David Farland's Daily Kick in the Pants:
Plotting Power Tools
One of the most common plotting tools is the reversal. You've seen it a thousand times. You're at the high point of a movie, and it appears that the hero is about to make good. Suddenly, the villain shows up and everything goes astray. Your sense of relief turns to dismay. But just as your hero has come to the end of his rope, he suddenly finds a way to pull victory from defeat.
For examples of this, look at the closing scene of Terminator, Alien, Jurassic Park, Jaws, or any of hundreds of other movies.
In the Terminator, for example our two young lovers escape from Arnold and spend a lovely night together. They're on the open road. They're using cash so that no one will be able to track them. All that they need to do now is make it to Mexico and live happily ever after. But somehow Arnold stumbles upon them, and in a great chase scene they blow him to kingdom come. Once again it looks as if they are home free, but now cyborg--sans flesh and skin--comes stalking toward them from the fire. They flee into a factory and fight the wounded cyborg. In a last-ditch effort at escape, our heroine breaks free, and the poor cyborg gets pummeled to death by heavy equipment.
So when you are plotting your tale, you need to look at your type of conflict, then consider how to deepen that conflict by creating a reversal. For example, if you are writing an "escape" novel about a teenage girl who is desperately trying to flee from her abusive father, and escape her home. You will typically come upon a time when she has finally left. She's made it out the door, down the street, and to the land of milk and honey: Hollywood.
Now, you want to deepen the conflict. To do that, you need to reverse her fortune. That means that you have to put her into greater captivity. Perhaps she'll get picked up by the police, or maybe she'll find herself working for a porno dealer who wants her to star in his next flick, so he nails her into a coffin to soften her up. The major theme is escape, so you need to take away your character's freedom. In some last ditch effort, perhaps she'll figure out how to escape her demented tormentor by pushing him into the coffin.
On the other hand, if you're writing a story of romance, you would have your character go through a completely different type of reversal. Julia, after much work, finally believes she's going to marry John. But something happens that makes it seem that he is irrevocably lost. Maybe he gets in a train wreck, and the police mistakenly say that he is dead. Maybe another woman is involved. Maybe he's falsely accused of a crime and imprisoned. Whatever the barrier, she must find a surprising way to overcome that barrier to her happiness.
You get the idea. Whatever your major conflict, you simply perform a reversal.
Many writers save the reversal for the highpoint of their story. That's a good idea, but it's predictable. I often find myself intrigued by stories that put a reversal right up in the very first try/fail cycle. It signifies to me that the author is going to work hard on his plot.
One of the most powerful plotting devices is to present your protagonist with a dilemma. A dilemma occurs when the protagonist is presented with two equally displeasing choices.
In The Runelords, I made use of this to good effect in my magic system. A powerful king, Raj Ahten, is able to drain attributes from his subjects. He has drained the "wit," the ability to store information, from Iome's father, King Sylvarresta. So long as Sylvarresta lives, Raj Ahten is a greater threat to all those around him. But if he is killed, then Raj Ahten will be weakened.
A moral dilemma arises because Sylvarresta's best friend, King Orden, realizes that he must order the executions of anyone who has given use of his attributes to Raj Ahten—including King Sylvarresta. King Orden orders the execution, and spends a great deal of time trying to justify his actions to his family and subjects, but of course Orden finds that there is no course of action that he can win.
In every story, your character will be faced with multiple problems. In some sort of an inciting incident, your character will actually recognize that a major-life changing event has occurred, and he will try to figure out how to overcome that problem. As he does so, he will find that the problem is more challenging than he first thought. In other words, his first attempts to resolve the problem will fail, and he will be forced to devote greater and greater energy to resolving that problem throughout the course of the story. At the very minimum, he must attempt to resolve the problem on three separate occasions.
Thus, if you look at a tightly plotted movie like The Terminator, you will notice that there are three major scenes where the terminator goes hunting for his prey, and as he gets closer, the protagonists must work harder and harder to evade him.
Now, when using a dilemma, it is often best to have the dilemma arise early in the story--upon the first or second attempt to resolve the problem. This way, it gives your audience more time to deal with the consequences of an act.
A spectacle is seen when a grandiose scene is presented—lavish parties, magnificent castles, and so on—anything that creates a lasting visual impression may have a sense of spectacle.
Writing Quote for the Day:
Marc Acito-- "Ambition trumps talent."