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Friday, November 17

Plotting With Layers: 4 Steps to a Stronger Plot

plotting a stronger story
By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy 

This week's Refresher Friday takes a heavily updated look at why plots are like houses, and how "building" with layers will help you create stronger plots. Enjoy!

Plots are like houses. When built on a strong foundation, with good flow and an well-thought out floor plan, readers want to move in and stay awhile. Just as we build in layers, we can also plot in layers. This helps us make sure all the right pieces are in place to hold up our story and allow our characters to live within them.

Layering your plot can create more interesting stories, but it's easy to go overboard and end up with a convoluted mess. How many layers are good? How many are too many? And mostly, how do you craft a well-constructed story that builds on itself and keeps readers interested?

I've talked about writing in layers before, and plotting in layers is similar. It helps to look at each layer individually and try not to build the whole thing at once.

Lay the Foundation for Your Plot


Your core conflict is the foundation of your plot. This is what will hold your plot together and give it the strength to carry the story. A good core conflict will have enough inherent conflict that it won't be an easy thing to solve. There will be steps to resolving this conflict, and complications to work around. If your core conflict has only one or two tasks to complete to resolve it, then it might not be strong enough to carry your entire novel.

(Here's more on crafting a strong core conflict)

Build a Frame to Contain Your Plot


The frame is the is smaller arcs and subplots of the story that give it a unique shape. Subplots might branch off in different directions, but are ultimately all connected to that foundation in some fashion. Subplots flesh out the core conflict and allow you to highlight aspects of the story and give it the proper scope.

Too many subplots and you have a misshapen house; too few, and you have an empty structure. The trick is to build just enough rooms for a reader to wander though without getting lost. A good subplot will add complications to your core conflict, work as a step toward achieving that core conflict, or cause trouble in your character's internal or personal story arc.

Subplots aren't there just to cause random trouble, or tell the story of another character. They're there to help illustrate some important point of your core story.

(Here's more on crafting subplots)

How many subplots you build is up to you, but I've found that a few subplots explored deeply works well. That gives you more page time to focus on key areas and really play one conflict off the other. Each conflict will have multiple steps to resolving it, so there's always lots of things for your protagonist to do.  
 

Put Up the Walls that Define Your Plot


Your theme defines how the plot unfolds. You want readers to go from room to room and explore, but never forget they're in the same house. A good theme will tie the entire story together and guide you in knowing which subplots help your core conflict and which one hurt it. 

For example, if your theme is about forbidden love, then your subplots will very likely explore this, perhaps by showing other things the protagonist (or others) can't have, but really want, or the consequences of indulging in the forbidden. If you find yourself with a scene that has nothing to do with your core conflict or your theme, odds are it doesn't belong there.

(Here's more on how theme ties a novel together)

Every scene is an opportunity to show your theme. It might be a small connection, but all those little moments provide richness and depth to the story. In The Shifter, one of my themes was being trapped. How I illustrated "trapped" varied greatly throughout the novel, whether it was emotionally trapped, financially trapped, or literally trapped, but when I planned a scene, I looked for ways to show someone being trapped in some type of way, even if that was small.

Decorate the Plot with Characters Arcs


Characters are colorful, and each character will solve their problems in their own way. The choices they make determine how the plot and subplots will unfold. A good character arc provides personal challenges along the way to resolving the core conflict. The amount of growth varies from story to story, but who that character is and how they solve their problems creates a tone and voice that's unique to that tale.

(Here's more on creating character arcs)

Now Put it All Together


As you plot your novel, look for all the possibles ways one layer could enhance or affect another. Things such as:
  • Could it introduce a character or problem that would cause a complication later?
  • Could it foreshadow something that might be trouble layer?
  • Might it contain a key piece of the puzzle that isn't figured out until the protagonist has gathered a lot more pieces?
  • Can you cause an internal conflict associated with this goal?
  • Can this goal force the protagonist to face something emotionally they need to overcome by the end of the story? 
  • Can this goal cause your protagonist to rebel, sending them in the opposite direction of where they should be going?
Next, look at what happens because of that scene. Does it connect to your core conflict? Should it? Is there's any way you can also make it affect your protagonist's character arc?
    As your protagonist continues to solve and complicate the story problems, keep looking for ways to connect those problems to either your core conflict or your character's story arc.

    Every time a protagonist has to make a choice, it has the potential to affect more than just the goal of that one scene. Every choice could have larger ramifications, which raises the stakes, deepens the conflict, and creates unpredictability. Layers can add depth to your story and even make it easier to plot, since ideas that don't fit with the core conflicts are easy to toss aside.

    Plots are like houses. When built on a strong foundation, with good flow and an well-thought out floor plan, readers want to move in and stay away.

    Do you plot with layers? How do you weave your story arcs together? 

    If you're looking to improve your craft, check out one of my books on writing: 

    In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel. 

    A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

    Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), and Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).   
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    20 comments:

    1. Oh my sweet heavens, yes. Thank you thank you thank you. I always have these complex, windy plot ideas and I am STILL trying to figure out how to make it all work. Most of the time people tell me it's "too complicated". It makes me unhappy, because I want to listen to feedback, but "complicated twisty plots" seems to be my default setting.

      Sadly, the only remotely useful advice I've ever found on plot layers is in Writing the Breakout Novel. Beyond that, I feel like I am drowning in a sea of certainty. Thanks for the life raft.

      Consequently, do you have dates yet for when you'll be at Fox Books? Did you say you were doing a writer's workshop? *too excited to hope*

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    2. Janice, this is amazing. I'm seeing my WIP through fresh eyes after reading this. Thank you!

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    3. Great advice!

      I will pay more attention to this in future...

      :-)

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    4. This post comes at the perfect time for me! I'm always amazed that you can teach these complicated concepts with such clarity. This blog has been a lifesaver!
      PS I'm really liking the new layout!

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    5. Elizabeth: Oh good! I'm glad it helped. I'm still doing a workshop at FoxTale, and thanks for the reminder to check back and finalized the date. Soon as I have that I'll post it.

      Alina: Most welcome! Hope you see some good things.

      Misha: Good luck!

      Candace: Awesome, I love when that happens. Thanks so much!

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    6. I love your analogy. Makes it much easier to remember and therefore apply while writing. I like the concept of internalizing the conflict early on in the subplot.
      Edge of Your Seat Romance

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    7. Oh yeah I had a thought as I was reading this post, since you just completed your trilogy, maybe you can help me out.
      Early on, I realized that my main conflict was going to take more than one book to resolve--it has it's fingers in just about every aspect of the world I created, and it's not going to give up that easily!
      So here's the problem. For the first book, I've got the SERIES plot(the one that will span at least 3 books) and then I have the BOOK 1 plot/conflict that ties into the SERIES plot/conflict, but is also separate. These two plots are competing for center stage, and I'm not sure which one I should really be focusing on.
      Does the SERIES plot take over, with BOOK 1 plot acting as more of a subplot? Or does BOOK 1 plot take over, with SERIES plot standing in the background, always lurking but never jumping into the spotlight?
      I know you're busy, but if you have a second to adress that for me, I would appreciate it SO much.
      I hope what I just wrote made sense!

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    8. Raquel: Thanks! I don't know when I first started using the house analogy but it really fits, and has always worked for me.

      Candace: The series plot can be a more overarching plot as long as that isn't the core conflict of the single novel. For example, the series goal for The Healing Wars is Nya ultimately defeating the Duke, freeing her people, and finding her place in the world, but none of those things drive the plot in book one. But the problems Nya uncovers and is forced to solve in book one sets her on the path to solving those larger series goals (does that make sense?)

      So odds are, each of your books will have a book goal that is wrapped up at the end of that book. That book goal is a step toward resolving the series goal. Threads can be left hanging, but they won't be threads that are required to get a satisfying ending on that book. Like if book was was all about stopping the Duke, readers would be ticked off that she didn't do it in the end. But it's more about her saving her sister, and by the end she sees the Duke is a bigger problem and starts heading toward a situation where she says "hey, we have to stop the Duke" and acts to do that.

      Your series plot will probably be more like a minor subplot in the first book, then growing into a major subplot in book two, then probably taking over in book three. It doesn't *have* to be that way of course, but that would be a structure that would work. Until the series plot becomes the core conflict, it'll most likely be a subplot that just ties everything together and causes overall trouble.

      Does that help? This is worth exploring further, actually. :) Putting it on the docker for next week in more detail.

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    9. Thanks, that helps a ton! You just helped me realize that I need to strengthen my book goal a little bit, since I've been letting the series goal take over too much. I can't wait to hear more from you on the subject next week!

      One other question: Is it bad if she doesn't get her goal at the end of book one? Her entire goal during the course of the book is to make sure her family is safe/improve their overall situation. The things that happen at the end of this book will actually bring them to more harm. Is that ok? Will the reader be upset if at the end, all her hard work has only made things worse?

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    10. Fabulous post! Well outlined and thought out.

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    11. Just visited your re-designed blog for the first time and almost fainted with delirious happiness (escpecially when I saw the lovely SITE CONTENTS sidebar.)

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    12. You are pure gold, Janice. You've never written a post I couldn't use! Thank you so much! And I adore the new blog layout. A. MAZ. ING :D

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    13. Very great post. As soon as life slows down a bit, I'm going to outline my new project and this post definitely helps me think through how it needs to work.

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    14. Candace: It depends if that goal is what is driving her all book. If she has a specific thing to resolve to achieve her family's safety, and doesn't get it, and that leaves the reader hanging and feeling like the book just stopped, they might be disappointed. But if she was trying to get something and does resolve it, but the result of that is to make things worse and that sets up book two, then you're probably fine. The line is usually in what defines a "win" for the book and the protag. If they don't get at all anything they were after and there's no sense of satisfaction, the reader will likely be upset. But if they feel like they got the ending they expected (even if that ending isn't a happy one) then they'll be okay with it. They may want more, they might be dying to read on, but they won't feel cheated by the ending.

      Lisa: Thanks!

      Story Weaver: Thanks! That was the whole point :)

      Wen: And thank you :) Makes me happy to hear that.

      Natalie: Awesome ;)

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    15. You have a ton of great advice on your posts! On my first story, I was a full on pantser, but the more I write, the more I am in favor of outlining, writing process steps as you've described : )

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    16. Bekah: Thanks! I do like to keep things spontaneous, but having some kind of outline to use as a guide really helps keep me focused and on track. I like to know my skeleton plot, but the rest can just happen as I write.

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    17. Genius! And just the thing I needed to read. Thanks for this post!

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    18. Always happy when a post hits a writer at the right time :)

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    19. I know I'm hugely late to this post, but what a wonderful post! It compliments my (more recent) post about plotting in onion rings so perfectly!

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    20. Staticsan, no worries, they're always here and I do re-run them from time to time. I like your onion post. I think there's a post in here someone that's titled "X are like Ogres" that plays of the onion theme as well. It's a great simile.

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