Do you want to know the secret to writing a best seller? It's reading books like Donald Maass' Writing the Breakout Novel. It's also dissecting your favourite novels and analyzing the story structures of exceptionally good movies.
If you've been following my blog, then you know I share excerpts from Don Maass' workbook to help you keep your manuscript out of the slush pile. I do his exercises myself to ensure that my second novel Broken But Not Dead (due for release in 2011) is the best possible book it can be. Riches and fame may not be what drives me, but the quest to becoming the best writer I can possibly be is never far from my thoughts.
Adding plot layers, (one bad thing after another happening to your protagonist) not to be confused with adding subplots, is an important part of creating a complex story.
Ever have "one of those days" when one thing after another goes wrong? Life is complicated and readers want a story that reflects life. It doesn't have to be a life they've led, but it should be a life they can relate to.
You're late for an important meeting with your boss. It could mean your job because you've heard through the grapevine that he needs to cut back by letting one of his employees go. It's vital that it not be you. However -- you drip toothpaste on your best shirt. You lock your keys in the car. A panel truck sideswipes your vehicle a block from work. You reach the elevator doors only to learn that the elevator is out of order and you have to take the stairs three flights up. Somebody comments that you've got a drop of blood on your tie. You arrive at your boss' office to be told the appointment is postponed until 5 o'clock when you're due to pick your wife for an appointment with your family doctor.
Get the idea? Plot layers complicate the story and make solving the protagonist's problems near to impossible.
Turns out your son needs braces, your daughter needs to attend a special learning institute and your wife has just been diagnosed with breast cancer.
In Broken But Not Dead, my protagonist Métis/Cree Brendell Kisêpîsim Meshango has just retired her post as head of the English Department at UNBC, and is on her way to her cabin at Cluculz Lake to re-evaluate her life. During some soul searching, Brendell realized that she spent the last 25 years teaching English because her mother refused to speak the language. Foolish or not, it was a decision that shaped her life. In fact, her relationship with her mother has been the catalyst for every decision she's ever made or didn't make.
When the story opens, I use Brendell's own prejudices against her. She's stalked by the son of the most powerful politician in town and has no one to turn to for help because of her innate distrust of white people, those in authority, and the police. And because of her stubborn determination to stop her stalker by her own means, things continually get out of control, making the danger she faces that much greater.
In other words, I use plot layers to pile on one bad thing after another to complicate Brendell's life and move the story toward its climax. In Writing the Breakout Novel workbook, Donald Maass uses the plot layers from Dennis Lehane's mystery novel Mystic River as examples of plot layering and advises that Good things come in threes.
In the following exercise, delete my answers and fill in your own.
1. Write down who your protagonist is.
2. What problem must your protagonist solve?
- Brendell must ensure that she send her daughter Zoe away before the stalker can harm her.
3. What happens to stop your protagonist's from solving the problem?
- Zoe won't leave, and because of Brendell's innate distrust of police and because she doesn't know the identity of her stalker, she hesitates going to the police.
4. What else happens to complicate things?
- The stalker takes pictures of Brendell with Zoe and plants the photos on her pillow.
5. What else complicates things?
- Zoe finally leaves, but returns. At the airport, she accepts a ride from an acquaintance not realizing he's the stalker.
6. What altogether different problem exists for your protagonist?
- Brendell is attracted to RCMP Sergeant Gabriel Lacroix and is haunted by her mother's influences.