Why I Won't Read Your Story, or in converse, Why I Will:
My step-by-step, completely egocentric—yet strangely informative—guide ::rant:: to why I will not read your story, and conversely, why I will.
Review Responses to Part Four:
Again, I'm loving the "my writing will improve so much thanks to you" reviews. My ego doesn't need the boosting, honest. Still, it's always nice to know people appreciate my effort to get good things for me to read on this site!
Fernsong: as soon as I get free time to myself, which may be soon because I actually have time to write this out, I will head on over to your stories to see what there is to see. I can't promise anything concrete, because I'm a busy bee, but if something concise is okay, I will try for that. (FYI, I won't do this for everyone who asks. I'm in a good mood right now.) **Or maybe not, because I'm adding this note two months later and I still haven't finished writing this chapter…
Wolf's Night: Hello dear. Lovely to see you. As soon as I'm not insanely busy I'll pop on over to your stories and start reviewing again. I have lots and lots of chapters to catch up on… If only there was such a thing as free time. I'm months behind on all my reading! Thanks for the review.
Mouse-A-Boo: Thank you for your review. Do you mind if I use you as an example of how to Flame people correctly? Well, I'm going to at the end of this section regardless. Hope you don't mind! Oh, and I was going for a know-it-all, snobby, rude voice because I find it fun and because as the professor to all of the truly incompetent and to all of those who really want to learn, I reserve the right to be a snobby know-it-all. And I think Lazy is a great descriptive adjective in the cases I overused it…
Disclaimer: I like dogs. I am not hating on any dog in this chapter. Please do not yell at me for implying that a breed of dog you like is less that perfect in my descriptions. I also like cats and am apologizing in advance if there are any depressed post gerbil owners out there.
So, you've learned grammar and spelling. Now you know how to create real people as your characters. And…I'm yawning. Your characters are interesting, you can spell, and I'm bored! If your interesting characters do not have an interesting plotline to carry them through, then I may still skedaddle to find something better.
Part Five: Plotlines. Why your story seems like a flat piece of paper because your plot is about as dense as that soggy bit of old newspaper.
As your characters in your story cannot be linear, one-dimensional creatures of boredom, your plot cannot be either. A plot that, from start to finish, goes only from A to B as quickly and concisely as possible is boring. A novel length plot is like a spider web, with multitudes of plotlines all converging on the center, main, plotline. A short story is like a braid, where a few plotlines converge and twist. Creating a plot that is interesting and holds your readers is difficult, but it all has to start somewhere, right?
Step Nine: Novel length plots.
1. Introduction: So, you've got an idea of some characters…good for you. Now to figure out what to do with them. If you go back a couple chapters in this rant, you'll remember the section on the various ways of starting a story: the prologue for an example to jog your memories. The goal of all of the mentioned beginnings for your story is to draw your readers in with a bang, or with some suspense, or even with an intense emotion. Well, those are called plots! When you start a story you don't have to begin with the large plotline that runs through your story (more on that later). Often the build up to where your story is going is just as important as that large plotline. The introduction of your story is the main setup to everything that will happen after.
For example: The plotline for Bob's story is that he is going to buy a dog and all the trials and tribulations that go into making that all important decision. The last thing you want to do is jump into the heart of the matter because it leaves your readers scrambling to catch up. Rather, start small and build.
Bob flipped his calendar over to the next month, July had finally come, and sighed at the adorable picture of the baby cocker spaniel posed on the glossed pages. Sometimes Bob wished he hadn't bought the baby dogs calendar because it showed him puppies he knew he could never have.
From those two sentences, the reader can see that Bob wants a dog very badly, but that there is something holding him back. This sets up the plot that you, the writer, can build on. From this small introduction, you can take Bob and his dog search anywhere.
2. Side Plots. As I said before, your story cannot be linear or it will be boring. Just following Bob as he goes from staring at his calendar at work to staring at dog pictures online at home does not build your story at all. You need to add in side plots. Bob's Aunt Edna who insists that if Bob wants a pet he should take one of her crazed cats home makes Bob's quest much more interesting.
A side plot can do many things for your story. They build up your characterization by putting your characters through new situations. They pull along your plot: how else could Bob have discovered that he would like a dog that doesn't drool if he hadn't experienced the side plot where dog plus drool equaled a pair of ruined pants. Adding side plots gives your story the web or braid-like feel that a good story needs. Every time you add another facet to your plot, you bring more interest to the story. One type of side plot, that of having Bob fend off his Aunt Edna and her cat, does not further the plot of Bob getting a dog, but it is interesting and will keep your readers engaged in finding out whether Bob may end up with a cat. It adds to the web of intrigue. Another type of side story, that of the drool and the ruined pants, advances the plot in a small way. Bob isn't buying his dog because of this incident, but the decision has been narrowed and the quest pushed in a strong direction.
Use your side plots carefully and you'll find that your story is that much more fun to write, and to read!
3. Carrying Plotline. One of the things I see a lot in stories on this site is that the author seems to forget the original focus of their story. They get so caught up in following the side plots or different characters that they forget their original plot.
For example: Aunt Edna convinces Bob to take a cat for the weekend to give him some "real life experience" in taking care of an animal. The cat moves in permanently and suddenly the plot of the story is all about Bob dealing with the crazed cat.
But what happened to the dog? Is there a puppy crying for love at a shelter that would have been adopted by Bob already if the cat hadn't come into the story? But Bob is still dealing with the cat shredding his curtains so that puppy is now gone.
I have seen authors get lost in their side plots, giving me chapters and chapters of Bob and his cat, rather than Bob and his dog.
Here is a real life example: For those of you in the paranormal horror scene, you'll recognize this prolific author. Laurell K. Hamilton is an excellent author who lost sight of the final goal of her plot. The first few books in her Anita Blake series were straightforward. Good defeats evil, a bit of romance, a bit of mystery, and a plotline that pulled from book one all the way through. However, midway through the series, Hamilton got lost in a side plot. Suddenly, her main character could do nothing without having sex. You couldn't read two pages in a book before the main character was naked or getting naked again. One tiny side plot, that of a vampire connection that feeds on sex, overcame the larger ideas of good verses evil and ate her entire story until there was nothing left but sex. Hamilton has since been reconnecting with the larger plot, but the stain from getting lost in that side plot still hangs over her most recent book.
Do not allow this to happen to you. You have to find some way to control your story. As many authors know, often times you sit down in front of your keyboard or with a pen and paper and start writing. What comes out has no doubt diverted almost entirely from the original idea in your head so that it's almost unrecognizable. That is fine. I've often found in my writing that the best ideas for my plot come from these unrestrained writing sessions. However, there is still the final picture to keep in mind. No matter how wonderful your writing session may have been, if it diverges from what needs to happen, you need to rein it in.
There are two ways to go about this. First, write a basic outline for your story before you even start writing. State in the outline the most important points that you need to hit through the beginning and middle so that you can get to the end. State where in the plot each event needs to happen and why. And, underline the ultimate ending. This skeleton leaves room to add or subtract side stories and new ideas, but it holds your story back from getting lost. Bob's ultimate ending is that he will get the cutest puppy in the world. I, as a writer, cannot allow Bob's Aunt and her cat to pull my story in another direction because it does not fit within the parameters I've set in my outline.
Which leads me to my second way to make this happen: Editing! When you read over Aunt Edna and her cat and you realize that you can't use what you've just written, you have to let it go. The delete key or the eraser on your pencil is not there merely for spelling mistakes, unfortunately. It is actually very painful to consign something you've worked hard on to the junk heap, but the ultimate goal must be kept in mind. Bob will never get his dog if he takes Edna's cat. I need to cut out everything that happens because Bob said yes to Edna and rewrite it to what happens because Bob said no. If I don't, I will never bring Bob to the end. Certainly, the side plot of Edna and her cats could bring a laugh or some drama to my story. If I edit out where it gets away from me I can use the idea. If I don't edit, my story is finished before it's really begun.
One thing I have seen authors do when they get a strong side plot going for a side character is they build that plot up into a separate story from the original. Side stories are a great way to expand on a small side plot that is begging to be written but will diverge so heavily from your original plot that it simply cannot remain in your story. Authors take that side plot and create a new story based on it. This means that if Aunt Edna and her cats need to be heard, I could write them their own story that does not take place within the original. This new story can be referenced in the original, but because it has been removed, it does not pull your main story away from the final goal.
4. Multiple Plotlines- Secondary Plots: So, you have your main, carrying plotline that will lead you to the ultimate ending. And you know how to constrain your side plots into manageable building blocks for your story. But you're still missing a piece of the weave that will make your story bloom. The simple fact is that with only one plotline and some side plots, your story is still rather basic. You need to have multiple, secondary plotlines.
What does this mean? Well, these are also carrying plots that pull your story from start to finish, but they are not the ultimate final plot. This is something that returns again and again as part of your story.
A summary of different plot types so you're not confused:
Main plot: the plot that goes from start to finish and carries your story through to the end.
Side plot: the smaller anecdotes that build characterization, setting, and introduce parts of the larger plot. These start and end fairly quickly.
Secondary plots: these are larger plotlines that go from start to middle or middle to middle. They are longer and more integral to the story than side plots, but shorter than the main plot; this helps to build your story.
For example: Bob's gerbil that his mother gave him as a present for graduating college just died. When he looks at pictures of dogs, he knows just how much he wants one. But every time he goes into a pet store to drool over the cuteness, he sees the gerbil cage and gets all depressed. Throughout the story of how Bob finally gets his dog, he works through his depression on gerbils. This reoccurring plotline is part of his struggle towards the final goal, but getting over this hurdle is not the end. Getting the dog is the end, hugging a gerbil and not feeing sad is the end of this secondary plot.
Since the plot travels through the story for a long period of time, it is a secondary plot. These are important to have for the same reason as side plots because they build your story, your characters, and your plot. They are also important in that they carry your story. Secondary plots add another layer to the spider's web, help mask the final ending (you don't want to give it away too soon), and add new facets to your story for the reader to enjoy.
The stories I get the most bored with are ones that have a strong main plot, good side plots, but are lacking totally in secondary plots. If your character goes from A to B with a couple of stops for laughs on the way then you have a very linear story. Make your character have to overcome the hurdle at point C with a secondary plot before he/she can make it to B.
5. Red Herrings: Subtlety is very important in your story. Just giving away the ending of any of the plots running though your story is boring. Adding that twist that confuses everything for the reader is an absolute must.
This isn't drama or a cliffhanger like this: Bob's car broke down on the road on his way to the animal shelter. If he doesn't get there in an hour, all the adorable puppies he saw a picture of online will be gone and he'll be forced to wait until a new litter arrives!
This is more like throwing hints of what type of dog Bob is going to get, but not telling 'till the end. Bob can't get the bulldog because it drools too much on his pants. He thinks Huskies are cute, but maybe a little big. Hmm, what about a puggle? Or not, because they snort.
This misdirection makes the readers think about what type of dog Bob may get. They follow the clues and try to figure out the ending, never knowing that Bob is going to get the cutest mutt ever because you're naming purebred and well known breed mixes instead of hinting that Bob may want a non breed instead. Having your readers think about your story keeps them engaged in your plot. If they shut the book for the night, but can't go to sleep because in their heads they're trying to figure out what type of dog, then you've done it right. These little mysteries can keep your readers more interested in continuing your story than a cliffhanger at the end of a chapter. In fact, it is these red herrings that pull your reader through the parts that do not have the drama or huge plot revelations that would otherwise fall short. Bob driving down the road thinking about dogs is rather routine at this point. Bob driving down the road thinking about dog breeds—maybe the mystery will finally have an answer!—is much more exciting.
Add these in to build your story and your plot and your writing will be much more fun for everyone!
Step 10: Short Stories
The short story differs from a novel length story mostly in length. That's a little obvious at first glance, but if you look deeper you may realize that length means a lot of things in writing. All of the basic conventions of plot as mentioned above still apply. You need a carrying plotline, side plots, and secondary plots. Toss in red herrings to twist the web into submission. But when I said before that a novel length plot is like a web and a short story is like a braid, I meant it.
The simple fact is that to make a novel length story long, you need to have a lot of side plots and secondary plots to build your story to the final crescendo. In a short story you can't have many of these because of length issues. So, how do you make a short story interesting if you have to pare down the plot ideas you can put into your writing?
1. Editing: The simple fact is that you will need to delete entire scenes. To make a short story good, you need to condense your side plots or delete them entirely. That requires some patience and some practice. You need to think: What does this section do for my story? If it adds a lot of interest to your plot or characters or if it's an integral part of getting to the end, then you leave it. If all the scene does is add length, and it doesn't do anything else for your story such as adding humor or building your settings and characters, then you will have to remove it. It's painful but absolutely necessary. Otherwise your short story will begin to look like it's novel length but it will be lacking the side and secondary plots that you had to leave out in the beginning because this was supposed to be short. It absolutely hurts your short story to leave in erroneous, length adding passages, just as it hurts a novel length to be lacking in extra plot lines of varying sizes. If you don't edit, you will end up with one of those instead of a good story.
2. Reducing Characters and Settings: Is it really necessary for your main character to go to the pool? Okay, so Bob decides he doesn't want an annoying yappy dog because of his time there, so yes, it is necessary in this case. However, it is not necessary to write about his time in the locker room. Take out Bob putting on his swimsuit. He's at the pool, so it's implied that he would be dressed appropriately. Taking out this one scene can save you lines and pages of description of the locker room, of the other people there, and of Bob putting on his suit. It's not at all needed for the plot. If something is supposed to happen for the plot in the locker room, like Bob meeting someone with a terrier he wants to strangle because it barks uncontrollably, ask yourself if this scene could also happen poolside? In this case it can, so edit out the locker room, save yourself some lines, and put Bob by the pool trying to find headphones to block out the dog.
Also, is it necessary to have Bob meet every single person at the pool? Not really. Maybe he could meet with the yappy dog owner, but why? He's already decided that he doesn't want that type of dog because of its mouth, so why does he need to speak with the leash holder to confirm that? He doesn't. Now, that's not to say that building the scene by talking with the guy wouldn't be good. In this case, you are trying to cut out unnecessary bits for length and that conversation need not happen. In another scene Bob may have to talk with the owner because it builds your plot or setting, but as an example of things that can be edited out, this case does work.
Last chapter I told you how to give a proper review. Now I'm going to tell you how to flame correctly:
If you feel like you have to flame, the worst thing you can do is tell an author that they suck with no further information. Writing "I hated it" or "your writing sucks" is a flame, but it is not a good one. Constructive criticism is the backbone of any writer. Killing off their self-esteem is not going to make their writing improve for the next time you end up clicking on something this author posted.
Here is an example of a really good flame I received for this rant. I want to dissect it for your viewing pleasure. Please do not mind the sarcasm and hints of anger. No writer likes to be told their writing is disliked, me included. I did try to leave most of that in my review responses section up top, but I'm afraid a little may have trickled down here too.
Mouse-A-Boo wrote this to me in a review of chapter one: "I have only read the first chapter of your essay but I sincerely doubt that I will read further do to the fact that the first chapter did not grab my attention." Ignoring the spelling/grammar mistakes (I think you meant "due", dear) I have to say that this is one of my least favorite sentences to see and to give. Why? Because often that's all that is written. I hated it, so I didn't read any more. If the reviewer/flamer does not tell me why they were unable to stomach my writing or my story then how can I possibly improve?
Mouse-A-Boo was kind enough to continue, though. "It's not only that I don't agree with you, it's also that I find many parts of your writing particulary annoying. Mainly the overuse of words like lazy." Mouse-y gave me a specific example of something they didn't like, which means that if I were to go back and edit, I may decide to find a synonym for "lazy" or may try to edit that section so I don't repeat myself so often.
I am learning from the examples given. My writing will improve because you have pointed out what you see me doing wrong. This is very similar to a constructive criticism review. You are pointing out where I need to improve; you are teaching me to be a better writer. What makes a flame different from a review is the fact that you are blatantly telling me you do not like my story. You are telling me that my writing has repulsed you so much that you are unable to continue. A flame is negative because it comes from a lens of do not like, but it can still build an author's writing if you do it correctly.
So, the next time you see a story written: Eye hoope your reding my storie, you can calmly tell the author that they suck. Actually, please tell the author that they suck so that they'll have edited by the time I get to it. But please tell them why! If they learn from your efforts they will come out with an edited version: I hope you're reading my story!
There is much more to writing a plot, but I'm not really sure how to write it. How do I tell you what works and doesn't work if each case is defined by each specific story and author's writing style? I hope I have given you a basis to build off of and if you have any questions or want me to clarify, leave a review. Also, give me some ideas of something else I should write about. I haven't done endings yet—chapter and book endings—so maybe I'll look into that.