How to use a story grid to build a solid plot (infographic included)

Story Building and Plotting by Tina KonstantIf your story is any more complicated than The Three Bears, then you might, at some point, get into plotting.

For years I was a “Pantster”, until I was told (in no uncertain terms by a very talented editor) that although I was getting better at character, dialogue, descriptions, show-not-tell… my plot was crap.

So I did a lot of reading and landed on this method of story building and plot development that, if you’re working on a novel, you might find useful.

How to use it?

First, build your grid (see below): Along the top put all the main elements of your story – use any structure you like – the one in this example I used for the current version of FF. Down the left column, list as many characters as you want to include.

Then…

  1. Starting with your lead, fill in the boxes. What happens at every stage of the story?
  2. Do the same for the other characters. For instance… if your lead is in deep conversation with with authorities about the bad guy, what exactly is the bad guy doing at that moment? Sitting in the wings waiting her turn? Noooooo, I’d hope not. Include each characters’ story line, even if not all of it will be included in the book. It will give you great context.
  3. When all the squares are full, look at the grid and identify which squares need to be included to weave your complete story. When you get down to writing, you’ll probably find that each box is a chapter.
  4. Pull all the words out of each box, bind them together and before you know it, you’ll have yourself a pretty decent plot and a synopsis you can submit to agents.

A side note…

You don’t have to complete the boxes in order. You might already know the main bits of your story and who plays them out. So fill those in first, then fill in the blanks.

When you look at every characters’ complete story you’ll be surprised what you find. There’ll be all sorts of connections and motivations that you might not of have noticed before.

Happy plotting
Tina

P.S. I can’t remember where I first found this idea. If someone knows, please let me know. I’ll add the reference and credit to this blog.

 

Can you force story ideas?

Can you force story ideas?Sometimes story ideas seem to blossom out of the ether. One moment your mind is wondering about the to-dos of daily life and the next you have an idea for a story that seems complete from beginning to end. Nice. Sweeeeeeeet! 

But what happens when these ideas just aren’t there and it’s been days and weeks and, like an addict, you feel the need for a bit of flash? What do you do?!! Can you force story ideas? Do you wrestle an idea from your imagination like some premature pimple or do you chill, sit back, relax and wait for it to mature and explode fully formed?

A bit of each, I think.

If your head seems void of story words, you need to feed it, fill it up, then switch on the tap and keep it flowing until all the dregs run out and pure water flows.

From my experience, here are a few things to keep the process flowing and story worlds building.

ONE: READ. Dammit! Just READ! Read fiction. Read flash fiction. Read short stories. Read story magazine. Read novels. Read newspapers (another kind of fiction all together).

TWO: Don’t bother about word count. If you get stuck on a short story that feels like it needs to end but you’re only 500 words in, then end it! The right length for a story is as long as it takes to tell. No more, no less.

THREE: Ask questions about what you see around you. It’ll spark story after story…

Examples:

If you want stories to flow, you need to give them something to feed on, then open the lid, switch on the tap, spill the bucket… whatever metaphor works for you, and write. It doesn’t matter if it’s a 140 character twitter story or a novel. A story is a story, no matter how long it takes to tell.

Be awesome folks.
Tina K.

Book Recommendations? “I Am Pilgrim” by Terry Hayes. AWESOME READ!

I Am Pilgrim - CoverIf you love to read then do yourself a favour and get a copy of I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes. If you love to write, then do yourself a favour and get a copy of I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes! It’s not a literary, artsy (you’re an idiot if you don’t understand) type of book. It’s just a damn good read. As book recommendations go, that’s the highest praise I can ever give.

Here’s why (no spoilers):

ONE: It opens in first person with a character you’re going to like. He’s not good, not bad, not perfect, sufficiently flawed but also quiet and self-possessed with knowledge of a world the Average Joe doesn’t have.

TWO: The story almost loses you (or it did me) when it went off on what appeared to be a wild and crazy tangent of back-story. But because you like the character so much, you stick with it.

THREE: The story jumps around a bit to the point that you might lose track of time, but that’s OK because the character is kind of fun to be around (in a twisted sort of distant way).

FOUR: Hayes goes into glorious detail about each character to the degree that even the smallest character is memorable. You might not remember the name, but you’ll have enough of a mental image that you’ll know who they are when they come up again later.

FIVE: The bad guy isn’t all bad because you know why he’s doing what he’s doing. And when you know why someone behaves in a certain way, even if it’s positively evil, there’s still space for sympathy.

SIX: Although the story is global, the focus is all human.

SEVEN: The story isn’t overwhelmed by history and geographical data. There’s just enough to keep it believable. The human story takes precedent over facts and figures.

EIGHT: The pace is balanced and mellow and you don’t feel like you’re having a coronary leaping from page to page.

NINE: Every story line is tied up at the end. Every single one. Not even the small characters get left behind. Very cool.

TEN: The author doesn’t tie himself in knots to show you how clever he is, he just tells a damn good story.

So, for a reader, very cool book. You’ll love it. For a writer, there’s a common theme here.

As my brother, Adrian Konstant, the screenwriter says: “It’s important to like the location, but you have to LOVE the character”.

This book, for me, is a bit of a perfect storm. I really like the locations, the plotting is masterful, but I LOVE the characters.

The way I see it, as a writer, this is what you need:

– You need to know your characters. Here are 108 character development questions. When you’re bored of that…
– Write short stories around your characters. You’ll be amazed at what you find out about them.
– And after all that, make sure you’ve got yourself a literary soul mate – the characters and story-world that is uniquely yours.

Now go play.
Tina

Know your Genre! I’m serious!

Know your GenreKnowing your genre helps you do everything from build your characters to set your tone. Who knew!!? When I finally looked for my genre, this is what I found! I had no IDEA there were so many. I’m serious! Scroll down the list! Excuse the number of !!!! but I was stunned.

There’s more to knowing and understanding your genre than making it easy for sellers to put your book on the right shelf.

Close to finishing my first novel (YES!!!!! It’s actually real!!), I began to pay more attention to the whole “know your genre” thing. Really only because I had to say where it belonged in the synopsis and cover letter.

So I looked at detective, mystery and thriller and to my surprise, my book didn’t fit any of them completely.

If you enjoy the thriller/detective/mystery genres, you’ll have noticed that although they seem similar, each genre has a very clear definition of what they are, who they appeal to, the type of language they use, the type of characters that make the story and how light or heavy they are as a read.

A thriller, Pelican Brief as an example, is totally different to a detective story like the Rebus books, which in turn is a world away from Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot in the horror genre. People who enjoy a thriller might hate detective stories. Both genres are about finding the truth, but they use different language, different types of characters and are most often on totally different stages: global for thrillers and local for detective (I am generalising now…).

My point being, the genre really does help you know your reader and what they will or won’t accept in your book. The supernatural, for instance, can sneak into a mystery, but it can’t often sneak into a thriller. Do you see what I mean?

Even the language is different. A down and dirty detective story might be written using a kind of language that someone who enjoys political intrigue just won’t get.

The genre determines the tone, language, subject matter, length, ending, EVERYTHING!

So ask a different question… Instead of asking “What genre is my book?” ask instead “What will people who read my book, also enjoy?”

You might be surprised.

When I asked that question, my mind turned to TV instead of books. People who enjoy Pie in the Sky, Rosemary and Thyme, Diagnosis Murder, Murder She Wrote… might just enjoy Feet First, a Boline Creek novel.

Hallelujah!!

Turns out, all those TV series are part of a genre called Cosy (or Cozy if you’re in the US) Mystery.

Never heard of it!

A Cosy Mystery takes place in a small town, the “detective” is most often not the police, death and sex aren’t taken seriously, the focus isn’t on blood and gore and there isn’t a lot of gun-slinging language.

So, take your time on this question. What will people who read your book, also enjoy?

Have a glorious week.
Tina

 

 

How to get from the real world to a story idea?

How to go from real world to story ideasfind story ideas in the real worldThe short story is a fiction microcosm. A Petri dish where all the elements of a good read, from story idea to the afterglow you get when it stays with you, are present, but in small pieces.

As part of my own exploration into that Petri dish, I’m reading a lot of short stories by some very good writers, including Joanne Harris’s collection, “A Cat, a Hat and a Piece of String.”

Before the start of each short story she writes a short paragraph introducing the story and sometimes describes what inspired it. In many cases, the leap from the real world to the story idea is a big one.

I looked at my own short stories and realised that similarly, many of them bear little resemblance to what inspired them in the first place.

As I let that idea stroll around my head I began to see the “intangible something” that fills that gap between the real world and the story idea. After all that strolling and thinking, I also finally accepted that any time I tried to force the leap from “real world” to “story idea” the story just didn’t work. 

Hence the question: How to get from real world to story idea? What happens in the gap between real life and fiction? Where does the story evolve from? What is that spark that forms the bridge between fact and fiction? Where does it come from?

In the quest for a great story idea, the most elusive of all writing tools, inspiration, clearly plays a part. 

So I did some web research into inspiration. Here are a few views from other people:

ONE: I like this one most… From a blog by Ariel Constantinof: How to find inspiration for writing? Don’t: Ariel says you don’t find it, you make it. It’s not some magic that floats into your head. You seek it out and if it doesn’t happen, just start writing anyway. I agree. I do this a lot. Start with a few words and sometimes an image, and it goes from there. The ending, you’ll find, is as much a surprise to you as your audience.

TWO: Write to Done gives 31 ways to find inspiration, from blogs to people watching. The common factor with most of these suggestions is that you get into the world! Why? Because more often than not the conversations we have with ourselves are nonsense. If you’re looking for inspiration, you need to get out of your own head!

THREE: Another approach is taken by Henri Junttila in his article Inspire to Write. Meditation, silence, quietude. Getting out of your own head by going deeper into it 🙂 Very cool.

To be inspired, you need raw material.

Stephen King’s famous comment on reading, I think, sums it up: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

When all that raw material from a thousand different sources stews and simmers in our minds, the ideas, no matter now disparate merge and a story idea blossoms whether we like it or not.

This blooming happens at the most random of times (in the shower, in a hot tub, walking the dogs, washing dishes…) which is why, perhaps, we think there is some magic behind inspiration. The truth is, if you read and think, explore and converse with the world, then inspiration is inevitable. All those small ideas bind together making it possible to make the leap from carpets to cats.

Make magic today folks.
Tina

Death in fiction! If your writing has a high body count, you’ll love this!

Death in fiction: Read this if your writing has a high body count.If your story lines tend towards a high body count, here’s a book you’ll really enjoy! It’s called “Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers” by Mary Roach and is a wonderful resource for anyone who dallies with death in fiction!

It covers (among other things…) what plastic surgeons practice on, the life cycle of a dead body (maggots included), human decay in all its gory (not a typo) and the story bodies tell.

For instance, did you know:

ONE:  When a head is cut off so plastic surgeons can practice their crafts on it, the decapitation takes place directly below the chin. Why? So someone else can make use of the neck.

TWO: Nineteenth-century operating theatres had more to do with instruction than saving lives and were done without any anaethesia. The first time ether was used was 1846.

THREE: Some medical training schools use anesthetized dogs to practice tracheal intubations and catheterisations.

FOUR: There is a facility situated on a Knoxville hillside that is dedicated to the study of human decay. If you get to visit it, you’ll find bodies stretched out on the lawn in various state of dress, covered in everything from plastic to concrete, left in the shade, left in the sun… all to determine how different conditions impact decay.

FIVE: The bit of us that maggots love most is fat.

SIX: As a body decays, it dissolves into the ground. By analyzing chemicals in soil investigators will be able to tell if the body has been moved or if it decayed there.

SEVEN: Dogs trained to locate human remains can pinpoint body parts at the bottom of a lake from the fats and gasses that float up as the flesh rots.

So if people die in your books and you’re interested in what happens to them in the minutes, hours, months and years after their last breath, then get this book and have a read.

It’s excellently written, hugely entertaining (despite the subject matter) and full of some very awesome content.

Enjoy! And watch out for buses…
Tina

Why writers need to read “Conversation” by Theodore Zeldin

Conversation by Theodore ZeldinWhat if dialogue was more than just a vehicle to move your story forward? What if your dialogue was a genuine conversation between your characters –  something that changed them, something that made them think, something that woke them up or broke them down, opened their horizons or led to their demise. 

Theodore Zeldin’s Conversations is a little book that explores the power of  a good conversation. It includes conversations of love, family and where we work. It also considers what technology is doing to our conversations and what happens when conversations cause the meeting of minds. The book was first published in 1998 so doesn’t include our current conversation tools like social media (have to wonder what Mr. Zeldin will make of that).

So when you’re writing dialogue think conversation instead.

If it helps, think about the people you relish meeting over an extended cappuccino. What kind of conversations do you have with these people? How do they make you think? What about you, do they change? Do they force you to open your mind or do they make you want to stand up and fight? Do you feel comfortable because you’re covering old, easy and familiar ground or do you feel your reality shift before your coffee is half way cooled? What bits of you freak out a little when they make their point?

Now think about the people you might like, but the thought of an extended train journey with them fills you with dread because you know exactly what the conversation is going to be about. These conversations are often one-sided. The people you have them with don’t listen, they don’t think, they’re repetitive, they’re dull, they’re predictable. You know that the conversation you have with them today will be the same one you’ll have with them next year.

So what kind of conversations do your characters have? Do they move you? Will they move your reader? Or is dialogue in your book just that… words exchanged to more a story forward, but not actually change hearts and minds.

Just a thought really. Have a look at Zeldin’s book and take a minute to consider conversations.

Happy writing today
Tina

 

Is there a danger in knowing your characters TOO well? (108 Character Development Questions)

Know your characters! But not so much that they don't surprise you anymore.The general advice on character development is to KNOW YOUR CHARACTERS!!!! Know everything about them – their likes, dislikes, fears, nightmares, loves, passions, favourite colour, favourite food, whether they’re a secret chocoholic or a vegan with a burger fetish. Know it ALL!

But as I’m writing the second draft of my novel a few surprises are sneaking in. My character is behaving differently and doing things I don’t expect. I like it. His thoughts, actions and responses make sense. But they’re still unexpected. So, I had to ask, do I not my character well enough?

Then I thought about my very best friends and more important, my husband of 20 years! He still surprises me! Does things I don’t expect. Behaves in ways that make me go “eh!?”. I like that too.

So maybe it’s not realistic to know our characters so well that they can’t surprise us any more. Maybe we should know them just about as well as we know our best friends. That way, when their story takes twists and turns, we don’t have to force a solution, we can leave it to our characters, stand back a little, and see what they’ll do.

Happy writing today. I hope your characters freak you out just a bit!
Tina

P.S. In case you want to go all out, below is a document with 108 questions you can ask your characters (editable .doc and .pdf). If they have any sense, they tell you to stop being nosy and won’t answer you! But it might nudge them out of their cocoons if they’re shy.

– 108 Questions to ask your characters (editable .doc)
– 108 Questions to ask characters (.pdf)