Apr 29 2010

Examining Your Story

Published by at 6:13 pm under Middles,Plot Coupons,Writing Articles

  • In your first few paragraphs, do we learn anything interesting (particularly about the main character or critical elements of the setting) that will make us want to keep reading? Is it something that differentiates him from other protagonists in similar stories? If not, it is probably not very interesting. For example, telling us that Johnny goes to school blurs your book with roughly a bajillion others. Telling us that Johnny goes to a school for reformed pyromaniacs does a much better job of differentiating the book from its competitors.
  • In the first few pages, how do your characters and writing make themselves stand out? (As opposed to, say, just another picked-on student that becomes Spiderman a superhero).  For example, Kickass starts off with a bit of dark comedy.  On the first page, we see a superhero about to fly and we’re led to believe it’s the protagonist taking a bold step towards a glorious future.  Instead, the guy hits the pavement and the main character adds something like: “That’s not me, by the way.  That was a guy with a history of mental illnesses.”  Right away, you know we’re NOT talking about another Spiderman series.
  • Okay, so starting with a wannabe superhero accidentally committing hara-kiri probably wouldn’t fit your book.   What’s something you could do to launch your story with something truly distinct to it?  (HINT:  Unless the character’s morning routine involves something truly bizarre and interesting, DO NOT START WITH A CHARACTER WAKING UP).  One way to differentiate yourself is to freshen familiar material by using an unexpected tone or putting it towards a different goal.  For example, the comic I’m working on is hardly the first to open with the protagonist narrowly avoiding an assassination.  But it’s probably the first to do so for comedic purposes.
  • On page 100, does anything interesting happen?  What about page 212?  Don’t let your book stall in the middle.  Keep developing characters, adding plot wrinkles, unexpected complications, etc.  On page 230, is anything at stake?  Do characters pursue their goals with the same (or greater) intensity as on page 1?
  • One thing I see often is that the author successfully sets up the hero’s journey in an interesting way but then the journey itself is sort of bland.  Plot coupons are probably the most common problem there.  (The heroes must collect __ pieces of ____ to do _____, like destroy 7 Horcruxes to defeat Voldemort or collect 8 badges to become a Pokemon master).  Using plot coupons makes sense in a video game, sort of, but it tends to weaken suspense by making the plot predictable.  For one thing, it’s pretty much 100% guaranteed that the heroes will destroy the first six Horcruxes because the plot would break if they didn’t.  To some extent, you can generate suspense along the way to destroy the first six Horcruxes, like leaving readers asking which minor characters will die or who will get romantically involved, and kickass execution has saved many poor concepts before, but it is almost assuredly not the best concept you can come up with.

10 responses so far

10 Responses to “Examining Your Story”

  1. Beccaon 29 Apr 2010 at 9:13 pm

    I definitely feel like my current projects are very plot-coupon-ish. But I had some major plot-overhaul ideas, so eventually this will be fixed. I think 🙂

  2. B. Macon 30 Apr 2010 at 7:54 am

    I don’t feel like your book about Poppy/Landon/Teddy has any plot coupons.

  3. Steton 30 Apr 2010 at 8:08 am

    Hey, just found this website. V. fun! I’m a novelist–got a couple novels out with Doubleday, a few nonfiction books with other houses–and I’m shopping a kinda sorta superheroesque novel at the moment. So I’ve had some luck getting published … but I’ve never before found a place that offers Seven Common Problems with Psychic Characters and Why Secret Origins are Usually Awful.

    Wonderful. Gonna keep checking back in.

    (That said, I’m not entirely sure what the difference between ‘plot’ and ‘plot coupons’ is. Is it that they’re numerical? Isn’t ‘must toss the ring into the volcano’ also a plot coupon?)

  4. B. Macon 30 Apr 2010 at 8:35 am

    Yeah, it’s that they’re numerical. If Frodo had had to assemble the ring from X collectible items before it could be destroyed, then it would be an example of plot coupons.

    Also, plot coupons usually have to be collected before the plot’s climax can occur. In your example, destroying the ring (or conclusively failing to destroy the ring) into the volcano IS the climax of the plot. I think readers know the story can’t end until either the Fellowship has destroyed the ring OR the Fellowship has irretrievably lost the ring and/or been vanquished. If there cannot be a climax without the characters collecting the plot coupons, the characters WILL collect the plot coupons.

    One way you might be able to “redeem” a plot coupon story is to make the plot coupons optional. For example, if the goal is to free a princess from a witch’s spell, the plot coupons might be something like “gather X items to break the spell,” but the hero could probably also succeed by convincing the witch to end the curse or defeating her. If the plot coupons are optional, the readers wouldn’t know beforehand whether the coupons would be collected. (Although I’d guess that the plot coupons will be collected if the hero collects any of them).

    By the way, congratulations getting published! Would you like to discuss your kind-of-superheroesque novel in more detail?

  5. Wingson 30 Apr 2010 at 9:26 am

    I admit I use a morning routine in HTSTW, but since waking up late is how my heroes discover their abilities, it’s kinda vital. Same to the seemingly unnecessary eating scene a chapter earlier.

    I have a plot-coupon-ish thing (The search for the Titan’s Diamond) but I consider it to be more of a minor Mac Guffin, mainly because (1) The only hero searching for it at the time is Ian, and my heroes don’t make it a priority until they find out what it can do…once the villain gets it and tests it, (2) as mentioned above, they’re too late and Crimson gets the Mac Guffin instead.

    The closest thing to using plot coupons I have is the pearls in Between Light And Darkness, and the heroes possess have them at the beginning of the plot. Their real quest is to find out how they work.

    Right now, I don’t think that my first chapter does a good job of making my characters interesting…and I’ve noticed something. Whenever I want to move the plot forward, I injure Ian. Poor guy.

    – Wings

  6. B. Macon 30 Apr 2010 at 9:50 am

    “I use a morning routine in HTSTW, but since waking up late is how my heroes discover their abilities, it’s kinda vital.” I think that makes sense. If the hero wakes up to discover something interesting, having a scene showing him waking up would be fine. Another example would be the first sentence of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, which is “When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” That is, ahem, an extremely straightforward way to introduce the character and his main problem. In contrast, I think that most wake-up beginnings gloss over what is interesting about the character.

  7. Steton 30 Apr 2010 at 12:13 pm

    Huh. That’s interesting. Sounds like the distinction is largely that ‘plot coupons’ are mechanical and repetitive–or don’t arise organically from the driving need of the characters. Actually, setting up ‘plot coupons’ sounds like a great opportunity to give the characters failures and reversals. “You must collect the 7 badges of Pokecrux. Now go!” And they’re on the cusp of getting Badge One when they accidentally destroy it. Oops. Now what?

    I’m pretty fond of ‘kick the shit out of the main character’ myself, Wings. Probably too fond of it, actually.

    I’m keeping my current project petty close to the vest at this point, B. Mac. It’s a new genre for me, and I’m feeling insecure. It’s a low-powered non-cape sorta thing that I think my agent is mostly humoring me on at this point. I’m not sure how he’s pitching it; I think as urban fantasy. It’s getting a few reads, though, so we’ll see.

  8. B. Macon 30 Apr 2010 at 2:47 pm

    I like the idea of them accidentally destroying one of the plot coupons and having to move from there. If the heroes complete the quest in a way other than originally planned, I think that makes it harder to predict. If a first-time author is dead set on using plot coupons, that would probably help.

    That said, I wouldn’t recommend it for a first-timer under most circumstances.

    What do you think about villainous plot coupons? For example, the villain wants to destroy the world, so he steals high-grade plutonium, hits up a tech lab or military base for schematics and kidnaps a scientist to build him nuclear weapons.

    In such a case, I would expect the villain to successfully assemble the bomb because the stakes would be pretty low if he weren’t close at the end. So there may be some element of predictability. But you might be able to mix things up by revealing the “villain” is actually just a henchman, so he can be defeated early. The heroes gradually realize that they’ve only foiled one part of a mastermind’s scheme.

  9. Steton 30 Apr 2010 at 4:59 pm

    Well, it strikes me that there’s -something- right about plot coupons, and that’s that they offer a series of related obstacles the heroes must overcome. They’re maybe an attempt to keep an episodic plot from -appearing- episodic? What’s wrong about them is that they offer static and mechanical obstacles that seem to foreclose on really surprising the reader.

    The way I see it (in my extremely non-innovative way) is this. You’ve got a guy who wants something desperately. So he tries A to get it. But A fails. Not only does A fail, but it makes things worse for him. Now he’s gotta do B to fix A, or he’s in real trouble. He messes up B, though, which destroys any chance of succeeding at A. Dammit. Luckily, he’s resourceful, and takes a desperate leap and attempts C. And yay, succeeds! But boo, C actually gets him in deeper trouble, moving him farther from his goal. Now he’s gotta repair the damage of C, undo B, do a triple backflip to get A happening–and suddenly D happens to -him- outta the backstory somewhere, which moves his goal two hundred miles north. Now he’s -really- screwed. And there’s E looming on the horizon.

    Conceptually, that’s not -all- that different from plot coupons, maybe. You still have your guy dealing with A-B-C-D. At some point he sits down and thinks, ‘Okay. Now I just need to steal the gem from the armored car and give it to the gangster so he’ll release the professor’s husband, so the professor will tell me where I can find the map leading to the underwater city.’ A-B-C-D. But it’s not so mechanical anymore.

    The villain, I think, is different because she succeeds as often as the hero fails–and, as you said, when she is defeated (before the final scene), it’s actually a -worse- defeat for the heroes. Because they defeat her only to discover that she’s a henchmen, and they’ve been pawns in the plot of the Mastermind all along, bwahahaha.

  10. A1Writeron 05 May 2010 at 12:10 pm

    Don’t all quest narratives have some kind of coupon, by convention and structure, even if there not as spelled out upfront? We all know Frodo is going to destroy the ring and that he’ll face challenges that he’ll overcome. By the standard you seem to be setting here of predictability, all quest narratives are inherently weak conceptually. I’m not sure what the big difference is in having coupons or not as long as each coupon comes with a unique, unpredictable challenge (which predictably the hero will over come). How does not having the upfront coupon make Lord of the Rings stronger in concept alone? Isn’t the geography of Middle Earth the plot coupons?

    All great writing is more about execution than concept. It seems the real key is to figure out how to complicate your plot–twists, reversals, misdirections, etc.–than anything else, because all plot concepts involving a scheme is going to involve a methodical step by step plot that’s predictable to a remotely experience reader. Most of your posts on plotting seem to be organized along those lines. I feel too much importance is being placed on predictability at the expense of suspension. But I’d argue suspense is ten times more important. If in the moment, you aren’t engaged by the action and all you think is, “We all know they’re going to make it,” then maybe the action isn’t good or you just need to go read/watch something else. In mainstream/pop entertainment, the structure will always be predictability. It’s more about engrossing suspense. And I think the comments here really begin to educate on how to create that suspense.

    Maybe I need to see this point illustrated more to understand your view point better. Maybe a post on how to create strong concepts? And one on how to masterfully execute plot coupons? There are enough classics that use plot coupons, so I would argue there has to be some legitimacy to it. If you’ve already done posts on these issues, could you link to them please? It can never hurt to create a layered, complex concept, but I’m still not sure how that diffuses the predictability. I hope this discussion continues. I like writerly discourse such as these.

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