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Friday, September 28, 2012

Tightening Your Plot

Events follow logical sequences.  Motives lead to choices and choices bring consequences.  Even seemingly random acts of nature make logical sense when the scientific factors behind them are understood.  If you've ever hit a place in a novel where the scene seems awkward and contrived, the problem can often be traced to a missing piece of the action-obstacle-reaction cycle.

Action takes place when a character does something to obtain his main objective.  Maybe he wants to win the girl's heart.  Maybe he wants to humiliate his competition.  This motive is going to inspire a choice which will lead the protagonist's story to an inevitable -- if not immediately foreseeable -- conclusion.

To add tension and advance plot, you should never give the protagonist what she wants too soon or too easily.  Is she in love?  Put the object of her affection in a preexisting relationship with an extremely jealous, possessive girlfriend.  When she comes up against this obstacle, Miss Protagonist should experience some kind of emotional reaction.  This reaction will lead to a decision -- conscious or otherwise -- that will move her to new action.

WARNING:  I'm about to give a very strange example.  For any straight-laced, humorless types, you've been notified before reading on.

Let's assume our protagonist is Puffy the Marshmallow Boy.  He's rotund, squishy, creamy white, and has little black eyes.  Puffy possesses an all-consuming desire to become a s'more, and his first action is to search the Chocolate Forest for a cocoa tree.  (You might be losing brain cells at this moment.  Remember, I warned you.  Now. . .where were we?  Oh, yeah!  Puffy trying to become a s'more!)

In the forest, Puffy runs up against his first big obstacle.  Not being too bright, he didn't realize cocoa trees grow beans, not chocolate bars.  Puffy is frustrated (REACTION!), and decides to try something different.  He's heard rumors about an old woman who lives in a gingerbread house where the living room walls are decorated in chocolate panels.  Maybe he can talk her into giving him a square or two.

Puffy finds the house.  Unfortunately, the old woman is a witch with extremely bad vision, and she thinks Puffy is a chubby German boy.  She locks him in a cage so she can cook him for dinner (BIG OBSTACLE!), and Puffy's tragic story progresses.

Before I risk further offending your intelligence, here's a skillful example of an action-obstacle-reaction sequence from bestselling author Rick Riordan's The Titan's Curse

ACTION:

"I have to go," I said.  "I need to be on this quest."

"Why?" Zoe asked.  "Because of thy friend Annabeth?"

I felt myself blushing.  I hated that everyone was looking at me.  "No!  I mean, partly.  I just feel like I'm supposed to go!"

OBSTACLE:

Nobody rose to my defense.  Mr. D looked bored, still reading his magazine.  Silena, the Stoll brothers, and Beckendorf were staring at the table.  Bianca gave me a look of pity.

"No," Zoe said flatly.  "I insist upon this.  I will take a satyr if I must, but not a male hero."

Chiron sighed.  "The quest is for Artemis.  The Hunters should be allowed to approve their companions."

REACTION:

My ears were ringing as I sat down.  I knew Grover and some of the others were looking at me sympathetically, but I couldn't meet their eyes.  I just sat there as Chiron concluded the council.

By the time your protagonist has reached the story's finish line, readers should be able to connect the resolution to a satisfying sequence of actions that logically and inevitably carried the protagonist to his fate. Whether you write organically or carefully plot every twist and turn like an architect with OCD, this pattern works because it mirrors real life.  It's something to consider when looking to tighten your plot.