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The Basics: Plot
by Sandy Tritt
Before you can start writing, you must have at least a
basic idea of the three major components of a story. Plot is what happens.
Character is to whom it happens. And setting is where and when it happens.
Most stories are either plot-driven or character-driven. A plot-driven
novel is one in which what happens is more important than to whom it
happens. An example of this is an action/adventure novel. A
character-driven novel is one in which a character evolves during the
story, and what happens isn’t as important as how the character reacts to
what happens. An example of this is a romance novel.
A successful plot must have a struggle of some sort—on one hand, something
that a character (or characters) wants very badly, and on the other hand,
something that prevents the character from having it.
There are three fundamental struggles that plots are based upon:
• Man-against-man—this is when another character (the antagonist) is at
odds with the protagonist (the main character) and tries to prevent the
protagonist from accomplishing his goal. An example of this would be a cop
chasing down a serial killer.
• Man-against-nature—this is when nature (or, possibly, machinery) causes
problems for the protagonist. An example of this would be a man left
behind in Antarctica, fighting for survival against the elements of
• Man-against-himself—this is when some character flaw within the
protagonist prevents him from achieving his greatest desire. An example of
this would be a man who wants a happy home life, but who battles
Many novels have a main plot, with several subplots spidering off of it.
However, in order to focus, it is important to have a focus statement to
give your story cohesiveness. A focus statement describes your story’s
basic plot in one sentence. Yes. One sentence. Forcing this focus gives
you a home base to return to and reflect from, and ensures that you don’t
drift too much in other directions. Examples of a focus statement:
• An uneducated man from the slums climbs through the political world in
his quest to become President.
• A teenager hones his acting skills in hopes of making it big on the
• An alcoholic mother struggles to raise her children.
A plot must also have three distinct parts: a beginning, a middle, and an
end. The beginning, of course, is where the story starts. The setting must
be firmly established (both place and time), the main character must be
introduced, and the story question must be presented. The story question
puts the focus statement into a “what if” format:
• Will the uneducated man from the slums be able to achieve his goal to
• Can the teenager make it big on the Silver Screen?
• Will the alcoholic mother be able to successfully raise her children?
The middle of the story is where we build the action and further develop
the characters. The middle of the story is the link between the beginning
and the end, and that which makes the end possible.
The end of the story consists of two parts, the climax and the resolution.
The climax is the turning point in the novel, where the tension is
highest. The climax is where all seems lost, where decisions must be made,
where life and death hangs on the balance. The climax should lead directly
into the resolution, which should answer the story question and resolve
the character statement of the main character (usually, these will be
linked). In a character-driven novel, the main character should be changed
in some way—wiser, more mature, kinder, perhaps even more cynical—but
he/she must have undergone a change. If his character goal has not been
achieved, then it must be resolved (perhaps the uneducated man from the
slums decides that he can make a greater impact on society if he becomes a
teacher than he could make as President or perhaps the teenager’s father
is seriously injured in an accident and the youth realizes that nothing is
more important than his family and he’d prefer to stay close to home).
Plot is accomplished through a series of scenes. A scene is the
dramatization of one snapshot in time—what happens at one specific place
at one specific time. Of course, the action may unwind over a period of
several minutes or longer, but once the action is transferred to a
different setting or to a different character, that scene ends and another
scene begins. (However, the same scene continues if the viewpoint
character himself is moving, say walking down the street from one house to
another). Every scene in a novel must further the plot or develop a
character (preferably both at the same time); otherwise, it is an
extraneous scene and should be cut. Every scene should also have a feeling
of completeness about it. This is accomplished by ending the scene with an
action, thought or dialogue by the viewpoint character, hopefully
resolving or reviewing whatever “mini-crisis” the scene presented.
Most writers divide their novel into chapters. Some give a title to each
chapter; others just use numbers. There are no rules for assigning
chapters, although I’ve read advice that suggests that each chapter should
consist of three scenes or each chapter should consist of twenty pages. I
think this is up to the individual writer.
Plot is certainly one of the most important components in your novel.
There are several ways to go about developing plot. Some people outline,
putting every scene on an index card. Some people allow the plot to
develop on its own, as they write. Some people know the entire plot before
they even write one word, others discover the plot as they write. Section
8 contains a reproducible Chapter Summary Worksheet, should you like to
outline your chapters. Section 8 also contains a reproducible Novel
Summary Worksheet, which helps identify each component of your novel. This
summary can be used with the Character Trait Charts and the other material
available to create a detailed reference of all the components of your
story. If it works for you, use it. If it doesn’t, don’t.
In the meantime, happy plotting!
(from Section 2, Workbook)
Want more great tips and techniques? Our
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(c) copyright 2002 by Sandy Tritt. All rights reserved,
except for those listed here. March be reproduced for educational purposes
(such as for writer's workshops), as long as this copyright notice and the url: http://tritt.wirefire.com are distributed with the pages. For use in
conferences or other uses not mentioned here, please contact Sandy Tritt
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Critiques by Sandy
Unlike most editors, I consider my role
to be a mentor or a coach. Instead of just telling you what is wrong, I
explain how to correct the problem, and I work with you to teach you how
to write effective prose. More than 50% of my business is repeat
business, and I relish establishing long-term relationships with other
Treat you with respect and compassion.
All criticism will be of the "constructive" sort. My purpose is to
improve your writing, not to destroy your confidence.
Mark your manuscript, correcting
grammatical and spelling errors and suggesting alternative wording where
Highlight areas that are especially
well-written, so you will know where your strengths are.
Where appropriate, offer suggestions for
plot development, character development or other areas that could be
Return a two-to-four page written
analysis of your work. This will include evaluation of: plot, setting,
characterization, dialogue, special effects (flash forwards, flashbacks,
etc.), voice, point of view and any other areas particular to your work.
If appropriate, recommend reading or
resources to strengthen your areas of weakness.
Answer any questions you have via
Provide my telephone number for a
personal follow-up, if you desire.
For Sandy's success stories, see
Write Sandy at
(See Sandy's article
by Bruce Cook
For myself, the best writers are those who can make me weep.
As a writer, I ask myself what kind of emotional scene will do that best?
How exactly shall I present it? Maybe a grotesque and tragic scene, or one
in which the main character has been miserably deceived. Or a triumphant
scene in which the protagonist has vanquished the foe or preserved
something that was close to destruction.
Either of these may work, but that’s not the point.
The point is that the reader will not cry unless the writer cries harder.
Both have to care about the characters. This is one long and tall order,
for the writer just made up the characters and they are entirely
fictional. And worse, for the reader, the characters are but shadows and
have nothing at all to do with reality.
Despite this truism, the writer and reader can care, and even obsess, over
the characters in a story. In fact, even though “a grown man never cries,”
if the fiction writer can’t cry deeply over one of his/her own characters,
why is the writer doing fiction at all?
There is good reason to cry for our characters. For we cry not only for
that character, but for the part of us we which is identified there.
Further, while we may not be philosophers or kings, we also weep for that
kind of character, for one who suffers or exults and typifies the many who
will someday face that kind of situation in all places and times.
Alas, poor Yorick.
But why does a novel we cry over get that special place on the old
bookshelf? Is it because we like to cry?
It seems to me that crying is the ultimate emotion, perhaps even better
than competing emotions, for it is through crying that we reach out to
others. We secretly brush away a tear even as we hope that someone we care
about might see and take compassion, or share our exultation.
This is the ultimate power of fiction. As Kathy Hartwell has reminded me,
a child’s first communication is through crying. When we die, the first
emotion to those around us is the same. And, along the way, weeping often
accompanies our mountaintop moments.
Writer, you have access to this great power. The controls are in your hand
and heart. Accept this responsibility and use it responsibly, for we need
to hold focus on the truths our characters have taught us. Let’s not, like
Upton Sinclair in the past and several writers in the modern era, take
advantage of this power in vain attempts to manipulate our readers.
Make crying happen for the sake of the character you created. Carefully
trim your emotional scene to what your character has proven. Let those
fingers slip on tear-stained typewriter keys, and you will have found your
home for life.
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Boomer Women Speak
by Dotsie Bregel
Do You Have What It
Takes To Be An Author?
Life has been good to me as a
stay-at-home mom, but in three years
my children will all be away at school
and I will be out of a job. I know it
is time for me to embark on a new
career path. I returned to school,
took a couple classes, and did some
career testing. Interpreting the test
results, along with my brewing book
idea, soul searching, and journaling,
made it clear to me that a livelihood
in writing suited me. For close to a
year I have read, researched, camped
out in book stores, and chatted with
other writers trying to figure out
what it takes to be an author. What I
came up with is that successful
writers must be:
Visionaries. Every author needs to have a vision for precisely what
our writing project is to accomplish. A vision should describe who you
want to write for and how best to reach them. To make that vision clear,
we need to read everything we can get our hands on about our topic; run
our idea by other people in the profession; give ourselves time to think
it over; and write and rewrite until that vision is like a neon sign in
Passionate. We should fall in love with our writing topics. The
words seem to flow and it feels like second nature when we write about
what we’re interested in. We have the burning desire to research, read,
interview, and learn more because we just can’t help ourselves. When we
look at our watches and see that it is two hours later than we expected,
we know we are passionate about our topics.
Self-motivated. A strong will to succeed and type A work ethic are
the keys to self motivation. Many of us work on our own so we have to be
motivated to stick to the task. Daily, weekly, and monthly goals must be
set. To-do lists, writing schedules, and deadlines must be adhered to.
Sometimes we have to say no to the temptations that call us.
Avid Readers and Researchers. So many books, not enough time must
be our motto. We must always try to learn one more fact either through the
web, the paper, magazines, or whatever we can get our hands on. Equally
important is keeping good records of our findings. Whether on our
desktops, in journals, folders, binders, or all of the above, we must have
a way to keep track of all our new information so it is at our fingertips
Confident. This is different than just being a nice, friendly
woman. We have to be nice AND we must believe in ourselves, speak and
write with enthusiasm about our projects, and act like we have the world
by the horns! When we do this people can’t help but catch the fever for
our writing projects. We must also remain optimistic, saying no to the
inner voices that tell us we can’t write and listening intently when we
hear those voices telling us to push on.
Curious. You are curious if you enjoy asking questions of everyone
to find out more. Curiosity is what it takes to get answers. There is
always something else to be discovered about the topics we write about.
Courageous. There is no room for cowards in this profession. It
takes a lot of nerve to ask people who are more accomplished writers than
you to write for your book. It takes guts to send query letters to the
best agent in the field.
Thick-skinned. Everyone knows about the rejection and criticism,
but it’s what we do with it that matters. Remember that people who edit
and proofread are only doing their job and trying to help. Rejection is
tough, especially when we think we have the perfect publisher for our book
and they aren’t interested. Always believe that everything happens for a
reason and maintain that confidence and optimism we talked about earlier.
Don’t listen to the negative inner voices.
Patient. Writing can be a slow process. It takes patience to do
something constructive while waiting to hear from agents, publishers, and
editors. Maybe we should try writing, rewriting, and editing some more,
starting another project by reading and researching, or taking a
much-needed break while waiting. Let the creative juices flow while doing
something else we enjoy.
Market Savvy. Whenever dealing with people, whether it is to learn
more about what we are writing or to solicit our books, we must be
friendly, tactful, and professional. There must also be a salesperson in
us if we want to get our books published. This requires us to analyze data
on readers, agents, book sales, etc. and to develop a plan on how
to present our work for publication.
Clear. Clarity should be a given for anyone who writes. If you are
one who can get your point across when speaking, just do the same when you
write. We can still be creative and express our ideas clearly. Just go for
it and put honesty on the paper.
So there are my thoughts on the writing profession. While some of us
may be better writers or organizers and others may be better marketers or
researchers, being an author certainly takes more than a little writing
talent. With this list of skills we can all be on our way to greater
About the Author - Dotsie Bregel is the curator of stories for baby
boomer women. She is writing her first anthology to give baby boomer women
a voice. She is passionate about women connecting through the telling and
reading of their stories and believes that love and connections heal
people. To learn more about her project, please visit the fastest growing
web site for baby boomer women, www.boomerwomenspeak.com.