Plot Weaving – Where To Start


Novelists report common problems. One has to do with “sagging middles” — stories that dead end or lose steam somewhere in the middle. A second is not knowing where to start.

In actuality, the two issues might be related. Story consultant and critic of the popular three-act story structure, John Truby, in his book The Anatomy of Story says this about crafting a plot:

Because plot involves the intricate weaving of characters and actions over the course of the entire, story, it is inherently complex. It must be extremely detailed yet also hang together as a whole. Often the failure of a single plot event can bring the entire story down (p. 258).

It’s fair to say, then, that a bad beginning can affect a story’s middle. That’s not to conclude that a good beginning will automatically eliminate the possibility of a slow or stalled middle, but I’ll explore causes apart from the beginning another day.

I’ve suggested in earlier articles — “How to Start A Novel”, “The First Five Pages”, and “What Goes Into A Plot” that the writer should know his protagonist and his main opponent. He should know his theme and have the setting firmly in mind. But that still begs the question — where to begin the plot?

To figure out the answer to that question, it’s important to know where the story will end up. Mr. Truby says it like this: “An organic plot shows the actions that lead to the hero’s character change or [that] explain why the change is impossible” (p.259).

He then makes, what I think to be a central observation about good plotting: the events of the plot need to be “causally connected.” In other words, one event needs to cause the next event, and in the end the character needs to be changed (or the reason he isn’t clarified). To accomplish both of these goals simultaneously, the writer must weave the story events together in such a way that they appear to grow naturally, one from the other.

It’s possible to do this as an outliner who thinks through the events ahead of time, or as a seat-of-the-pants writer who creates scenes, then pieces them together and fills in gaps later on.

But that still doesn’t answer the “where to start” question. Think of a story as the reason why — the reason why Gillian is blind, the reason why Tad loves soccer, the reason why the sky is blue, or any of a countess number of scenarios. Each of these names the outcome. The story will detail the events that brought about the outcome. The start, then, is the first of those events — the trigger, if you will, or what most writing instructors refer to as the inciting incident.

As a reminder, I suggested in “The First Five Pages” that the opening scene should be a bridge between the story and the back story, so a novel generally doesn’t start with the inciting incident. In reality, however, the inciting incident is the beginning of the plot.

Here’s what Mr. Truby says about the inciting incident: “This is an event from the outside that causes the hero to come up with a goal and take action” (p. 278).

From that point on, the events will have a cause-effect connection.

Fairy tales often used a nice prompt to alert the reader to the inciting incident. After setting the stage, a paragraph would inevitable begin, One day … The implication is that on that day something new and different will happen — the inciting incident, the first step in a series of steps leading to ultimate change.

And that, my friends, is where a plot should start.

Examples
From “The Monkey and the Crocodile”

Once there lived a monkey in a jamun tree by a river. The monkey was alone – he had no friends, no family, but he was happy and content. The jamun tree gave him plenty of sweet fruit to eat, and shade from the sun and shelter from the rain.

One day a crocodile came swimming up the river and climbed on to the bank to rest under the monkey’s tree …

From “Little Red Riding Hood”

Long, long time ago, in a little village at the edge of a forest, there lived a little girl with her mother and her father. This little girl was the sweetest, kindest child there ever was. She was always dressed in a pretty red cloak and hood that her mother had made for her, so that everyone began calling her Little Red Riding Hood.

One day Little Red Riding Hood’s mother called her and said, ‘Daughter, your grandmother is very ill. Please take her this pot of butter and some custard that I have made.’

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7 Comments

Filed under Beginnings, Plot

7 responses to “Plot Weaving – Where To Start

  1. I find I usually have to write the whole book and then go back to see where it’s best to actually start it. It’s when I start the second draft that it comes apparent.

  2. Eve

    Question for you, Rebecca.
    I am finishing my first fantasy fiction novel, Rebel of Castuenda. It is the first of a series.
    I know how the main is going to end, but am wondering how to tie up subplot ends that I want to leave…er…open ended. I have 2 subplots that need to remain open-ended for the next book, yet need some sort of resolution for the sense of satisfaction and completion in this book.
    Any tips?

    Thanks :)

  3. Eve, I wrote a “quadlogy” with each book being a quarter of the story, so mine always ended up “open ended.” You’re right to think that some resolution is necessary, but less so, I believe for minor characters.

    I suggest ending their threads with a hook, something that will drive readers to want to know what will happen to them.

    You could also answer an immediate question, or take them to a temporarily safe place, while leaving their bigger story question question unsolved or their ultimate destiny still in doubt.

    Hope that helps.

    Becky

  4. Christine, I know that works for some.

    I actually had to do that with my first book because I’d started in the wrong place. Getting the right opening turned out to be hard, hard work.

    I feel like it’s a lot easier knowing what all needs to go into the beginning and how it all works with the inciting incident.

    Becky

  5. Eve

    Thanks Becky. It does. :)
    I wanted to leave the hook endings originally but then second guessed myself. Good to know I’m on the write track (pun intended).

  6. Pingback: After The Inciting Incident | Rewrite, Reword, Rework

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