The Blog of John Hewitt

Plotting by Elimination

Master the Possibilities

When you start a novel, the options are virtually limitless. A character can go in almost any direction. As the story progresses though, all of those options should fall away until the only option left is the conclusion. Think of your story as a tree. In the beginning, a tree is just a seed, and it can grow in many directions, both up and down. As you move along a tree though, you eliminate options. If you move up, you have left the roots behind. If you move past a branch, that branch is now behind you and can no longer be chosen. When you choose a branch, you eliminate everything but that branch. As you follow that branch along, you move by other branches until make another choice. At that point your choices are narrow. You are running out of branches until eventually you reach the end, where you have nowhere else to go but to embrace that final leaf or bud or whatever form your conclusion takes.

Decisions Define both Characters and Stories

The choices in a novel run along those same lines. Every word, every paragraph goes toward defining your characters, your plot and your themes. Each choice your characters make eliminates the other choices that could have been made. As each choice comes up, it further defines the character and it eliminates the choices that they could have made. The character might make dramatic changes as the story moves forward, but those changes must be the result of their earlier choices. Eventually, the character runs out of choices. They arrive at the ending knowing that it is now the only ending that remained possible.

As the Plot Progresses, Even the Same Decision is Different

Keep track of the choices that your characters make. In the beginning, your protagonist may be a high school graduate who must choose between college and work. If he chooses college, then he must choose a major. If he chooses a major, he has to choose from a specific set of classes. If he goes to the class he must take a seat. If he takes a seat between two people, he may choose to talk to one of them, none of them or both of them. If he talks to one of them, that person may turn out to be a friend or an enemy. If that person is a friend, they will go places together. If they spend too much time doing things other than classes, the student fails out of college.

At that point the student once again must choose, college or work, but he is not at the same point as he was in the beginning, even if he is making a similar choice. Getting back into college will be hard this time. He may have to choose a lesser school, foe example. If he goes to work it will be as a college dropout or perhaps as a part-time student who must hold a job as well. Either way, his choices revolve around college or work, because those are the branches of the tree that follows. If he fails at college again, the chances are very slim that he will have a third chance. Meanwhile, he has acquired a friend along the way, and that friend would not have appeared if he had made different choices.

Sometimes, Decisions are Made for You

Sometimes, in a novel, outside forces determine some of the branches. For example, his parents may have been paying for college, but then they lose a significant amount of money when the stock market crashes, and they can no longer afford to help him out. He must now make his choices based on the new situation. Be careful with outside forces though. It is usually better for a story if the characters’ own choices determine their fate as much as possible. The outside world may act to eliminate some options, but for the most part, rely on your characters to determine their paths; otherwise the conclusion will feel unearned.

What to Do Once the Crisis is Settled

Is this the End?

Every story has to end. The most important thing that has to happen before a story ends is that the central conflict of the story has to be settled. The protagonist wins. The protagonist loses. The protagonist realizes that she has both won and lost. Whatever the case, the crisis is settled. What then?

Say a Little or Say a Lot?

In movies, you frequently see them end the story at the moment, the very moment, when the central conflict has been settled. Sports movies are famous for this. The Karate Kid ends just after Daniel has defeated his nemesis Johnny to win the karate championship. He is literally still standing there with his arms in the air as his instructor Miyagi looks on with pride. There is no denouement whatsoever. It ends at the moment of triumph.

On the other end of the scale you have the Lord of the Rings Trilogy (both the books and the movies). It can be argued that half the final book (and movie) are denouement. We see how the conflict has changed each of the central characters and we follow them as they return to their former lives or find that they cannot return to their former lives. The World According to Garp (the book, I never saw the movie) actually takes the time to follow each of their characters all the way to their various eventual deaths. It tells you how their lives played out in the aftermath of the central crisis.

All of these choices are valid, but there are definitely consequences to each choice. A brief, or nonexistent, denouement runs the risk of the reader not really feeling that the central conflict had a significant effect on the characters. They may end up feeling as if their time has been wasted or feel that the characters haven’t really changed. An especially long denouement, by contrast, runs the risk of leaving the reader bored. Once the tension of the crisis has been released, the reader knows that the conclusion is coming. The longer you take with the denouement, the longer you will have to keep the reader’s attention without having the tension of the conflict to keep them invested.

Be Fair to your Readers

One of the most controversial denouements is the end of the Harry Potter series of books. Because the series lasted seven books, the readers were invested in many, many characters. People wanted to know how all of these characters turned out. What readers got was a twenty page denouement, set years later, that answered very few of the lingering questions. This upset most readers — quite understandably. When you spend several thousand pages discussing the lives of a set of characters, you should expect that the readers will be invested in the outcomes for each of these characters that they have grown to love over the years.

My simple advice is that a denouement should last long enough for the reader to feel satisfied, but no so long that the reader gets bored. Make sure that the central themes of your novel get at least a moment of reflection in the denouement and that your readers are clear about how the novel has changed your characters.

How Setting Influences Story

reception, the bridesmaid reveals that she and the best man had drunken fling the night before the wedding. As they head off on their honeymoon together, the bride and the groom must work through this crisis or their marriage will end before it has truly even begun.

This is a story that could happen virtually anywhere, and at almost any time in history. It could be a comedy, melodrama or tragedy. All of the elements are there for any sort of story you can imagine. The overt crisis (though not the underlying conflict) is clear and the stakes are equally clear. Consider though, the effect that setting would have on this story.

Setting #1: 2008. The wedding took place at a posh hotel in Chicago, The bride and groom now face a long plane ride to Hawaii, where they have secured a small villa right on the beach. While they are in Hawaii they are scheduled to attend a luau, an island tour and snorkeling in a private lagoon.

Setting #2: 1988. The couple were married at a Las Vegas chapel by an Elvis impersonator. The reception was held at the Circus Circus hotel buffet, which is the hotel they will be staying at, surrounded by their family and friends, for the next several days. They have tickets to see Rich Little and have booked a helicopter tour of the Las Vegas Strip.

Setting #3: 1954. Rural Virginia. The couple were married in a large church wedding with the reception at the Elk’s Lodge. For their honeymoon they are driving down to a small motel in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Their car is a ten-year old Cadillac.

Obviously these are rudimentary setting details, but I think you can get an idea that the three different settings lend themselves to dramatically different effects. A posh villa in Hawaii will influence the characters much differently than a garish casino or a small-town motel. The morals and general atmosphere of the 1950s, the 1980s and the 2000s are very different. The economics of the three settings are also dramatically different. The feeling of being surrounded by family or being isolated during a crisis has influences the characters.

The setting can either have a weak or a strong influence on the plot and the themes of a story, depending on how the writer uses it. Here are a few ideas for choosing your settings:

  • Choose settings that matter to the characters
  • Choose settings that can influence the action
  • Choose settings that you know enough about to describe comfortably
  • Choose settings that will be of interest to the readers
  • Take the time to describe the settings in enough detail for the readers to have a clear idea of where the characters are

Maintaining your Novel’s Pace-Time Continuum

Hours, days, months or years

While it is possible to write one, I have never personally read a novel in which the events took place in a matter of minutes, but I have read novels in which the action took place over several hours or a couple of days. Franny and Zoey, the novella by J.D. Salinger, is comprised of two events that happen over the course of a few hours. Bright Lights, Big City takes place over the span of about three days. The World According To Garp is a novel that spans the entire life of the main character, T.S. Garp, moving from the events of his birth all the way through his life and his death, followed by a descriptions of the remaining lives of just about every character in the story.

Pick a Pace

The way you teat time in your story should have a fairly consistent approach. For example, if you write one scene in great detail, with each moment discussed at length, then you should consider that approach for most of your scenes. It would be odd to have a scene written to that level of detail followed by scenes that happen much faster and are far less descriptive. There might be reasons why you would make that choice, but for the most part you want the pace of your novel to say fairly steady unless there is a specific result that you want to achieve by changing the pace.

Jump With Care

Moving forward and backwards in time is also a tool that should be used with great care. A flashback can add value and perspective to a story, but it can also jar the person out of the narrative or leave them confused about the sequence of events. Sometimes, for the sake of continuity, it is better for a character to discuss the past events than for there to be an actual shift in time. It a choice that should be made carefully.

Watch Your Place

Be careful when it comes to the sequencing of events. If your story is supposed to take place over the course of a week, for example, be sure that the events could logically happen in that time frame. Also, especially if you write your novel out of sequence, make sure that when the finished product comes together, everything happens when it is supposed to.

Questions you should ask yourself when you are describing things for a story

Here are some questions you should ask yourself when you are describing things for a story. You don’t need to describe every element of a story to a minute level of detail, but you should consider what will make your descriptions better, and what can send you off course.

What would the characters notice?

Describing a place in detail can be very good, but only if the descriptions would matter to the reader or to the character. The view outside the window of a car doesn’t matter if the main character spends the trip reading a book, unless you are trying to show what the character is missing. If a carpenter and painter are both looking at a brand new house, they are going to notice different things, and both will probably have a different view than a policeman or a teenage runaway. A happy and comfortable person may experience a place differently than a depressed or angry person.

What senses make sense?

Most writers tend to focus on visual details, which can be very important, but the way something smells, sounds, tastes or feels can also improve on the experience. Food is an item that lends itself to all five senses. Try to give details that involve more than one sense. Crowded places can often be described more effectively using sound and touch. Smell can be a very useful way of demonstrating a radical change in environment, especially for the worse. Danger and despair almost always have a strong odor.

What does the story require?

If you are writing a story about the lives of two wealthy people, you are going to want to portray that wealth through your descriptions of your environment. If you are writing a story about a poverty-stricken area, you’ll want your descriptions to capture the desperation of the situation. You should use description to reflect the moods and attitudes of your story as well as the people in it.

What are the spatial relationships?

It doesn’t always matter where people are things are in relation to each other, but there are times when that minor detail can mean quite a bit. Are two people sitting next to each other or across from each other? If they are next to each other, are they touching or creating space? Are they comfortable next to each other or uncomfortable next to each other? If they are sitting across from each other, does their difference in perspective give them a radically different view? One person may be staring at a wall while the other one stares out a window.

Are items arranged with a specific order or are items placed haphazardly? These things don’t always matter, but you should be ready to describe them if they do. If the characters are of different heights (Such as a father and a young daughter) does the difference in their perspective change what they see significantly?

What is the reality?

When you write a description, each character may have a different perspective on where they are, but there is a certain reality to the place as well. There are things that will exist, and may matter, whether the character observes them or not. It is important to reflect the character’s views, but it may also be important to show how skewed that character’s perspective may be.

For the reader to know that a person is surrounded by beauty, but doesn’t see it, it must be clear that the place is objectively beautiful. Also, depending on your story, you may be dealing with real-world settings that your audience may be familiar with. Make sure that your descriptions match what is really there, or if they don’t, be able to show why they don’t. For example, the Eiffel Tower is, for the most part, brown and gray. If you describe it as green, you had better have a reason to do so.