Justine: Mapping Your Story

Mayfair, London, UK courtesy Google Maps (c) 2105.

Mayfair, London, UK courtesy Google Maps (c) 2105.

So the other day my husband and I took our kids to see Hotel Transylvania 2. Don’t worry, I’m not going to blog about the movie (er, wait until it comes out on video…or just skip it entirely).

Anyhow, my husband and I didn’t like the movie and I told him the reason why is there was no plot. No GM + C. No…nothing.

That discussion progressed to us kvetching about cop-out endings and it reminded me of a series of tweets Emma Coats did about Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling. Twenty-two awesome rules of  storytelling.

I showed my husband #19:

“Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.”

And I realized that’s exactly what I’m doing with the second half of my book. Everything is a coincidence.

See, I’ve been reading through it, supposedly to “edit” it, but it turns out I’m reading it to see how awful it is what I’m missing. But it’s starting to become clear to me WHY it’s so bad stuff is missing. I’m breaking about a dozen of Ms. Coats’ storytelling rules, especially #19.

My problem, I think, is that I have a mystery in my story. There’s evidence Nate needs to find to prove Susannah’s uncle is a traitor, but before he can find it, he’s put in the clink. So Susannah needs to be the one to find it, because she wants to save Nate (and I want my heroine to rescue the hero – I’ll admit I’m writing a 21st century novel set in the 19th century). Yet the way in which I have her finding that evidence is just…coincidence.

And it’s stupid.

I’ve been nagging my CP for ideas and she’s hit upon a good one, but I’m still left wondering how to make it all work and make it plausible…not just coincidence.

This is forcing me to really evaluate what I’ve written from a straight story perspective. I’ve started taking all of my scenes and breaking them down into basics. For each scene, I’m evaluating:

  • What’s the purpose of this scene?
  • What are each character’s GMC?
  • What are the beginning stakes? The ending stakes?
  • What changes for each character both internally/externally when this scene ends?

I think what I’m trying to come up with is a decent outline that shows me the progression of each character’s internal and external GMC, as well as the overall trajectory of the book, particularly the mystery part. I have already learned that I drop Susannah’s uncle as a POV character (he’s got a prominent POV in the first half of the book, then practically disappears in the second half). I definitely have way too many coincidences. And I don’t think there’s enough conflict between Susannah and Nate.

I hope that mapping out each scene will show me the bigger picture of my story, as well as the tiny details that have me heading down the wrong path. And help me create a good, plausible, solvable mystery. I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

What strategies do you have when it seems your characters are falling victim to coincidence? If you write mysteries or romantic suspense, how do you take a step back to see how it’s all going?

6 thoughts on “Justine: Mapping Your Story

  1. Let me just throw this out for discussion: how many coincidences are we allowed per book?

    I think you can get by with more coincidences at the beginning (both the trouble and the saving kind), but as you get closer to the climax, both start to become annoying. And a coincidence that solves everything at the climax? Well, to be honest, if it’s an amazing coincidence, then I might forgive the author. But in general, as the book flies headlong toward the finish, I expect past stuff to fall in place, and the last third to be almost inevitable because of the things the first two thirds or so put into place.

    I would say as a general rule-of-thumb, three to five saving coincidences near the front, and maybe up to 10 troubling coincidences. Unless one is writing a series of unfortunate events (I regret I’ve never read Lemony Snickett, but that is one damn fine title). If it’s farce, all bets are off.

    But the cool thing is if you’ve finished the first (or second) draft, then you can go back and foreshadow so those coincidences become Meant To Be. In theory, at least. My rewrites tend to get out of my control and turn into a whole new avenue.

    • I think you’ve hit on the key point here, Michaeline. It’s coincidences in the second half of the story (particularly as you get towards the end) that are problematic – because the nature of something feeling like a coincidence means that it hasn’t been properly set up earlier in the story (and, therefore, isn’t following a story thread). That means that there’s always a risk that whatever happens doesn’t feel organic and natural to the story but shoe-horned in – and I suspect it’s the shoe-horning in that’s the problem, rather than the coincidence. Because, in an ideal world, if you foreshadow like Michaeline suggests, whatever it was would seem like a natural, if unexpected, turn over events, rather than unlikely coincidence.

      • I agree. I don’t think (well, I know) I didn’t think very hard about the evidence Nate needs to find, how he needs to find it (or that Susannah needs to) and now it’s coming back to bite me in the butt. Another one of those Pixar story rules is to have the end figured out first. Um, yeah, I didn’t do that, and it’s becoming a problem.

        • This is a good reminder. I think I’m going to think about the ending this weekend, and draft a mock draft of it. I remember how interesting it was in class. After people read my first ending to Perz and thought it was so mean to bully a guy in the ICU, I changed it to defeating the enemy in a magic circle, forgiving him, and bringing about redemption. It was a much better ending.

          I think I should try that with the current WIP.

  2. I’m with the Pixar rules and the commenters above – coincidences are good for getting the story going, but after that I want every scene to be the characters responding to what happens in the current one. There’s so much more story juice in people hoping and fighting and striving and winning and losing than there is in them happening to be in the right place at the right time or stumbling over a clue.

    It sounds as though you’re making good progress, Justine, and mapping sounds like an excellent way to tighten up the mystery element of your story.

  3. Pingback: Justine: Second-Half Shipwreck | Eight Ladies Writing

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