Jeanne: Plot Peeves

In the rain.

On Sunday, Jilly talked about plot preferences.

Today, I thought I’d flip that and talk about plot peeves–the things that annoy and frustrate me in stories.

(Hold onto your umbrellas, kids, cause I’ve got a lot of them.

No. 1. Failure to show the climactic moment. No, I’m not talking about sex here. I’m talking about what Robert McKee, screenwriting guru, calls the “obligatory scene,” the scene the author has spent 300+ pages making you anticipate and is therefore obliged to show you.

It doesn’t happen often, thank goodness. The best example I can think of is an episode from the show Elementary (Season 6, Episode 12) called “Meet Your Maker” where Holmes and Watson are asked to locate a missing woman who was a financial dominatrix. (Hard to explain. If you want to know, you’ll have to watch it.) After 40-ish minutes of various plot twists and surprises, they locate the missing woman, who has been kidnapped and forced to craft untraceable guns (because of her sideline as a toymaker). Unfortunately, by the time the show reached this point, all those twists and turns had eaten up all the show’s runtime. The writers chose to skip the “freeing the captive toymaker from the bad guys” scene and jumped to the denouement where everyone was congratulating each other. What the hell? Continue reading

Jeanne: Subplots

One of the things I struggled with when I was learning to write novels was subplots.

Category romances (those shorties you used to see in the supermarket) don’t have subplots. They deal with a single story line and pair of characters. But longer books get really tedious if all we hear about for 350 pages is one set of characters and one story problem.

In a book with subplots, here’s how it goes: your main character encounters an obstacle. She figures out a way to deal with it, only to discover her approach yields unforeseen consequences and she now must deal with them, too. Meanwhile…. Continue reading

Jeanne: Aristotle’s Unities

AristotleOne of the things Jenny Crusie covered during the McDaniel Romance Writing program was Aristotle’s Unities.

Aristotle, Greek dramatist and perhaps the world’s first story wonk, believed that a well-written play should have a very limited scope. He thought a play should:

  • Have the least possible number of subplots (unity of action)
  • Have a single setting (unity of place)
  • Occur over the course of a single day (unity of time)

When I first heard this, it felt completely over the top to me. To a certain degree, it still does. Lately, though, I’ve been reading manuscripts and even published novels who authors don’t appear to have ever heard of good old Aristotle and his unities.

  • They hop from place to place.
  • They wind on for months or even years.
  • They include subplots that don’t get resolved.

Aristotle may have been too narrow by today’s standards, but I think he was on to something.

  • Limiting your plot to a main plot and no more than a couple of subplots allows you to really delve into those stories.
  • Limiting your novel to the absolute minimum number of characters limits the number of names/personalities your reader has to keep track of and allows her to connect more deeply with the characters you do choose to include.
  • Limiting your book to the shortest possible period of time automatically grants your story dramatic tension.
  • Limiting your story to a minimum number of settings allows the reader to engage more deeply with that setting, and with the story that sits on top of it.

Some of my early (forever-to-be unpublished) novels ignored some or all of these rules (because I’d never heard of them), but the things I’ve written since McDaniel really try to adhere to them.

The one I’m least successful with is probably unity of time. Although I’d love the tension a book that takes place over a few days or a week has, my plots are usually too complex to easily resolve within such a short time-frame.

  • The Demon Always Wins takes place over a period of 7 weeks.
  • The Demon’s in the Details occurs over 44 days (so, 5 days shorter)
  • The Demon Wore Stilettos is planned to take 30 days. (Since it’s not finished, I can’t swear that won’t change.)

The good news is, my timelines are getting shorter.

That said, it’s tough to have two characters meet and fall in love in a convincing way in a very short period of time. The only reason The Demon Wore Stilettos can resolve so quickly is that it’s a second chance at love story, so the H/H already know each other.

What about you? What is your ideal timeline for a novel?

Nancy: Just 20 Pages

As regular readers here know, several months ago, I finally gave up my high-stress, pressure-filled, deadline-driven corporate consulting job and set up my own high-stress, pressure-filled, deadline-driven writing and publishing plan. It’s a much better gig! However, one good thing about a corporate job is the structure. (That, and cake. People randomly bringing in cake. Why do my new office mates, aka the cats, never bring me cake? But I digress).

When you enter the full-time writer world, your time is suddenly your own, even with a very firm stake planted in the ground somewhere out there in Future Land. When it comes to publishing schedules, suddenly you’re thinking in terms of months or even years. Gone are the daily and weekly due dates, the guide rails that keep you plodding along on the straight and narrow. Take the girl out of the corporate world and chaos follows. At least, that’s what happened to schedule- and spreadsheet- and calendar-loving me. Continue reading

Jeanne: A Series of Unfortunate Events

Apple and forkOne of the things that’s different about writing in a series, versus writing a standalone book, is that the world-building requires a lot more planning. It’s kind of like playing chess. They say that chess masters, for each potential move, project out the next five possible moves before choosing one. That’s probably why I don’t play chess.

To be perfectly honest, my brain is not the least bit strategic. Back in my days of working as an IT manager at a Fortune 1000 corporation, they used to hold these planning sessions where people would sit around for days, blue-skying about all the things the company might want to do, and jawing on and on about all the potential outcomes for each scenario.

Those sessions made me want to stick a fork in my eye. Continue reading

Elizabeth: A horse-racing fairy tale

Victor Espinoza rode Triple Crown winner American Pharoah to victory in Saturday's Breeders' Cup Classic. Richard Mackson/USA TODAY Sports

Victor Espinoza rode Triple Crown winner American Pharoah to victory in Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup Classic. Richard Mackson/USA TODAY Sports

As you probably guessed if you read my What Hockey Taught Me About Story post earlier last year, I’m a sports fan. I love this time of year, not just because the long dark evenings are perfect for curling up with a good book (reading or writing one), but because it’s time for my two favourite sports: hockey and football.  (Honesty compels me to admit that I’m watching a hockey game right now 🙂 )

I’ve never been much of a sports participant – I blame it on dismal eye-hand coordination and a lack of depth perception – but I enjoy cheering on the local teams and keeping track of the careers of my favourite players. Though I like sports in general, there are a number of them that, under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t give a second look (golf, I’m looking at you). Sometimes, however, there are special circumstances. Continue reading

Kay: Diversifying Children’s Literature

A footbridge carries the bridleway between Whinlatter and Thornthwaite across Comb Gill (Cumbria, UK).  © Copyright Graham Robson and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License (

A footbridge carries the bridleway between Whinlatter and Thornthwaite across Comb Gill (Cumbria, UK).
© Copyright Graham Robson and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License (

We’ve all seen recent news events demonstrating that there’s a great racial divide in America. Most Americans support values of equality and racial fairness—but from policing to publishing, a clear pattern of discrimination against African-Americans still exists. As writers of fiction, how can we help to bridge this divide?

Let’s look at children’s literature. It’s not diverse. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center of the University of Wisconsin-Madison began tracking children’s book data in 1985. In 2013, a total of 5,000 children’s books were published, of which the Center surveyed 3,200 of them. Of these, only 68 were written by African-Americans, and only 93 had black protagonists. That’s the lowest number recorded since 1994. Also lacking: books by or about Native Americans, Asian-Americans, or Latinos. Continue reading

Elizabeth: Cliffhanger Cranky

Uh oh, what's going to happen?

Uh oh, what’s going to happen?

We’re well into the month of May, which means television shows are wrapping things up with season ending episodes. I watched one finale just last night for a show that’s a favorite of mine.

It did not leave me a happy viewer.

I may have ranted about the episode a bit once it was over. Possibly again this evening. Why? Because the episode ended with an out-of-the-blue unfulfilling cliffhanger.

We’ve talked before on the blog, as we did in the McDaniel classes, about the contract the writer makes with the reader (viewer) at the beginning of a story Continue reading

Nancy: Narrative Thread

RIAN Archive - Scene Prince Igor Opera

As I continue my quest to seek out stories and whatever lessons I can take from them, this time I turn my attention to opera. You read that correctly: opera. I am an opera fan, although not a particularly well-versed one. My favorite operas have gorgeous arias, duets, and quartets with amazing harmonic lines. In the voices of well-trained and talented singers using their voices like fine instruments, opera music, like so many types of music, can be transcendent. All that being said, I don’t consider opera my go-to medium for story.

However, operas are, at their heart, stories. (Don’t tell my husband, who is an operatically-trained tenor. In his world it’s All. About. The. Voices.) Yes, operas have a reputation for being melodramatic and predictable. In fact, upon entering an opera house, you are handed a program that contains, among other things, a full story synopsis rife with spoilers. Still, many operas also have strong protagonists with well-defined goals, stronger antagonists with their own goals, and a narrative through-line that is going to bring these forces to blows (literally or figuratively) in the end. You know, story.

And professional productions, like those performed at the Met (and live simulcast in HD movie theaters), have amazing directors who know how to block out action to demonstrate story and character growth. So when I went to see a live Met simulcast of Prince Igor this past weekend, I went in thinking about action, about looking for interesting choices the director has made, and about what I could steal borrow when writing plot through action for my own characters. I came out thinking about the narrative thread, and how the loss of it can torpedo your entire story. Continue reading