This is the second installment of notes from my "Plotting the Novel" seminar at Boston's Grub Street. Grub Street is truly leading the way in teaching the novel, and you can find out more about their courses and other offerings at www.grubstreet.org. The course has four parts: Yearning, The Launch, Conflict, and Consequences. I will be posting each part separately over the next few weeks. Take a gander at last week's "Part I: Yearning" if you missed it.
Note: Each section includes an in-class exercise under the "how," though I often alter these exercises as we work. I've tried to synthesize terms since the writing community as a whole lacks such synthesis. I believe students need to be able to identify the heart of these various writing elements no matter which labels their past or future teachers attach to them. A list of articles by the named authors follows this post. Ok, here we go:
4. "Unstable Ground Situation" (Barth)
What: "An overtly or latently voltaged state of affairs preexisiting the story's present time" (Barth). Think of your novel's Unstable Ground Situation as the seesaw that your Protagonist is trying to balance himself on--and has been trying to do so for months, years, even his/her whole life. Though uncomfortable, this is a situation that your Protagonist has become used to and therefore resists any change out of fear of upsetting the seesaw altogether. This situation may be external (a feud between families) or internal (the Protagonist's Flaw). In the best scenarios, the external situation is related to the internal Flaw (ie. the family feud is due in large part to the Protagonist's pride and corresponding inability to admit mistakes). This relationship creates dramatic harmony.
Some writers also refer to the Protagonist's "wound" when thinking about this part of their book. The "wound" would be an early traumatic event in a Protagonist's life that continues to drive his/her Flaw and may even be the reason for the Unstable Ground Situation.
Why: Without an Unstable Ground Situation, the Inciting Incident or Point of Attack will seem to occur in a vacuum, thereby making it appear unbelievable, immoral, or downright cruel.
When: In the first five to fifty pages (preferably as early as possible).
How: This is where many beginning novels go wrong, filling their early pages with backstory and exposition to communicate a character's Unstable Ground Situation and the reasons for it. All you really need is a good scene or two that shows us your Protagonist's preliminary situation, implies the length of this situation, implies the opposing pressures that has kept the Protagonist in this situation for that while, and that she/he is unhappy with it. Notice here that some of the work you've already done might help you. A Protagonist's Flaw may be one of the primary reasons for this stasis. A Protagonist's misplaced Concrete Desire may do so as well.
Freewrite a Scene: Put your Protagonist in the setting that best captures his/her Unstable Ground Situation. Use another character (or a few) in this scene to provoke your Protagonist, either questioning why your character is in the situation and/or puts up with it. Alternatively, use another character (or a few) who metaphorically "whips" your Protagonist back to the status quo when he/she makes a mistake, questions, or in some way disrupts the balance of the situation. Think outside the box. This "other character" could be a speechless baby or even a snowstorm.
5. "Inciting Incident" (Butler)
(Barth refers to as "dramatic vehicle"; Sexton as "activating incident")
What: The event that tips the unstable balance of the Ground Situation and gives meaning to the hour, day, time, week that the story begins. This is the event that throws your Protagonist off that seesaw. Some writers refer to this incident as the "loud event," meaning that something traumatic, something outside our everyday lives, has occurred to your Protagonist. Either way, the Inciting Incident or Loud Event may be the cause of the "wound" spoken of above, particularly if the Inciting Incident occurs before the novel begins.
A story should cover the moments or years in a Protagonist's life that best represent the Protagonist in all his/her shame and glory, Flaws and strengths. Therefore, the Inciting Incident tests your Protagonist's meddle and reveals who he/she truly is "when the going gets tough," as they say.
Why: Without an Inciting Incident, your novel has no reason for being. Your choice of when and where to begin seems random and gives us little reason to trust you as the author or keep reading.
When: In the first five to fifty pages (preferably as early as possible). The Inciting Incident might even occur before the opening pages of your book.
How: Ask yourself the following: Where do you begin your book? Why?
· If you find your answer easily, you're done. Remember, however, that this incident must have some relevance to the Unstable Ground Situation. If it doesn't, do some brainstorming to figure out the connection or devise a new Inciting Incident.
· If you can't come up with an easy answer, you may have no Inciting Incident. Go back to your Unstable Ground Situation. Remember, this is a situation that the Protagonist holds onto dearly whether out of fear or familiarity. Therefore, what event could possibly throw your Protagonist off the seesaw he/she clings so fiercely to? This event must be an external action, not simply an internal decision or realization the character comes to while sitting around, contemplating the universe. Get out of the characters head and into the world. Brainstorm possibilities.
6. "Point of Attack" (Butler)
What: The event that introduces the conflict and moves the Protagonist to act toward his/her Desire and usually sets the Signature. Note: The Inciting Incident and Point of Attack may be the same event. If you use both, here's an example from Butler that best explains the difference: "in Hamlet, the inciting incident is the murder of Hamlet's father, which has occurred well before the rising of the curtain. The point of attack is the appearance of the father's ghost to Hamelet" (44).
Why: Your Protagonist may have had the same Desire for months, even years, or possibly his/her whole life. Suddenly, your Protagonist acts on that Desire, but why? You need to provide an external event to give reason for your Protagonist's sudden jump to action. Otherwise, your Protagonist will stay in the safety and familiarity of his/her Unstable Ground Situation.
When: In the first five to fifty pages (preferably as early as possible).
Back to your Inciting Incident:
· If you have already established your Inciting Incident, if it occurs after your book has started and if that Inciting Incident launches your Protagonist's Desire, you're probably done.
· If your Inciting Incident doesn't launch the Desire, you need to either figure out a link between the two (Inciting Incident and Desire) or create a Point of Attack. If the former is true, brainstorm on that link.
· If your Inciting Incident occurs before the beginning pages of the book, you also need to create a Point of Attack. (see below)
Creating your Point of Attack: You already know your Protagonist's Concrete Desire. Now, what kind of event could inspire or force your Protagonist to take action toward that Desire? Brainstorm.
Barth, John. "Incremental Perturbations: How to Know Whether You've Got a Plot." Ed. Julie
Checkoway. Creating Fiction: Instruction and Insights from the Teachers of the
Advanced Writing Program. Cincinnati, OH: Story Press, 1999.
Butler, Robert Olen. "Yearning." From Where You Dream. New York: Grove Press, 2005. 39-61.
Gerard, Philip. "An Architecture of Light: Structuring the Novel." Ed. Julie Checkoway. Creating Fiction: Instruction and Insights from the Teachers of the Advanced Writing Program. Cincinnati, OH: Story Press, 1999.
Sexton, Adam "Story Structure: 'Araby'." Master Class in Fiction Writing. New York: