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Advice on writing plots

Writing Tip — Guest Blogger, Tamera Lynn Kraft

2017_ThrivecroppedSo happy to have Tamera Lynn Kraft back as a guest blogger. This time we are discussing how to  plot. When writing. Not when you want to take over a country. Welcome back, Tamera!

Which comes first when creating a story – character, setting, or plot?

Actually, none of them come first. My stories come to me when I read about events in history and wonder what it would have been like for the people living through them. Out of that comes the setting in history, the character living through that time, and what the character went through (plot) almost simultaneously.

Since your write historical fiction, how does history affect your plots?

The history doesn’t affect my plot. It basically is my plot. I’m not the kind of historical author whose stories can be set at any time in the past by changing the costumes and the way they cook. I pretty much immerse myself in the history before I even start writing.

How do you troubleshoot your plot or subplots?

Before I write the story or after? While I’m writing a story, if I can’t figure out what comes next, I consider two questions. What would naturally come next? How can I surprise my reader by blowing that up and still staying believable? After I’ve written my story, if I find there are plot holes I don’t know how to fix, I use Super Structure by James Scott Bell and Troubleshooting Your Novel by Steven James as go to textbooks.

What’s been the most unusual source of inspiration for a plot?

I think my most unusual source would be for the first novel I wrote. It’s not yet published but is coming out in October, 2019. It’s called FORKS IN THE ROAD and is a Young Adult Western about two boys who survive Quantrill’s Raid, end up on their own, and make the wrong choice at every fork in the road until they grow up to become outlaws. It’s a story of redemption. I got the idea from a western in the early 1970s called Alias Smith and Jones.

I’d say it’s unusual because every other novel I’ve written has come from researching history.

I remember that show. You never know what will inspire you.

What advice do you have for writers who want to develop their plotting skills?

My advice is to first learn plot like the back of your hand. James Scott Bell’s Super Structure is a perfect writing book for that. Then when you are reading novels or watching movies, try to identify those plot points. After you know plotting so well you could recite it, read Story Trumps Structure by Steven James and throw everything you’ve learned out the window. That’s what I did. It doesn’t make sense, but if you know structure well, you can write a good story without worrying about it and know the pieces will fall into place.

It sounds like you need to know the rules to know when you can break or bend them. Thanks so much for stopping by!

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Lost in the Storm sm

Lost in the Storm: Ladies of Oberlin Book 2

By Tamera Lynn Kraft

Will war bring them love or will they be Lost in the Storm?

Lavena, a journalist during the Civil War, wants to become a war correspondent. She finally gets her chance, but there’s a catch. She has to get an interview from a war hero who has refused to tell his story to every other journalist, and she has to accomplish this impossible task in a month or she’ll lose her job.

Captain Cage, the war hero, has a secret that will destroy his military career and reputation. Now, a new journalist is trying to get him to tell what he’s been hiding. He wants to ignore her, but from the moment she came into camp, he can’t get her out of his mind.

Leading up to the turbulent Battles for the city of Chattanooga, will Lavena and Cage find the courage to love and forgive, or will they be swept away by their past mistakes that don’t want to stay buried?

Meet the Ladies of Oberlin, the causes they’re willing to fight for, and the men who capture their hearts.

Click here to link to Amazon.

Click here to link to Barnes & Noble.

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Tamera been married for 40 years to the love of her life, Rick, and has two married adult children and three grandchildren. She has been a children’s pastor for over 20 years. She is the leader of a ministry called Revival Fire for Kids where she mentors other children’s leaders, teaches workshops, and is a children’s ministry consultant and children’s evangelist and has written children’s church curriculum. She is a recipient of the 2007 National Children’s Leaders Association Shepherd’s Cup for lifetime achievement in children’s ministry.

You can contact Tamera online at www.tameralynnkraft.net.

Writing Tip — Idiot Plots and Other Frustrations

girlw-504315_1280I’m sure many of you are familiar with the Idiot Plot. I learned about this plot contrivance while reading a book of film critic Roger Ebert’s film reviews. An idiot plot is a plot that can only advance as long as most or all the characters are idiots.

These are the kinds of plots where I find myself yelling advice to the characters in the pages or on the screen. Horror movies leap to mind.

Dumb teen: Just because every person who has ever entered the old Van Buren place has disappeared doesn’t mean it will happen to me.

Dumber teen: I’ll go with you.

Below are two variations that come under the Idiot Plot.

Glinda the Good Witch Contrivance

My mom can not stand Glinda the Good Witch. In The Wizard of OzDorothy could have avoided all the trouble with the Wicked Witch if Glinda had just told her in Munchkin Land to click the red shoes together to go home. I know Glinda says Dorothy wouldn’t have believed her, but she could have told her. If Dorothy rejected the advice and got into all sorts of difficulties because of it, at least Glinda had done her due diligence and wouldn’t be in danger of getting smacked by my mother.

Stories where a key character withholds information for no good reason are so frustrating. In Prisoner’s Base by Rex Stout, a character is killed because she doesn’t immediately tell the detectives that the man claiming to be her late friend’s husband is an imposter. No convincing reason is given why she withholds that information.

This contrivance seems to happen when the revelation of the information would end the story then and there. But if that’s the case, then there’s something wrong with the plot’s construction.

Rube Goldberg Method of Plotting

Mystery and thriller writers are very susceptible to this problem. In an effort to keep surprising their audience, they string together plot points that don’t feed naturally into each other.

Years ago, my husband watched a season of the show 24 because he’d read that terrorists hack into computers in order to make every nuclear reactor in the U.S. meltdown. As a nuclear engineer, my husband thought the premise was a hoot.

Although there a number of subplots, the main thread concerned the meltdowns. These endanger the president, so he takes off in Air Force One. The terrorists plan for this and have a pilot on their payroll steal a military jet and shoot down Air Force One. When it crashes, the terrorists recover the briefcase with the president’s codes to set off missiles and steal at least missile.

They have the ability to meltdown every reactor in the country but that’s only a step to getting what they really want: a missile. I’m still scratching my head over this one.

But, Sometimes, Characters Can Be Convincing Idiots

People do stupid things. People say stupid things. Unfortunately, I know this first hand and wish I could take back some of the things I’ve done and said.

In fiction, I have to make the stupid behavior convincing. That can take a lot of work, but if I want to reflect real life, and if it’s truly important to my story, I have to put in the time to pull it off.

In 1947 film noir Out of the PastKirk Douglas plays a realistic, stupid character. He is a professional gambler, whose girlfriend shoots and wounds him while stealing $40,000. He hires a detective to find her. He seems more interested in her than the money.

The detective finds the girlfriend. They have an affair and try to hide from the gambler. But another detective finds them. The girlfriend shoots him and runs. Our hero discovers years later that the girlfriend pleaded with the gambler to taker her back, and he did.

Why would the gambler do this when she shot him? The character of the gambler makes this stupid behavior believable. He’s arrogant, rich, and ruthless. He gets what he wants, when he wants it. It feeds his ego to take back a woman, who begs him to reconcile with her. But his arrogance blinds him to how clever his girlfriend is. Eventually, he finds out but not in a way he likes.

What are some plots that make you want to scream? Or at least say, “Huh?”

 

Writing Tip — How to Thicken Your Plot, Part II

foodw-3040924_1280If your plot starts to bog down, examine your settings. Are you taking advantage of their full potential?

When I wrote my country noir short story, “Debt to Pay”, I knew I needed a remote location in Ohio. I chose Wayne National Forest. My husband and I went hiking in the Athen Unit on ATV trails. At the trailhead, a sign explained that if someone in your group is injured, you must figure out which helicopter clearing you are closest to. The dirt roads are so rutted that no ambulance can get back into the area. A medical helicopter is the only means of rescue. And all of that depends on whether your phone get reception, which isn’t certain in Wayne National Forest.

Now I had the ingredients for a story. Two friends are riding motorcycles. I’ll set the story in the late fall to cut down on the number of people using the trail. One friend wrecks. They can’t get phone reception. The uninjured friend thinks that if she can get to the top of the steep, wooded hills. she can call for help. Or maybe she should return to the parking lot and walk out to a road.

Darkness is closing in. If she climbs the hills, she’s not sure she can find her friend in the dark. Walking to the parking lot will take longer, but it will be easy to find her friend. The setting give me so many routes to develop a plot.

Questions to Ask about Settings

Work place: Where does your main character (MC) work? Alone or with people? If alone, would a stranger coming into the setting be upsetting? A welcome change? If with people, are they only fellow employees or also members of the public? I love using settings where the general public can be found because I can throw in almost any character I want.

MC’s home: Is it rural, suburban, urban? An apartment or condo? An apartment would allows me to introduce more characters, and therefore, more plots. In the complex where I had my first apartment, I thought my neighbor might be a vampire because I had not seen him during daylight hours.

Homes of family and friends: Same questions as above. How does MC feel about these houses? If MC is uncomfortable or uneasy, why? If he prefers it to his own home, why?

Locations of hobbies and volunteer work: MC hates her job but loves her volunteer work at a stable. Why? She loves horses. Why? Her grandparents had horses when she was growing up. So why doesn’t she give up the job she hates and work with horses for a living?

Vacations or business destinations: Are these places MC is excited to visit or is dreading? If it’s a vacation, why would MC dread it? Because he has to share a house on the beach with his in-laws. Why doesn’t he like his in-laws?

The more why questions I ask, the deeper I dig into plot.

What settings to you favor in your writing? How do settings thicken your plot?

 

Writing Tip — How to Thicken Your Plot, Part I

pumpkin-soupw-61105_1280Like I said last week, I think plotting is my weakest writing skill. But writing short stories has helped my game in this area and provided me with several insights. One of those is to use my greatest writing strength to bolster my weakest one. For me, that means allowing my characters to inspire plots.

I have to see my main characters in my head as clearly as I do people in reality. I have to understand their personalities as well as my kids’. When I have that strong of a grasp on my characters, plot points pop up.

After I wrote the basic storyline of my first published short story “Debt to Pay”, I felt I needed more tension in the confrontation scene. In my story, a teenage boy and his older brother find a millionaire who crashed his plane near their remote home in Wayne National Forest. The millionaire begs the brothers to hide him because he knows his plane was sabotaged but has know idea who wants to kill him.

During the confrontation scene, the millionaire’s wife and her boyfriend come to the cabin and discover their plot to kill the millionaire has failed. What does the wife do? How could her decision add tension?

I considered the character of the wife. She is greedy. So greedy that she married for money. So greedy that she plotted to murder her husband and inherit his money. So what would a greedy person do? Assume others are as motivated by money as she is. The wife offers the brothers money to kill the millionaire right then and there.

When I realized this was the wife’s motivation, I was stunned at how logically the scene worked itself out. It seemed like my characters had wrested the story from me and developed the plot on their own.

Character Traits=Plot

Here are some personality types that can help lead you to plot points:

  • Curiosity or nosiness. This character is likely to discover something he shouldn’t know. Depending on his sense of morality, he can use this knowledge to help others or take advantage of it to help himself.
  • Bad temper or caustic tongue. This character hurts others by losing her temper easily or with cutting remarks. She can either be unaware of her affect on others or well aware and enjoys inflicting abuse. Either way, other characters will have a strong reaction to her.
  • Impulsive. This is a great trait for causing trouble. Or saving the day.
  • Patience. A character can endure tremendous hardship with this trait. Or wait a long time to enact the perfect revenge.
  • Control. Almost no one likes a person who wants to control others. Like the bad-tempered or sharp-tongued character, the controlling character will spark strong feelings and reactions from others. The lengths to which a controlling character tries to maintain control will lead to all sorts of plot points.

How do characters inspire your plots?

 

Writing Tip — Favorite Book: 20 Master Plots (and How to Build Them) by Ronald B. Tobias

20 Master PlotsPlotting seems to be my weakest skill, so I’m always interested in improving it. I snatched up 20 Master Plots (and How to Build Then) by Ronald B. Tobias when I found it at the library. The edition I read was published in 1993. A newer edition was published in 2003.

Mr. Tobias categorizes the twenty plots in chapters with titles like “Quest”, “The Riddle” (of particular interest to this crime writer), “Temptation”, and “Sacrifice.” For each plot he summarizes classic examples. In “Quest”, he uses The Wizard of Oz and the legend of Jason and the Golden Fleece. In “Sacrifice”, he describes the plots for the movies Casablanca and High Noon. The 1949 film noir D.O.A. is the example for “The Riddle”.

Before he gets to the master plots, Mr. Tobias has five chapters on some basic principles of plot, including story vs. plot, creating opposing arguments, and the inseparable link between plot and character. Some of his points I already knew and appreciated the author’s confirmation. Others were new to me. Some I disagreed with, such as Mr. Tobias doesn’t like plots that exist solely to deliver a “gotcha” to the reader. I loves those kind of plots in short stories.

Warning for Worriers

When I first had my kids, I tried to read What to Expect When You are Expecting from cover to cover and gave myself a terrible case of anxiety. Every time I read about a particular developmental problem or disease, I worried that one of my children was exhibiting those symptoms. I learned I should only consult the book when I had specific need, such as a teething problem.

It works the same with books on writing.

If I pick one up without a specific purpose in mind, I imagine my writing has every problem the author of the advice book outlines. If your mind runs this away too, then only go to writing books when you want help in a specific area. When several agents told me to work on “show, don’t tell”, I bought two book on the topic. When I thought my dialogue could be better, I checked out a book from my library.

What resources have you found to help you with plot?

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