7 Essential Questions of Plot — Do You Ask Them?

by Jenny Hansen

Today I’m sharing some rockstar writing resources — we’ll just call it an early New Year’s gift.

First up: Inky Girl, aka Debbie Ridpath Ohi. I adore Inky Girl! She does gems like this in her Will Write for Chocolate series:

InkyGirl.com ~ (c) All Rights Reserved

InkyGirl.com ~ (c) All Rights Reserved

Inky Girl also introduces me to amazing writing teachers like Martha Alderson, who wrote a book called The Plot Whisperer. Inky Girl’s review:

I should EVER be this talented! InkyGirl.com (c) - All Rights Reserved

I should EVER be this talented! InkyGirl.com (c) – All Rights Reserved

And finally, Linda Joy Myers at Memories and Memoirs, interviewed Martha Alderson and pried out the following seven questions for YOU to ask as you write:

For each scene: 7 Essential Questions of Plot:

1. Does the scene establish the date and setting?

2. How does it develop the character’s emotional makeup?

3. Is the scene driven by a specific character goal?

4. What dramatic action is shown?

5. How much conflict, tension, suspense, or curiosity is shown?

6. Does the character show emotional changes and reactions within the scene?

7. Does the scene reveal thematic significance to the overall story?

I originally came across this article because I write memoir, and it was fascinating to look at the story from Martha’s more objective point of view:

Memoir writers think they know the plot because they already know “what happened.” Can you talk about this issue a bit—is that way of thinking useful or should they revise their attitude toward plot.

Plot embodies quite a bit more than more than just what happens in the memoir or a sum of the events. Plot is how the events in the story of your life directly impact the main character or the protagonist, in other words, you.

Always, in the best-written memoirs, the protagonist is emotionally affected by the events of the story. In great memoirs, the dramatic action transforms the protagonist. This transformation makes a story meaningful.

Keep in mind that, yes, you lived the story and the story comes through you. However, when you decide to write that story down, you turn from the one who experienced the events to that of a writer. Your job, then, is to present what you have lived in a pleasing and meaningful form to the reader.

This takes setting yourself aside and means opening your mind to receive the greatest good of the story.

I don’t know about you, but that last sentence lights me on fire.

Note: If you’d like to read the rest of the article (and I recommend you do), click here. You can also find The Plot Whisperer on Amazon.

Last, but not least, I’m also a huge fan of Lisa Cron who wrote Wired For Story. (Here’s a kickass article of hers titled Why Good Writers Sometimes Give Bad Advice.)

What books, bit of knowledge or writing instructor has lit you on fire lately? Is there some other question you ask, besides the seven above? What are you working on right now? It’s almost the new year, and we’re sharing here at WITS. :-) See y’all down in the comments!

~ Jenny

What’s Jenny up to at More Cowbell? Latest post: How Much Love Can Fit in a One-Inch Picture Frame?

Jenny fills her nights with humor: writing memoir, women’s fiction, chick lit, short stories (and chasing after her toddler Baby Girl). By day, she provides training and social media marketing for an accounting firm. After 15 years as a corporate software trainer, she’s digging this sit down and write thing.

When she’s not at her blog, More Cowbell, Jenny can be found on Twitter at JennyHansenCA, on the SocialIn Network, or here at Writers In The Storm.

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About Jenny Hansen

Avid seeker of "more"...More words, more creativity, More Cowbell! My passion is finding those qualities that are unique in every person and every piece of fiction. Founding blogger at Writers In The Storm (http://writersinthestorm.wordpress.com). Write on!
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29 Responses to 7 Essential Questions of Plot — Do You Ask Them?

  1. How did you know I sought a new craft book? How did you know that desired new craft book needed to include plot and scene essentials?

    You might be psychotic psychic.

    With a self-imposed deadline (new one!) looming to polish my ms so that’s it’s ready to query in February, I sought something fresh to give me tools for big picture edits. I’m off to The Amazon when I finish this comment.

    My favorite craft instructors? Easy-peasy on the first one. Margie Lawson will always be the instructor who taught me how to craft sentences, paragraphs and scenes for maximum reader impact. She is the Words Whisperer for me. I’ve seen her edit. Within seconds, poof! her red pen rearranges the words to maximize cadence and impact.

    Yes. I brought my own voice to the party, but Margie amped the impact of the words. Her edits system? Color me (and my manuscript) green and yellow and blue and orange and pink and purple with balance.

    Daughter Tiffany’s talent didn’t fall far from the tree. Her ability to choreograph a scene from the perspective of an actor added realism to several scenes I offered up during one of her LWA online classes. I remember those lessons when I write (edit) and ask how it would look on the big screen. What can I show through character action versus internalization?

    Next up? Donald Maass and Writing the Breakout Novel. I use his tools for character sketching, putting my characters on the page unleashes a plethora of options for what will happen in the novel. It’s amazing what the characters tell me about themselves. Even more amazing? The plot twists that unfold when I put their lives on paper.

    KEEPER! This blog goes in my Nifty News folder.

  2. LauraDrake says:

    As you we’ll know, Jenny, I have NO good plot advice. But I’m looking forward to receiving some more from our readers!

  3. jamiebeck says:

    I am a pantser, so I really struggle with plot. I can spend hours and hours on character development and arc, but PLOT? Ugh.

    Like Gloria, I find Donald Maass’s books to be helpful (really LOVE Writing 21st Century Fiction). And recently at my CT-RWA meeting, someone gave a class on story-boarding that might really help me (and other “visually” oriented folks).

    Basically this writer takes Michael Hauge’s Six Stage plot structure graph and puts it on a huge poster board (with the ‘base line’ running through the center of the board). Then she uses pink sticky notes for the heroine’s POV, blue for the hero, orange for conflict points, stars for “turning points”, hearts or lips for sex scenes, etc. Above the base line is where she puts external plot/conflict stuff, and below the line is for the internal stuff. As she brainstorms, she pastes, tosses, or moves ideas around. By the end, she can see where she lacks balance (too much pink, not enough orange, etc. , etc.).

    I am getting ready to plot my next MS and am going to give this a try. I like it because it is fluid and can be changed as you go (which is great for a pantser like me), yet by doing this upfront, it may make the first draft process flow more smoothly. I’ll let you know later if it works well or not.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Jamie, I love your storyboarding description. That’s a fantastic way to visually see your story. Especially the moving around and tossing stuff. I know me and I’d lose or forget about the story board. However, I think I might try this in Scrivener to see it in a place where I can’t lose it (or spill coffee on it). LOL.

    • I do something similar with the sticky notes. My first novel writing teacher taught us to diagram out our scenes on a big piece of paper with little symbols (hearts, smiley faces) to indicate mood. I could never find a big enough piece of paper and wanted to see my story stretched out chronologically, so I started using sticky notes on an empty wall in my office, where I write. This evolved to colored sticky notes that indicate mood (pink is a romantic scene, blue is either sad or scary, yellow is humor, etc.), with a short description of what happens in the scene and who’s involved. Much easier to move stuff around than writing it all out on a piece of paper. And this way I can quickly see where I have too much tension and need some comic relief, or if I haven’t given the MCs a romantic scene in a while.

  4. Excellent. This is all about how hard you have to focus to put out quality work. To write quality you have to look deep within yourself to draw out this ability. Consider this: In a really good movie or novel the hero’s tragic flaw is a reflection of his or her antagonist or external obstacle.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Michael, I agree. And I also know me. If I tried to do this as I wrote, I really wouldn’t get the book done. I can do it in advance or in the second draft though, which is where it will be really helpful to me.

  5. Thank you for this. I wrote down the 7 items necessary to create a good plot and will go through my current ms with them in mind. Great!

  6. littlemissw says:

    This blog lights me on fire. Seriously, every single time I read a post on WITS I go back to my WIP inspired and ready to improve it. So, thankyou all for your generous advice.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      We’re so glad!! We’be had tons of help along our journeys too, and we love to pay that forward.

      P.S. This comment is like getting an extra Christmas present this year…thank you!

  7. Robyn LaRue says:

    As a pantser, I’m learning to storyboard up to a point. I always have an idea of how the story will end or at least the crunch scene, but I like to leave it as vague as possible, and storyboarding lets me structure without telling the full story. And I will be working on #7 more mindfully.

  8. gpeynon says:

    Great post, thanks. This one’s a keeper.

  9. jpgrider says:

    Thank you so much for this. I just copied and pasted those seven questions and included it in my Scrivener files. Perfect! Thanks!

  10. What a thrill to find this post of yours, Jenny Hansen! I’ve spotted several tweets about my 7 essential elements of scene and came exploring. For any of you more visual writers, I outline how to create a Plot Planner and use sticky notes to show how the tension rises and falls in anticipation of the 4 Energetic Markers in all stories (memoir, novel, screenplay) in my Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master. In the companion Plot Whisperer Workbook, the plot planners and scene trackers (with the 7 questions) are included. For an idea of how writers use the two visual templates, visit the Plot Planner and Scene Tracker boards on Pinterest (a feast for visually-oriented writers) http://www.pinterest.com/plotwhisperer/. Thanks again, Jenny. Wishing all of you great plotting and writing success this year!

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Martha, what an honor to have you with us here at WITS! You just caused a ripple behind the scenes when Orly approved your comment. We loooove when our writing teachers hear that we’re singing their praises.

      Please know you have a standing invite to post about your Plot Whispering with us. We’d love to hear more. :-) My email is JennyHansensMail (at) aol (dot) com.

  11. Angela Adams says:

    Thanks so much for the post and sharing your tips!

  12. Diane says:

    Enjoyed the post. Made me smile (the comic review by InkyGirl) and gave me a good checklist to refer back to. Thanks!

  13. LillianC says:

    Reblogged this on Hopes and Dreams: My Writing and My Sons and commented:
    Important content, well written. Highly recommended.

  14. robbear13 says:

    That’s a lot more complex than my simple journalist’s “who, what, when, where, why.” But those are seven very helpful questions.

    Blessings and Bear hugs!

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