A plot doesn’t have to be brilliant for a story to work. It just needs to have some basic components: characters, in conflict, and in a setting. The characters must struggle to overcome some obstacle (or obtain some goal) on three or more occasions, and the tale must resolve in such a way so that the reader knows what happens. (If you don’t know the basics of what a plot is, there are a number of good books on the topic. Read Robert McKee’s Story. That’s a great place to start.)
The biggest problem with plot is when the author leaves one or more element missing. Usually the author gets a character in there, even more than one, but something gets left out.
When I’m reading for Writers of The Future, every quarter I get at least a couple stories that start out brilliantly. The author is often erudite, with a knack for description and dialog. A huge problem will evolve, and the character will go and solve it—on the first try.
I recall one excellent example: A young woman, a linguist, was put in charge of greeting the first aliens to land on Earth. During a previous encounter in space, mankind had sent an emissary to meet them in their own language. The ambassador spoke the greeting improperly, so the aliens killed him and destroyed a space station on Alpha Centauri.
So in this story the linguist literally has the fate of the world thrust on her shoulders.
She worries about it, she frets. The aliens come, and she greets them perfectly. The aliens then rejoice to find such a sophisticated, deserving people, and they shower mankind with technological gifts.
Well, it just doesn’t work. Telling a tale where something of import was accomplished in one try leaves the audience expecting more. Yet some writers don’t get this.
once read a nice story of this type, and at the end, the author put a
note which said, “I’ve been entering this contest for fourteen years,
and I’ve never won a thing. This is the best that I can do. Could
someone please tell me what I’m doing wrong?”
So I told him about try/fail cycles. I worry that I did so in vain. Someone who doesn’t “get it” naturally probably has something wrong in the head.
Now, you can’t just have try/fail cycles. Your goal is to have interesting attempts to resolve the problem. Fascinating attempts. Thrilling ones. And the attempts must turn out to be more mind-boggling than first imagined.
In other words, if you have a villain, the villain must try to thwart your hero in creative ways that deliver suspense, that keep us engaged. Similarly, your protagonist needs to deal with his problems in ways that are entertaining.
You need to break out of the mold. You can’t have heroes and villains meeting every challenge in the same way as has been done in a thousand other stories.
Have you ever watched Kung Fu movies? How many times can a bunch of villains in black fight a bunch of heroes in white without things getting boring? The answer: only once. After one scene of hand-to-hand contact, you have to throw in swords or something, but even that gets tedious in a heartbeat.
Yet I’ve seen many novels that are the equivalent of Kung Fu movies. I was trying to read a novel by one vaunted fantasy author the other day, and I was surprised at how often the author resorted to the same trick. He wants to raise the tension, so he throws in a new encounter with “trolls.” The swords come out, and five minutes later the hero is back to plodding along across some interminable landscape.
But it isn’t just the try/fail cycles that get left out or get stale. Sometimes the proper tension just isn’t invested in a tale. The hero isn’t facing any challenge of consequence. Nothing is on the line.
For example, here’s a story: I just went out and got the mai.
Does that sound like a story to you? Not really. There was no challenge for me. Now, if I had to get the mail, but in order to do it I had to dodge bullets, stick my hand in a mailbox full of rattlesnakes, and fight off an IRS agent in order to get back to my door, then perhaps I’d have a story.
Or maybe not. Sometimes the try/fail cycles can be boring because they feel contrived. The author goes “over the top” as he or she struggles to entertain.
In short, you need to have a conflict that is properly balanced with the protagonist’s abilities.
Along with this, the author needs to vary the types of conflicts. By this I mean that it can’t all be Kung Fu fights. Protagonists often must face multiple types of problems, with both internal struggles and external conflicts, and possibly romantic conflicts. So on one level, our Kung Fu master might be struggling to get rid of the evil bandit who is forcing his sister into prostitution. On another level he’s trying to overcome his own fears. On a third track, he might be trying to solve a murder mystery, and so on.
More than one Hollywood story doctor has pointed out that in every great movie, there is an “external journey” that a hero takes, and an “internal story” that also comes out. They’re right. That internal journey often involves the hero struggling to reveal his true self to the rest of the world. They might think that he’s a coward, or dishonest, or ill-bred, but he knows that he has greatness hidden within him, and he proves it by his actions.
So a good plot flows quickly and logically, often while the stakes become greater as the story progresses. Let’s talk about the stakes for a moment. The major problem often broadens, so that it affects more and more people as the story goes on. For example, in a murder mystery, the victims begin to pile up over the course of a novel. But the problem can also deepen, having more deleterious consequences in the hero’s life. The detective in our story might find that he cannot sleep, cannot eat. He becomes obsessed with finding the killer, and it ruins his marriage and family life.
In fact, most of the time, a good conflict will both broaden and deepen.
Not every try/fail cycle in a story needs to be shown. In short fiction, we might pass over the easy attempts. For example, let’s say that we write a story about a young man who gets thrown out of his house, so he decides to secretly live in the attic, thereby having adventures. The young man might talk to his father early on, try to resolve their differences, but you might well feel that this doesn’t need to be in the story. Why? Because his first attempt to resolve the problem is boring. So rather than recount it in a scene, you might deal with it in a sentence or so and move on to something more worthwhile.
Unfortunately, in literary fiction it has become standard to throw out too much of the plot. Authors truncate stories by removing inciting incidents, then drop the ending by reasoning that any intelligent reader will be able to deduce the ending by recognizing the author’s tone. It is true that for sophisticated readers, a truncated story can work fine, but you must remember that not all readers are sophisticated. Even the ones who are sophisticated don’t necessarily want to have to struggle to understand your tale. Most of us read for relaxation and entertainment.
Given this, I prefer to read authors who put most of the story onto the page—who struggle to elucidate rather than to be obscure.
at the end of a tale, I have to go back and examine the basic plot, and
ask myself, how well did the author do? Guess what? It doesn’t have to
be the best plot ever written. Many a fine movie or book might score
only a five out of a scale of one to ten and still become a big hit.
Why? Because plot is just one factor to making a great story.
The Writers’ Bundle
David Farland has helped dozens of authors hit the New York Times bestseller list, contributing to the careers of J.K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, Brandon Sanderson, James Dashner, and many more.
With this bundle, you’ll get access to the audited versions of Dave’s online workshops and receive copies of his writing books, all for a special price. These courses would normally cost more than $1,600, but for this week only, you can get them all for the low price of $89.
You’ll get one-year access to all material in these workshops, meaning you can work through courses at whatever speed you like, and even complete assignments alongside friends and writing groups.
Who is David Farland?
David Farland is the New York Times bestselling author of over 50 novels and anthologies. He’s written science fiction under the name Dave Wolverton and fantasy under David Farland.
His work spans multiple genres. He’s won best-book-of-the-year awards in science fiction, historical fiction, and young adult thrillers.
He’s also the lead judge for one of the world’s largest writing contests, the L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers Contest, where he judges thousands of stories every year, edits the annual anthology that results, and teaches writing courses.
Dave has taught creative writing at Brigham Young University and at conventions and symposiums from Sydney Australia, across the US, and in Europe. Nearly a hundred of his past students have gone on to become bestsellers, including eight who have hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list.
This courseware is designed to teach you the things that he has taught other bestsellers.
The Courses—The workshops and seminars are all videotaped, and you will be able to access them online. Here is a breakdown of what you’ll get:
The Story Puzzle Workshop—Normally $199 as an audited class
Creating a story is like putting a puzzle together, one with missing or misleading pieces. In this workshop, you’ll learn how to recognize what pieces of your story you have (such as characters, scenes, or conflicts), determine what pieces are still missing, and fashion the pieces you need. Dave will show you how to create imaginative settings that can give birth to incredible societies and characters, plus how to take those characters’ cores and generate enthralling conflicts for your plot. This course is especially effective when combined with Dave’s Amazon #1 bestselling writing book, Million Dollar Outlines, also included in this bundle.
Writing Mastery 1 Workshop— Normally $199 as an audited class
What are the nine most common weaknesses that keep new authors from publishing successfully? This course will help you identify these problems and overcome them, strengthening your own writing through education and practice. Each topic is addressed in a taped lesson, followed by learning material, recommended reading, and a writing assignment. Learn to take your writing from “okay” to “powerful” and then “mesmerizing” in this first Writing Mastery course.
Writing Mastery 2 Workshop— Normally $199 as an audited class
In Writing Mastery 2, the focus will be on your story, which means that you will spend more time brainstorming scenes and working to build your story as a whole. Many of these exercises are designed to help you see your story in a new way, brainstorm new scenes, and then begin writing them, so that you build on the existing framework of your novel.
Promising Starts Workshop— Normally $399 as an audited class
Think you’re ready to begin your novel? The new author is faced with a lot of tasks, introducing his world, his characters, and building his story. For most people, starting well is a struggle. This workshop will help guide you through the process of writing that difficult opening.
Editing to Greatness Workshop— Normally $399 as an audited class
In this workshop you will learn why you need to become your own editor, and you’ll get an overview of the editorial process. You’ll learn why it’s important to make multiple passes while editing, and we’ll help introduce you to some of the best tools to guide you as you revise your novel.
Worldbuilding Seminar— Normally $29
In every genre, the works at the very top of the all-time bestseller list tend to be those where the author has spent time to develop a unique and compelling world. In this series of seven lectures, Dave will talk about some of the elements of worldbuilding that you should explore.
Heinlein’s Rules Seminar— Normally $29
More than 65 years ago, Robert Heinlein gave a few simple rules about how to approach your writing career. The advice is considered timeless, but a few things have changed since then, and maybe it’s time for some revision.
Kickstart Your Career Seminar— Normally $29
Dave has helped numerous authors hit the New York Times bestseller lists, so one of the most frequent questions he gets asked is “How can I break into writing quickly?” In this series of lectures, Dave talks about some of the steps you need to take in order to build a successful career as a writer. This goes especially well with his book Million Dollar Book Signings.
Writing for YA and MG Seminar— Normally $29
Dave has helped launch the careers of or train such notable writers as J.K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, Brandon Sanderson, and James Dashner. Many of these people write for younger audiences, in either the genres of middle grade and young adult, which have their own particular needs. In these lectures, Dave talks about some of the special considerations for these audiences and tells why they can be so hard to break into, but also so lucrative.
Recharge Your Creative Batteries Seminar— Normally $29
Every writer gets tired at times and feels that he has hit a creative block. In these lessons, Dave talks about how to combat that fatigue and get excited about your art once again.
Million Dollar Outlines Guide—
Many writers can tell you how to outline, or not, but in this #1 Amazon bestseller, Dave takes it several steps further by helping you decide not just how to outline a novel, but to create one that will become a bestseller.
Drawing on the Power of Resonance in Writing—
Every genre of writing has a “secret language” that builds up around it, a way of presenting itself to the world. In this book, Dave helps you see the importance of learning how to resonate well with other books and films in your genre, while resonating with real-life experiences, so that your novel will garner an audience as big as the genre that you write in.
Million Dollar Book Signings—
Dave has had terrible book signings and great ones. In fact, on July 3, 1999, he broke the Guinness Record for the World’s Largest single author, single book signing. You wouldn’t think that in today’s world that doing book signings would be important, but in this book Dave shows how laying the foundations of success for your book is vital, and reveals how some of his authors have become millionaires by focusing on one book signing at a time.
Why So Low on the Prices?
A couple of people have wondered if this is a scam. Why so low on the price? The answer is: I made this offer over the holidays and have had a number of people who have asked to get in on it, so we’re doing it one last time.
Quotes by Past Students
“His explanations led directly to me getting my first agent, and subsequently my first book deal.” –Brandon Sanderson, #1 New York Times bestselling fantasy author
“Aside from being a talented writer, David Farland is an excellent writing teacher. Those who would like to learn more about the craft of writing would be wise to pay attention.” –Brandon Mull, #1 New York Times bestselling children’s author
“Dave’s work spans many genres and is always good!” –Kevin J. Anderson, #1 New York Times bestselling science fiction author
“This is a seriously good deal. The classes I’ve taken from Dave have been some of the most useful, thought-provoking writing lessons I’ve had.” Kate Julicher, award-winning past student
“If there’s an aspiring writer in your life, this is a princely gift. If YOU are the aspiring writer, this is an investment in your own success.” Kary English, award-winning past student
“I paid the full $1,600 for these courses and books over the years, which were all well worth it!” – Jeff Kasunic, past student (and a very good one!)
How to Best Take Advantage of this Deal.
Dave is a firm believer that you learn by doing. So when you get these courses, make sure that you do the exercises. Just as importantly, get feedback from other writers. In fact, dozens of writers have told us that by working in groups of three or more, they really made tremendous advances in their craft
Don’t miss out! This offer expires soon. Get all $1,600 worth of courseware and books for only $89!