“Sing to me, Oh Muse… “
— Ode to the Courage of a Child by Nicola Berardi: Father of Alexey
Greek mythology tells of the Nine Muses, deities that served as the inspiration for writers, artists, and philosophers. The word muse derives from the Greek word “mosis” which means to “desire and wish.” Ancient writers would call on the muses as they began to write and to this day Muses are symbolic of “inspiration and artistic creation.”
Writers often joke about their “muse,” but I suspect each of us secretly likes that soft voice only we can hear urging us to write. In truth, our inspirations are triggered by anything and everything we observe or imagine.
Now, that your muse has spoken. The question is what do you do with the story idea swirling in your head?
In Part Three of our series, we discussed developing your story by beginning to write without a plan or creating your storyline by planning it out or plotting it. Deciding what your story is about is not the same as structuring the novel. In Part Four, we are going to examine how to put the pieces of your story together.
Story vs. Plot:
First, let’s discuss story vs. plot. For many novice writers, the difference between these two terms is unclear. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines plot as the “the plan or main story (as of a movie or literary work).” A story is told in a series of scenarios, or events, interacting sequentially.
Director Martin Scorsese offers the following explanation of story vs. plot:
“The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died, and then queen died of grief is a plot.” … Perhaps, in film, a plot could be said to be the sequence of (causally related) events that make up the narrative. The plot…it is what happens. Jul 29, 2014
Stories are about the characters’ conflicts or goals. It is important to introduce the protagonist, or main character to your readers quickly, I suggest the first page, to establish a rapport. If your readers like and identify with your character, they will be interested in reading to the conclusion of your story. We will be discussing character development in the next installment of this series, but clearly, developing plot and character go hand in hand. If you outline first, once you have fleshed out your characters, add their important elements to your plan.
As a mystery writer, I respect my readers’ need to have a murder victim within the first few pages. I introduce my antagonist within the first chapter, no later than the second chapter, as I establish clues. It is imperative, regardless of genre that you keep the small nuances of your genre in mind. While it is a writer’s desire to be innovative, it is also important to remember why your reader loves the genre you write in. Don’t disappoint them.
One of the most touted methods of creating a plot in the writing world is the three-act structure, or the five or seven-act structure. The problem is stories do not occur in three acts. Three or more acts evolved as far back as the days of Aristotle from natural stopping points within a story to provide intermission for the audience. While there is a lot of information and instruction on this method of developing a story plot, the truth is stories are not built on any number of acts. They are crafted by identifying the conflict the story is based on, and the action needed to resolve the conflict.
There is some confusion with the three-act method with how the plots within a story unfold. There is a beginning, middle and ending of a story but they flow from each other and are not specific acts.
The beginning section is traditionally used for exposition, the literary term for providing character information, backstory, any information that is pertinent to the story. (We will discuss how to present this information in a future installment of this series.) You must establish your story, introduce your characters and reveal conflict that forces your protagonist to act. The catalyst for your story should be revealed in this section, murder, the discovery of a secret, a broken romance, whatever conflict your main character must overcome.
The middle of the story is where many novice writers lose focus. Often nicknamed the “saggy middle,” it is the portion of the book where it is imperative to keep the reader engaged. Rising action regarding the story’s conflicts should drive this section of the book. A series of issues, some resolved, some not are presented, and the pace should vary. Give your reader time to catch their breath, a constant roller coaster ride will only serve to tire them.
In this middle section, your goal is to move the story on to its conclusion. Conflict should rise, the characters should be placed in further jeopardy. At least one main action scene along with smaller events should be driving the story, leading your character toward the total disruption of their goals or desires.
The ending is where the conflict or goal of the main character is broken and then resolved. Never make it easy for your protagonist to reach their desired outcome. Place them in physical or emotional harm’s way, bringing them to the brink, then redeem them at the conclusion. The last scene of your book should (if you choose) reveal the aftermath of the story as you return them to a normal life.
While we strive to be original and innovative in our writing, we need to remember that there are reasons we are governed by laws. Rules and regulations keep chaos at bay in the courthouse, Congress, or on the road. Writing rules, while not rigid, keep your novels from becoming chaotic. Following a tried and true structure provides you reader with an expected ‘friend,’ allowing their emotions to rise and fall as your unique storytelling draws them in.
Please listen to my interview about this article with host Paul Reeves on Dr. Paul’s Family Talk, now on Impact Radio USA.
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Up next: Writing Your First Novel Part Five: Developing Unforgettable Characters