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Plot Your Way Forward How To Keep Your Readers Turning The Page
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You've committed to writing your novel, you've settled on some fascinating characters and a good storyline. How do you put it all together? More importantly, how do you structure your narrative so that your readers become engrossed in the unfolding of those events?
Gustav Freytag, a German novelist and critic of the nineteenth century recognized and codified the common features of drama, which is essentially the hook that catches in our brains and pulls us along in any book, movie or play.
1. Introduction or Exposition
Here we are introduced to the setting, characters and basic conflict. In the novel Warming Up, we meet Marcella, an eleven-year-old girl, on the last day of sixth grade. We learn about her family, her neighborhood and her circle of friends. We also read about the inciting incident in the story, the theft of an heirloom harmonica.
2. Rising Action
Here the conflict picks up steam. The reader feels the tension rising. You show your readers what the main character's intention is and why it's important to them. In Warming Up, we find out who stole the harmonica and why Marcella is emotionally invested in getting it back. Drama is created as a protagonist struggles against obstacles to realize a goal. What can Marcella and her friends do to recover the stolen property? Who and what stands in their way? How far will they go to achieve their objective?
This is the turning point. The struggle has caused a change in the protagonist's viewpoint. It is clear the conflict has fostered growth in the character. They are not the same person they were at the start of the story. What will be the outcome of the plot Marcella and her friends have devised to recover the harmonica? What will she learn from her struggle for justice?
4. Falling Action
In this stage, the protagonist's struggle is beginning to resolve. Twists and turns, and unexpected consequences add interest. As the action falls, we feel the conflict has resolved and we are heading toward the exhale at the end of the story. In Warming Up, we see the positive and negative outcomes of the efforts of this group of friends to right a wrong.
The characters are chastened and wiser as they resume their routines. As the neighborhood returns to normal summer activities, Marcella reflects on the lessons she's learned. She sees herself, other people and life and death in a new light.
You can think of this structure as the skeleton. It must be strong enough to hold the story up from beginning to end. It's worth the effort and time to think carefully about where you are going from the start. Good writers spend considerable time setting out the plot before they write page one, paragraph one.
No one wants to look at a skeleton very long, though. So how do you begin to build your novel into a living, breathing thing? How do you add flesh and blood to your creation? In the next installment we'll discuss, subplot and setting.
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