How to Write (Or Write Around) Plot

How to Set Up the Inevitable

Story: “Crossing” by Mark Slouka, published at Paris Review

Any hack with the smallest facility for plot can walk a character into a situation that cannot be escaped. But it takes skill and craft to make the reader feel the character’s desperation. This is exactly what Mark Slouka does in his story. By the last paragraph, the tension is nearly unbearable. The ending is powerful: “There was nowhere to go. It didn’t matter. They had to go.”

How to Write a Twist Ending

Story: “Windeye” by Brian Evenson, published by PEN America

In a classic reversal, such as the one used by M. Night Shyamalon in The Sixth Sense, the viewer or reader’s sense of what is true is completely reversed. In other words, we realize that Bruce Willis is, in fact, not alive but dead. “Windeye” operates differently. The twist is incomplete.

How to Write a Story Based on Repetition, Not Chronology

Story: “In My War Novel” by Matthew Salesses, published at Fictionaut

Many writers might avoid using repetition because it seems incompatible with plot. After all, how can a story move forward if it keeps repeating itself? Matthew Salesses’ answer is to work within a loose plot structure based on a couple of basic questions.

How to Write Plot by Answering the “Why” Question

Story: “How to Escape from a Leper Colony” by Tiphanie Yanique, published at Boston Review

When we talk about plot, the focus is often on what happens–setting it up, teasing the reader with what will happen next, creating suspense. Sometimes, though, plot is built upon the question of why things happen.

How to Find the Right Plot for Your Character

Novel: Long Division by Kiese Laymon, excerpted at Gawker

I was talking to a writer the other day who said that, if it was up to her, she’d write nothing but character development. Her characters would talk to each other and occasionally wind up in interesting circumstances, but not much would happen. Her solution was to create a detailed outline—the kind that takes several weeks to create. This is a terrific idea, even if many writers are initially opposed to it. But what if you can’t find the right plot for the outline?

How to Introduce Genre Elements into a Literary Story

Story: “Victory Music” by Daniel José Older, published in PANK and Necessary Fiction

How do you introduce genre elements into a literary story without also feeling beholden to the genre’s usual structure? For instance, not every story with ghosts is a ghost story. Anyone reading the first lines of a ghost story has certain expectations for what will happen. But if that same person begins a story about a young woman who tells her parents that she’s no longer a girl, the expectations are different. It’s the old genre vs literary divide.

How to Write an Ending that Swerves

Story: “Poinsettias” by Myfanwy Collins, published at PANK

Sometimes an ending can seem too much like the conclusion of a composition paper. The writer is moved to swerve away from the predictable, to untie the ending from the sense of inevitability that the story has spent its entire existence building. But how?

How to Write a Story Ending

Book: The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail by Óscar Martínez, published by Verso

The easiest part of writing any story ought to be finding the beginning, middle, and end. So why is it often so hard? And why does so much ride on making the right choices?

How to Create a Power Imbalance

Novel: We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo, excerpted in Guernica

A common writing tip is to create a power imbalance between characters. There are obvious ways to do this: give one character a gun. Or, create a structural imbalance (teacher/student, coach/player, rich family/servants). But what if these approaches don’t fit comfortably in your story, and you don’t want to shoehorn them in? You need something more nuanced.

How to Use Plot Spoilers in a Story

Story: “St. Roger of Fox Chase” by Sean Ennis, published by New Harvest

Every writer will likely at some point begin a story with a spoiler—by giving away a major plot point. The novelist Paul Murray actually did this with the title of his book: Skippy Dies. It’s an effective strategy. The reader wants to know what happened—how did Skippy die? But it can also be a surprisingly difficult strategy to pull off. You can give away too much, or you can reveal an ending that the reader isn’t interested in. So, how do you make it work?

How to Use Danger to Create Plot

Story: “Out of the Mouths of Babes” by Monica McFawn, published The Georgia Review

Everyone is familiar with Chekhov’s gun: If the story puts a gun on the wall in the first act, the gun needs to be fired by the third act. If a story presents something as dangerous, then it must face that thing directly, not avoid it. Of course, not every story needs a gun. The danger can be located in anything—even things that aren’t necessarily dangerous in every circumstance. All you need is for a character to say, “Don’t do that” or “That’s off-limits” or “Be careful” and you’ve got your dangerous element.

How to Write an Ending that Doesn’t Resolve Conflict

Essay: “Jesus Never Gave Christmas Porn” by Owen Egerton, published in Salon

The best essay about Christmas that I’ve ever read is by Owen Egerton. I don’t make this claim lightly, given that there is no shortage of holiday-themed writing this time of year. The essay is notable for its perspective (Egerton grew up a humanist, became a fundamentalist Christian, and now writes searching novels about faith) but also its content: as a kid, the Egerton children rushed downstairs to find their stockings stuffed with pornographic magazines. After Egerton experienced a religious epiphany as a teenager, these gifts still appeared, and the essay explores the inevitable tension with his parents.

How to Create a Window of Opportunity

Novel: An American in Scotland by Karen Ranney, published by Avon

When I was a kid, my dad liked to joke that the devil came out after midnight, which is actually good advice for writers. In stories, whether they’re fiction or nonfiction, we need to find those windows of opportunity when the devil can show his face, when characters can act in ways they otherwise wouldn’t.

How to Escape from Plot

Novel: Carrying Albert Home by Homer Hickam, published by William Morrow

When I was a kid, I had a book called Tootle about a train that wanted to play in the meadow but was told, over and over, to stay on the track no matter what. Tootle resisted this advice but was eventually beaten into conformity. As you might expect, the best parts of the book are when Tootle is frolicking in the buttercups with the butterflies. This is good to keep in mind when thinking about plot. We often focus on driving the story forward down the track, which is good for creating suspense but can also become dull. Sometimes a narrative needs to hop off the tracks.

How to Give a Story’s Plot Enough Fuel to Finish

Story: “I Was a Revolutionary” by Andrew Malan Milward, published by Harper

As writers, we all eventually experience this moment: we’re sitting at the computer, and the story just quits. It won’t move forward, no matter how many guns we hang on the wall or strangers we have knock on the door. So what do we do? Very likely, go back to the beginning, searching for that wrong piece that has fouled everything up. It’s often the case, though, that the problem isn’t a wrong piece but not enoughpieces. A story needs multiple plot threads, multiple questions for the reader to wonder about. The solution to writer’s block, then, is often to find ways to introduce more plot threads at the beginning of the story.

How to Create a Narrative Arc

Story: “The Journey Home” by Susan Muaddi Darraj

In my MFA program, I learned the term narrative arc and the idea of the narrative triangle, which says that a character must get from point A to point B through a third point. This makes perfect sense. I didn’t understand it at all. My stories suffered as a result. If you can’t create that third point, then you can’t create suspense, which is, at its most basic, the art of making readers anticipate point B and delaying their arrival there. Without a point B, there’s nothing standing in the way of a quick rush to point B and the end of the story. This way of thinking about narrative arc applies not just to stories but to scenes as well.

How to Give the Ending Away Without the Reader Knowing

Story: “The Resurrection Act” by Shannon Perri

The best endings feel both surprising and inevitable at the same time, but in early drafts of stories, we tend to focus on one or the other: surprising or inevitable. We throw in a crazy twist, shocking readers but making them feel as if we were holding something back. Or, we set things too clearly and neatly so that the ending feels like a letdown. We need to do both, which requires showing readers the elements of the twist or final drama without them knowing recognizing what they’re seeing.

How to Set Up the Second Half of Your Novel

Novel: Chasing the Sun by Natalia Sylvester

Almost everyone who tries to write a novel hits a wall roughly a third to halfway through the book. They discover that the plot is played out and the characters have hit dead ends. Why is this? Part of the problem is often found in the opening pages. One of the inescapable truths of storytelling is that you must get to the story quickly; it’s the reason readers won’t be able to put down your book. This is true for every kind of story, but it’s especially true for a novel that fits into the category thriller. Yet if the novel focuses solely on kicking off the plot, it won’t give itself enough material to keep going once the initial plot mechanism runs its course. This is why many early novel drafts tend to stall out after 70 to 100 pages. The question is how to do two things at once: hook the reader and also plant seeds that will sprout later in the book.

How to Develop Character with Plot

Novel: The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee

For some literary writers, plot is a four-letter word. You’ll be at a party with writers or in class, and someone will say, “I’m just not interested in plot.” Or “I just want to write about a feeling.” These are valid statements and probably indicate one difference between literary and genre writers. Someone who writes classic mystery stories, for example is most likely very interested in plot and its mechanics. But mystery plots are not the only kind of plots, nor are thriller plots or YA dystopian plots. It’s possible to view plot as any device that creates suspense and, as a result, structure. In fact, the feelings or characters that some literary writers want to focus on can be developed most fully by using plot.

How to Set Up a Happy Ending

Novel: The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick

In a workshop I teach, a student recently pointed out that a lot of stories we’d read had sad endings. This prompted a discussion of whether it’s possible to write a happy ending; it is, of course, but it’s not necessarily easy. Some writers are not temperamentally inclined toward uplifting or positive conclusions. Some are. But what if your nature runs toward difficult endings but you want to send your characters and readers away from the last page with joy in the hearts? How can you tilt a narrative in favor of a happy ending?


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