Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Plot and Pacing, Part Two by author/literary agent Weronika Janczuk

Weronika's back! Here's part two of a three-part series on plot and pacingClick here for part one, if you missed it.

A Brief Glance into a Novel's Plot and Pacing, part two:

The climax is the last—but definitely not second—external, explicit, tangible (whatever) appearance of a challenge created by the conflict; this event is the major showdown between your main protagonist(s) and antagonist(s). If your novel has any internal conflicts—depression, artistic obsession, madness, self-deprecation, self-confidence, whatever—the climax will be the strongest if you connect both the external and internal climaxes in one showdown, in one appearance.
Continuing my example earlier:

The climax would be the girl making a choice: Should she accept the humans’ offer to free her mother and stop fighting for the underworld, or should she risk her mother’s life to save all faeries? The scene (or scenes) in which this choice plays out would constitute the climax.

Just from this breakdown, we as writers are able to identify a few things: we should spend ¼ of our novel establishing the status quo and sending the novel into action—within 15,000 words of a 60,000-word novel. We need to layer that first ¼ of the novel with different levels of threat and stakes, be they personal or private—there needs to be enough to thrust a character on his or her ‘journey.’

I gave a pretty generic example. There are many novels in which a scenario similar to the one I outlined exists. It is important, as a result, for writers to play with their story arc—there are millions of different questions that writers can raise in their stories and, by connecting and playing with different questions as well as different events in which those questions unfold, many unique and—hopefully—fresh stories can arise. Those stories can follow pretty similar story arcs, too.

Now, let’s bring out another template. This one will help us better consider the middle and the end of the novel. This template is called the eight-point story arc. Let’s go into full detail about it here.

The actual eight points on the story arc, labeled ‘officially,’ with brief descriptions, are:

1. Stasis - once upon a time
2. Trigger - something out of the ordinary happens
3. Quest - the protagonist is forced to seek something
4. Surprise - things don't go as expected
5. Critical choice - the protagonist must make a difficult decision
6. Climax – the choice has consequences
7. Reversal - the result of the choice is a change in stasis
8. Resolution - and the characters live happily ever after (or not)
Let’s break each down individually.
You have approximately 12,000 words, if you’re going for an approximately 60,000-word novel, to really focus in on the stasis, the trigger, and the foundation for the quest.

1. Stasis – This is the beginning. As I mentioned earlier, the sooner you begin setting up the potential drama, working in details and foreshadowing, the better.

2. Trigger
 – Something out of the ordinary needs to happen.

Before you determine what this is, you need to make sure that you know in what direction your character is heading. This means knowing two things:

• the character’s personal stakes: What will be explicitly/tangibly/concretely at stake for your main character? What, after the incident occurs, will she need to do in order to keep her status quo, to keep her life, to keep her happiness? All of those things are very general. You need to hone them and relate them to very specific instances in the book.

• the public stakes: What will be the stake for the public, the people who are somehow linked more universally with your main character? What, after the incident, will change for the public, whether it realizes it or not?
The best triggers are the ones that connect the public and the private stakes. A typical format is as follows: The main character is told that she has to do U, V, W, within X amount of time, otherwise Y happens to the public. Then, the second she begins to do U, V, or W, it turns out that Z (something personal this time!) will happen if she continues with the original plan.

Regardless of the path that you choose, this incident needs to establish ‘the quest.’ In other words, this is the question that will follow through with the rest of the novel. Questions like ‘Will the hero save the heroine in time?’ are effective because they transcend the novel and are universal, so create a conflict that really digs deep.
This is your ‘big bang.’

3. Quest – Your protagonist needs to seek something. This quest usually has two parts. The character makes the decision to go on this quest, and the character actually sets out on the quest. The key thing here is that your characters are proactive and don’t allow for the world to affect them; they try to affect the world.

4. Surprise – Things don’t go as expected.

This needs to happen pretty quickly into the middle of the book, those 38,000 words (perhaps a bit more) we have to play with the entire plot.

This needs to be pretty drastic, but not extraordinary. Remember, you have to place your character into the worst possible scenarios. Donald Maass, writing teacher extraordinaire, recommends that writers place their protagonists and antagonists face-to-face five different times during the novel. I don’t think you need to do something that drastic in the YA novel, but four or five huge setbacks is a very good goal to go for, four probably ideal for the 60,000-word novel.

The critical choice below—#5—is the critical choice that occurs almost right before the conflict, which means that everything from the surprise right at the beginning of the middle, all the way through right before the climax, is all yours to play with. I’d say that this stuff in the middle will be right around 25,000 words, probably—the other 13,000 words is the actual surprise, the critical choice, and the climax.

This is where we get into the idea of rising action and crises. You need to, with every crisis, raise the stakes. You can make the danger worse. You can cut the time that your MC has to solve a problem. You can introduce a character into the mix that will somehow hamper the progress of the plot. There are a lot of ways to do this.

• The best way to create depth is by doing something to the character that is permanent, irreversible. Create the possibility of failure. And torture your character. Her success in the end will be worth it more.

• Public stakes really need a lot of work. People need to be affected by your main character’s conflict; secondary characters are the strongest when we see the effect of the plot on them too.

Along the entire journey, this is the format that your story should hold:
• minor quest, surprise, critical choice and minor climax
• minor quest, surprise, critical choice and minor climax (increases stakes)
• minor quest, surprise, critical choice and minor climax (increases stakes more)
• minor quest, surprise, critical choice and minor climax (increases stakes even more)
• minor quest (this is the quest that will take us to the novel’s critical choice)

5. Critical choice – The critical choice forces the protagonist to make a difficult decision. There should be multiple of these throughout a manuscript, but the most important one is the choice that drives us to the climax.
The most effective ones are the ones in which both decisions that a character has are viable. It’s questions like that that drive us to the climax, the scene that has a lot of depth because it combines all of the stakes.

6. Climax – The climax occurs, and it has consequences, preferably even one or two bad consequences that are present, even though they underwhelm the positive consequences.

Oftentimes climaxes are strongest when they occur in the toughest possible circumstances, so bring forward secondary characters with differing viewpoints, move the climax to a publication location, etc. Connecting the private and the public stakes in one climax is the way to create the most powerful climax.

7. Reversal – This changes the stasis.
In other words, the climax is done, the character returns to the status quo and observes, perhaps reacts to, the changes.

8. Resolution – “They lived happily ever after.” (Or didn’t.) Resolutions require a very explicit solution to everything that has happened thus far in the novel. Find a way to tie all of the events in the novel together.
The goal here is to challenge your character, to throw rocks at her, and I guarantee you—I guarantee you—that, even if you have a beautifully rewritten and polished manuscript in front of you, ready to query, which an agent might sign and even sell, you could have challenged your character more. There are, of course, limits; no one wants to read about death and destruction and mass murders when the story is about a sixteen-year-old high school teenager. But you probably haven’t reached those limits.

Stay tuned for part three, coming up in 20 minutes!

Weronika Janczuk is a new literary agent with D4EO Literary Agency, a position she accepted after working in different capacities with multiple literary agents and editors on both sides of the business. She represents a wide array of commercial fiction and non-fiction, including romance, thrillers, horrors, fantasy, sci-fi, memoir, and non-fiction that appeals to the general public, and is actively searching for new clients. Submission guidelines and contact information are available on her website.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Yay-I love comments! Thank you so much! (But please remember to keep your comments spoiler-free. Also, I try to keep this a happy, positive place. Any arguing or intense debate--on any subject will be removed. Let's keep this a safe, fun space.