Developing Ideas: Pacing and Structure in Plot

If you have your villain’s plan and your hero’s reasons for being involved in stopping that villain (assuming this is the kind of story you’re working on), then you might have all you need to start plotting—or even start writing.

But before I feel quite ready for that, I want to figure out the basic structure and pacing of the story. For example, I know that I want to spend a lot of time with my characters and their daily lives; that means a “breakneck pace” of constant suspense and threats from the villain won’t really work for me. If the villain directly threatens the protagonist right away and is closing in, it would seem really stupid to spend a scene watching the characters go out to lunch or something.

The question is how to maintain the suspense and interest of a plot while allowing for the development and interaction of a character story?

The master of this sort of plotting, of course, is J.K. Rowling in the Harry Potter series. For the most part, each book follows the daily life of Harry and his friends at Hogwarts, as the villain’s plot works in the background and builds towards the final confrontation. The quest for the sorcerer’s stone revealed; the escalating threats of the basilisk; the growing threat of Sirius Black—each of these plots go on while Harry continues to go to class, deal with bullies, and maintain his friendships. Part of the reason Rowling can maintain this divide is that Harry really isn’t expected to do anything about these plots, as he’s just a kid in school. Another part is that the nature of these plots aren’t fully revealed until later in the books, so Harry wouldn’t have any way to respond because he doesn’t know what he’s dealing with.

So I’m going to keep the villain’s machinations rather subtle and background for the first part of the story, and indirectly connected to what’s going on with my main characters. Then, towards perhaps the midpoint of the story (when the hero has to shift into action), the villain’s threat will escalate and maybe start to personally affect my main characters in such a way that they have to respond.

Another way I’m going to try to make this work is that the main goal of the story for my protagonist, established at the first plot point or quarter-mark (Story Engineering again), is not directly about the villain. Instead, it’s about the relationship she’s developing with the other main character and learning to work together, which will eventually lead into dealing with the villain. This means that there’s plenty of conflict and obstacles blocking her goal that have nothing to do with the villain, allowing scenes that are more about their relationship to still have tension and momentum.

I think using the story structure elements in Story Engineering and other plotting guides is helpful for figuring out the wide, gaping abyss of a novel-length story. It gives me guideposts along the way to keep everything moving. But there is a concern that it could be too formulaic or result in clichéd and repetitive stories. Ultimately, I think it’s about execution; interesting characters, unique settings, and dedication to craft in style and dialogue will elevate a story that maybe doesn’t break the mold. That said, revision can always add in more unexpected elements or plot twists that maybe you just couldn’t think of or plan for ahead of time.

As I plot, I start with a vague sense of what a plot point needs to be. Something might be, “the reveal of the antagonist”—and then I have to figure out exactly how that’s accomplished. Does the antagonist walk into the room and point a gun at my hero? Do they put out a creepy video online announcing their intentions? Does the hero find an old file with their picture identifying them as the murderer? This way, vagueness gives way to specifics that start to make the story real.

And that’s when the doubts start coming in force—because now they have something specific to pick on. “Oh, that’s how the antagonist reveals themselves? Haven’t you seen that a thousand times? Isn’t that unrealistic? That’s not entertaining at all!”

I just have to push through. At this point, I would rather have the worst finished draft in the world sitting in my hands than yet another list of vague notes and ideas.

So I find the specifics, as much as I can. I get the basic plot outline ready with the major points along the way, and I start to look for a way into the story.

But before I’m ready to begin drafting, I have to layer in the rest of the details. More on that next time.

[Or never. This is the end of the current “Developing Ideas” series. As I said before, I wrote this a while ago, and posted it knowing I never actually got to the draft. But the methods used here to develop stories are still methods I stand by, and intend to use… if I ever get it together. Which, if you’ve been reading this blog at all, you know will be never. 🙂

One of these days, my (incredibly repetitive) self-deprecation will be a thing of the past because I will be AWESOME and CONFIDENT and… ah, imagination, never leave me.]

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About J. Sevick

Just write.
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