How to build a masterful plot with well-placed turning points
Published: May 20, 2010
|Anyone can write a string of events and call it a plot. To be unforgettable (and I should add, publishable), however, your plot needs to mystify and surprise readers by dropping “revelations” in at precisely the right places in the story. Plot revelations are “aha moments”—they are previously unknown (though possibly hinted at) turning points that drive your character toward action or change in some major way and take the reader deeper into the story.|
Without these revelations, the story cannot progress. Like a magician, a good plot plays sleight of hand and manages to pull a coin from behind the reader’s ear in such a convincing way that she doesn’t even question how it was done. The best plots are full of such surprises because their revelations are masterfully timed. Information doesn’t come too soon or too late. Characters don’t change overnight; their revelations are earned and delivered.
Here are seven steps to help you wield your revelations to build a masterful plot.
1. Set up the story with the first revelation. Here’s a useful way to think about plot: A distinctive character undergoes a meaningful transformation by overcoming a set of challenging obstacles on the journey to a compelling goal. What kicks this journey into gear is an initial revelation that, when launched or learned, spurs your protagonist into action or change. For example, in Andre Dubus III’s tense novel House of Sand and Fog, the revelation for protagonist Kathy, who has a tenuous hold on sobriety, occurs when she wakes up one morning to find a sheriff evicting her from her house.
She doesn’t yet know that this is a clerical error, or that the man who has bought her house at auction is just as determined as she is to keep it (further revelations). She only knows she is losing her house and there’s nothing she can do at the moment. This instability soon leads her to desperate acts. The first revelation sets up all the rest of the revelations to come.
2. Box in the protagonist with your opening revelations. Your first revelation and any that follow it in the first act of your story should put your protagonist in a situation where he can’t turn back. He must proceed with what has unfolded, which will inevitably lead to further complications for him (and revelations) down the road.
In Act 1, therefore, your protagonist is busy trying to figure out what to do next about the ramifications of that first revelation. Most likely he isn’t sure what to do yet and goes about enlisting support or trying to track down answers. In Diana Gabaldon’s bestseller Outlander, Claire Beauchamp Randall touches some old Scottish stones, blacks out, and wakes to find herself surrounded by strange men who take her prisoner. She spends much of the first act trying to figure out what is happening, whom to ally herself with, and how to keep safe.
By the end of Act 1, you’ll need an-other revelation that leads to Act 2, where you must deepen the conflict. Claire’s revelation in Act 1 is that she is 200 years back in time, at the mercy of a bunch of Scottish Highlanders, and with no idea how to get back to her own time, and husband.
3. Now craft some revelations for Act 2, to deepen the conflict. Act 2 is the meatiest act of them all, the place where you want to add many more revelations that walk the reader (and your protagonist) deeper into the mire of the conflict you’ve created.
In Alice Sebold’s haunting novel The Lovely Bones, protagonist Susie Salmon is murdered in Act 1 and ascends to a kind of pre-heaven limbo, where she looks down upon the unfolding years in which her family tries to find her murderer and make sense of what happened to her. In Act 2 the revelations pour in: Susie’s father is intent on finding the killer at the cost of his marriage; a girl named Ruth becomes aware of Susie’s ghostly presence; and Susie’s sister, Lindsey, figures out who the murderer is and decides it is up to her to prove it—a very dangerous enterprise.
Act 2 revelations are where you want your readers full of anxiety and concern, where the revelations are bigger and more surprising, and deepen conflict.
4. Craft revelations for Act 3 that resolve and transform. Act 3 is where you fill in the blanks, tie up the loose ends, and show your protagonist’s transformation. However, you’re not completely done with revelations yet. You should save one very big revelation—perhaps the biggest—for this act. This is the place for confessions and captures. This is where we learn true identities, motives and methods, and the drama plays out in its final moments.
In Sarah Waters’ Victorian tale of thievery and treachery, Fingersmith, Act 3 is where we learn the true identities and origins of co-protagonists Maud and Sue, who each grew up living a lie. We learn how their fates are bound together, and who the key players are in orchestrating this. The result is masterfully shocking.
5. Demonstrate revelations. There comes a point in many a novel or story where the villain reveals what he did and why, or the protagonist figures out what has happened. Either way, many stories come to a point of explaining something that has driven the book along for all these pages. Both the “info dump” monologue and the internal epiphany (thoughts) are less effective method-revealing techniques. Instead, you want to show your protagonist in an act of discovery—piecing together the clues and information for herself. Some can be revealed in dialogue, so long as it is not pages and pages of it. Some reflection may also be necessary, but only a little so as not to drag down the pace.|
In Marisha Pessl’s novel Special Topics in Calamity Physics, clues have been stacking up all along about the secret held by the father of protagonist Blue. Yet Pessl keeps us guessing until the very end. After the troubling death of Blue’s teacher, who is linked to a radical group, Blue wakes up to discover her father gone. The very act of her father’s absence reveals his guilt to both Blue and the reader in a stunning moment. We learn who he really is and that he’s fled to avoid trouble. This is demonstrated as Blue walks through her house, noticing what her father took with him, and what he strategically left behind. It’s an artful act of demonstrating a revelation without the use of any other device.
6. Make revelations come with consequences. There are useful revelations, and then there are ones that simply hamper your story. A useful revelation creates consequences for the character(s). It’s a catalyst of some kind, causing a reaction within the story.
For example, in Madame Bovary, when Flaubert plants the revelation that Emma’s lover, Rodolphe, cannot bail her out of the massive debt she’s incurred, and she does not want to tell her husband what she’s done, this comes with a consequence: It sends Emma to the arsenic jar, with a tragic outcome. But not all revelations must lead to death. One consequence can be as simple as a character learning her best friend is in love with her, which shakes the foundation of their friendship. Or a character can learn he has been fired, which leads to his falling off the sobriety wagon.
What you don’t want are revelations that do nothing for your story, such as a minor character revealing he is adopted, when this doesn’t play into your larger story. Revelations must have weight and carry consequences; the story must be unable to proceed without them.
7. Use revelations to set your pace. A reader is propelled forward in a story by a hunger for the next revelation. If too much time passes without one, the reader will feel frustrated that not enough is happening. If, on the other hand, too many revelations happen in any given act, the reader might feel overwhelmed, as though she doesn’t have time to pause or breathe. Your goal then, is to start out slow—begin with a couple of revelations in the first act, build to more in the second act, and then taper off in the third act.
Remember that a plot is not one cumbersome thing; rather it is a string of events and revelations with consequences, each one loaded with conflict. They put obstacles between your character and his goal but ultimately lead to some kind of resolution, transforming your character in some way. Ultimately, the art of building a plot relies upon placing your revelations in the right act, and demonstrating them in the most effective way possible—in scene—to deliver a powerful reading experience.
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BEFORE AND AFTER|
A passive revelation lacks tension
When she was 13, Grace Jensen, a character in my upcoming novel, Little Alien, suffered third-degree burns all over her body in a freak accident with her best friend Marly. She hasn’t seen Marly again for 15 years, but now her friend has come back to town for her grandmother’s funeral. It’s very important to the story that Grace and Marly meet again.
In the first draft, Grace, who works in a doctor’s office, discovers her friend is in town when she stumbles on some test results. Grace then works up the nerve to call her friend, but the prelude is passive and lacks dramatic tension:
Today I had calls to make to women who had come in for pregnancy tests. The results always intrigued me. Sometimes I could tell by the sound of their voices if they were glad or disappointed by the news; but more often the women in both camps sounded the same: shell-shocked, as if I’d delivered the war telegram about their husbands not coming home rather than the miracle of procreation or the failings of in vitro.
As I sorted through today’s pile and wrote each woman’s phone number next to her name on a pad of paper so I didn’t have too many files in a pile on my slippery lap, I came across a name that I had to read twice.
It couldn’t be. She’d moved away a long time ago. Vegas or Reno or maybe just Los Angeles. But here it was. My best friend up until the fire, Marly Kennet, was back in Exley and, according to the lab results in my hand, she was pregnant.
I revised in order to demonstrate the revelation through action. In the second draft, Grace learns of Marly’s presence actively, when Marly strides brashly into the doctor’s office where Grace works. This has a much greater emotional impact on both characters, and allowed me to get rid of messy telling details and backstory:
At the three o’clock siesta hour, as I forced myself to stand to stay awake, I heard a commotion in the main office. The voices in the hallway grew louder and moved closer until they were clear enough for me to hear. I heard Dr. Lieb all but shout, “Listen, this is my office! And I have already told you once that I need to speak with Ms. Jensen first before you—”
But whatever protective power Dr. Lieb thought he was exerting did not prevent the startling vision of a woman, beautiful in a loud, magazine pin-up kind of way, from shouldering past him.
She stood about ten feet from me with her mouth hinged open. I couldn’t help but stare. She was shockingly pretty in a wide-cheeked, full-lipped, gazonga-heavy way. The nose was too perfect, the breasts unnaturally round and perky. Even her hair was clearly the bottle blonde provided by a hairdresser. But the effects added up to beauty.
I’d backed myself up against the filing cabinets without realizing it. “Marly?” I said, my voice a desert of uncertainty. “Is that really you?”
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Here are exercises to help you master artful revelations.
1. Demonstrate a revelation. Choose an existing scene in your work where a revelation is made in a passive or internal way. Perhaps a character “thinks” the revelation, or, as in my Before and After sidebar, learns of it in a nondramatic way that promises no change or action. You may also do this exercise from scratch, by creating a scene that meets the following guidelines. Write or rewrite the revelation so that:
• It forces your character into action.
• It is revealed in dialogue and physical action.
• It provides a “no turning back” kind of consequence for your character(s).
• It leads to a secondary consequence of some kind.
2. Assess your revelations. Make three columns on a sheet of paper, and label them Act 1, Act 2 and Act 3.
To the best of your ability, assess the revelations in your story, beginning with the “first revelation” in Act 1. Which revelations fall under each act? (If you’re just dreaming up a story, use this as an opportunity to outline a plot as you think it might unfold. It’s just a guideline right now; you don’t have to be married to these revelations.)
You may discover that you don’t have enough revelations in one act, and too many in another. This little snapshot will be extremely useful as you go to work on the structure of your plot.
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Jordan E. Rosenfeld
Jordan E. Rosenfeld is the author of the writing guides Make a Scene and, with Rebecca Lawton, Write Free: Attracting the Creative Life. She teaches a series of popular online writing classes; find information at www.jordanrosenfeld.net.