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Website of author and professional editor Rachelle M. N. Shaw. Find information about her books, her editing services, and her blog, From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing.

From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing

From Mind to Paper is a blog for writers, editors, and those interested in the English language. It covers a multitude of writing topics, from punctuation and grammar to plot development, character development, and world building. In addition to in-depth articles about various writing topics, this blog also has a number of series posts, which are currently being transformed into a nonfiction series on writing.

Why Good Writing Matters: Plot Structure

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

Details in a story are everything. They make a story unique and give it life. But without a proper plot, there is no story. The book becomes meaningless. Plot is one of the first things to consider when deciding to craft a work of fiction.

Everyone knows from early elementary school days the basic structure of a plot. You start with the opening, or exposition, have some rising action, a climax, falling action, then the ending, or denouement. But what they don't teach you in elementary school is that you can tweak that basic structure to your advantage. You can bend the lines and change its shape to capture a reader's attention and suck them in to the story, rather than showing it to them.

It's true the following that basic structure is a good rule of thumb as a guideline. But consider the following: You open a book, and the first few pages go on to describe the main character, his/her age, name, situation, etc. Essentially, a "Here's who I am and why my life story is worth telling," scenario. It may follow the structure of a plot, but it isn't a good opening. Agents don't like it, and neither do readers. Why? It's clichéd and doesn't hold most reader's interest. So what can you do to bend the rules a bit so that your opening is both intriguing but follows the basic guidelines?

1. Tweak the structure.
Use the exciting parts to your advantage. Jump right into the action, and explain the situation as you go. This doesn't mean forgoing the guideline altogether either. A common method to this approach is to start with a fight scene and then go back and explain how the main character arrived at that particular situation. But that isn't the only option you have. You can start the character just about anywhere and in any situation as long as there is some action taking place. This could be as simple as a party, a vacation, school, or what have you. Just make sure that no matter where you start, it has some unique element, something that will hold the reader's attention and make them say, "Hmm. I want to read more." For example, have something go horribly wrong at the location, have someone unexpected show up that causes a commotion, anything out of the ordinary. A unique opening is an interesting opening. You want to avoid the classic clichéd opening and a dramatic introduction completely. Those kinds of beginnings are incredibly overdone.

After you develop a beginning to your story that hooks your readers, continue to follow the standard plot structure. Subplots and extra action along the way are, of course, encouraged. The more you have, the more likely the story is to keep a reader's interest. However, if you develop a rather complex plot, you'll need a way to keep track of it. Consistency is one of the most important things in holding a good plot after all.

2. Use outlines to keep your story straight.
In a previous blog, "Maps are Key," I mentioned using maps and outlines to keep one's story straight. I highly recommend this method, particularly if you're going to have a complex plot. It's generally a good idea to start out with a loose outline of your story. Include the main points of the plot, get a list of main characters together, and perhaps briefly outline what you want to achieve by telling the story. Every good story has a point to it, whether it's a moral statement (usually found in children's books), a good vs. evil battle, or a simple story to convey change in a character (usually reserved for short stories, though not always). If you don't know the reason for telling the story, the reader won't either, and the effectiveness of your writing will suffer.

3. Use details to enhance the plot.
Details really do make a world of difference. You can have a fantastic idea for a book and a captivating plot, but if it isn't written well, the story will be worthless. Sure, you might pick up a few fans here and there that don't really care about how well-written a piece is, but the book will never be what I would consider a good book, a true piece of literature. I realize that may sound rather harsh, and there are certainly those who disagree with me. But if you're going to take the time to do something, like write a book, then why not take the time to do it right?

This poses the question: How does one create a well-written story? Apart from good grammar and a stellar plot, if you examine any good book, you'll see that details play a big part. Without details, there are no hints at what is to come, no twists, turns, or surprises, and certainly no colorful imagery. Use details in your writing to bring your story to life. Make every scene that you write count. Craft the words in such a way that they are appropriate for the scene and the voice of the story. Use variation to make them flow well and heighten the mood you are trying to establish.

Good writing is an art form. The words flow easily and have a wonderful, musical rhythm to them. The words will seem very naturally structured. However, a good author will strategically place, words, scenes, and all other content to form that piece of art. They know how to strike just the right balance using flow of the words and well-placed content.