Writing Using Plot Knots

Today we have another post from the eminent Paul Davis. So, sit back and enjoy his work.

This piece was done by Julie Raymond. Make sure you check out the rest of her work!
This piece was done by Julie Raymond. Make sure you check out the rest of her work!

You’ve all heard this before: there are as many ways to write as there are people writing. Very rarely will you find the gem that tells you the exact best way you write. However, the more you read about what works for others, the more you come to understand what does work well for you. I came up with this way of writing when I mixed and matched writing styles with and without structure. I found it focused me enough to move forward while not restraining the story.

A quick lesson, though. When I first started writing I was a control freak. Everything was planned out, the story was cemented with only minor details able to change. For me, this angered my characters, caused the world to eventually become untrue to itself, and left me quitting the writing process halfway through. Then I tried with no structure at all, and there was nothing good which came of that. There are people working well in both camps, but I would bet most of us are an in between.

The way I have preferred to write is what I like to call a knot approach. Your story is a rope capable of moving as it wishes, swaying and kinking in the most unimaginable areas. Let’s be honest, some days our characters hate us, eventually our plot line doesn’t make sense, at times our setting rebels. The rope can flex with these moments, allowing for change. However, one still has to know where the rope is going to have some idea how to get there.

I plan out three knots. The knots are moments I know will happen, points of the rope that are fairly unmoving. Each knot has a plan, a plot point which changes the story, characters, and/or setting. Everything which happens to the rope on the way can move freely, as long as it eventually prepares for that one plot point.

My first knot is the inciting action. There is a background which must lead up to it, which I generally plan out. The background must move events and characters towards that inciting action and prepare them for it. Sometimes preparation means they have a certain flaw, and other times it means they have the magical gem needed to open the portal to bad places.

celtic_knotThe second knot is the game changer. There are always several game changers, but this one must happen or nothing else matters. It’s discovering the weakness in a castle, overcoming a fear of snakes, or learning a great spell which might be able to take down the evil wizard. It should challenge the character and reveal either growth or a lack there of. Everything leading up to it is preparing the character for the knot.

Finally, there is the climax. The final knot is the true test of if the protagonist learned anything, overcame any flaws, and became a better character for it. Everything between the second and third knot leads up to this final struggle. It is setting the stage for a great or tragic moment. The antagonist could suddenly show new vigor. A friend of the protagonist could die. Maybe the super weapon was lost or stolen and it needs to be recovered. Just throw in some spice to really shoot off the climax.

As I said when starting this, every writer has a style. The knots might not work out for you, or maybe they’re the piece of advice you’ve been waiting for all your writing days. I find it gives me enough structure while still allowing unstructured side stories. I’ve also had my knots change drastically. I had one knot where I was able to get all the characters needed together, but then they just decided to do what they wanted. People slated to die survived, while my survivors were shot down. Why? Because when the rope reached the knot, with the position of the characters and the way events had been playing it, it made more sense.

In short, play around with it. Give the knots a chance. Come up with three knots for a story, as short or long as you want, and try out a new method. I find it good practice to find new methods and practice them in my own works to see what I like or don’t like. I hope this helped and happy writing.

Scene Challenge of the Week

Let’s see… It’s Wednesday again, right? That means it’s time for another scene challenge… which means that I have to come up with a cue and some rules… man, keeping this blog running can be a lot of work sometimes (that was a joke, if you didn’t catch it… although not untrue). Okay, if you don’t know the rules, here you go: I provide you with specific rules for how to write a particular scene.  Try to keep your scene under five hundred words, and try to keep it in the same tone as the introduction.  If I give a line that is very dark and depressing, then I don’t want to see a scene about a drunken monkey in a tutu…it just doesn’t fit.  If I do give you a line about a drunken monkey in a tutu, then you should probably try for a funny scene.

Your challenge: Pick a favorite scene out of a novel that you like. Your challenge today is to rewrite this scene in your own style and voice. Obviously the essential nature of the scene and the character’s should stay the same, but the presentation of the scene should reflect your style of writing, rather than that of the original author. This can be challenging because we often tend to model our writing after authors that we like, instead of finding a voice of our own. After about a decade of writing this is something that I still struggle with sometimes, so this kind of exercise can make for excellent practice.

Different Kinds of Writing

Journalistic writing focuses on the now. It is about informing the reader of what is happening.
Journalistic writing focuses on the now. It is about informing the reader of what is happening.

Recently I had a conversation with one of my students which ended with that student telling me that he/she shouldn’t be graded down for writing in a non-academic way because academic writing just wasn’t her style of writing. I’m sure that a lot of professors have had similar conversations over the years, and all been similarly annoyed with the confusion between writing styles (see voice), and writing styles (see type). For instance,  one might write in a very witty, sarcastic, nonchalant style (voice) and apply this to many styles (type) of writing. However, one cannot substitute a journalistic or personal style (type) of writing for an academic style (type) of write and expect to get away with it.

Academic writing focuses on the problem. It is about convincing the reader of a particular position through the use of logic and evidence.
Academic writing focuses on the problem. It is about convincing the reader of a particular position through the use of logic and evidence.

For instance, in journalistic writing the first person is not used, but quotes are heavily used, but they are generally attributed, not cited or referenced. The point of a piece is to distribute information. In personal writing the first person is often primarily used, and quotes/sources are generally not used. The point of a piece is to express feeling, opinion, desire, or to update on the minutia of life. In fictional writing the first person may or may not be used (depended on perspective), and while sources are heavily used (seriously, if you think you can write fiction without doing research, think again), they are not quoted, cited, referenced, or generally recognized in any way. The purpose of a piece is to tell a story, make a point, and entertain. In academic writing the third person is universally used, and sources are heavily used, cited, and referenced, but only rarely quoted. The point of a piece is to convince the reader of a particular position through the presentation of logic and evidence. These are all very different kinds of writing, but the witty, sarcastic, nonchalant style (voice) can be effectively used in all of them.

There are as many different styles (voices) of writing as there are people that write, and no style (voice) is necessarily right or wrong. However, there are only a certain number of styles (types) of writing (e.g. academic, journalistic, personal, fictional, inspirational, etc) of writing, and each one has certain expectations of form that must be met for it to be considered good. For instance, if a fictional piece is boring, then it is not good, remember one of the purposes of fictional writing is to entertain. An academic piece, on the other hand, can be exceptionally boring, and still be a good piece, because the purpose is not to entertain, but to support through logic and evidence. When you sit down to write something, take a moment to consider the style (type) of writing that you are planning to use. If you’re writing for a newspaper, then don’t write like you were writing a letter. If you’re writing a letter, then don’t write like you were writing an academic paper. However, you also must be aware of the styles (voices) that you are capable of writing in effectively. If you can’t pull off a witty, sarcastic style, then don’t try. Find the voice or voices that are yours (some people can write in more than one voice), and master it. Use it effectively, and don’t be afraid to adapt it to the various styles (types) of writing that you do. Remember that differences in form don’t have to render you mute, they just require a little adjustment.

Writing to the AUDIENCE

About two months ago I began a position working through the Washington Reading Corps, a branch of AmeriCorps.  The goal of Washington Reading Corps is to work with struggling students on their literacy skills, be it vocabulary, reading comprehension, speaking, active listening, etc.  In my specific position, I work with low-income pre-school children (4-5 year olds).  I have one specific classroom I work in, but I also work with the other 60 head-start sites in my area through special literacy events and projects.  Today I was one of about 30 people sorting through 20,000+ books.  That’s right.  Over 20,000 books.  The agency I’m partnered with teamed up with Bazillion Books for Kids, a Portland-based organization whose goal is to give books to over 100,000 kids.  Within my agency, our goal was to give 10 books to around 1,000 kids in our program.  Additionally, we wanted to create a lending library at each of the pre-school sites where parents had access to reading materials.

I couldn’t think of a better way to spend a day than to gather materials to increase literacy.  In our country, we keep hearing that grades are dropping.  Test scores are lower.  Society on a whole is getting more stupid. Well, to incredibly simplify the problem, it all comes back to literacy.  LITERACY skills are necessary to do anything in life, and the stronger they are, the better.  A huge part of literacy is the capability to read.  And yet, my generation, and the generations coming up behind me, are reading less and less.  Why? Through various discussions, observations, and researches done, here are the top reasons I’ve found.

1) Trouble reading and they get frustrated with trying

2) Lack of interest in material provided

3) Not shown the importance of reading

We have to walk before we can run. As one famous character is known for saying, “Elementary.”

As writers we should have a goal for everything we write.  Whether it is to entertain, to inform, to purge, to mock, or to uplift, every piece we write MUST have a purpose if it is to be anything of value.  However, more than having a purpose for the writing in general, we must also have goal of how that piece is going to reach readers.  If you are writing a book for a wide general audience, but the writing level and style in the book are at an advanced level, then the interest in the book is going to be low.  People will get frustrated and drop it.

And I recognize that people may disagree with me on this, but think about Twilight and Harry Potter.  Huge selling series.  Popular with both kids, teens, and adults.  Why? The reading levels were not complicated, which made the books accessible to general audiences.  However, in today’s culture, many classics with higher vocabulary levels and complicated syntax, such as Faulkner and Dickens, are not generally read.  If we are to increase literacy in our culture, is it going to come about through no reading at all or through the Twilights and Harry Potters?

Yes, it would be wonderfully nice if everyone in society read and understood Dickens, Dostoevsky, the Brontes, etc.  But we cannot start there.  Everyone has a reading level, and that’s where we must start.  When I was in school, we were regularly tested (about once every 6 weeks) to see how are reading levels were improving.  The advice given based on research at the time was that we should read 80-90% in our reading level and then 10-20% just above our reading level for optimum improvement.

Now, most natural readers do this automatically.  And yet, since most writers are natural readers we tend to have trouble understanding those who struggle with reading or who refuse to read for whatever reason.  But now, more than ever, it is important to write for AUDIENCES.  What stories will actually be read? What writing styles and genres will be reach the greatest number of people? What vocabulary will be understood?

To end, I want to encourage all of you to think and consider what you are writing.  There is a place for Dickens and Brontes, I cannot deny that.  All of my favorites are classics.  But, I also know that I would not have made it to the Alcotts and Brontes and Mitchells without the Nancy Drews, the Mary Higgins Clarks, the Madelaine L’Engles.

**SIDENOTE: All of this said, I do not and cannot excuse sloppy writing.  There is far too much of that due to poor literacy skills already.  Everybody wants to be a writer, a photographer, a whatever.  But they don’t want to put in the work to perfect their craft.  Sloppy writing does not fulfill a purpose.

Peace. Love. LIBERTY.

***Disclaimer: While this post does discus the duty of benefiting society, it in no way applies or connects this to any form of utilitarianism, socialism, or any other political or philosophical -ism. 😀

****This is the last post I will be making for a while.  I have many new projects in the works with the Washington Reading Corps, and unfortunately, as many of you may have noticed, I haven’t always had the time or energy to  get my posts up on time.  Luckily, Tobias has found someone wonderful to fill in during my hiatus. So, I’ll leave you with my signature “Peace, love, and LIBERTY*****

Stream of Consciousness

One of the genre’s greatest heroes, Virginia Woolf

Sometimes just getting everything out there, down on paper, to be seen by the eyes not the mind is freeing.  Its a release to not worry about grammatical structures, transitions, and all of the little stylistic things that make writing come alive and give you an A on a paper.  No, writing itself, free and unhindered, when you hit that space and the mind flies blank and filled all at once, a zone of sorts that only you have the access key to.  Only you know the password because its your password. And that password takes you into that zone where everything is unreadable but it comes to you, quickly, needing to get out.  And only when you get it out do  you realize what you were feeling, what you were trying to say.  Its as if the damn of words in your head has broken loose and you can finally see through the waterfall of thoughts now cascading, because that’s what those words have now become: thoughts.  And those thoughts flow now, faster and faster as you move farther into your zone.  When you finish reading the thoughts that have somehow managed to find their way onto paper, you realize that the thoughts have become meaningful building blocks. An actual outline of half-finished sentences, somewhat intelligible to the random stranger if they know how to look, to read, the words to your soul.  This odyssey into your zone is like the ocean and all the waves moving back and forth, an ebb and flow, transporting you here and there and here and there, and your body gently sways because you don’t have to think, you just have to feel.  The thoughts are already there, but you are finally giving your mind the permission to release them, outside the normal confines of stress, of life, you are you now.  Exploring that safe place in your mind, connecting with the sounds you hear outside.  There is no parameter, no measuring stick, that judges some thoughts, some words useless.  Everything is permissible. Everything must be written down.

The above paragraph is filled with typos, grammatical errors, half-baked sentences, and randomly connected thoughts.  The above paragraph is a form of stream of consciousness writing.  I first began to explore this particular style in high school.  Then, I forgot about it for a while.  Recently, it has come back to my attention.

Stream of consciousness is a characterized as a more natural method of writing.  Or, at least it is supposed to seem that way.  It’s commonly utilized to show thought processes, add character personality, add a more personal narrative tone.  James Joyce and Virginia Woolf use various forms of stream of consciousness writing such as interior monologues and soliloquies.

From James Joyce’s Ulysses:

James Joyce perfected the the genre in Ulysses.

“…I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

Now when writing a story, be it a novel or a short story, this style of writing will still have some boundaries, some cohesiveness keeping everything together.  But, it will still seem more natural.  There will be an ebb and flow to the general direction of monologue, but like most thoughts in our head, there will be some dissonance, breaking up the natural rhythm.  The lack or addition of punctuation, the order of the words given, and the level of the words, all become a part of who the character is, who the narrator is.

In the above clip, lack of punctuation gives prominence to Molly (the character thinking the above)’s descent into passion, the after-sex and before-sex passionate lethargy.  Her thoughts are all focused around this event in some way, but within that event they run wild between memories, associations, and desire, all culminating in that final “Yes.”

It is also a great journaling method when writer’s block hits.  What it does is get everything out onto paper (or your computer screen).  In writing there’s a cliche that many times we don’t know what we’ve written, what we’ve created, what we were thinking, till we read it on paper.  Often times, those “ah ha” moments come when we’ve given ourselves the freedom to write, just write.  No constraints on what we put down or how we put it down.  The purpose is to just get it down as it comes into your head.

When you have finished, you can go back and read it, and perhaps you may find that nugget of inspiration hidden amid the rambling run-ons.