Turning Points and Plot Development

When creating a backstory for your characters, it helps to write a list of turning points – times when a choice or a chance event changed the character’s life. The bigger the turning point, the more likely it is to appear in the story itself. The small turning points are things the writer needs to know in detail, but the reader might not. That doesn’t mean small turning points are unimportant. Case in point – the small decision my son made that changed my life.

My son wanted to take karate when he was six. I thought he was too young, but told him I would enroll him when he was eight if he was still interested. He was, so I enrolled him in classes. Small decision so far, yes?

Yes and no. He continued in karate, earning a black belt, but in the process my husband got interested in the sport, then my daughter. I followed along because it was something the family could do together. Small decision, yes?

Yes and no. I took classes for twenty years. I liked the discipline, the people who ran the dojo, and the other students. I’m also really bad at letting things go (as my sewing room proves), so it wasn’t until I accepted that my joints couldn’t take the impact anymore that I retired.

Here’s where plot development comes into the conversation. The effect of exercise on brain health is amazing. Moderate exercise can help maintain cognitive function well into old age. There is evidence that adding more exercise can improve cognitive function even when there is some brain damage or cognitive decay in progress. The decision to take karate doesn’t advance the plot of my life, but it does influence the quality of choices available to me as I age. If I were basing a character in a novel on me, this would be part of the backstory, but might I be able to incorporate it into plot development as well?

For instance, if my character ended up being a caregiver for a family member, I could have her family be susceptible to a disease that she avoids because of a small decision regarding diet or exercise she made years ago. That could become the basis for animosity against her by other family members who are envious of her apparently undeserved good fortune, and that is definitely part of plot development.

Luck and wisdom!

The Return of the Dark and Plot Development

The solstice is a month behind us, and the minutes of daylight are shrinking rapidly. The sky is falling. I am lost.

Okay, so I’m not lost, the sky is firmly anchored overhead, and there are at least 14 hours of daylight to play with for the next few weeks. My inner voice of doom is still screeching, and it’s getting on my nerves.

“Self,” I said, “you need to turn this bug into a feature.”

Which brings me to the title about dark and plot. While many plots pivot at the point where the protagonist moves forward in faith because there is no other option, what if I pivot my plot with a bit of comic relief? Our heroine, who has become increasingly paralyzed by tiny losses, is dope slapped with the realization of her abundance. She understands there are people who love her and resources at her command. She then has an epiphany that her story isn’t just about her, but about everyone in the community, and her role as leader will be one thread in the tapestry.

This isn’t the typical hero story, but perhaps it is more realistic. No matter how important a role we play in our time, there is no guarantee our names will be remembered two generations hence. Still, if we’ve done our job right, if we’ve promoted kindness rather than cruelty, the people who come after us will have a better start to their stories. That’s worth more than being remembered forever, yes?

Now to use those 14 hours wisely and not mourn the three minutes lost since yesterday.

Luck and wisdom!

Backstory and Plot Development

The past has a past. Writers call it backstory – the stuff that we know about our characters and plot but maybe don’t even hint at in the novel itself. Sometimes the fact that our protagonist likes peanut butter sandwiches because it reminds him of the best summer of his life is a plot point, sometimes it only informs the way we write him. But what happens when you write yourself into a corner and need a new piece of information to get out? I say just invent the backstory and fill in the holes later.

Seriously, even if you’ve published 17 novels in the series and you are only now realizing that peanut butter sandwiches will save your plot, what’s the harm? People are always learning new stuff about themselves and their families. I’m going through some rediscovered family letters from 1917 that put a completely different spin on one of my ancestors. They also gave me the idea of using a piece of information that wasn’t in earlier novels if I need it now. Revealing bits of information along the way is what readers expect from us, after all. They don’t need to know that we only just thought of it.

Luck and wisdom!

Archaeology and Worldbuilding

Once again, my love of nonfiction is going to help me become a better science fiction writer. Neil Price admits that the Viking culture he teaches now is not precisely the culture he taught years ago. As he has explored more digs and re-evaluated the artifacts, he has come to different conclusions about them and the people who used them. Not only is this exciting to me – there is still more to learn! – it is a valuable tool when I create the worlds my characters inhabit. One single artifact could upend everything I’ve thought about my characters, opening up new plot lines (or possibly cleaning up old ones). I don’t have to create a detailed economic system for my alien worlds, but I can hint at it with the tools and market places I describe. My readers are likely to be interested in other government or religious systems only as they explain who my characters are. You can learn a lot about describing alien societies by reading how archaeologists and anthropologists describe human societies so far removed from our culture that they may as well have come from another planet.

Luck and wisdom!

How To Use The Myth Of The Fresh Start In Plot And Character Development

After years of reading advice to start the story in the middle, I may finally understand what that means. I’ve been keeping a journal since the county’s first shelter-in-place (SIP) order. Although the order was eased, we were advised to stay at home as much as possible. My first entry of 2021, the entry that usually gushes about the chance for a fresh start, also notes that we’ve been living with the pandemic for 287 days. “Self,” I said, “all of your characters and plots have backstory. This is what starting in the middle means.”

Since I am a hopeless pantser, I intend to keep writing the way I usually do. I generally hear a phrase, or think of a character, or some odd thing happens, and I tell myself there’s a story in that. After writing about half of the story, I realize what my characters want to be and what’s really happening. That realization often makes me sad, because I feel I should have figured those things out in the beginning. Now I have another tool, an insight into the mind of the reader. If I were a reader of the story and not the writer, what would I need to know at this very moment? This is where I will put in the backstory that has only then revealed itself to me. It’s not an efficient way to write, but if I were efficient I would be a plotter.

For those of you who are plotters, the effect is the same. Readers don’t want – or need – to know how the hero got to the small town where he now lives on page one. They need to know it at some time, but not at the beginning. Look through your own journals and notice when you reminded yourself of your own backstory, or listen to yourself explaining old family arguments to friends. This will help you identify when backstory is needed in your novel, and help you avoid the dreaded infodump.

Luck and wisdom!

Hoarding And Plot Twists

I’m Lani, and I’m a hoarder. I save anything that might be useful, including the lipstick pictured above. That lipstick is too bright for the circus, much less the grocery store, although at one time fashion approved of it. Since I’m wearing a mask these days when I go to the grocery store, I don’t wear lipstick anyway. Nevertheless, hoarding that particularly intense shade turned out to be useful for Zoom meetings. I’m pale enough in the sun. When you add the extra lights for the camera, I practically disappear. Wearing the dark lipstick means people can actually see my mouth move when I talk, instead of just a pink blob wriggling.

It seems to me that I can use my hoarding tendencies for plot twists. How would the dynamics of the story change if a secondary character just happened to have exactly the right hairpin to pick an ancient lock and let everyone escape? What if the heroine sorted out her bookshelf – under duress – and then had to chase around town to retrieve the one volume of fairy tales that contained the solution to the mystery? Next time you need to throw a monkey wrench into your characters’ lives, look for the least useful item on your shelf and ask yourself what would happen if your hero didn’t have it.

Luck and wisdom!

Panic, Procrastination, and Progress

I had to get outside my comfort zone a little bit this week. The resulting (mild) panic first made me angry, then got me thinking about plot and character development. I write cozy and comedy, so the tension on my pages can’t ramp up to the level of a crime thriller. My readers know my characters are going to survive (I am writing a series, after all), so tossing in a gratuitous train crash would be silly. I need small tensions that can take my character off the rails temporarily and be funny at the same time, things like the anxiety of creating yet another password (which was one of the things that took me out of my comfort zone). It’s not huge, but it presents a conflict that most readers understand.

Then I read an article about a study which proclaims procrastination is not a moral failure but a response to an unresolved emotional reaction. Well, I could have told you that. I know very well that when I procrastinate about my writing it is because I haven’t dealt with my fear of A) losing the thread of the plot, B) getting wrapped up in a new character to the exclusion of the main ones, or C) having no new story waiting for my attention when the current project is over. Figuring out what I’m afraid of, and acknowledging that even if irrational fear must be faced not suppressed, goes a long way toward getting me back on track.

Rewards help too. Sometimes the reward of finishing the task at hand is enough. Sometimes, I need more. I am quite willing to bribe myself to get to the end of an unpleasant chore (“Self, clean one more room and then you can have an hour of free reading!”), but on occasion I get a reward out of the blue. This week I received a gift from my good friend Margaret Misegades. She found the fabulous addition to my reindeer collection pictured above, and it arrived just when I needed a little pick-me-up.

Moral of the story? I’m not sure. All I know is that finding the reason why I’m panicking or procrastinating is more useful than yelling at myself for not accomplishing more; that I can use whatever insight I might glean to create more nuanced characters; that reindeer are still cool.

Luck and wisdom!

Can Your Characters Save Your Plot?

Author, instructor, and former agent Nathan Bransford suggests journaling about your plot from your characters’ points of view when the words stop flowing (read his blog post here). When I read this, my first thought was, “Brilliant!” When my second thought was equally positive, I knew this was advice I could use.

That isn’t always the case – not in writing, quilting, or home decorating. I watched too many home improvement shows where my first reaction was, “Who the heck is going to clean a [room of your choice] with all that stuff in it?” I even worked up an idea for an anti-improvement show called “Like You’re Really Going To Do That.”

I’ve nodded appreciatively when writing friends share their spreadsheets for character development, or their flip charts for braiding plot lines. That’s not for me. I can’t even manage to keep a simple filing system going, so how am I supposed to keep programs and charts in order? For me, the best solution is one I can keep on scraps of paper, because I can always find a scrap of paper and a pen.

Luck and wisdom!

Coincidence in Fact and Fiction

There are stories all around us

I went to see the doctor about my ankle (which is progressing as well as can be expected), and the universe handed me one of those coincidences that begs to be part of a story. The doctor I saw in the minor injury clinic was the same doctor who saw me seven years ago for a bad sprain of my other ankle. At that point, the clinic had only been open a month; now, the clinic will be consolidated with a another facility – in about a month.

Real life is full of these coincidences. Most of the time, they just make amusing stories. Fictional life is also full of coincidence, but requires the coincidence to have profound meaning. As soon as I left the clinic, I started wondering how I could turn these two chance appointments into something else. A thriller might cast the doctor as a sleeper spy, with the first meeting introducing the spy’s contact (the patient), and the second setting the story in motion. I write sci fi, so maybe I could have the doctor insert a device in the patient in the first meeting, and require the second meeting because the device is malfunctioning. What would your genre do with this coincidence?

My foot, SLOWLY healing

Luck and wisdom!