Rising Actions | Elements of a Novel – Part 6

Elements of a Novel: Rising Action

Welcome to Part Six of the Elements of a Novel Series! Today we’re talking about Rising Actions! (ICYMI, here are the links to Part One: Creating Characters, Part Two: Choosing a Plot Structure, Part Three: Setting and World Building, Part Four: The Beginning, and Part Five: The Inciting Incident.)

Rising actions are how you keep your story interesting, your readers engaged, and your plot and character development moving forward. That’s a lot to ask of one novel element! This post aims to break down exactly what rising actions are, and how to make them work for you in the least intimidating way possible.

Let’s take a look at what rising actions are, how many you need, and how to manage them in your novel!

What are rising actions?

Rising actions are the pivotal points in your novel that lead to the climactic moment. In a plot structure like the one below, they are the crisis points on the chart. (For more on this plot structure, check out this post!)

Rising actions are designed to continually push the plot and challenge your character. If they’re executed effectively, they will lead you to a natural climactic moment. This may be a showdown between your protagonist and villain, a crucial revelation for your main character, or something similar.

The main role rising actions play in your plot is to ensure your climax doesn’t come out of nowhere. If you know you want your book to end with a major confrontation between your protagonist and antagonist, your readers need to see that conflict build in order to become appropriately invested in the outcome. Rising actions will help you get there gradually. They will help your reader understand and care about the confrontation just as much as your characters do.

Additionally, they can help your character progressively grow. If you want your character to evolve and change by the end of your book, then that growth shouldn’t come out of nowhere either. Readers need to see the tiny steps your character makes throughout the book that gets them from Point A to Point B.

How many rising actions do you need?

There’s no concrete rule on how many rising actions you need. Ultimately, it will depend on the story you’re writing and the plot structure you’re following. Longer books will likely have more rising actions tha shorter ones, and some plot structures suggest more than others. (For more on plot structures, check out part two of this series!) I like to use the plot structure pictured in the previous point, so I usually go with four rising actions. I would suggest considering between three and six, depending on what makes the most sense for your story.

There truly is no right answer here. The more rising actions you have, the more of a build to the climax there will be. This can be a good or bad thing, depending on your book. If you pick too few, you run the risk of not paying enough attention to the build and the climax may feel a little random to your readers. However, if you pick too many, it may draw your plot out too much.

When in doubt, go with the middle ground (so, in this case, four or five) for your first draft, then see how your book looks in revision. If the plot feels too drawn out, you can cut or combine rising actions. If it feels too abrupt, you can add some. Be mindful, but don’t let this decision hold you up. You can always fix your book later!

How do you lead into rising actions?

I find it easiest to think of each rising action as mini climactic moments in their own right. It’s typically best to build up to each rising action like you’re doing with the climax itself. Take another look at the plot structure above. Do you notice how the shape of the graph gently slopes up to each rising action? They’re not shown as sharp upward spikes. That’s because it’s usually most effective to progress into the rising action.

For example, let’s say one of your rising actions is that your character has to break out of somewhere. That typically takes preparation. So instead of your character just deciding to break out and making an attempt, you can have events in the chapter or two prior where your character prepares to break out. Maybe in one chapter, they get supplies, then in the next, they watch the guards and choose the best moment. Then in the following chapter, they actually execute the breakout.

This will help your reader anticipate and become invested in the rising action while giving you an event that helps them become equally as invested in the climax.

What should each rising action include?

Ideally, each rising action should include an event that gets your character closer to the climactic plot point and gets your character closer to who you want them to be at the end of the book.

When it comes to plot, each rising action should give your character something that will either help them in the climax, or help them get to the climax. This could mean that one of your rising actions forces your character to uncover a skill they didn’t know they had, which they can then develop and use at your story’s pivotal moment. Or maybe your character learns crucial information that helps them learn or understand something important about their enemy.

Additionally, you can really take your rising actions to the next level if you tie some character development to each rising action. For example, let’s say you want your character to learn to be more trusting. In your first rising action, they can be forced to work with and trust someone they’re uncomfortable with to retrieve information that’s pivotal to the plot. Then the next plot point should build on that trust. Maybe after being forced to work together, they come to a truce of sorts. Then the trust will build from there in the next few rising actions.

For more on how to make plot and character work together, check out this post!

How do you come out of a rising action?

Once you reach the peak of your rising action and get your characters out of their situation/back to safety, it’s usually a good idea to give them a moment to breathe and regroup from whatever they went through. Maybe they nearly got caught by their enemy, or maybe another character died. Whatever happened, they’ll likely need time to process, evaluate their situation, and recover.

These recovery periods can make for some particularly good character moments. As we’ve said, the rising actions themselves should push and challenge your characters. This may put them in emotionally or physically vulnerable situations that they will have to deal with during these recovery periods.

Something else to keep in mind: if you want to keep building tension, it’s a good idea for your rising actions to get more intense and for your characters to suffer more consequences after the rising actions as your book progresses. This may result in stronger and more interesting character moments as you move through your book.

How do you plot rising actions?

Before you can plot your rising actions, you have to choose a plot structure. (See Part Two!) Once you pick your plot structure, you can choose to plot forward or backward, depending on what seems easier.

No matter what you pick, I would suggest having some idea what you climax is from the start, even if it’s only a vague idea. It’s a lot easier to plot your rising actions if you know what you’re rising to.

If you’re plotting from the start of your book and moving forward, look at where your character is starting, and refer to your plot structure. Then figure out what the first step they need to take on their journey to get them one step closer to the climax. Then have them take another step, then another. Keep taking steps forward until your plot structure is filled in or you reach the climax.

In this method, you build tension and momentum in the same chronological way you want your reader to experience it. It’s best for writers who have an idea of how to get their character from the beginning to the end, but just need to fill in some blanks.

If you’re plotting backward, start at your climax and consider your plot structure. Then, figure out the step that needs to happen right before the climax to bring it about. Then you take another step backward and figure out what needs to happen to bring that plot point about. After that, you take another step back, then another until you reach the start of the book.

This method can be best for writers who feel like they have no idea how their character is going to get from the beginning to the end. It helps prevent you from focusing too much on the (possibly) overwhelming big picture. Instead, it encourages you to zero in on the events that need to happen prior, in order for the climax to occur.

I hope this helps you create some awesome rising actions for your novel!

Now it’s your turn: What are your tips and tricks for creating rising actions? How do you keep your rising actions interesting? Tell me about it in the comments!

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The Inciting Incident | Elements of a Novel – Part 5

Inciting Incident: Elements of a Novel

Welcome to Part Five of the Elements of a Novel Series! Today is all about the Inciting Incident! (ICYMI, here are the links to Part One: Creating Characters, Part Two: Choosing a Plot Structure, Part Three: Setting and World Building, and Part Four: The Beginning.)

The inciting incident is one of the most important elements of the plot structure. It’s responsible for hooking your readers into the story and kick-starting your plot. This post aims to break down what an inciting incident is, what makes for a good one, when it should happen, and some tips to help you with your own!

What is it?

The inciting incident is when you’re character’s life starts to change. This change can come as a result of a choice your character makes or as a result of something that happens to them, such as the death of a family member or a change in their circumstances. The inciting incident is what will make your character rise to the occasion, leave their normal life, and move to the main story arc of your plot.

What makes for a good inciting incident?

A good inciting incident should have a personal connection with your protagonist and (by extension) your reader. It should tug at something your character strongly believes in and/or wants to change. Because this element propels the plot, it has to be big and meaningful enough for your character to sign up for the rest of the story. Otherwise, your readers may not find your story to be belivable from the start.

There are two ways you can appeal to your character. First, is in a positive way. In this instance, you give your character a change that is seemingly positive. This will be something that your character will want to leave their normal life for.

One example is from Harry Potter. In this case, the inciting incident is when Harry gets his Hogwarts letter and learns he’s a wizard. At the time, this was a positive change for him. It got him away from his terrible aunt and uncle and into a world of magic. Harry finding his way into the magic world is what set the entire seven-book series into motion.

The second way you can appeal to your character is in a negative way. This can mean killing or endangering a family member, or forcing them to take a risk for their own or someone else’s safety. In this case, your character may not actually want to leave their world, but they’ll do it for the greater good.

A good example of this type of appeal is The Hunger Games. In this case, the inciting incident is when Katniss volunteers as tribute to save her sister. She doesn’t actually want to be in the Hunger Games, but she’s motivated to do so in order to keep her sister out of danger.

When should it happen?

When your inciting incident should happen can vary depending on the story, but generally speaking, you’re going to want it pretty close to the beginning. If you’re using a three-act structure, it generally falls towards the end of act one.

Because your inciting incident is responsible for both pulling your reader in and kicking you plot into gear, it’s typically better to introduce your inciting incident as soon as possible. However, it’s important to establish what “normal” is for your character. Some stories need more time than others to do this. Looking at the two examples above, The Hunger Games had its inciting incident at the end of chapter one, while Harry Potter took several chapters.

Sooner is always better, but don’t cut corners. If your characters are in a fantasy world, you may need to take a chapter or two establishing the world before you dive into your inciting incident. You’re better off taking a little more time to get to your inciting incident and ensure your reader isn’t confused.

And of course, you can always fix it later! On your first draft, you should absolutely take all the time you need. Maybe you have a lot of “normal” to establish and it takes you ten chapters to get to the inciting incident. If it feels like you story is dragging when you read over it, you can always tighten it up. That’s what revision is for!

Tips for an effective inciting incident

Focus on believability

It might be tempting to start your story off with a bang, but if you go too big, too fast, you run the risk or loosing your reader out of the gate. They’re not invested in your story yet, so if they are’t buying what you’re selling at this point, they’re much more likely to walk away now than the might be at chapter twenty. If your story seems too far fetched this early, your reader may see that as a sign of things to come and bounce before they get invested.

On the other hand, if your inciting incident is underwhelming or unrealistic, it might not seem like enough of a reason for your character to abandon their reality for your plot. This may cause your reader to walk away in a similar fashion. For instance, if in The Hunger Games, Katniss chose to volunteer to save someone who wasn’t her sister, it might not ring true to your readers. It simply doesn’t seem believable enough that an average person would sentence themselves to almost certain death for a stranger–especially if they hadn’t done so in the past.

This leads me to the tip.

Make it personal

One easy way to aid the believability of an inciting incident is to make it personal. In Katniss’s case, it’s because her sister was in danger that we so easily believed she would take such a risk. You can use this to your advantage in any number of situations. If you want a character to care about a mystery, it could be that someone they care about was hurt. Or it could be that the person responsible is still out there and could hurt your character or someone else.

However, how personal you need to make an inciting incident can often depend on the stakes of the story and the role of your character. If you’re writing about a detective catching a serial killer, the inciting incident may not have to be all that personal because the stakes are life and death, and it’s the detective’s job to catch such a person. But if the stakes are lower or your character is typically more removed from the plot arc you’re writing, giving them a personal connection is a solid, believable way to get them into the story.

Show clear advantages

It also helps to show clear advantages to your character making the kind of change the inciting incident is asking them to make. Jumping back to our Harry Potter example, not every eleven-year-old would see leaving home, their friends, and their current school to go to a boarding school as a good thing. But in Harry’s case, there were clear advantages. His family didn’t treat him well, he didn’t have any friends as a result, and he was going to a school that would teach him magic. Who wouldn’t say yes to something like that?

Even if you can’t put your character in a situation like Harry’s where they would want to leave their normal world, if you can put them in a situation where the advantages believably outweigh the disadvantages, it will likely be enough to convince your readers to buy into your inciting incident and get your plot off and running!

I hope this helps you create an awesome inciting incident for your novel!

Now it’s your turn: What are some of your favorite inciting incidents? What are some techniques you’ve used in your books? Tell me about it in the comments!

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The Beginning | Elements of a Novel – Part 4

Elements of a Novel: The Beginning

Welcome to Part Four of the Elements of a Novel Series! It’s time to finally dig into the novel itself and explore the beginning! (ICYMI, here are the links to Part One: Creating Characters, Part Two: Choosing a Plot Structure, and Part Three: Setting and World Building.)

The main goal for the beginning of a novel is to introduce your readers to your world, character, and story. Ideally, you want to do this in a fun and interesting way. Let’s take a look at the specifics of what you should aim to introduce and how to keep your audience engaged while you do it!

Introduce the main character

The first priority at the beginning of your story is to introduce your main character. If you want your readers to connect with your story, they need to be anchored and connected to your protagonist as soon as possible.

However, it’s a bit of a balancing act. If you give your readers too much information about your character too fast, you could overwhelm them. Instead, try to stick to the very basics of what your readers need to know about your character to be willing to follow them through the story. Establishing their voice, attitude, and general personality is far more important than establishing their appearance.

If you feel like you’re struggling to create a connection for your readers, consider putting your character in some kind of heightened emotional state. If they’re worried, or stressed, or afraid of something, your reader will likely be able to latch on and relate to those emotions. This is by no means the only way to start a story, but if you’re having a hard time, it might help!

Introduce related characters

Depending on the events you decide to include in your opening scene, you may need to introduce other characters along with your main character. If you’re going to have a handful of characters in your opening scene, it might be ideal to limit additional characters to supporting characters. This will allow you to keep the focus on your protagonist, while allowing them to have company in the scene.

Alternatively, if you want to include two main characters in the opening scene, you might want to think about limiting the scene to just the two of them. This will help readers get to know the characters and emphasize their importance without pulling focus to less important characters.

But keep in mind, these are not hard and fast rules. They’re guidelines that I have found make for a successful character introduction. You should absolutely be open to modifying as it makes sense for the beginning of your story.

Introduce the setting and/or world

In addition to your character, readers need to know where exactly this story is taking place. Similar to when you introduce your character, you don’t want to give your readers too much too fast. This is especially a concern if you’re setting your story in a completely different world.

There are a handful of ways you can introduce your setting/world successfully, but here are my two biggest tips:

Limit the information you share

Like with your character introduction, consider limiting the information you share about your setting to only what your readers NEED to know to get into your story. This is particularly relevant if you need to introduce a whole new world to your audience. New characters and a completely new world can be a lot for the reader to take in. Limiting information can help your reader ease into your world, while quickly engaging with your story.

For example, if you’re writing a fantasy, you may have magic in your book. It might be important to introduce that magic up front, so by all means, include it in your opening scene. However, the details behind how the magic works and who gets to use it can be discussed later.

Start up close, then widen the lens

This technique is another great way to ease your readers into your setting, regardless of if your story is set on this world or another. When you first introduce your character, only introduce their immediate surroundings at first. So, if your character is at work, just tell us about their work setting. If they’re at home, tell us about their home.

Then as the scene or chapter moves on, widen the lens and tell us where their work or home is located. If there’s something unique about the location you want to mention, go for it! Otherwise, consider leaving the inner-workings of the setting and world until your readers need the information.

Introduce “normal”

Now that you’ve introduced who your main character is, and where the story is set, it’s time to focus on “normal.” What’s normal for your character is going to be relative. For example, if your main character is an assassin, their normal is likely going to be killing someone. This may not be what most, if not all, of your readers consider to be “normal,” but it’s what’s normal to your character.

Why “normal” needs to come first

One piece of writing advice that I come across a lot with regard to beginnings is to start your story “in the middle of the action.” However, that doesn’t mean you should catapult into your story’s inciting incident right out of the gate. While this approach will definitely get you into the story quickly, it’s also likely to confuse your reader. Taking the time to introduce your character, world, and your character’s normal will allow your reader to orient themselves. It also allows readers to see the life your character is used to, and who they are at the start of the book. This will provide a solid basis of how the inciting incident (which we’ll cover in the next post) disrupts their normal, and how the events to come will push your character to grow and change.

How to keep it interesting

Just because the focus of the beginning of the book is an introduction doesn’t mean it should be boring. One of the best ways to establish “normal” and introduce the important information is to put your character in an uncomfortable or tense situation. If you have a character who has a different sense of normal, like our assassin from earlier, your job might be easier than others. Opening with the character completing a hit would be both tense and attention-getting.

If you don’t have a character with an unusual lifestyle, you can still lean on tension and discomfort to create your opening. One book that does this well is The Hunger Games. This book may be dystopian, but the characters themselves are average people. The book opens on the day of the “reaping,” which is when people are chosen to participate in the hunger games. The reaping may not be a daily event, but it’s a normal annual event for the people in this book. It’s also an event that leads to a heightened emotional state for the characters.

You can use any kind of emotionally hightened “normal” situation to pull your readers in.

I hope this helps you with the beginning of your novel!

Now it’s your turn: What are some of your favorite ways to introduce readers to your story at the beginning? Tell me about it in the comments!

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Setting and World Building | Elements of a Novel – Part 3

Elements of a Novel: Setting and world buildingWelcome to Part Three of the Elements of a Novel Series! Today we’re focusing on setting and world building! (ICYMI, here are the links to Part One: Creating Characters and Part Two: Choosing a Plot Structure.)

This is the last element we’re going to talk about before we start moving through the general structure of a novel. This post is going to look at the role setting and world play in your story, the difference between them, and the specifics of what you might want to consider developing within each.

Let’s get started!

How does Setting and World Building inform your story?

The setting and world play a role in creating the feel and backdrop for your story. For example, books that are set in big cities often feel very different than books that are set in small towns. And books that are set in mystical fantasy lands feel very different than books set in this real and modern world.

World and setting also play a role in what events can and can’t happen in your story. For example, if you set your story in modern Florida, it wouldn’t make sense for a series of snowstorms to occur in your story because snow in that region is pretty rare. However, if you set your book in the Northeast, that would be more believable. Similarly, you couldn’t write a story set in modern times in the modern world with trolls and elves as co-workers for your character because we don’t have trolls and elves in this world. However, with some world building, you can create a new reality for your story to exist in.

Setting

What is setting?

Setting is where your story takes place. You can set your story in a real place that already exists or you can use world building to create a setting. (More on that later.) Setting includes both the time and physical spaces your story takes place in.

What do you need to develop in setting?

Even if you’re not using world building to create a setting from scratch, you’ll likely need to consider and develop several aspects of your setting. The specifics of what you need to develop will be unique to your story, but here are the key elements that will likely be true for everyone.

When your story takes place

When your story takes place is important for both historical and practical purposes. Historically, you need to know what current events are happening at the time of your story. This will help you to create a real and vivid world. If you’re setting your book in the U.S. in the late 1800s, that’s the gilded age. What does that mean for your characters? Practically, the “when” of your story will also dictate the level of technological and social development in your story. This will inform what can and can’t happen to your characters. If you’re setting it in the 1970s, consider the available technology. It would make sense for your characters to get their news from the TV, but if your book were set in the 1930s, the radio would be more common.

Your main character’s home base

Where is your main character’s home base? This includes both the city or town they live in and the building they spend most of their time in. This home base may or may not be your character’s “home.” For example, in the early seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the home base for the core group of characters was the school’s library. It was the only place in town that had the information the characters needed to access on a regular basis and was safe for the characters to meet discuss the latest supernatural threat. Your characters will likely need their own regular, safe meet up spot. It can be your main character’s actual home, but it doesn’t have to be.

 The places your characters frequent

Home base may be your most used location, but it’s unlikely that your characters will stay cooped up in one place for the entire length of your story. So in addition to your character’s home base, there will be a handful of places your characters will frequent that you will need to create. This can include where they work, go to school, eat, have fun, and visit with friend and family. A good example is Gilmore Girls. In this case, I would say that the Gilmore home is home base, but Lorelai and Rory also regularly spend time at Luke’s Diner, The Inn where Lorelai works, Chilton where Rory goes to school, and Lorelai’s parents’ house, to name a few. Developing key locations will go along way in creating a real and believable setting for your story. You can use some light world building to create these locations like the creators of Gilmore Girls or can use places that exist in real life.

Towns, cities, and countries your characters live in and visit

You also need to develop or research any town/city/country your characters live in and visit. Even if your character isn’t there for that long, you need to be able to give a decent description and feel of the location. It’s also important to give your readers a sense of where they are in the world, so be sure to at least mention where the town/city and country your story is taking place in. It always helps to visit a location if you’re going to write about it, but if you can’t, try using Google Maps. Here’s a post on how I use Google Maps to help with my setting!

Note

If you’re setting your story in a historical time period or a setting you’re unfamiliar with, be sure to do your research! You may not get everything right, but do your best anyway. Glaring inaccuracies can become distractions and take your reader out of the story.

World Building

What is World Building?

World building is when you create the locations and city/towns/countries/worlds your story is set it. Every story will likely need some level of world building, but the extent will depend on where and when your story is set.

What do you need to develop in World Building?

How much you need to develop will depend on how close you want your story to stick to reality. If you’re setting your book in this modern world, you may only need some light world building. If you’re writing a high-fantasy, Lord of the Rings style, you’ll need heavier world building. Below, we’re going to look at the different levels of world building and the rough areas to consider in each level. For a detailed list of elements to develop for fictional and fantasy worlds, check out this post!

Light World Building

Light World Building is for when you’re setting a story in this world, but you don’t want to rely on real places and location. So instead, you create your own. Going back to the Gilmore Girls example, that show is a good instance light world building. The town of Stars Hollow doesn’t really exist, but small towns like it do. Luke’s Diner doesn’t really exist, but diners like it do. Most books, shows, and movies use light world building to create the setting and environment for their characters.

Relying on real places can become tedious. They constantly evolve and you may find that some aspect of the real world location just doesn’t fit your story as you need it to. Using light world building to create locations very similar to the ones we have in the real world give you flexibility as a writer, while still grounding your story in a world your reader is used to. I used light world building for my books. If you want more on this, I did a post on how to create a fictional world within our own.

Medium World Building

I consider medium world building to be any story that uses magical, mystical, science fiction, or similar elements in this world. Stories like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Supernatural, Timeless, Superman, etc, all have outlandish fictional elements that had to be created and built to fit into this world. The setting and/or natural laws of these stories are slightly different than our reality, but they’re still set in this world. In this case, it’s important to develop and explain what makes your character’s world different from ours. If there are supernatural or magical elements, those need to be developed in a way that makes sense with the world we live in. These elements and other magical aspects will also need their own history and origin stories. And because you’re still setting the story in this world, it’s important that the elements you’re creating believably work with the laws and circumstances of our world.

Heavy World Building

Heavy World Building is where you have to create a completely different world for your story. This includes whole countries with maps, races, magical elements, etc. This kind of world building is most common in fantasies like Lord of the Rings, Throne of Glass, and Game of Thrones. These stories are not set in this world that we live in and had to be created completely from scratch. There is also a more science fiction aspect to heavy world building that can include any story set in other planets or in outer space, like Firefly. In these cases, the worlds, planets, and systems need to be completely created. They are often removed enough from our world that maps need to be drawn and they’re different enough from the world we live in to need significant development.

Note:

These distinctions are just guidelines, you might fall somewhere in between. For example, I would consider Harry Potter and The Mortal Instruments series to fall between medium and heavy world building. They both have a fictional magic world, but it’s a subset of this world. So a whole new world with maps didn’t need to be created like in a Lord of the Rings style fantasy, but the interworkings and locations of the magical worlds did need to be created from scratch.

I hope this helps you with your setting and world building!

Now it’s your turn: What do you think about when you’re first creating your setting? What about world building? Tell me about it in the comments!

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Choosing a Plot Structure | Elements of a Novel – Part 2

Elements of a novel: Plot structureWelcome to Part Two of the Elements of a Novel Series! Today we’re going talk about plot structure and how to choose the best one for your novel. (ICYMI, here’s the link to Part One: Creating Characters.)

Before you start writing your novel, it’s a good idea to have some idea of the story you want to write and the path you want to take your characters on. Plot structures are like road maps. They give you landmarks and to hit and act as a guide to help you write an interesting and engaging story that will (ideally) be satisfying to both you and your readers.

There are basic elements that are found in all major plot structures, but there are a few variations that may be better options depending on the type of book you’re writing.

Let’s dive in and take a closer look at the three most popular plot structures!

Freytag’s Pyramid

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Overview

Freytag’s Pyramid is the most common dramatic plot structure. Here are the basic elements of this plot structure:

Exposition- Readers meet the characters, get introduced to the world, and learn any background information they need in order to understand the story.

Rising Action- The story builds to the climax with a series of events that lead your characters (and your readers) closer and closer to the climactic moment.

Climax- This is the pivotal moment in your story. The conflict you’ve been building in the rising action comes to a head. It’s the moment that will determine the fate of your main characters and shape their future.

Falling Action- The outcome of the climax is decided and your characters deal with the immediate aftermath.

Denoument- Wrap up your story, tie up any loose ends, and end.

Advantages

This is a timeless, evenly paced plot structure that can apply to almost story.

Disadvantages

It’s a little too straightforward and without more concrete checkpoints, it can lead to a story that’s a little too drawn out. This is because it visually places equal emphasis on the rising action as it does the falling action.

Recommended for:

Anyone who doesn’t know what plot structure to choose, or anyone who wants a straightforward classic.

Three-Act Structure

Basic Three-Act Structure

My Favorite Three-Act Structure

Overview

This structure follows the same basic format as Freytag’s Pyramid but has a few more checkpoints and guidelines. Here’s what this plot structure is made up of:

Act I (Beginning)

Opening/Exposition- Like the exposition in Freytag, here we meet the characters and are introduced to the world. It establishes what “normal” looks like for your main characters. This is intended to be done as quickly as possible.

Plot Point 1- This is your inciting incident. Something happens that shakes your character’s world and essentially kickstarts your story.

Act II (Middle)

3-4 points of crisis- This is similar to the rising actions in Freytag, but as you can see, it’s a little more specific. These points of crisis are intended to increase tension as the story progresses. They aren’t just “actions” they’re actual moments of crisis for your characters.

Plot Point 2- The second act ends with a dark moment for your character leading into the climax. Here, the tension is almost at its peak and everything is on the line for your characters.

Act III (End)

Climax- This is the epic fight or showdown you’ve been building towards. It should be the highest moment of tension for your characters and story.

Denoument- The biggest difference between Freytag and three-act is the very swift resolution. There is very little falling action. The idea is to wrap up your story as quickly after the climax as you can and get out. This should leave your reader satisfied with the outcome, but wanting more.

Advantages

This plot structure focuses more on raising the tension and creating an engaging story. It happens to be my favorite plot structure for this reason. (For more on how I use this structure, check out this post!) The focus on raising the tension with each crisis point helps to create a more tense and engaging story than simply focusing on moving your story closer to the climax. Visually, it also lessens importance on the opening and denoument, which puts the emphasis on writing a tight story.

Disadvantages

It doesn’t leave much room for side stories or character backstories. This can be a good thing if your goal is to write a tight novel. But if you’re looking to write something a little more thoughtful or slower paced, this may not be ideal for you.

Recommended for:

Plot driven stories that are intended to be tight, faster paced, tension driven, or page-turners.

Hero’s Journey

Overview

This plot structure is designed for more heroic stories and typically lends itself well to fantasies. One of the best examples is Lord of the Rings. The exact order of events can vary slightly, but this is the general plot structure:

1) The Ordinary World – First we establish the ordinary world of your hero. We see what their normal life looks like for them before they go off on their adventure.

2) The Call to Adventure – Next, your hero gets called to actually be a hero. They will be told they have to leave their home and do something very dangerous for the greater good.

3) Refusal to the Call- The hero will say they don’t want this responsibility and reject the mission they’ve been tasked with.

4) Meeting the Mentor- The hero will meet the person who will become their mentor and guide them on this journey. This person often gives the hero the push they need to go on this journey.

5) Crossing the Threshold – The hero will accept their task, cross the threshold and leave home to begin their heroic journey.

6) Tests, Allies, and Enemies – The hero will endure a series of tests and obstacles on their journey. These tests will push the character mentally and physically, forcing them to grow and change. They will also meet people who will help them and make enemies.

7) Approach the Inmost Cave – The hero prepares for the main ordeal they know is coming.

8) Ordeal – The hero is confronted with an extreme ordeal that will call on all of the skills they have learned on this journey so far in order to survive. This can be a physical battle with an enemy or it could be a situation where the hero is forced to face their deepest fear. Additionally, the hero must face some kind of death. This death can be literal or metaphorical.  It can apply directly to the hero or a member of their team.

9) Reward – The hero receives some kind of reward for their efforts in the ordeal. This can come in many forms such as an item, information, or saving a person.

10) The Road Home – The hero recommits to seeing out their journey and forages onward back to the ordinary world. However, the experiences the hero has had on their journey will make it hard to return.

11) The Resurrection The hero has one final ordeal that typically includes a brush with death and heroic efforts of another to keep the hero alive.

12) Return with Elixir- The hero returns to the ordinary world with something to share with the world they left behind. This could be something physical, such as an enchanted object or a cure for a disease, or it could be intangible, such as knowledge. This wraps up the story, however your hero is forever changed.

Advantages

This structure gives you some very clear and concrete plot points to write an engaging story that is both focused on plot and character development. It is a plot structure that is tried and true. If you’ve got a character who is intended to be the hero of the story, this is a plot structure that isn’t likely to lead you wrong.

Disadvantages

It might be a little too concrete. It puts your character on a very specific path, that may not work for your story, even if it’s intended to be a hero driven story. (For example, if you didn’t envision your character leaving the “ordinary world” then this plot may not be for you.)

Recommended for:

Fantasy and adventure novels with a hero-centric story.

I hope this helps you choose the best plot structure for your novel!

Now it’s your turn: What plot structure is your favorite and why? Tell me about it in the comments!

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Creating Characters | Elements of a Novel – Part 1

Creating CharactersI’m kicking off a new series all about the elements of a novel. In this series, I’m going to break down the elements you might want to consider while you work on your book. First up, we’re going to take a look at what goes into creating characters!

We’re talking about characters first because, if you ask me, they are the backbone of even the most plot-driven novels. Interesting and compelling characters are what makes readers want to invest in your story. If they care what happens to your characters, they will want to keep reading! So today, we’re going to talk about what goes into creating characters that grab your readers’ attention. First, we’ll look at what types of characters you might want to consider in your novel, then we’ll talk about ways to develop them into full and complete characters.

Types of characters to consider

When you flesh out a novel, you want to make sure you’re creating a believable world. And believable worlds are full of people! Here are some characters you might want to think about when you’re creating characters for your novel.

Hero/Lead

Of course, every book has a main character. This is the character who will carry your story. Ideally, they should be both flawed, but relatable. This balance is often effective because it gives readers someone to root for, while also allowing them to empathize with the main character. Often times, readers like to feel transported into a book, as if they themselves could be the hero. If your main character is too perfect, your reader won’t be able to relate and engage as fully as you might want them to.

Sidekick

If your main character has found themselves in a difficult situation, it might be a good idea to give them a friend who can root them on and help them achieve their goals. It also might be a good idea to have them balance out your hero in some way. So if your hero is super serious, it might be nice to have a sidekick who can keep things light. This can create a fun dynamic between the two characters while keeping your story balanced in the process. You might also want to consider how your sidekick can serve the overall story. Funny and supportive sidekicks are great, but funny, supportive and useful sidekicks are better. For more on how to create a functional sidekick, check out this post!

Mentor

If your main character has found themselves in an unfamiliar situation, it might be hard to justify how they can find their way on their own. That’s when the mentor comes in. A mentor can point your character in the right direction and provide the necessary wisdom and advice to keep your character and your book from stalling. Anyone with knowledge and direction can fill the mentor role, whether it be a teacher, a designated guide, or even a parent or other family member.

Love Interest

Romance subplots are always fun! (Or, if you’re writing a romance novel, this would, of course, be your main plot.) Relationships can push your character to learn, grow, and be honest with themselves, which is great for both character and story development. It can also provide your character with encouragement, support, and conflict in equal measure. However, like the sidekick, it’s best if the love interest is more than just a love interest. I’d suggest doing what you can to give them a way to contribute to the story.  Not only does it make the character more interesting, but it also gives them more of a reason to be around your main character, which gives you more of an opportunity to develop that relationship.

Villain/Antagonist

Your story will have more conflict if there is someone antagonizing your main character. This antagonist may be a villain, but they don’t have to be. They can simply be someone who is out to beat or compete with your main character. The example I like to give is that Voldemort from Harry Potter is a villain because he is intending harm. On the other hand, Aaron Burr from Hamilton is an antagonist because he’s not necessarily out to hurt Alexander Hamilton. He and Alexander are simply often after the same things and in competition with one another. Villains and antagonists are great because they create a natural conflict in your book, which pushes the story forward. If you are interested in a villain for your story, check out this post on creating strong villains!

Supporting Characters

Supporting characters help add depth to your world. You may only have a handful of characters involved in the ins and outs of your plot, but if you want your world to feel full and alive, you may want to think about having your characters interact with people outside of the core group. These characters may be seen on a regular basis, and from time to time, they may play a role in moving the story forward, but their main function is to support your main characters and add depth to your world.

Background Characters

Background characters play the smallest role in books. I consider them to be characters that are either only mentioned, but never seen, or only appear once or twice in the book.  Even we don’t see these characters, who they are and how they behaved is likely to be important to one of your main characters. For example, if your hero ran away from home, and never speaks to their family, and the family is never involved in the story, their family members would be background characters. We may never see these family members in your novel, but they may be talked about. Creating characters like these are important. You should be sure to put time into figuring out who these people are because they drastically impacted your main character, even if they never make a direct appearance.

Ways to develop characters

How you choose to go about developing and creating characters is completely up to you, but here are three methods to consider. They all involve questions, to varying degrees, and can be a great way to get your story off the ground. You can use them all together, or pick and choose your favorites.

Character questionnaires

Character questionnaires are probably the most common. You can find plenty floating around online with questions to consider for both your characters physical appearance and their personality and background. The pro to these types of questionnaires is that there are plenty of questions to consider that you might not otherwise have thought of. The con to this approach is that some of the questions can feel a little cookie-cutter and they don’t always force you to think about your character’s story arc.

If you want to give a character questionnaire a shot, here’s one from the Novel Factory.

Three big questions

This is my personal favorite approach. I consider these three questions for each of my main characters before I do anything:

What happened to my character before the book starts?

Who is my character at the start of the book?

Who do I want my character to be by the end?

These questions help me consider the nuances of what shaped my character prior to the start of the book and what will shape them going forward. I did a whole post on the specifics of how I use these questions to create strong characters, so if you want to learn more, be sure to check it out!

Core characteristic questions

This is the last set of questions to consider. I got these from grad school and I found them to be pretty thought-provoking. For every core character, consider:

What makes your character laugh?

What makes your character feel afraid?

What makes your character feel angry?

What makes your character feel ashamed?

What makes your character feel vulnerable?

Then for each one, figure out the “why” behind your answers. There has to be a story or underlying characteristic fueling each of these emotions. Understanding why your character feels this way will give you some insight into your character’s psyche, which will help you in creating strong characters.

I hope this helps you with creating characters for your novel!

Stay tuned for the next part of this series, which will be coming your way in a few weeks!

Now it’s your turn: What do you consider when you start creating characters for your stories? Tell me about it in the comments!

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