Writing tip for Winter '11-'12:
Structure points 3 & 4
You’ve begun your story with a great inciting incident—an interesting protagonist has a problem he desperately needs to solve...but now what? What comes after the beginning are a series of steps, a rising action, that will comprise the first part of the story, right up to the change of direction. (Also known as the first plot twist.) But before he can do anything, your protagonist has to....
Form a plan! The lack of a plan is one of the biggest problems I see in beginning, and even intermediate manuscripts. For some reason, writers seem downright allergic to having a POV character who can sit down for five minutes and think about how to accomplish his goal. Not only does this lead to passive characters (see my writing tips: The Most Common Intermediate Mistake & Fixing the Most Common Intermediate Mistake) it also makes your story structure fail—because roughly the first third of the novel will consist of the protagonist trying to accomplish his plan—and either failing, or if he succeeds, his success only brings him to the next, greater challenge.
This plan can be as simple as “I’ll pick up a few jobs after school to raise the money” or as complex as “We’ve got to break into the nuclear missile silo and defuse the warhead. Step A, is to get into Abaskia undercover. Step B, reassemble at...” The plan’s nature depends entirely on the needs of your protagonist and your plot. But complex or simple, when your hero sets out to accomplish it, obstacles get in his way. The protagonist will figure out ways to defeat or bypass those obstacles, but either his actions create new obstacles, or he finds that succeeding doesn’t get him what he wants, so he has to do something else, something even harder. This pattern of escalating obstacles, overcome with increasing cleverness and determination, creates the rising action of the story.
The first rising action (story structure point 3) is where your reader begins to root for the hero to succeed, and bonds with him. And that bonding is what makes story structure point 4 so dramatic...because this is where the protagonist’s plan falls apart.
A change of direction is the phrase I prefer, though it’s also called a plot twist. I spent years hearing people talk about plot twists, and even using the phrase myself, before I finally figured out the difference between a plot twist and an obstacle. After defeating an obstacle, your main character goes right on with his plan—maybe he has to modify it a bit, but the basic plan is still intact. A plot twist comes from an obstacle so devastating, so fundamental, that your hero is forced to throw his old plan out the window and create a new one. The hero has been plodding along in the direction he set out, doing X, Y and Z. Maybe the doing was hard, maybe he was forced to take a few side steps, but basically he’s been on the path his plan laid out for him from the start. Now, whatever it is that’s come up, is going to force him to take a different path. He, and your story, changes direction. The goal may still be the same, but the plan to get there is radically different.
In classic three act theater structure this point is the “end of first act plot twist.” In novels, I find it can occur anywhere between end of the first quarter of the novel and the first half. I don’t think it can take place much earlier than the first quarter, because you have to spend some time establishing the protagonist’s goal, and then move him toward it long enough to establish the sense of moving in a particular direction. If you’ve got a lot of action and drama along the way, you might be able to put the plot twist off until almost half way through—though I doubt you’d be able to put it off much longer, without having your story begin to feel “too linear.”
This change of direction is needed to shake the reader up, to make them realize that everything isn’t going to go smoothly as they thought—in fact, nothing is going to go smoothly! They, along with the protagonist they’re rooting for, should be surprised, shocked, appalled, at how difficult the problem has suddenly become. They knew it was going to be hard, but they never expected this!
It’s also OK to have more than one plot twist/change of direction in your novel. They’re cool. The more the merrier. How many you need depends on the genre. Spy thrillers are notorious for cramming them in. A literary novel may have only this one. But around the end of the first third of the novel, sending your protagonist off in a different direction is essential if you’re going to keep your reader is interested. If you don’t change the plan on your protagonist—even if you’ve got a death defying action scene in every chapter—your reader is going to get bored. (Another sword fight? Yawn.) This is because it’s not action or drama that creates suspense—it’s the question of whether or not your hero is going to accomplish his goal. This is true in each scene, and in the story overall. For suspense to occur, going into any scene both the reader and the protagonist have to know: what he’s going to try to accomplish, how he plans to do it, and why his success is important. And that’s why the hero has to have a plan.
And his new plan will take us to structure points 5 & 6, the Second Rising Action and the Commitment.