Tag Archives | plotting a novel

Writing tips from The Music Man.

Every summer I watch the shows in our local theater and every time I walk away understanding why these stories have lasted over time and why people still flock to theaters to see them and why new generations get hooked on them.

1. Every scene moves the story forward.

There are no sagging plot lines. No dull moments. No snippets of scenes that don’t play into the main plotline. When the scene changes, the reader isn’t confused thinking: where did this come from? Or what does this have to do with the story?

The scene progression is logical.

2. All the micro-tension and subplots tie into the main plot.

I love all the subplots in this musical. Harold Hill’s wooing of the librarian is key to reaching his goal of swindling the town of their money for a boy’s band. It’s not just romance thrown in for the sake of romance.

Tommy’s forbidden relationship with the Mayor’s daughter and how that evolves plays into Harold’s hands as he creates a boy’s band.

Marion’s younger brother and his failure to talk since his father’s death plays a key role in Marion choosing to overlook Harold Hill’s lies because Harold is the one who gets the boy talking. That wins her heart over, which helps Harold deceive the people.

Every subplot and secondary relationship connects to the main storyline.

3. Likeable character.

Even though Harold Hill is a swindler, we can’t help but fall in love with his character. He’s clever and compassionate. Yes, he’s a cheat, but deep down, he’s a good guy and goes out of his way to help people even if it helps him too.

As a reader, we see all the small ways he turns people’s lives around and we end up rooting for him.

Create an empathetic character the reader can root for.

4. When it comes to romance, pit the lovers against each other.

Harold wanted to swindle the town. Marion was the one person who could stop him.


This movie is filled with gems like the ones I mentioned but it’s filled with great examples of comedic relief, great writing, emotional arc and climax…

No wonder writers turn to script books and movies for help with writing.

On that note, I have family in town for the next couple weeks. When I return, it will be full speed ahead to the release of my YA psychological thriller, HEIST. I have blog posts, photo teasers, and a sneak peek at the opening.

See you then!

Each summer I post about my theater experiences. See what I learned from Trapped and Guys and Dolls.

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I SO DON’T DO SPOOKY – Act I breakdown.

Welcome to Plot Busters and the story structure breakdown series of this terrific middle grade mystery.

Act I:

Opening Image: (before snapshot of the protagonist’s life)

Sherry is getting ready for school, and the Ruler asks for Sherry’s help to find her missing car keys. We see Sherry’s poor attitude, learn about her boyfriend, her family; and because it’s the third book in the series, we already know a bit about her.

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

Not finding a specific statement, the theme was obvious as I read it. It’s about family and self-sacrifice.


For me, there is less flexibility with structure when it comes to mysteries. Early on, the mystery needs to be introduced, clues planted, and the detective introduced, who has motivation to solve the mystery. I SO DON’T DO SPOOKY has all of that.


Sherry, a middle schooler, with emotional lessons to learn, takes on any challenge with spunk and fight.


Outer: Sherry and her mom must figure out who is stalking the Ruler.

Inner: Sherry must be more respectful to the Ruler while solving the case, or she won’t be allowed to work with her mom anymore.


For sherry, it’s all about spending time with her mom, but evolves into saving her step mom. For a middle schooler those are high stakes.

Six things that need fixing: (or the plants in the plant and pay-off concept)

1. Sherry does not respect her stepmother.

2. Someone is hiding the Ruler’s stuff in the house and the Ruler blames Sherry.

3. Sherry misses her mom.

4. Someone is stalking the Ruler.

Okay, so it’s not always six.


In chapter one, someone is playing pranks on Sherry’s stepmother and Sherry is getting blamed. Call it a clue or the inciting incident. But everyday life has changed. The question is – what is Sherry going to do about it?

Debate: (asks some kind of question of the main character)

Is Sherry going to help her stepmother or continue to be disrespectful?

In chapter 4, the real mystery is stated. Sherry meets with her mom and her mom’s counselor. Together, they are given the mission to protect the ruler and find her stalker. With one rule – Sherry must show respect to the Ruler.

She might not have come to that conclusion on her own, but what middle schooler would?

The debate section in this story isn’t huge. Honestly, I think the question of how Sherry treats the Ruler is more a part of the character arc than the debate. What do you think?

And with the introduction of the official mystery, Act I ends.

Do you have all these elements in your Act I? Or do you not even pay attention to that sort of thing?

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Is your story too unbelievable? Add some “sweetening”.

*Winner of the arc of  DITCHED by Robin Mellom is Riv Re! Congrats!

If you haven’t read this absolutely fantastic post about the Grinch at Fiction Notes by Darcy Pattison then click on over. Love, love, love it. And we wonder why that story remains a classic. Well, maybe we don’t wonder – the fun language, the characters, etc.

My whole family sat and watched HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS for our first Christmas special. I watch it for the Grinch song and for his tremendous moment of change when his heart grows and breaks the frame. I love villain songs. And why are villains so fun? #ilovevillains

My daughter had a question that I tweeted the other night.

Daughter: “Why does the Grinch have a sewing machine? And where did he learn to sew?”

Me: “Hmm. Good question.”

And then we proceeded to point out all the other unbelievable parts of the TV version.

But it got me thinking about believability. Why are some events believable even when they are unrealistic? (The kind of stories I love!)

JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH is unrealistic but totally believable!

WHEN YOU REACH ME included time travel but was totally believable!

But if Rebecca Stead had tried to put in some magic beans and a humongous peach into WHEN YOU REACH ME it would’ve been totally unbelievable! (Or who knows? Maybe she could’ve pulled it off.)

Believability comes down to the story, story expectations, the world building; and honestly, the level of writing.

So, for me, the fact that the Grinch had a sewing machine or that Max actually pulled that gigantic sled with all the ribbons, wrappings, and bows up the mountain was totally believable.

Add some sweetening!

We happened to be watching a special edition with an extra behind the scene look at the making of the Grinch. They talked about “sweetening.” Which fascinated me. Sweetening refers to the sound effects they add, the small details, whether a marker squeaking against a balloon or some violins – all to add to the believability.

What would sweetening be for the author? Maybe those small details about the world or your character that seem unimportant but just might add richness to your writing, your story, your world. Hmm. Very interesting.

What do you think? What do you love about unbelievable but believable stories? Do you add sweetening to your work?

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We’re back for our last look at THE SKY IS EVERY WHERE. The ending, the oh so crucial ending if you want readers to read your next book! I learned a lot from this book, and I hope you did too. Here’s Act III broken down to Blake Snyder’s SAVE THE CAT.

Break into Three: (External and internal conflicts combine for the solution.)

In a character-driven story often the external conflict (or A story) is closely tied or the same as the internal conflict. So, at the start of Act III we see Lennie making decisions to take control.

She not only decides to challenge Rachel for first chair, but she brings her Gram’s famous roses to Joe’s house. Way to go, Lennie! Living life. Taking risks. The exact opposite of the Lennie we first met.

Finale: (the climax)

The climax, for me, is the rest of the book, chapter after chapter of emotional pay-offs. Her Gram. Toby. Her friend, Sarah. Joe. #nospoilers

An amazing ending.

Final Image: (Opposite of the opening image.)

Remember the sickly plant with black spots? That represented Lennie? I thought the plant would thrive at the end. But no.

In this last scene, Lennie visits Bailey’s grave and she throws the sickly plant off a cliff. I loved this. The plant didn’t get better. The old Bailey is gone. She realizes that through her sister dying, she has become a different person, a stronger person, a more alive person, who feels things she didn’t feel before.


Some of you may have figured out by now that this book had excellent structure. Whether Jandy Nelson did that on purpose, I’ll never know. Sometimes, stories come naturally. As writers, we know to put in more tension, create character change, and tie up loose ends.

The only reason I read this book was to study the structure of a literary novel. Would it hold up? I’m so glad I read it. Why did I wait so long?

Any books you feel that way about? Because I want to read them!

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Friday 5 – How to rise above cliche.

Anything cliché means death to a writer.  #atinybitmelodramatic #notreally

For the longest time, I assumed cliché just referred to certain phrases, like fast as lightning or slow as a turtle. But I was wrong.

1. Premise

Editors, agents, and readers are all looking for that unique story that sweeps them off their feet. #cliche None of us want a tired plot, one that has been redone to death. For example the girl and the paranormal love triangle. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write that. It just means it has to be really, really good with a unique angle. And isn’t breaking into publishing hard enough?

Solution: Don’t stop at the first idea. Keep making those lists and twisting those plots until you’ve got something all your own.

2. Character

For me, there are two different levels of a clichéd character.

First, there is the stereotyped character: jock, cheerleader, hottie bad boy, geek. Not that we can’t use these kinds of characters. But as with plot, the approach must be different and written well.

Second, there is the one-dimensional character. This character has no depth and comes across unbelievable.  And because of the lack of depth comes across cliché. #notgood

Solution: Make character charts. Give the character relationships with secondary characters that have goals and troubles too. Build in world details. Create a primal internal arc with a universal struggle that any reader can connect with. Dig deep.

3. Plot

Don’t make your plot points predictable. With this, the reader can see what’s coming pages before it happens. Surprise the reader!

Solution: Donald Maass break out tips are great for creating turning points that no one expects. And usually, it comes back to character and having them make the choices that no one expects.

4. Villains

Cliché villains have the black twirly mustache and evil laughs. Or they could be the mean girl or the bully. They have no soft side and are there just to cause trouble for the protagonists with very little reason. In other words, they are 2 dimensional and are only there to further your plot.

Solution: Give your villain a save the cat scene. Show his/her softer side. Pretend the villain is the hero – what does he want? Give him plausible and empathetic motivations.

5. The writing

For me, clichéd writing is dull and out of focus. The details are bland or average. Weak verbs. Poor sentence structure or too much of the same structure.

Solution: Use strong verbs. Work hard at creating emotion in the description, setting, and body language by using it to reflect the main character. Vary your sentence structure. And practice, practice, practice.

I’m stopping at five. But anything can be cliché: setting, weather, description… you name it. And the biggest ways to improve is to read, read, read and write, write, write. But to read and write with purpose. Go for it!

Join in our Twitter Game today and share a cliche! Hashtag #writingcliche

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