If only authors could sprinkle magic fairy dust over their manuscripts to guarantee a tightly spun plot that draws the reader in and captivates them for the duration of the book. Wouldn’t that be fantastic? I’d head down to the nearest Magic Shop and stock up.
Unfortunately, that particular magic fairy dust doesn’t exist. Sad, but true. Writing is plain hard work. And building a cohesive story requires mind-numbing thought, blood, sweat, and tears, and that doesn’t even take into consideration the rewriting and rewriting and rewriting.
What’s the difference between a book that works and one that doesn’t? The answer isn’t always easy to identify. A lot of things can make a book fall apart. Weak character development, plot elements that don’t make sense, subplots that don’t tie into anything, no subplots at all, an antagonist that’s one dimensional, lackluster secondary characters, a scattered theme, an unsympathetic protagonist… The list goes on and on.
So, without a handy incantation to help you along the way, what tricks can a writer use to shape up their manuscript? My answer to that question is, “Look to the night sky.” If you think of your book as a solar system, you just may see all your frustration melt away.
“A solar system?” you ask. “What does Astronomy have to do with Writing?”
Let’s look at how the solar system works. The eight planets (yes, eight–Pluto’s status was recently changed to that of a dwarf planet) in our solar system orbit the sun. Imagine then that the central plot of your book is the sun. Just as the planets orbit the sun, so must the elements in your book relate back to that central plot.
Read on to see how you can create a solar system within your masterpiece.
The Sun = The Plot
All the planets orbit the sun, just as all the plot elements in your book orbit your plot. Before you begin writing, you probably start with an idea. Whether it’s a nugget or a fully fleshed out concept, you eventually develop a plot which becomes the central focus of your story. It encompasses the actual events that everything else in your book will revolve around.
In Allison Brennan’s bestselling book, The Prey, the plot is easily identified. Someone is using ex-FBI agent turned writer Rowan Smith’s books as a guide for murder. The plot of Kate Perry’s book, Project Daddy, centers around the protagonist, Kat, and her assignment to find a suitable sperm donor for her crazy yet demanding boss. In both of these debut novels, every element that comes into play relates back to the central plot.
Read these books with a critical eye and you’ll see what I mean.
Mercury = Your Fictional World’s People
Just as Mercury is the closest planet to the sun, the people in the world you’ve created are most closely tied to your plot. Without compelling characters, you have no story. Fiction is all about people, according to Robert Newton Peck, author of Fiction is Folks. He states, “it is not plot, but character, that makes your story glisten.” The strength of your book comes down to the characters you pepper your pages with and the motivations you instill in them.
Author, Stephenie Meyer, whose debut young adult book Twilight, exemplifies the power of character development, puts it this way: “…create situations of impossible fantasy, and then add characters that are so deeply human that their perspectives make the situation believable.” All the key characters in Twilight want and struggle for something they can’t have. It’s a fantasy world, framed in reality, but the needs of the characters are universal and complex and extremely human. Weaving each character’s needs, and the potential consequences if those needs are met, back to the plot of “star-crossed” lovers is what makes Twilight a book to remember. The need then is to create real characters who come into your story legitimately.
Legitimacy means without contrivance. So how do you achieve legitimate characters? Each person needs to be introduced naturally, as essential to the plot, and–this is key—they must serve a purpose. You achieve legitimacy through back story and layering. Avoid one dimensional characters by getting to know them down to their depths.
Venus = The Protagonist
Just as Venus stands out among the planets as the brightest, in the realm of characters, the protagonist stands out as the brightest and most important.
Just as all the characters do, the protagonist must come into the story legitimately. In Twilight, Bella, the protagonist, comes to live in Forks, Washington as the result of an altruistic act (particularly telling for a teenage girl). Her mother’s guilt at staying home for her teenage daughter keeps her from traveling with her baseball player husband. Bella responds by going to live with her father in Forks, a place she’s grown up visiting, but despises. But her actions are legitimate. They are based on her love for her mother, which comes into play later in the book, and her real affection for her father. She’s willing to suffer so her mother can have a chance at happiness and, in the process, she’ll give her father a chance to know his daughter better.
The reader understands Bella’s decision and feels her anxiety at moving so far from home. After all, who hasn’t been a “stranger in a strange land”? We respect her instantly because she’s shown us that she’s willing to sacrifice for what she sees as the greater good. Her actions remain consistent throughout the book, and they always relate back to the main plot–her dangerous love for Edward and how that love will affect her own life, as well as those around her.
In Brennan’s book, The Prey, Rowan is an ex-FBI agent with a troubled past. When a case hits too close to home, she quits her job and begins writing fiction, unable to confront her demons. The reader has sympathy for her based on her experiences and roots for her when she’s brought in to help track the killer. The fact that she works closely with the FBI, a critical plot element, is a legitimate act because of her experience in law enforcement. The plot boils down to stopping a killer, something she’s trained to do.
Earth = Secondary Characters
Earth is comprised of land and water, mountains and valleys, rocks and sand. It supports life, a rarity in the solar system. Its environment is unique and allows humanity to thrive. In the same way, secondary characters in your story support your fictional world and allow the plot to thrive.
You don’t live in a vacuum, and neither does your protagonist. But take care. These characters, friends or foes to your protagonist, must add something to the plot. Otherwise, there is no reason for their existence between the pages of your book and they and your story will fall flat. When asked how important secondary characters are to the plot of a book, Romance writer Lori Wilde, author of November’s Harlequin Special Release, Some Like it Hot, says, “The more complex the book, the more important it is for secondary characters to be fully developed. The more you motivate (and connect to the main plot) the subplot, the richer the story.”
There are, of course, degrees of importance to secondary characters, but they must enrich the story in some meaningful way. Let’s look at the essential characters in Meyer’s Twilight. Charlie, Bella’s father and a police officer, gives the reader the opportunity to see Bella as a mature seventeen year old. She shops and cooks and does the laundry for Charlie. She is a caretaker who takes her responsibilities seriously. Her need to care for her father is innate. But the fact that she has this role, allows us to believe in Edward’s attraction to her as an “old soul”. Charlie, then, is a tool who allows Bella’s character to develop.
Now let’s delve into an even less significant secondary character–less significant, at least upon first glance. Billy Black appears only in two scenes, and is referenced in several conversations. Despite his elusive presence in the book, however, he’s an essential character. He’s the only person who can reveal Edward’s secret to Charlie, thereby stopping Bella’s relationship with Edward. His presence in the book is directly related to the Sun–or the main plot–which is Bella’s need to have a relationship with Edward.
Mars = The Antagonist
Just as the red planet stands out in the solar system, elicits an immediate impression, yet is completely uninhabitable, your antagonist must make a lasting impression that causes a the reader to respond. Next to the protagonist, the he or she is the most important character for the reader to understand. The antagonist’s actions cannot exist legitimately without sound motivations that relate to the plot. That is to say, he’s not bad just for the sake of being bad. The reader isn’t going to condone the antagonist’s actions, but must be able to understand them. Remember, the villain is the hero of his own story. Everything he does makes perfect sense to him.
In a sense, Edward, from Twilight, is a villain, though not in the traditional sense. He must constantly fight his natural impulses in order to be with Bella, and that, in itself, creates an almost insurmountable barrier between the two. Their relationship is fraught with danger, just by what Edward is. (If you haven’t read the book, I won’t spoil it for you!)
A book can have multiple antagonists. In Twilight, Bella’s goal is to be with Edward. James comes to stand firmly in her way. He is determined to have Bella, and if he succeeds, Bella will never be with Edward again. James’s motivation is in direct opposition to Bella’s. That opposition is essential in an antagonist.
The protagonist and the antagonist have opposing goals, with their motivations stemming from the main plot. This interwoven opposition is what fuels the conflict in your story. And remember…conflict is key.
Jupiter = Conflict
Big, fast, and full of poisonous gasses–that’s Jupiter. Jupiter could be the bully of the sky, if only it could escape from the sun’s pull. Likewise, the conflicts in your book can take over and spin out of control if you’re not careful. Conflicts must stem from the plot and be legitimate. Your goal as a writer is to have readers turning the pages, right? Identify what your main conflicts are, make sure that they relate back to your core plot, and you’ll stay on the orbital path.
Saturn = Theme
Like the rings of Saturn, the theme encircles every other aspect of your book. Theme exists as part of the plot, is built into character’s motivations, tickles the subplots, and even feeds into details. The underlying message(s) you weave into your writing frames the context in which you’ve built your fictional world. Is your point that love conquers all? Or that justice will prevail? Or maybe your theme revolves around family being a person’s greatest support. Whatever your theme is, it isn’t stated directly; rather, it is woven into the plot.
One of Twilight’s themes is that of star-crossed lovers. The story centers around the battle between compulsion (or in Edward’s case, instinct) and desire. Let’s go back to the planets orbiting the sun. The theme of star-crossed lovers is interwoven into Twilight’s plot by the very nature of Edward’s character. That theme is part of every action, every thought, every decision that affects Bella and Edward. It surrounds the story and the characters just as Saturn’s rings encircle the planet.
Uranus = Plot Twists and Turns
The orbital path of Uranus wasn’t predictable back when it was discovered. Neither should the plot twist and turns in your book. Keeping the reader guessing, but using fair play, as they say in mystery writing, is crucial. Even if you’re throwing the reader off the trail, those events in your novel must be explained so that the reader can look back and say, “Ah ha! I see it now.” No matter what genre you write in, tying plot points to the main plot is essential.
If you remember that every turn of event in your book must propel the story forward and be necessary, you should make out okay. Allison Brennan has this to say about writing her romantic suspense books: “Every scene should advance the suspense or the romance. If it doesn’t advance the suspense or the romance–or be key to characterization–it should be dumped.” It really is as simple as that. If a plot point doesn’t move the story forward, either externally or internally, it has no place in your book.
In Twilight, each scene, each event, helps build the world in Forks, Washington. Each look between Bella and Edward, each conversation with Mike, each email from Bella’s mother relate back to the Sun–to Bella’s goal of staying in Forks and being with Edward.
Lori Devoti, writer of romantic comedy and dark paranormal, says that having the hero and heroine meet or connect in a way that is tied directly to the plot makes the author’s job that much easier. I can’t agree more. In the first book in my Lola PI Latina Mystery Series, Living the Vida Lola, part of the storyline centers on my heroine reconnecting with her old high school crush. I wanted the meeting to be legitimate, meaning the meeting with Jack had to stem from Lola’s job as a private investigator. I wrote the scene several times until I was sure I had it right. Now the scene advances both the mystery and the romance and fits perfectly.
Sometimes the decision to cut a scene can be tough. If you’re not sure, go back to the solar system and you should be able to identify whether or not the scene works. Does it orbit the sun or is it flying off into the unknown universe, not connected to anything? Lori Wilde has this advice: “Everything in your book should be connected on some level. Through theme or symbolism, through plot or character. Through the emotional components, through the subplots…Don’t be guilty of self-indulgent writing. Make the elements connect or toss it out.”
Neptune = The First Few Pages, Also Known as the Hook
Look closely at Neptune and you see a big, green planet made of gas. Quite a first impression. Likewise, the opening of your book provides the hook and must make a whopper of an impact. The first few pages provide the author her first chance to connect with the reader.
“The opening needs to be as grabby as possible,” says Lori Wilde. And while she says it’s doesn’t have to tie directly to the plot, “it makes a far superior story if it does.” And a far superior story is what you, the author, are after, isn’t it?
Ask yourself these crucial questions to gauge how the beginning of your book works:
Have you posed an important question that makes the reader want to keep turning the pages?
Have you created a life-altering situation for your character, one the reader is compelled to learn the outcome of?
Do the events in the opening set up or lead into the central plot of the book?
While answering yes to the first two questions is important, answering yes to the third question keeps your solar system in sync. First impressions don’t last if they aren’t followed by something else equally riveting. So start strong, relate it back to your central plot, and you’ll be well on your way to keeping Neptune drawn to the sun.
The Dwarf Planet, Pluto = Those Pesky Details
Pluto’s planetary status was recently changed. It’s more like a moon now, rather than a full fledged planet. But it still orbits the sun and is part of the solar system. Pay attention to those small details in your book; they still need to orbit your plot.
Sometimes the little details lend themselves to being ambiguous, having been thrown in as an afterthought. Don’t be fooled. Why does Charlie give Bella a vehicle? Couldn’t he have driven her to school? Couldn’t she have walked? It’s mentioned that school is not that far away from Charlie’s house. But the truck’s important. The fact that she drives it allows Edward to watch her in the parking lot when she needs it most. It allows Charlie a modicum of control over Bella’s comings and goings (at least in his mind). Every detail counts, no matter how small.
Kat, from Project Daddy, spouts quirky, obtuse factoids when she’s nervous, a small plot element that comes into play during her emotional moment of reckoning with Luc, and then later with her father. “The facts that Kat recites are funny,” says Perry. “But they aren’t there just for the entertainment factor. They still pertain to what’s happening in that moment.” Don’t demote the small details to junior status. They’re still important.
You Don’t Need a Magic Shop
So, what’s the lesson here? You don’t need magic fairy dust or a rhyming incantation to make the elements of your book tie together well. Use the planets in the solar system to guide you. Make your characters, plot points, details, and opening orbit your book’s sun and you’re sure to have a cohesive, connected story that makes sense and is rich with depth. Your book will be the better for it.
First Published in RWR, October 2006