The Basics

I feel a bit stupid doing a post on this because this info is virtually everywhere on the internet. But given the lackluster readings I’ve seen this summer, it makes me think writers have forgotten the basics of how to build a story – the plot – which includes all these goodies that you see in the picture.

It really doesn’t matter what you’re writing, fiction or nonfiction, the basic elements still apply. These are the Charles Darwin Moments I wrote about in my last post.

Exposition – intro stuff

The beginning of your story is vital to me – and to you! – because this is the hot zone for Rejection City. If I don’t get enough lead-in to your story – meaning a clear grasp of your characters and the setting – then I can’t possibly become engrossed in your story.

I’ve been seeing a lack of both this summer. The characters are dry, lifeless things that lay flat on the page – much like my attempts at baking. your characters are the vehicles that move the story along. If I don’t care about them, I certainly won’t care about the story.

The same can be said for settings. It’s not enough to say the story takes place in San Francisco. Where in SF? Use all five senses to set the scene. What is the weather like – besides foggy, that is? What smells are in the air? What does the character see? What sounds does he hear?

Imagine you’re walking with someone who’s blind. You have to describe everything around you in order to help that blind person “see” their surroundings. Well, your readers are also blind, so help them see.

Rising Action – we gotta go somewhere, right?

So you have the preliminaries over, and the story has to go somewhere. This is, oddly enough, where many manuscripts fall apart. You spent your first three chapters introducing the characters and setting the scene – it’s the busy work, and now it needs to take a specific direction. It’s the  “what’s next?” phase – which is usually Chapter 4.

This is where you have to commit to your story and build the foundations for the big Ta-Da, and this is where I see many stories flounder. Writers almost always have a clear vision of the big Ta-Da Moments because that’s more than likely the reason they’re writing the book.”Hey, I’ll write a book about how a small, freckled beagle takes over a publishing company!” The writer is keenly focused on the beagle achieving her intent and doesn’t really consider how to get her there.

That is the rising action.

This is where the conflict resides. For example, maybe the beagle’s attempts of her planned takeover are continually thwarted by a cagey editor who’s on to the evil plot, so the beagle decides to discredit the cagey editor by screwing up a manuscript right before it goes to print. But what if the publishing company is also discredited? Then the beagle would be Queen Bee of nothing. Should she resort to character assassination instead?

As you can see, there are different roads the beagle can take to achieve her ultimate goal – and each of them have their own set of consequences. Conflict.

But many manuscripts this summer are missing that logical sequence of events that create conflict. Instead, I’ve been seeing big dreks of backstory and fluff that derail the movement of the story. Note: you cannot build a foundation on backstory and fluff. This is why planning your story out is vital. Build up – don’t fall backwards with backstory.

Climax – exactly what you think it is

Here is your Ta-Da Moment. It’s the culmination of your Rising Action – your Darwin Moments – your sequence of building events. It’s working all day long for that T-giving dinner and sitting down to eat it.  I’ve been underwhelmed this summer. There have been stories that had lots of great build-up only to come to a crash with an unfulfilling climax. The climax – the big Ta-Da – needs to be proportional to your Rising Action. It’s a balancing act that comes with experience.

Falling Action – the “whew” moment

This is where the the reader sees the results of the climax – i.e. the beagle has managed to disgrace that rotten, mean editor without hurting the publishing company, thus enabling her to take it over. The Falling Action – the “whew” moment – is showing what comes next for the beagle now that the company is hers. What policies will she implement now that she holds the bloody red pen.

I’ve read too many manuscripts that omit this important step. They have the Ta-Da climax, then jump to the “and everyone lived happily ever after.” This leaves me screeching, “hey, waitaminute…what happened to the characters? How are they impacted because of what happened in the climax?” As far as I’m concerned, a lousy Falling Action diminishes the Climax and leaves me with a “so what?” feeling.

Denouement – “and they all rode off into the sunset”

This is the calming effect. You’ve had your Climax (why does that sound dirty?), you’ve had your Falling Action, now it’s time for the dust to settle. Your characters are obviously changed or impacted because of the Climax, so the denouement is used to show what those changes are before riding off into the sunset.

As with the rest of the story, the “riding off into the sunset” moments need to make sense and be satisfactory. With our T-giving dinner example, the denouement is turning on the TV and watching old home movies while everyone is sucking on antacids.

As for the beagle example, there will be no riding off into that thar sunset. That cranky editor returns and poisons the beagle with tainted tequila in order to exact her revenge – thus inviting a sequel…

ETA: As Nicola Morgan [aka Shoes], my dear across-the-pond-co-conspirator in all things literary and mayhem, sagely points out – the illustration at the top is out of whack. The Climax should come much later than as depicted above.

7 Responses to The Basics

  1. NinjaFingers says:

    I like to think I do all this stuff.

    But a good reminder of the basics is always important, especially if you think you know everything.

  2. Hi Lynn – I hope you’ll forgive me for suggesting that I feel that the climax should come later than your diagram suggests…

    Otherwise, very valuable basics!

  3. Scott says:

    Thanks. I’m directing people over here on Thursday . . . and I even have your last name right this time . . . unless you change your name between now and then, which is really unfair. ; )


  4. Nicola, you’re absolutely correct! I’ve amended my post to reflect your sage wisdom.

  5. […]  Edit July 21, 2010: Editor Lynn Price gave a good explanation of exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denoument on her blog yesterday: […]

  6. Pelotard says:

    Actually, it’s even better when you have a “sawtooth” shape where each tooth is taller than the one before. (Did that make any sense at all?) Then again, I write thrillers… or at least I try to… where you’re expected to have lots of excitement sprinkled throughout, and no matter how hard marketeers try to tell us something is “non-stop action,” it simply doesn’t work that way.

  7. Yes, thanks for that reminder, Pelo. Our stories will take on some morphed form of the illustration above. The important thing is that our stories include those elements, no matter how zig zaggy they are.

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