Recently, we have been critiquing first-page submissions here at TKZ and focusing very much on that first ‘inciting incident’ that draws a reader into your book. We’ve emphasised the need to start at the right place (so readers aren’t sitting around twiddling their thumbs through backstory) and to introduce tension, character and exposition in a way that compels a reader to keep reading.
Achieving all this is no mean feat but for many writers the next critical issue is plotting the rest of the novel so that initial level of tension and excitement doesn’t drift or sag. For me, the hardest part of plotting is keeping things simple (as I have a tendency to overly complicate everything!) and because of this I outline (and re-outline) throughout the writing and editing process. Even if you don’t outline, however, I think you need to have a mental grip on the key elements of plot as you are writing.
Now, I get to make an unsolicited plug for James Scott Bell’s excellent book Plot & Structure: Techniques and exercises for crafting a plot that grips readers from start to finish. In this, Jim summarises the basic plot elements with the acronym LOCK:
- Lead (the main character that draws readers into the story)
- Objective (what gives the lead a reason for being in the story – what compels and drives them -often either to get something or to get away from something)
- Confrontation (the battle between the lead and the opposition – what is preventing the lead from achieving what he/she needs)
- Knockout (an ending that answers all the major questions and which leaves the reader satisfied)
In so doing Jim neatly encapsulates the critical elements needed for a successful book – particularly a thriller or mystery. As Jim points out, confrontation is the engine of plot and at critical junctures in the book the lead must face his/her battles in order to transition to the next level of confrontation in the story.
When facing a sagging middle, I always remember Jim’s comment that middles are all about confrontations and setting up for the final battle to come. This helps me keep focus and tension in those murky middle waters. I also find that right from the start I have the key plot elements in mind and these continually inform the writing process and keep me on track.
So after all the emphasis we have placed on first-pages recently, it’s now time to revisit the plot that drives the rest of the narrative, and for all of you who submitted (and those of you who didn’t), how would you dissect a successful plot down to its constituent parts? What advice would you give to fellow writers on plot and structure?
What, in your view, are the critical plot elements?