Missy Tippens, here. I wanted to share a little about one of my favorite writing how-to books. I’ve mentioned it a couple of times in previous posts. For those of you who get the heebie-jeebies at the mention of the word plotting (Ruthy, just go ahead and take a sedative now), never fear. I’m going to call this pre-work or planning instead. Don’t even think of it as plotting! And if I should need to use the word…plot…I’ll be sure to whisper it for Ruthy’s sake. :)
Okay, the book I’m talking about is actually a workbook called The Story Within Guidebook by Alicia Rasley. Alicia likens a story to growing a plant and talks about how a story should be “guided to grow into what it should naturally become…” She says to consider this fact "the next time you look at your small-town coming-of-age story and decide what it really needs to be exciting is a troop of terrorists setting up shop in the town square. Aren’t you just grafting a Venus fly-trap onto your sweetpea plant? Isn’t the stem going to collapse under that weight? Why not look at the story you have and find the excitement that exists within?”
After a great beginning to the book talking about the prime principles of plot, she begins exercises to help you on your way to growing your own story. The first time I worked through this book (and I didn’t finish the whole thing), it took me a month. Sounds like a lot of pre-work. But that’s the first book I sold .Pre-work and planning can pay off!
One of my favorite exercises in the workbook is starting a list/chart where I list every important action my protagonist takes, and then list an effect after every action. So you have action, effect, next action, effect, next action… This listing of action-reaction (cause-effect) helps make sure your hero/heroine is proactive! Since that’s a weakness for me, I always make sure to do this. It’s also a great way to help brainstorm my plot.
Another exercise I always do is look at the skills my protagonist has to survive the plot and also to find my character’s central heroic strength. Alicia has a great list of strengths included in her book that always helps me with my characterization. Then of course, the flipside is finding the character’s heroic flaw (the opposite of the strength).
Next, I always work on the section she calls “Onward to Conflict.” She says, “Conflict is what will get your hero or heroine to push past the inertia of everyday life and start acting and reacting.” Alicia includes a really helpful list of some heroic conflicts/issues. I usually start out with two or three that might fit my story and narrow down as I begin to write and discover more what the story is really about. Once I narrow it down, I can really focus on the basic conflict of my protagonist.
One quote of Alicia’s that I have highlighted and starred multiple times is this amazing statement: “Conflict isn’t an obstacle on the plot journey. It’s the fuel for that journey.” I love that statement! So she says you have to figure out what purpose your conflict has in your story.
Actually, I’ve starred and highlighted a whole wonderful section on conflict. And if that’s weakness for you like it is for me, then I highly recommend this book!
I dragged out my original planning notebook from my upcoming release, A Forever Christmas, and thought I’d share a few of the exercises in the hope that it’ll be helpful.
In A Forever Christmas, Sarah’s heroic goal is power. To regain power over her life after the death of her favorite student. Gregory’s heroic goal is family security. To provide well for his two young boys since their mom deserted them and his sister—who’s been a mother figure—has married and moved away.
Then Alicia asks one of my favorite questions: why shouldn’t the character get this goal? For Sarah, it’s because she still won’t be happy. She can’t rein in her heart and keep from caring. For Gregory, it’s because love should come first.
Sarah’s heroic strength: Compassion. And on the flip side, her flaw is she always tries to rescue people.
Gregory’s heroic strength: Loyalty to family. But it can lead to him being single minded and missing the needs of others.
And the last examples I’ll share are the heroic conflicts for each. For Sarah, it is betrayal versus trust (Gregory had betrayed her in their past and she has to learn to trust him again). For Gregory, it is guilt vs. expiation (he needs forgiveness for past mistakes to be able to move on and love again).
I hope these examples have been helpful. It’s just a little slice of the plotti— I mean pre-planning that I do for each story. :) If you’re interested in checking out The Story Within Guidebook, click here. (I have no association with the sales of this book and get nothing for recommending it!). And if you’re interested in seeing how Gregory and Sarah’s story plays out, A Forever Christmas, a November Steeple Hill Love Inspired release, is available at e-harlequin now (where you can read an excerpt), and is also apparently available at Amazon.com.