Jodi McIsaac is the author of the Thin Veil contemporary fantasy series, as well as the sci-fi short story “A Cure for Madness.” The third and final book in the Thin Veil series, Among the Unseen, was just released on May 20. Jodi grew up in New Brunswick, Canada. After stints as a short track speed skater, a speechwriter, and fundraising and marketing executive in the nonprofit sector, she started a boutique copywriting agency and began writing novels in the wee hours of the morning. She currently lives with her husband and two feisty daughters in Calgary.
When I started writing, my greatest fear was that nothing would actually happen in my books. I’m one of those readers who can never see it coming, who is amazed at the twists and turns of a good story. Time after time I would finish a book and think, “I could never do that.” I wasn’t intimidated by theme and character and dialogue, but I was absolutely terrified of plot.
Fortunately, I had an amazing mentor for my first novel, and he gave me three pieces of advice regarding plot—all of which have become essential to my writing process. Hopefully these tools will help you as much as they’ve helped me.
1. Don’t get stuck on the Hero’s Journey
The Hero’s Journey is often the go-to place for plotting guidance, and it has a long and established track record of success. But to help guide my fantasy series The Thin Veil, I went with a more unconventional guide to story structure: Vladimir Propp. Propp was a Russian folklorist born in 1895. In 1928 he published Morphology of the Folktale, a breakdown of narrative structure and character types based on his study of Russian folk tales. Propp breaks a story down into 31 functions – such things as Absentation (the separation of the hero from his or her family), Interdiction (the hero is warned to not do something), and Trickery (the villain attempts to deceive the victim). Not every story needs to have all 31 functions, and they don’t need to appear in the order in which Propp outlines them, but it still provides a useful map when you get stuck on the question, “What happens next?” For my first book, I actually created a spreadsheet with all 31 functions, and then tried to line up my plot points as much as possible. For the next two, I scrapped the spreadsheet but would check in with Propp’s guide now and then, making sure I was hitting the high points like Departure (hero leaves home), Receipt of a Magical Agent (hero is given some information or tool that will help him overcome the villain), and Liquidation (initial lack/misfortune is resolved). There are plenty of guides to story structure out there, but if you want to try something new (that’s actually quite old), check out Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale.
The second piece of advice my mentor shared with me was that in order for your plot to keep moving, while at the same time remaining unpredictable, almost every scene should end with a gap. A gap is the difference between what the POV character (and the reader) expects to happen and what actually happens. It also needs to completely change your character’s dramatic desire. For example, let’s say your character goes into the bank, intending to get some money out of the bank machine. But the machine is out of order, so she has to go to the bank down the street to get her money. Even though this is a different outcome than what she expected, it does not qualify as a gap, because her desire remains the same—to withdraw money. The story is still headed in the same direction. However, if she goes into the bank and someone sticks a gun to her head, THAT’S a gap. Not only is there a massive difference between what she was expecting to happen and what really happens, but she now has a new dramatic desire—to escape from the gunman. The story has taken a sharp turn in a different direction. By peppering your story with gaps, you’ll keep your reader guessing—and turning the pages to see how your characters deal with each new challenge.
3. Twenty bad ideas
The third plotting trick I learned is to never grab the low hanging fruit. When I’m outlining, I never answer the question of “What happens next?” with the first thing that comes to mind. Instead, I make a list of 20—yes, 20—possible solutions. The theory is that it’s impossible to come up with 20 good ideas (by the time I reach #15 things are getting pretty ridiculous), but it’s also impossible to come up with 20 bad ideas. Chances are something on your list is brilliant, and much better than the first thing you thought of. This way, you won’t fall into the trap of a predictable plot—and you might even surprise yourself.