Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Plot Points: Building a Story Arc, a guest post by Nikolas Baron

As a novelist, I'm often asked whether I outline or just start writing. While I tend toward a hybrid approach, other writers - especially of genre fiction - prefer to work from a more solid plan, often tied to the elements of the hero's journey. In this guest post, Nikolas Baron of Grammarly explains that approach.

What writer hasn’t begun writing, only to have their story meander away from their original intentions, bog down in mediocrity, or simply lose steam? The writing of a novel, much like the construction of a building, requires a plan. The writer who sits down to write with only the vaguest notion of a hero and a destination may soon find themselves lost, wandering in what might seem like an endless wilderness.

A simple tool for keeping a plot on track is a story arc. A story arc is a very basic outline, which notes the major points of the story, giving the writer a sort of map to follow as they work through writing a novel. The path may travel through mystical forests of fantasy, futuristic streets in a sci-fi novel, or along a suburban sidewalk in a modern realistic fiction. Following a map is the best way to get from point A to point B, no matter the setting, characters, or conflict that is chosen. Style, spelling and grammar can be maintained with the use of a simple online checker. A grammar and plagiarism checker is a valuable tool that will help keep style issues at bay, freeing the writer to focus upon building the plot.

The best way to begin any story is with the beginning. The opening of the novel sets the tone, and establishes the character in his or her home environment. The beginning of the arc can last for a few paragraphs, or a chapter. It should be maintained long enough for the reader to become comfortable with the character, but not so long that it becomes boring.

Once the status quo is established, the conflict comes to break it all apart. Sometimes referred to as the “trigger” or the “call”, the beginning of the hero’s journey is a change that pushes him or her into action. The protagonist is presented with a choice that isn’t really a choice. Frodo was given the ring; Harry Potter received a letter. The invitation may come in nearly any form, as long as it moves the protagonist forward, into the next part of his or her journey: the quest.

Now comes the exciting part of the novel. The hero is moving forward, taking action. He or she is moving toward the goal, fighting and winning. Next comes the challenge. The hero or heroine has reached a crucial point in the quest. Now it’s time to face the biggest challenge, the moment that changes everything. Now, the time has come for the protagonist to make a choice, and the choice he or she makes will determine the outcome of the story. The choice is a challenge, of the moral fiber, the character, or the courage, of the protagonist, and the plot hangs in the balance.

Once the choice is made, the character has no choice but to move forward toward the climax. With the emotional and spiritual battle fought, the physical battle against the forces against him or her remains. The climax is the moment when all hope seems lost, and the protagonist seems defeated, but, through some extraordinary fortitude, driven by the climactic choice already made, the hero or heroine prevails, against all odds, cuing the thunderous applause of the audience.  

Like the beginning, the journey home should last only as long as it takes for the writer to wrap up the story with a satisfying ending. The wedding, the journey home to the Shire, the return to what was before, is merely a backdrop, to show the changes the protagonist has experienced, and the end result of the quest. A satisfying ending isn’t necessarily a happy one, but it shows the reader that the quest, in the end, was worth the sacrifice made by the protagonist, in order for the necessary change to come about, whether the change is in the fictional world as a whole, or in the protagonist. The resolution ties up the loose ends, solves the mystery, and leaves the reader satisfied that this ending, this and no other, was the way it was meant to be. 

Nikolas Baron discovered his love for the written word in elementary school, where he started spending his afternoons sprawled across the living room floor devouring one Marc Brown children's novel after the other and writing short stories about daring pirate adventures. After acquiring some experience in various marketing, business development, and hiring roles at internet startups in a few different countries, he decided to re-unite his professional life with his childhood passions by joining Grammarly’s marketing team in San Francisco. He has the pleasure of being tasked with talking to writers, bloggers, teachers, and others about how they use Grammarly’s online proofreading application to improve their writing. His free time is spent biking, travelling, and reading.