Action vs Plot and Fresh vs Formula

A few months ago, a friend and fellow writer came to me with questions about action, plot, and how to tell a unique story. His questions were fantastic and I wanted to share our conversation for those of you who might be asking yourselves the same thing; “How can I write a story that is fresh and new if I’m following the ‘rules’ and ‘formula’ set out by tried-and-true authors?”

Hi Rebecca! I wanted to ask you about action vs plot. Are the two mutually exclusive? What’s the deal with that and why? Should one expect an action movie to have a plot? Why would viewers care if it doesn’t have one?

Oh, good question. Action, particularly in the action movie genre, tends to refer more specifically to motion and movements that are being taken. Action movies involve a great deal of momentum. The pace is usually quite fast and a lot of exciting events tend to occur.
Plot is more collective; it’s about WHY those actions happen, and when and how. The plot involves the motivations of the characters and the causal affect, why one action leads into, or causes, a reaction.

An action movie SHOULD have a plot, but some don’t. If stuff is blowing up and people are running about everywhere but there isn’t some underlying sense of motivation and purpose there is no plot.

A lot of ‘real life’ is fairly plotless. We do stuff, because it’s a new day; that’s action. But without goals and dreams there is no plot and we tend to wander from action to action aimlessly.

Is it ever a good idea to be whimsical or plotless? I can see that being intentionally plotless, would fit as a plot device (ironically) to make something seem more natural or possibly light-hearted…

Like I said, a lot of real life IS plotless, but during the writing process it’s best to have a plot because in a story things are supposed to happen for a reason. If you factor in an action or event that appears to be plotless it is because within your plot that ‘natural’ or ‘light-hearted’ event is important to the story.

This is Chekov’s Gun Theory, which states, “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.”

What this comes down to is plot devices. Everything in the story should serve the purpose of the plot. If it isn’t related then it doesn’t belong in the story. The plotless stuff should get taken OUT of a story.

Guy gets up, has coffee, blows his nose, has a shower… The reader doesn’t CARE! So it gets cut. Unless something significant happens in the event, such as his coffee is poisoned or he blows his brains out of his nose, it is noise that will bore and frustrate a reader. If an object, scene, or an action doesn’t serve the plot then it’s superfluous padding which can slow down and even dumb down a story.

Why does a story need to be plot-driven?

Some stories are considered to be plot-driven while others are considered to be character-driven. If the scene develops the reader’s connection with the character it’s considered to be a character-driven scene and doesn’t necessarily ‘need’ a plot. But it’s better if the characters are driving the plot with all of their actions. That is how the two weave together.
Ideally, plot and character go together.

It’s the kind of thing worth considering when reading books. Look at them with your writer’s eye; pay attention to what feels connected to the greater theme of the story. Does anything happen that doesn’t, ultimately, lead into what happens next?
Life does that. If anything in my past had happened differently I wouldn’t be who I am in the present. And books are the same; the action serves the purpose of the plot, or at least it should.

Plot “devices” can be used for connectedness, people can often either remember or miss, something that happened earlier and how it relates to what happened later, but you want your story to be unique and character-driving is how you do that right? If a story is too plot-driven it often becomes contrived and predictable; it will feel fake, and readers will get emotionally disconnected.

You need both. Or rather, I should say, the best stories have both. There are plenty of stories that are “ok” which cater to one or the other predominantly but the stories readers come to love, the ones they become immersed in and won’t put down, are those which keep a balance between character and plot. Those stories build character enough to make us care that these things happen to this person, and plot enough to make what happens interesting.

So how do you escape the “same ol’ thing”? How do you make it something readers haven’t ever read before? How do you do something they wouldn’t predict?

Unique writing usually comes from voice. The same basic plot, even very similar characters have been written about hundreds of times before. (This is the basis of The Hero’s Journey.) But YOU haven’t written them. The way YOU tell the story will differ from the story someone else told.

If you talk to twenty people at a birthday party, every one of those twenty people would describe the party in a different and unique way. It would be like there were twenty parties instead of one. Each of us brings our own experiences and unique perspective to our storytelling.
Your storytelling can do things in a unique way based on your voice and the ideas that are uniquely yours.

Is it better to do what is expected or to prepare the reader for what is to come? Is dropping hints a good thing or should you just hit them with stuff?

It is better to balance the expected with the unexpected. Prepare and don’t prepare. Readers love twists, they love surprises, but they don’t like being mislead or sent off on tangents.

So, even if you do something unexpected, when the reader looks back it should be eye-opening for them. On reflection, they should be able to see the things that pointed to the twist before the twist happened.

For example, the second time you watch the movie, “Sixth Sense”, you realise there are lots of things that pointed to the twist from the very first scene. Natural human assumption about the way the world works creates a belief that causes viewers to miss those crucial hints the first time we see the movie, the twist makes us go “Shock, WOW!” and then ohhh, there, and there, oh yes, I remember that happening, etc.

Hints are good. Intelligent readers especially love the thrill of getting hints and trying to guess the ending. But be careful not to make those hints too obvious or the reader will guess and be right.

A lot of the advice you’re giving, and writer’s are given generally, applies because it’s a tried-and-true analysis of stuff that’s already been written, but how does one approach writing something completely new? Using the same methods as before doesn’t sound like it makes something fresh.

Well, you can write things completely opposite to that which is tried-and-true. It might work, but it might also become the biggest flop in this history of big flops. That’s what innovation is about; taking a chance that it won’t suck it big time.

If you want to write a book you can sell, you do it the way that has proven to work. Publishers don’t like taking risks so particularly for those of us writing for traditional publishers it can be important to follow the ‘rules’ and do what has proven to work.

If you want to do something fantastically unique and new, then don’t follow the ‘rules’. You have to be willing to break all the rules. It might pay off, but it might not. You have to weigh up if the risk is worth it to you. If you love the process of writing without following the tried-and-true, if it’s fun to be wild like that, then go for it. Forge the path for other writers to follow the new rules you create.

The only real ‘rule’ in writing is to write what you love. Because, odds are, if you love it there will be readers out there who love it as much as you do.

Original conversation took place on the 14th of September, 2010.

Flash Fiction vs. Short Stories: What’s the difference?

The term “short fiction” includes many different types of writing. The most popular among these types are short stories and flash fiction. A short story can range anywhere from about 500 words to 10,000 words, depending on the source of the information. Many publishing companies, especially the ones specializing in anthologies, look for works that range from 1,000 words to 5,000 words. Flash fiction usually ranges from 100 words to 1,000 words.

So, what is the difference between short stories and flash fiction? There are many differences, though they are often difficult to discern. The main difference between the two is the concept of structure.

Short stories should have a basic structure including introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution. Many believe that a short story is just a flash into the lives of the characters, when in reality, a short story contains the same essential elements as a novel. The difference between a novel and a short story is the depth at which the characters and plot line are explored. In a basic form, a short story needs a beginning, middle, and end, with a healthy dose of character development. 0t should tell a complete story, whether the topic is how a relationship between two people begins, the testing process of a wizard, a car accident, or perhaps even a character’s struggle to find a job. The possibilities are endless. What needs to remain constant is that there is an introduction, character development, a conflict, and a resolution for that conflict. It does not have to be a positive resolution, or a happily-ever-after, but it does need to be a conclusion which the reader finds satisfactory.

Flash fiction, on the other hand, is a “flash” into a situation. It should include one character, conflict, and resolution. The difference here is that the plot can be quite simple. For example, an evening in the life of a character in which realization is achieved. There does not have to be an external conflict in flash fiction, and the resolution can be as simple as the character making a decision they were previously having trouble resolving. There are many forms of flash fiction. Some of the most popular are stories with a word count restriction. There are those that specialize in using exactly 55 words to tell a story, all the way down to 3. These kinds of flash fiction concentrate more on hinting at the plot line, and may not even contain a solid character.

In the end, the main identifiable difference between a short story and flash fiction is the depth of which the character(s) development, plot line, and resolution strive towards. Both forms have great merit, and there are many published authors who have made a name for themselves strictly by writing flash fiction and short stories.

Joy Campbell specializes in article writing, research, short fiction, and creating helpful information for new and emerging writers.

Masks Guests Wear To Your Story’s Masquerade Ball

Mask Of The Masquerade

“The most important kind of freedom
is to be what you really are
You trade in your reality for a role
You give up your ability to feel…
and in exchange…
put on a mask.”
~ Jim Morrison

To be honest, when the Absolute Write Blog Chain regulars were talking topics for this month, I loved the Halloween concept. Ideas immediately leapt to mind. I instantly knew how I could relate All Hallow’s Eve to the craft of writing fiction. But, Halloween is not this month’s theme. Instead, I stare glumly at the word “Masquerade” and wonder, “What can I do with that?”

Say hello to my friend, Writer’s Block. There are many causes but the one that tangled me up is: lack of direction. To move forward we each need to see into the darkness ahead. We must unmask the handsome stranger who is our story (or blog post) because while he is hidden behind a mask he is distant and insubstantial. And THERE it is. The connection between Masquerades and writing.

No matter where you find the source of your idea waterfall, be it a dazzling Muse-moment, or a keyword prompt from your writing community (or client), a story begins like a masquerade ball. The invitations were sent, the catering prepared, the music sets the beat, and we wait for guests to arrive. Without the guests the party is a dismal flop. The guests bring the character and plot to every event.

As the first guests arrive, either in your first paragraph for a pantser, or, planner, as you begin to brainstorm and take notes, you meet their mysterious masked faces. Their trues selves are foreshadowed by the mask they wear. They are hidden beneath lies and half-truths. They exist as something other than who they really are.

We all wear masks, don’t we? We have a face for every situation. We wear the “Mother Lion”, or the “Capable Worker”, or the “Talented Writer” mask and we change our mask as frequently as we change our hats. The elements of our stories wear their masks too. These masks are an illusion. They hide the depth and substance of the person beneath.

Just as a person is never a single mask, owning many, our plot and characters are multi-layered. Life is not simple. It was never meant to be. Life is a song, a story, deep and complicated. The best stories reveal each facet slowly, with sultry looks and edge of the seat anticipation. Mask by mask we reveal the strange creature beneath.

As the Masquerade Ball of your story swells, the room fills with masked strangers. They are freer because of their anonymity. They act and speak with a closer connection to their true selves because they are not themselves. Our story is truer too, before it is fully revealed to us, which is perhaps why it can destroy our motivation if we plan too finitely, but, to uncover the core, to see the final and one true face of our story, we must peel back those layers and discover the intricate characters and plot beneath the surface.

How do you remove the masks of your story? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Check out other great posts from Absolute Write’s October “Masquerade” Blog Chain:

Masks by pareeerica

Image Credit: * Wearing The Mask * by pareerica
Image Credit: S2 Wraps Blends by pareeerica

Fiction Characters: Do You Need A Mental “No Vacancy” Sign?

Do your fictional characters keep you awake at night?It is 3:57 in the morning. Do you know where your characters are? If you are like most writers, you know exactly where they are because they refuse to let you get a proper nights sleep, or bath, or read, or time alone to enjoy the minutiae of life.

Once you have given life to someone, sometimes they do not shut up. I find this to be true of children, and characters. I rarely get to spend my hour commute listening to the radio, or relaxing with the windows rolled down and my mind on mute. As soon as the fiction characters in my latest story realize I’m alone the chatter starts.

The first time this happened to me, I was sure I was schizophrenic. When I stopped at each red light while driving, I tried to jot down an idea but, by then the characters had told their friends that I was free, and I forgot what I was noting in the first place.

Forget taking a bath. I used to think the kids, and the dog were most deft at keeping me from taking a bath alone. No, it is the antagonist calling to say he is ready to kill my main character, and by the way, …I need to shave my legs.

Sleeping can be like running a relay race. When I sleep someone shouts something into my psyche, and I have to jump up to write. My best stuff comes at 3:00 A M decidedly, because like an infant, that is when my fiction characters are awake. After I have pecked the brainstorm into my computer, I head back to bed. Usually, I can fall back asleep. At least until, the protagonist finds out what his adversary said about him.

When I first started writing, it drove me mad to share my brain with all the people who were crashing my psychological party. Now, when I’m done with a story, and things get quiet, I have let down.

I want to throw up the No Vacancy Sign!I sit in the tub and wait for someone to say something. Then I lay in bed, and listen to the quiet wishing my fiction characters would “throw me a bone.” When I’m feeling overwhelmed by the amount of jabber going on in my brain, and I want to throw up the NO VACANCY sign, I remember how lonely I am without them.

I just flipped my sign over, reads Vacancy – welcome all night owls. I’ll probably catch you all at about 2:30…in the morning.

Do your fiction characters keep you awake at night? When was the last time you were able to have a relaxing bath or drive from one side of town to the other without their company? How do you deal with the lack of mental vacancies?

Photo Credit: Nathan Barry
Photo Credit: DG Jones

Minutiae – Adding Everyday, Basic Necessities To Your Story

Story Minutiae and Plot Details: The day to day living of life.In our daily lives, we have to make room for the minutiae of life. We eat, drink, take showers, and run errands. Our lives would fall apart without taking care of the basic necessities of living.

Our characters don’t often have the luxury of taking care of life’s minutiae when they are busy pursuing their goals. In the television series “24”, the hero Jack Bower must save the day, without taking any time for himself. He sets aside his personal needs when he pursues the enemy and protects the President. He doesn’t even have time to sleep!

Your characters may be in the middle of a similarly high-paced action story, or they may have a little more leeway. It is up to you to decide how much realism needs to be incorporated into your novel. Too much, and your readers could become bored. Too little, and your characters appear superhuman, unaffected by the basic requirements of living a healthy life.

Adding More Details to Your Story

When your writing is flowing freely, it is too easy to forget that your characters need a break. They may jump from one scene to another, overcoming foes and discovering new obstacles at every turn. While this makes for an exciting story, your characters can’t go on forever without some down time.

Sleep is one of the most important things that characters seem to forget to do. Allow them to set up camp for the night, or they may collapse from exhaustion in the middle of an important scene. Chapter breaks are great places to let your characters sleep on the past events, and prepare them to face a new day in pursuit of their goals.

Eating and drinking are also necessary if you want your characters to keep forging ahead. They may only have time to grab an apple and a swig of water, but that small detail will remind readers that your characters are realistic and susceptible to human concerns. Larger meals can be included to provide a respite from a speedy plot line, and to give your characters time to ruminate over their game plan.

Removing Minutiae From Your Story

Your story can become bogged down by too much detail. If every chapter ends with your heroine curling up in her cozy bed, her plight can sound trivial and mundane. Readers like stories that provide an escape from their everyday lives. Too many mundane activities can add up to a boring story.

If your characters have to get from point A to point B, they can do so either very quickly or very slowly in terms of your story. Noting that they arrived at their destination after three days of uneventful travel is perfectly fine. You don’t have to show every stop, every meal, and every conversation that doesn’t add to your story. Only include minutiae if it enhances your characterization or your plot line. When in doubt, throw it out.

It is very easy to add a mundane scene, just to act as filler while you’re thinking of what happens next in the story. If you need to keep the writing flowing, go ahead and write that scene at a roadside diner. It may provide important details to lead your characters in the right direction. If it doesn’t, you can always remove it later, and your story will keep up the pace.

Do you tend to write lean stories, without many human details? Or do you enjoy writing long descriptive passages about every meal? How do you strike a balance of real world concerns and exciting plot points?

Photo Credit: 07-07-08 © manley099

Unearth Your Archive Of Fiction Stories

Fiction stories and novels buried in an archive.Most writers have fiction stories from years ago that have since been abandoned to the dark recesses of a desk drawer archive. Some stories never made it past the opening lines, others were just a few chapters away from their dramatic conclusion. While some stories are best left hidden away, others can be revived and fashioned into more exciting plots.

If your current ideas aren’t inspiring you, go digging through your old files to find treasures you may have forgotten that you have! After years have passed, you can read over your partial first drafts with a fresh eye, as if they were written by someone else. Once you find a story that still has potential, read it over and look for areas that can be crafted into a new short story or novel.

Mine the Introduction

Most writers have the peak of their enthusiasm within the first chapter or scene of their story. Introductions bring the first characters and plot points into main focus. It is possible that your characters are incompatible for the story you put them in. A confident, powerful businesswoman may not belong in a sleepy Midwestern town when she’d shine in a bustling city. (Then again, she just might, providing a marked contrast. Your story may vary.) When you can extract characters from a weak plot, you can transfer them to a more exciting storyline.

On the other hand, your plot may shine, but your characters just aren’t interested in seeing the story through. They may be flat and lifeless, and not yield any additional information when you try character building techniques. It may be time to send those characters on their way, and give the story to more enthusiastic protagonists who will care about what’s happening in the world around them.

Dig into the Heart of the Story

For lengthier abandoned manuscripts, it can be harder to pinpoint exactly what went wrong. Characters seem to get minds of their own, going off in unexpected directions and wandering away from the story. Plots can weaken and meander, to the point where even you don’t know what is going to happen next.

While many writers prefer the excitement of an unplanned route, others need a solid plot outline to bring their story and characters back on track. Write out an outline of the plot so far, and see where the story is actually heading. If it is workable, then you can revive that story and get back to writing. If not, see what needs to be cut, rearranged, or expanded into new avenues. If you’re at a loss, use a mind map to free associate possibilities for your plot.

Carve Into Your Words

An abandoned story will need a lot of work, and you will need to put on your editor’s hat for awhile before getting back to the writing. Ruthlessly cut into your story, removing anything that is not serving the plot. You can literally do this with a pair of scissors and a lot of tape, or you can cut and paste within your word processing program. If you don’t want to toss out perfectly good writing that just doesn’t fit, put those unneeded phrases into an idea file that you can go over later.

Have you revived an aging story? What ideas do you use when called to rework an unfinished or finished manuscript?

Photo Credit: Orcmid

Character Birthdays: Happy Birthday, Heros and Heroines

Happy Birthday Cake for Heroes, Heroines, and CharactersDo you know your when to wish your characters a happy birthday? Many writers neglect the most important day of their protagonist’s life. After all, if she was not born into your imaginary world, you wouldn’t be able to tell her story now. But there are stronger writing issues to consider when deciding your male and female characters celebrate their birthday.

Happy 29th, Again

What is your character’s attitude toward her birthday, and her age? Does she dread every passing year, or does she celebrate with a blow-out party that includes everyone she’s met in her life? When are the birthday’s of your character’s family? If you don’t know, you are missing out on a key area of characterization that you could explore.

More importantly, you may miss her birthday all together! If her birthday falls right into the middle of your story, your character wouldn’t completely forget. At the very least, she would comment to herself about how she is far too busy to go out with her friends this year. Perhaps she’ll miss visiting her parents, because she has now moved halfway across the country to start her new job. Are your character’s kids celebrating their birthdays with a crisis filled birthday party? Her new love interest may forget, and schedule his monthly golf game on the birthday weekend she expected him to take her to his beach side villa. Unless you know, your characters will never age, and gain the wisdom that comes with reflecting over the course of their lives so far.

What’s Your Sign?

Another consideration is that you or your characters may have an interest in exploring what their birthday stands for, in the universal scheme of things. Astrology and Numerology use a person’s birthday to determine their personality traits, and the possible issues they might have to deal with throughout their lives. If you are struggling to flesh out a character, you can look up their birthday, and discover how they might act in their relationships, careers, and home lives. If you don’t like what the results turn up, you can change their birthday to a different sign, and start over. Even if you don’t care about such things, your young college student heroine might read her horoscope every morning, and you ought to have an idea what it would say.

Other uses for birthdays include exploring what happened on that day in history. If your historical hero was born on the day the Civil War started, he would have a different upbringing than someone whose parents raised him during the Great Depression. Many websites and books have such “Day in the Life” descriptions, or you could scan old newspapers near your character’s real world hometown. Even less famous events could play into your character’s life, such as if she were born on the same day the water tower fell and flooded her home.

Planning For Other Character’s Birthdays

Even if your story covers a short amount of time, it is wise to know when all of your characters are born, not just your protagonist. She may be planning a surprise party for her best friend, when she suddenly loses her job and can’t afford to do so anymore. Your antagonist may decide to cause havoc on his birthday every year, because local bullies wrecked his 18th birthday party.

Birthdays are a great rite of passage that everyone goes through each year. It marks new growth, beginnings, and a chance to start life with a clean slate. Your characters could use these same milestones, to take your story in new and unexpected directions.

What do birthdays mean to you, and your stories? Have you explored how your characters react to growing a year older?

Editor’s Note: Know another birthday you shouldn’t forget? Writer’s Round-About! We’re turning 3 this month so come and win some prizes at our birthday bash.

Image credit: Dan Taylor

Why I Don’t Write from Outlines

I Don't Write From Outlines, Do You?Although I carefully map out my blog topics each month, whether I’m writing a full-length feature story or a quick SEO writing tip, I never write from an outline. I have my reasons — and they might surprise you.

Why I Don’t Write from Outlines

Although I carefully map out my blog topics each month, I never write from an outline. This doesn’t change, whether I’m writing a full-length feature story or a quick SEO writing tip: no outline. I have my reasons — and they might surprise you.

Like the best poetry or even a song, an article or a blog post has a rhythm – a melody, a flowing cascade of words down the page. This is different from the “voice” of the writer; it is, for lack of a better term, the “life energy” of the article. A good article should transition smoothly between ideas, leading readers down the path the author wants them to follow.

Full-length feature writing, to me, is like a quiet, spontaneous Sunday drive. I often don’t know where I’m going until I get there. As I scan through pages of notes and quotes, the facts and figures jump out at me, taking their places in line, so that each paragraph leads into the next. Who needs an outline when I have the muse?

The words for a blog post or other Web content, on the other hand, fall fast and furious from my mind in a frenzy. If I took time to outline, I’d lose the idea. Often, blog posts are written before I even have time to think about where they’re going. I type and type — and then I’m done. With my sources in different tabs on my screen and the ideas forming a cloud in my mind, I just write until it’s done and then edit for clarity and conciseness.

Benefits of Outlining

Many writing books say you should outline because it helps a writer to see an article’s overall form and ensures you won’t forget an important fact. In most cases, until I do interviews and/or extensive research, I don’t know where the piece is going. Once I have finished my research and have my notes in front of me, an outline seems redundant.

Some new writers may be scared at staring at the blank page, unsure where their story is going or how they will get there. To me, this is the fun of writing. It’s all up to me – no constraints, no order until I make sense of it all. If I forget a fact because I didn’t have an outline, it probably didn’t belong in the story anyway. (It’s the literary equivalent of the philosophy that everything happens for a reason.)

It’s not exactly a blank page I’m working from either; I have my notes, my quotes. And in my head, there exists the faintest skeleton of an idea, ready to be fleshed out. It’s all up to me to put it together.

In that sense, I guess I do write from an outline. It’s just that the outline exists in my head.

Cast Your Writing Process Vote: Outline or Not?

What about you? What’s your writing process? Do you write detailed outlines? Rough notes? Draw a mindmap? Or do you prefer to wing it, like I do?

Photo Credit: 09-19-06 © OlgaLIS

Secrets of Dialogue, Character, and Plot. Part 3 of our chat with Hugo and Nebula Award-nominee Rachel Swirsky

When writers get together, we talk and talk. Perhaps because we spend so much time normally behind our keyboards typing? A quick interview about Science Fiction and Fantasy author Rachel Swirsky’s recent Hugo and Nebula Award nominations turned into a four-part series with too much useful information to waste. Here, she shares her best advice on the craft of writing genre fiction.

What advice do you have for beginning writers beginning to develop skill at dialogue, plot and character development?

Rachel Swirsky on dialogue… I think the best dialogue approach is probably eavesdropping. Go into a public place with a notebook; write down what you hear. Or take the organic approach to it–if you’re bored in line at the bank, or sitting in the airport, or whatever, just listen to people’s conversations. Do not–obviously–be a jerk about it.

I’d also say that the advice that people rarely speak in complete sentences is only somewhat helpful. When I first heard that, I started writing everyone as if they spoke in rushed, overlapping sentence fragments, and it was like my characters had all developed nasty anxiety disorders. Writing fiction doesn’t always mean being totally mimetic. You don’t want to, for instance, write in as many “um”s as people actually speak. You have to find a way to make the dialogue sound real, and also sound good on the page. Eavesdrop anyway.

Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting Dynamic Characters and Effective ViewpointsOn character development… Start with Nancy Kress’s Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting Dynamic Characters and Effective Viewpoints. Also, it can be useful for new writers to write up a profile of your character, particularly if you’re doing genre fiction and you never actually show them at “normal.” They may be space adventuring now, but what was their home life like? Where did they come from? Do they get along with their brothers? What are their hobbies? I always liked to ask my students what would a character kill for? What would they die for? Are they the same thing or different? Why?

On Plot… Plot is weird because it means different things to different people in different stories in different genres. If you’re writing a literary story, it’s perfectly legitimate to use some kind of non-traditional plot that would map out as a checkmark if you made a graph of how the tension mounts. When people say they want to learn to plot, though, usually they mean that they want to learn how to plot traditionally–which is a good tool to have, since then you can use traditional plotting when you want to, and set it aside when you don’t.

Orson Scott Card's How to Write Science Fiction and FantasyStart by looking at the traditional plot arc, with exposition, rising action, climax, denouement, and ending. Map your stories–do they fit it? How can they? Do outlines, even if you hate them. Remember it’s a writing exercise. Then outline your finished stories–do the outlines look like exciting plots? Look at the try/fail method which I first learned about in Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. It involves your character wanting something, and then trying to get it and failing and making things worse. You do that a couple times, until the climax character finally succeeds (in a happy ending) or fails (in a tragic one).

The best formula I was ever given is used in screenwriting. Your character is introduced to the plot at about fifteen minutes in, at the point of complication, and soon thereafter is at the point of no return, where they can’t get out of the plot. Then, at the halfway point, you resolve the initial plot question, and reverse or complicate it. So, for instance in When Harry Met Sally, the question at the start is will they get together, and then at the halfway becomes, will they stay together?

You can read stories and poetry by Rachel Swirsky at:
Subterranean Magazine
Fantasy Magazine
Weird Tales
Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Find out more at

Learn basic plotting tools like reversals, when something that should be good turns out to be bad instead (or vice versa), and complications, which is when things get even worse than they were. Remember that coincidence is a great tool for getting your characters into worse trouble, but a poor tool for getting them out of it. Then there’s Octavia Butler‘s much simpler, but equally important rule: “Don’t bore the reader.”

Should Fiction Be Poetic? Part 2 of our chat with Hugo and Nebula Award-nominee Rachel Swirsky

In the first part of our series featuring science fiction and fantasy author Rachel Swirsky, the young talent revealed a collection of her poetry and short stories entitled “Through the Drowsy Dark” will be released by Aqueduct Press at the end of May. This got us talking about the differences between poetry and prose, if prose should be poetic, and how to achieve that effect in your work.

Dawn: Since it’s National Poetry Month… what are the similarities and differences between writing poetry and short fiction?

Rachel: I think poetry is intensely useful for fiction writers. It teaches one how to create images that are concrete rather than abstract, to fully exploit each word, and to understand language on the detail-level. Poetry spoils me, because you can work on each word until it’s perfect. You can rewrite a poem dozens or hundreds of times to make sure each word is exactly what you want it to be.

Dawn: You can’t do that in a short story…

Rachel: Once you’re dealing with thousands of words in short stories, you can’t give each phrase the same level of attention. With novels, there’s even less ability to focus on the micro-level.

When I took a novel workshop at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Lan Samantha Chang said that one of the most common difficulties she sees short story writers having with the novel form is letting go of their control. Novels are too long to perfect word by word, and usually too much for a writer to keep in mind all at once in the way you can with a short story (or so I’m told).

Poetry is the opposite: you have an extremely high degree of control over the words and it’s fairly easy to keep the whole thing in mind at once, or even to memorize the whole project if you want to. Sometimes that control can be maddening if you can’t create the effect you want, and I know there have been plenty of times when I’ve caught myself retyping the same three words over and over, changing them slightly and then changing them back, until I’m completely frustrated. This is usually a good time to walk away.

Dawn: Your prose is very poetic — one of the things I love about it. Do you make a conscious effort to do that?

Rachel: I do make an effort to be poetic in what I write. Which is to say, poetry is extremely conscious of the language it uses to convey ideas. It’s easier for people writing prose to abstract themselves from the means of communication, because prose is an unmarked form–we use it when we speak, and when we write notes to each other, and when we write up reports at work. It’s ubiquitous, so we can pretend it’s not even there, much like fish probably don’t think, “Hey, I’m swimming through the water” every thirty seconds. But it is there.

Dawn: I think it’s easier to “try” to abstract ourselves from the means of communication. But truly transparent prose can take as much work as poetic prose. Otherwise, it looks self-conscious…

Rachel: Transparent prose attempts to use language in a way that the audience won’t notice–to take advantage of the ubiquity of the medium so it disappears. This can be a beautiful technique. Prose that we consider poetic, or sometimes I hear people use the term self-conscious, is playing more overtly with the medium of language.

Different styles have different kinds of effects on the reader, and may play better or worse with the kind of content you’re trying to express. I try to think about what effect I’m having and what effect I’m trying to create, and then I usually spend a lot of time with the sentence-level language to make sure that it’s doing what I want it to.

Dawn: What do you find most challenging about fiction – the language, plot, characters, world-building or something else?

Rachel: That depends on the story. I probably spend more time on language than on anything else, but I don’t tend to find it challenging, per se.

I don’t feel like I have a lot of problems understanding characters, although relaying that understanding on the page is a different challenge.

I tend to come into stories with plot arcs I already understand, but sometimes the exact process of how to show the characters getting from 60% of the way through the story to 80% can be very difficult for me. Beginnings, early middles, and endings are easy–it’s that latter middle part of the arc which seems to sag. I don’t even want to know what that’s going to be like on a 100,000-word novel instead of a 2,000- to 10,000-word short story.

I wish I was better at dialogue. I think I write dialogue decently enough, but when you read the work of someone who really has an ear for it, it can be this astonishing, amazing thing. Andy Duncan captures people’s speech in ways that feel dynamic, fresh, novel, and totally real–he writes the dialogue equivalent of surprising yet inevitable endings. His dialogue is a small, focused, surprise–but then you realize the character could never speak any other way.

You can read stories and poetry by Rachel Swirsky at:
Subterranean Magazine
Fantasy Magazine
Weird Tales
Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Find out more at

I also really wish I could do tight, focused plotting — the kinds of plots you find in farces or murder mysteries. I’ve been watching episodes of Coupling and Doctor Who by Steven Moffat, and he hits the plot points with just the right amount of precision and wit, with never a wasted word. I want to know how to do that.