whole stronger.

The next problem I see a lot is in the area of Pacing. This relates to Focus, as again, without a clear and strong Focus, everything pretty much falls apart. But Pacing is more than that. It includes the cadence of your voice. Does your prose and sentence structure relate directly to the type of book you're writing? As an example, the long, rambling nature of Faulkner's prose would be completely out of place in a Thriller, where the style required is short and crisp, in places almost staccato. Next, does something happen in every scene that moves the Plot forward? Again, this relates to Focus, but here I'm talking more about the placing of plot points at very specific times, both major ones and the ancillary minor ones, all of which make your story move. You're looking overall at roughly three major plot points, and a host (nine or so) minor ones. Which means that in every chapter, something of substance needs to occur.

I see lots of belabored points-where the writer spends way too much time beating the reader over the head with some issues-and conversely, big holes are left that the reader can't bridge. Make certain that you spend most of your time on the important things, and while not slighting the lesser ones, that those get just enough but not too much space. Yes, some of this is by feel. But much of it's logic too. And when you focus on the nuts and bolts, the feel will eventually come. Writing is an odd amalgam of art and skill, with the latter feeding the former at just the right times.

Lastly, Pacing is by design. It doesn't just happen. As an example, be certain to end your chapters with some reason for your reader to turn the page. Something thrilling, intriguing, poignant, funny, sad-in other words, meaningful in some way.

I see a lot of chapters that really do have great endings, only the writer then rambles on for a few paragraphs, and the oomph is lost. Leave the chapter with the punch line. Or, conversely, those that end with sort of a ho hum-the main character is walking down the road, etc., and I just sort of ho hum along with him and forget where we're going and meander away to something else entirely. You just lost your reader. Make him turn the page!

See, writing books is simple. Just decide on your Plot. Then outline how you get from A to Z. Organize it with effective plot points. Make sure the Pacing fits the book and that your reader is compelled to continue. And stay focused. Simple. We run into problems when we confuse simple with easy.

Susan M. Malone is a Contributing Editor to Authorlink.com, a multi-published author, and owner of a successful editorial service. SEVEN books she’s edited have been published or sold within the last two years. Her own newest nonfiction, FIVE KEYS FOR UNDERSTANDING MEN, co-authored with Gary L. Malone, MD, is out now. Check out her listing under Editorial Services, and email her at aaasuz@aol.com