Reading for Plot Structure
Whatever book you’re reading right this very minute, take a quick second to look in the back and see how many pages it has. Rounded, I mean.
Find a scrap of paper or a used envelope and jot this down at the bottom: total number of pages.
Now divide that into: 1/8, 1/6, 1/4, 1/3, 1/2, 2/3, 3/4, 5/6, 7/8. You can knock it right down into all the eighths and sixths if you like, but these are the main divisions. Scribble those numbers vertically above the total.
Now—as you work your way through your current read, every time you come to one of those pages, make a note of what big, important plot point is going on right there. At least within a few pages.
Depending upon the type of novel you’re reading, the climax may be shoved all the way to within spitting distance of the last page. And that’s fine! That’s an excellent way to end a novel. So when you get to the climax, go ahead and scribble that down, too.
Label it at the top with the title of the book. Then throw it on a box on your desk and start a new scrap for the next book.
Eventually, you're going to have a whole raft of these little lists.
And. They. Are. Priceless.
Take them out every now and then to study. What do you see?
Hook (the beginning to 1/8-1/6)
Conflict #1 (1/8-1/6 to 1/4-1/3)
Conflict #2 (1/4-1/3 to 1/2-2/3)
Conflict #3 (1/2-2/3 to 2/3-3/4)
Faux Resolution (2/3-3/4 to 5/6-7/8)
Climax (5/6-7/8 to the end)
Some writers use a pattern based on quarters, while others prefer a pattern based on thirds. Occasionally, I stumble across someone who skews the 1/2 point to 3/5 (rare) or even 2/3 (even more rare).
That's why this isn’t formula, it’s structure. A house with many rooms is just as livable as a house with only one room, but a house with no supporting walls at all falls down.
So lick a pencil and scrabble for whatever’s handy. All those novels you’ve been reading all these years?
All structured properly.
You’re going to be amazed.
Reading for Character Development
Now I’m also going to assign you a second exercise for your current reading material. Because I don’t believe in doing things halfway.
Flip over that scrap of paper or used envelope on which you’re jotting down your plot design research and scribble the name of the protagonist of whatever you’re reading on the back. If there’s more than one protagonist, scribble the name of the main one.
Chew your pencil for a few minutes (don’t eat the paint—just destroy the little metal bit that holds the eraser) and ask yourself, “What does this character need more than anything else in the entire world?” When you’ve got it, write it down under their name. “And what do they need that conflicts with this need?” Write that down too. Put a big blocky square all over the whole thing.
Now, every time you reach one of those milestones you outlined on the other side of this paper, I want you to jot down on this side what happens to the protagonist and their conflicting needs. I can guarantee something does.
Is one need satisfied in some partial but slightly fulfilling way? Just enough to keep them addicted to the search for total fulfillment?
Is their search for fulfillment of one need thwarted in some way? Enough to freak them out, but not enough to make them think, “This is for the birds. I’m giving up”?
Are their needs ever totally fulfilled?
Are their needs ever totally thwarted?
Scribble, scribble, scribble. Do your scribbling. You’re a scribbler.
Then—you knew I was going to say this—chuck it in that box on your desk. And start the whole thing over again with another book.
When you’re ready, take these scraps out of the box and study them. What patterns do you see? How do all these different authors lead their characters by the nose through the hoops that have been set for them, feeding their needs, denying their needs, feeding their needs again, denying their needs again? How does this rhythm build to a crescendo by the end, driving both character and reader nuts with frustration and anticipation?
How have these authors kept their reader addicted?
Do you ever watch fireworks—for Chinese New Year, Mexican Independence, a hobbit’s eleventy-first birthday?
The next time you do, be thinking how it would feel to have them go off inside your heart. Then think about how your favorite authors make the climaxes of their novels feel…
Exactly. That. Way.
About the Author: Victoria Mixon has been a professional writer and editor for over thirty years. She co-authored the nonfiction Children and the Internet, published by Prentice Hall in 1996, for which she is listed in the Who’s Who of America. Victoria’s blog, A. Victoria Mixon, Editor, was voted one of the Top Ten Blogs for Writers in 2011. Her first book on writing, The Art and Craft of Fiction, is one of the elite handful recommended by Preditors & Editors, and her second book on writing, The Art and Craft of Story: 2nd Practitioner’s Manual, was released on September 30, 2011.
Story by K.M. Weiland