Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass (Part 23)

This entry is part 23 of 27 in the series Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass

The Five Basic Plot Elements

This is not about the Five Act structure. I thought it might be when I was reading the book, but it isn’t. Instead, this section is the basic ingredients you need when constructing a plot that will keep a reader plugged in for hours (if not days).

First, we begin at the beginning. How do you open your novel? Do you begin with a body? Do you begin in media res? What the heck does that mean anyway?

Maass points out that most novice thriller writers will begin with a “grabber” scene. This is exactly what I’m talking about, and it’s a mistake. At best, you will only get a mild reaction from most readers. At worst, they will close the book and move on. Why? Because scenes like this lack sympathy!

Stephen King (and I paraphrase here) said that he usually begins by giving you a puppy to play with. He lets you pet the puppy, play fetch with it, then you feed it and get to love the puppy. When you are fully bonded with the puppy, he kills it.

I have to admit that this seems like a crude way to get sympathy, but it obviously works. In any case, once we have our sympathetic character we must introduce conflict. yes, Virginia, we kill the puppy. But don’t go sharpening your ax just yet. A simple slaying of a weak victim is hardly the stuff of conflict. If the killing is simple, then there isn’t much interest in further pursuit. It needs some complexity in order to gather interest and keep the reader humming.

Maass uses the example of the Columbine school shooting as a model for creating complex conflict. The idea here is that there are many levels to a complex incident. It isn’t just good versus evil. There are extenuating circumstances, issues that play off one another. This is where conflict really gets going and it is what you (and I) need to seek out when developing our stories.

Moving from conflict, the third element of a solid plot is reinforcement of the plot.

The first rule of fight club is you do not talk about fight club. The second rule of fight club is you do not talk about fight club.

This is not one of those rules that you break. No, you really need to develop a conflict that turns in on itself and twists tighter and tighter. This is often accomplished through the introduction of additional characters and twists, expanding the degrees of separation, and while doing so raising the stakes. In Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, the drama went all the way to the top of New York’s elite. As I said, I’m reading Angel of Darkness and it follows the same course.

Here we actually veer off into the realm of the Five Act structure, even though I said it wasn’t really. I guess I just did that as a cheap trick to keep you reading. Sorry about that. In any event, the fourth and fifth elements are climax and resolution. A story must reach a peak and at the same time it must end.

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