Tag Archives | how to plot

Add layers to your first chapter. (A look at POSSESSION)

We all know that first chapters are deal makers or deal breakers. And I’m assuming that you want yours to be a deal maker. As I do mine.

Let’s look at Elana’s first chapter to see what we can learn.

“Good girls don’t walk with boys. Even if they’re good boys – and Zenn was the best. He strolled next to me, all military with his hands clasped behind his back, wearing the black uniform of a Forces recruit. The green stripes on his shirtsleeves flashed with silver tech lights, probably recording everything. Probably? Who am I kidding? Those damn stripes were definitely recording everything.”

In the rest of the chapter we learn how Vi, the main character, has been breaking rules in this dystopian society where the Thinkers control just about everything. Zenn is her match. They are in love. And he’s about to give her a gift. But a hovercopter interrupts the moment, picks her up, and brings her to the institute for a formal hearing.

First layer:

  • We are introduced to an awesome voice.
  • Immediate conflict.
  • Love interest.
  • Introduction to the dystopian world.

And at the end of the chapter I want to know what happens to Vi.

Successful first chapter. Hooks an agent, an editor and readers.

Second layer:

  • Nothing in the first chapter is as it seems.
  • Later in the book, more is revealed, and the first chapter takes on a whole new dimension and meaning. Wow!

Sorry, no spoilers, you’ll have to read the book.

Here’s Elana’s book on Amazon – give it a try.

How can you add layers to your first chapter? How about the whole first half of your story?

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Plot Busters – TANGLED breakdown in 15 sentences!

Scroll down for the link to Plot Busters – Tangled (part 2)

I usually only do one Plot Busters breakdown a month but Stina and I decided to team up and post together about the movie, TANGLED. I used Blake Snyder’s beat sheet from Save the Cat. And she used Emotional Structure: Creating The Story Beneath the Plot. A Writer’s Screen Guide by Peter Dunne. Check her post out too!

This time I’m going to describe each beat with only sentence. And then I have a challenge for you at the end. Okay? Let’s get started.

1. Opening Image:

Through narration we learn about the magical flower, Mother Gothal (the witch) and how Rapunzel got her wicked cool magical hair.

2. Theme stated:

(Okay, I watched the movie and took notes with six kids in the room, 3 of whom I was babysitting. I forgot to watch out for the stated theme. And the movie left with the kids, so I couldn’t rewatch it. Sorry.) But I’d say one of the themes is courage to follow your dreams.

3. Set-up

Rapunzel wants to leave the tower and see the floating lights but Mother Gothal says no; and as the viewer we know all the big stakes and implications of her goal, even if she doesn’t yet.

4. Catalyst

Flinn, who stole the royal crown, runs away and climbs Rapunzel’s tower to hide.

5. Debate

Rapunzel must decide whether to trust Flinn and leave the tower. (Awesome debate scenes.)

6. Break into Two (Act II that is)

Rapunzel leaves the tower, and through song, experiences the outside world for the first time. (Sounds cheesy, but I loved it.)

7. B Story (love story or subplot)

After leaving the tower, Flinn and Rapunzel learn to trust each other.

8. Fun and Games

Rapunzel and Flinn stop at a bar filled with ruffians and Rapunzel wins them over with her sweet ways; and using her hair, she saves her and Flinn from soldiers.

9. Midpoint

With soldiers chasing them, Rapunzel and Flinn run through tunnels and escape a flooding dam only to be trapped in a cave where Rapunzel reveals the magical qualities of her hair to save them.

10. Bad guys close in

Mother Gothal tries to convince Rapunzel that Flinn doesn’t like her and challenges her to give Flinn the stolen crown as a test whether he’ll stick around or not.

11. All is lost

Mother Gothal “rescues” Rapunzel from Flinn’s old thieving buddies and reveals Flinn sailing off without her and with the stolen crown.

12. Dark night of the soul

Back in the tower, Rapunzel remembers her parents and that she is a princess so she decides to confront Mother Gothal. (This was the weakest part of the movie for me. Babies can’t remember their parents! Not believable.)

13. Break into Three (as in Act III)

In her ultimate act of courage, Rapunzel confronts Mother Gothal with the truth.

14. Finale (climax)

When Flinn climbs the tower to save Rapunzel, both of them choose the road of self sacrifice to defeat Mother Gothal. (To really describe what happened in the climax would either require three sentences or a bunch of semi-colons.)

15. Final Image

Through narration, we see Rapunzel reaching her dream, reunited with her parents and together with Flinn.

Phew. It’s hard at times to sum up entire scenes with one sentence. But it helps with focus and figuring out what your scenes are really about. And you’ve got to check out a more thorough version of TANGLED at Blake Snyder’s website! I didn’t notice it until I went to link to his site. And I didn’t change any of my answers, and some of them are different too! Check it out.

So, here’s my challenge: Spend an hour and fill out this 15-point beat sheet with your own current wip or a story you are plotting. One sentence per beat! If you combine the 15 sentences you’d have the most concise synopsis ever!  With room to add details.

Read Part 2 – Three tips from TANGLED

What part of structure do you struggle with the most?

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Plot Busters (2) – Tips from HEX HALL

Scroll down for the link to part 3.

1. A prologue done right.

This could easily have been called chapter one and I wouldn’t have blinked an eye. This is the kind of opening that would make me buy a book, which it did.

It showed Sophie in a ‘save the cat’ scene. She feels bad for the girl crying at prom because she has no date. Sophie understands and foregoes any rules about performing magic to help this poor girl out with a simple love spell.

Which goes horribly wrong.

The girl chooses the most popular guy/football player who ends up crashing the prom, literally, with his truck. And with blood dripping from his mouth, he yells the girl’s name.

  • Over the top funny.
  • Showed a likeable character – Sophie.
  • Introduced us to and showed backstory on Sophie.
  • Doubled as the inciting incident so it was important to the story.
  • Hooked the reader.

2. Setting up clues for Act III

These clues were set up so well and were such an intricate part of the story that I didn’t recognize them as clues until the Act III twists.

3. Humor

Perfect. Sophie makes some funny and quick comebacks when she’s on the defensive, but she’s not snarky or obnoxious, which made me like her even more.

Not only was Sophie funny but a couple of the scenes were too. For example, the prologue.

And later, Sophie is trying to magic up her Hallow’s Eve dress on a cursed dummy. So every dress she tries to create turns out to be this hilarious monstrosity.

4. A likeable character

  • Sophie isn’t whiny despite her circumstances.
  • Sophie shows kindness.
  • When she makes a decision to retaliate we see her doubt along with her determination.
  • She’s never the victim.

5. Preparing for a sequel.

I don’t like when the first book in a trilogy leaves off in the middle of a dramatic scene. In HEX HALL the main storyline was wrapped up with a complete full climactic scene. No half climax because the real climax has to happen in book three.

  • New mysteries were introduced.
  • At the end, Sophie comes to a new decision – to go through the removal process where her powers will be stripped.
  • She’s never met her dad, but we know she will in book two.

Just enough mystery to propel me onto book two but a complete story that left me emotionally satisfied. Way to go!

Read Part 3 – How to write a rockin’ sequel.

What do you like from the first book of a trilogy?

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Plot Busters – HEX HALL Breakdown (1)

Scroll down for the link to part 2.

HEX HALL by Rachel Hawkins.

I bought this book based completely on online buzz. As soon as I’d heard the main character was funny – I wanted to read it. And guess what? She was funny even though the story was serious.

Logline: At Hecate Hall, Sophie will learn to control her powers and follow rules except there might be an ancient enemy infiltrating the school, trying to kill her and other witches.  (my words)

Opening Image/Inciting incident:

Spell gone wrong. Need I say more?

Sophie’s simple act of mercy lands her in Hex Hall.

Act I climax/ Lock-in/ point of no return:

The end of Act I is also the end of Sophie’s first day of school. A mean girl invites Sophie to join her coven. Sophie says no. (Go Sophie!) And she learns her dad is Head of Council, who sentenced her to Hex Hall.

Honestly, I didn’t find this Lock in to be very strong. In fact, I picked it by finding the quarter point of the story. There was no debate. No decision she had to make entering into Act II.

It was there. Just subtle.

At the start of Act II, Sophie starts her classes. She meets Archer, the love interest. So the Break into Two was a bit stronger, which helped me find the end of Act I.

But you know what? It didn’t matter. While reading, I didn’t miss it. Sophie’s character and humor made up for it. I didn’t care.


If the Act I climax was a bit weak, the midpoint more than made up for it.

Returning to her dorm, Sophie finds a witch murdered in the tub, and the evidence points to her roommate, who is a vampire. From here on out, the story can’t help but be more tense.


I’m going to be vague so as not to give away anything.

Sophie learns the hidden truth about herself and her dad. She realizes who has infiltrated the campus; and learns her frenemy, Elodie, is in danger. Sophie runs to be the hero and fight the bad guy.

Third Act Twists: (Read no further because there will be spoilers.)

Rachel Hawkins had a superb Act III.

Reveal after reveal – many of which could be called twists.

But the biggest surprise for me was learning that Archer, who Sophie has now fallen hopelessly in love with, holds the mark of the “Eye”, the organization trying to kill witches. And of course she figures this out during the first kiss.

Rachel Hawkins got many things right with this story. Read Plot Busters (2) Tips from HEX HALL

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PRINCESS FOR HIRE by Lindsey Leavitt is a cute, fun ride with plenty of depth. It lives up to the promise of its title. Join me as I break down Act I – so we can learn and hopefully apply to our own writing. Scroll down for links to Act II and Act III.

Logline: (my words) Small town Idaho girl receives her wish to make an impact when she’s offered the job to substitute for princesses around the world.

  • Strong protagonist? Check. Desi
  • Irony? Check. Right away I can picture the potential scenes for a small town girl trying to survive in the world of royalty.

Is the main character of your current wip the absolute worse possible candidate for the role? Good. If not? Um, fix it.

  • Universal appeal? Big enough for the targeted age. Girls at this age aren’t playing dress up any more. They make fun of Disney princesses, but secretly wish to feel special – like a princess.
  • Antagonist? The Princess Agency establishment and their philosophy of not letting the subs make an impact in the lives of the princesses. And one agent in particular.

Act I

Opening Image: (Tone, style, mood, snapshot of the character’s life.)

Desi works for a mall pet store dressed as a groundhog, passing out coupons. She runs into her ex-friend, Celeste, who makes fun of her. Desi’s voice during this heartbreaking but humorous situation sets the tone. It makes me want to read more.

Funny, funny, funny. I could do a whole post on the genius of this first chapter!

Theme stated: (What is this story really about?)

Check. I found it in Chapter 2, page 15. Desi wishes to be the kind of person who makes an impact. And she humorously adds, and a more glamorous job. Can a small town nobody make a real impact?


  • Hero: Desi
  • Stakes: Her happiness.
  • Outer Goal: Desi wants a fresh start for eighth grade. (Not looking good.)
  • Inner Goal: Desi wants to make an impact, even though her friends and family seem to be against her.


  1. Desi has a miserable job that Celeste (her ex-friend) knows about.
  2. Desi feels like the black sheep of the family – the non beauty queen.
  3. Low self-confidence.
  4. Unrealistic crush on Celeste’s boyfriend, Hayden.
  5. Unwillingness to listen to the voices of reason in her life. (Friend, Kylee; parents)
  6. Needing money for college.

“If the events that follow did not occur, it would pretty much stay this way.” Blake Snyder, SAVE THE CAT.

Catalyst: (The life is about to change moment!)

In chapter 4, Desi takes a bubble bath, and Meredith appears in a bubble (love the play on Cinderella) and offers Desi a job as a princess substitute.

Honestly, I debated whether the catalyst was Meredith arriving in the bubble or when Desi made the wish to make an impact on the fish tank at work. But Blake’s words in SAVE THE CAT when describing the catalyst moment convinced me otherwise. The main character should be asking: Dare I go? Should I go?


PFH is a middle grade novel. And accordingly, the debate section covered the span of about a few pages instead of a few scenes. Meredith asks Desi to sign the contract. Desi has to make the fateful decision.

Break into Act II (The protagonist makes the decision and leaves the old world behind.)

Desi signs the contract and enters the bubble with Meredith. Reader can’t miss that turning point!

I’m sure there are lots of terrific stories where the main character isn’t the worst possible candidate for the role. But how I feel about that would make this post way too long. So maybe another time!  See you next time for Act II!

Click for the breakdown of Act II and Act III.

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