Storytelling 101

Fundamental Plot Development

Graphic by Gayle Martin

All stories, whether it’s a short story or Anna Karenina, revolve around conflict and basic plot structure. I call it, The Four “Cs” of Writing. Other writers may call it something different. It’s the formula I use with every story I write, and it works each and every time.

The four C’s of writing

  • Characters
  • Conflict 
  • Climax
  • Conclusion

Characters

Who is your story about? Without characters there is no story to tell. I begin my stories with my lead protagonist(s). However, I don’t consider this a hard and fast rule. Depending on your genre, you may wish to begin your story with a minor character or even your antagonist. Whichever way you go, the plot revolves around the characters and what they do.

Conflict


The meat and bones of the story. It’s all about the conflict because conflict creates the drama. Imagine a story about a happy couple who never argue or disagree. Nothing bad ever happens to them. They live a long, happy, charmed life where nothing ever goes wrong. The end. Now let’s take that same couple. He tells her he has to work late that night, but he arrives home in the wee hours of the morning. She can smell another woman’s perfume on his clothing. She sees lipstick on his collar. Guess what’s coming next?So, which story would make the most compelling reading? Plotlines revolve around conflict, and how the characters react to it.

Climax


The high point of the story. The punch line. They argue. She grabs a lamp off the nightstand and coldcocks him over the head. He falls to the floor, unconscious and bleeding. Meanwhile the neighbors heard them fighting and called the cops. The cops soon arrive and bust down the door. He’s lying dead on the floor while his blood, and her fingerprints, are all over the lamp. 

Conclusion


The loose ends are tied up and you end the story. She’s hauled off to jail, goes on trial, and is convicted. Since I write stand alone novels I resolve the entire conflict and leave my readers with a definitive, satisfying ending. Once again, this isn’t a hard and fast rule. Some authors prefer a more ambiguous ending. They may leave the readers with a hung jury. And if you’re writing a series you’ll certainly want to leave something unresolved to continue in the next book.


And there you have it. The four basic components of plot development and storytelling. 

GM

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Welcome to From the Writer’s Desk

a blog for novel writers

There are a lot of writing blogs out there, and many offer great advice. However, most of the ones I’ve seen are geared toward nonfiction writers. As novel writers, we have different goals and needs. We’re storytellers. We write to entertain.

This blog is about helping you write a better novel as I pass along what I’ve learned about this crazy business. So please, pull up a chair and make yourselves comfortable. And if you see something you like, please be sure to post a comment.

Gayle Martin

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Coming Soon — My First Audiobook

Mike Serres prepares for the reading. Photo by Gayle Martin.

Technology seems to be changing faster than any of us can keep up with it, and audiobooks have become quite popular. So, I’m in the process of producing my first audiobook, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral: Luke and Jenny Visit Tombstone. This novella for young readers was my first published fiction book, which makes it the perfect choice for my first audiobook. 


Two good friends, Mike Serres and Joe Murphy, are the readers. Well known in the Tucson, Arizona music scene for their bands, Five Way StreetThe CS&M Trio, and The Tributaries, Mike and Joe also have experience in broadcast radio. Mike is doing the narration, while Joe provides the voices for all the characters. A children’s book should be fun and entertaining for the listener.


We’ve completed the recording and the project has gone into post production. Since this is still uncharted waters it may be awhile before the book is available, and once it is, you’ll be the first to know. In the meantime, stay tuned.


GM

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Is Writing a Memoir a Good Idea?

© Can Stock Photo / khunaspix

Writing memoirs has become a popular trend. When I published books for other authors, it seemed like most of my inquiries came from people wanting to write their memoirs. My advice today is the same as what I gave back then. Ask yourself what is it about your life story that’s so compelling that other people would want to read it. It’s a question you need to answer honestly before proceeding any further.


Our life’s journey is certainly interesting to us. After all, we’re the star of our own show. But I want to be brutally honest here. No one, other than your immediate family, and perhaps your closest friends, really cares about how wonderful your spouse is or how smart your kids are. Nor does anyone care about the details of everything you did on that cruise to Hawaii. So, the first thing you need to do is to check your ego at the door.


Have you overcome an obstacle that’s beyond the ordinary? For instance, have you survived a violent crime? Did you survive an accident or horrible disease that would have been fatal to most people? Have you traveled to some faraway, exotic destination, such as Antarctica, that few will ever see? Were you ever a first responder? Were you ever in showbiz? Have you had some other extraordinary life experience that few people ever will? Most importantly, would your story be an inspiration to others? If you can answer yes to any of these questions, then perhaps you should give some thought to writing a memoir.


People read books because they want to be entertained, inspired, or because they want to learn something new. In other words, there has to be something in it for the reader. Ideally, it should be a story that inspires others, and perhaps changes people’s lives for the better.

GM

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It’s Time to Go Without a Net

© Can Stock Photo / airn

Once upon a time I used to advise other writers that if the .com name they wanted wasn’t available to get the .net extension instead. Dot net websites were fairly common at the time. And whenever I registered a new domain, I would get both .com and .net. This was to prevent someone else with the same, or similar, name as mine from getting the .net and creating confusion.


The Internet, however, is an ever changing landscape. What may have worked five years ago, or even last year, may not apply today, Such is the case with the .net extension. Over time we’ve learned that people will automatically go to .com out of habit, even when .net was clearly posted. It’s sort of like my name, Gayle. Not a bad name, I suppose, but it has the less common spelling. And no matter how many times I spelled it out for people, they still give me the more common, Gail.


So please disregard my earlier advice. From what I’m seeing now, the .net extension is becoming extinct. And you certainly don’t make yourself look dated. If the .com isn’t available, you’ll have to come up with other variations. If you’re an author, try adding, author, writer, or books to your name. And even if the .com version of your name is available, I still recommend getting authoryourname.com or yournamebooks.com with it. Domain names usually aren’t that expensive. However, they’re crucial for building your brand and promoting your book. Therefore, it doesn’t hurt to grab as much Internet real estate as you possibly can. 


GM

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Is Entering Your Book in a Competition a Good Idea?

From time to time my email box fills up with calls to enter various book awards, and I’ll admit to having mixed feelings about entering. So, here’s my list of pros and cons about book awards.

PROs

I’ve entered competitions in the past and my books have won awards. And I’m not going to lie to you. There’s nothing quite like the euphoria of knowing that your book beat out dozens, if not hundreds, of other entries. Awards are also a nice marking tool. There’s nothing quite like having that award sticker proudly displayed on your book cover. In fact, I’ve included one of mine. Not to brag, but to point out that there is a downside to winning a book award.

CONS


I won the award in 2007. But by 2010 it had made my book look dated. I’ve since dropped it from my cover.


The other big con is the cost. The last time I tried to enter a book competition the early bird entry fee was $90. They also wanted four printed copies of the book. So, by the time I added in the cost of the books, and my best guestimate for the postage, I realized I’d be spending at least $120, if not more. Just to enter one title, in one category. Competitions aren’t without risk. So, as I thought it over again I realized I’d be better off spending that $120 dollars on advertising my book. 


So, is entering a book award competition a good idea? It’s up to you to decide. If you have the inclination, and the budget, then go for it. Who knows? Your book could be a winner. But if you’re not sure, or if you don’t have the money, then don’t. While it’s nice to win an award, it’s no guarantee that you’ll sell more books. 


GM

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Knowing When to Quit, Part Two


© CanStockPhoto/rustyphil

In my earlier post, Knowing When to Quit, Part One, I talked about redundancy. This time I’ll discuss another way to overwork a story. Creating over the top scenarios or plot lines which don’t connect well with the earlier story. This can be especially problematic when you’re writing a series. There simply comes a point when your story, even if it’s a series, has to end. Otherwise it may become absurd or even bizarre.


I’ll use an example familiar to most of us. Star Trek.


I grew up watching the original Star Trek. The characters, human and alien, were compelling and believable; so much so that they became iconic. However, by the third season, the writers seemed to be running out of ideas. The ridiculous storylines in some of the episodes hurt the integrity of the series. NBC then cancelled the show. After that it went into syndication where its following grew.

The movies started ten years later. The original characters were back. However, they were older and they’d changed over time. This kept them interesting. The final original cast film, Star Trek The Undiscovered Country, completed their storyline with a well thought out ending. In the meantime, three new television series, Star Trek the Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager, created a plethora of interesting new characters with plenty of potential for exciting new stories. They were followed by a series of movies featuring the Next Generation cast.


Sadly, it was all lost for me with Star Trek Enterprise, and the current movie series. Enterprise, the fifth TV serieswas a prequel. And prequels, regardless of the genre, can be problematic. To me, it was lackluster, and I soon lost interest. The new movies, also prequels, featured younger versions of the original characters. They too were disappointing. The stories take place in a parallel universe, so all the interesting back-stories established in the original series were gone. I found it way too confusing, and it certainly wasn’t the Star Trek I’d known and loved for decades. 


This is what happens when you run out of ideas. You lose the integrity of your story, and you risk losing your following. As storytellers, the two hardest words for us to write  are, “The End,” but write them we must, as all stories must end. Otherwise, in the words on my college painting professor, you really do turn your work into mud.


GM

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When to Use a Pen Name

People ask me if I write under my real name, or a pen name. I actually write under both. There are many reasons why some authors choose to write under pen names.  

  • The author wishes to keep his or her privacy.
  • The author writes controversial or sensitive subject matter, such as erotica.
  • There is, by coincidence, another author with the same name, or a similar name.
  • The author has a name that is confusing, hard to pronounce, or with an unusual spelling.
  • The author writes in more than one genre, and wishes to build a separate brand for each.

The latter two apply to me.


When I wrote my first book, Anna’s Kitchen, I thought my legal name, Gayle Martin, was perhaps too common. So, I included my maiden name, Homes. However, there was a problem. Before I married Mr. Martin, I spent my life having both a first and a last name with unusual spellings. Gayle Homes. I was constantly having to spell my name for people, and they were still getting my name wrong. They all thought I was, “Gail Holmes.” And no, it didn’t exactly do wonders for my self-esteem. 

Once Anna’s Kitchen was published, I realized that the troubles of the past had come back to haunt me. The name, Gayle Homes, with or without, Martin, simply left too big of a margin for error for a keyword search. Had I not picked up the name, Martin, along my life’s journey, I would have used a pen name from the get-go. That said, we learn from our mistakes. So when I started publishing my Luke and Jenny series, I dropped the name Homes and published as Gayle Martin. It worked, and I successfully built my brand as a children’s book author. Then came the next problem.


As much as I loved my Luke and Jenny books, I wanted to branch out into the romance genre. And most readers in this genre expect some steamy love scenes. This would present a real problem if young Luke and Jenny fans, or their parents, bought my newer books, thinking they too were written for younger readers. So, I created a pen name, Marina Martindale, which is simply a play on my middle name, Marie, and my last name, Martin.


Ultimately, it’s up to each author to decide whether or not to write under a pen name. And if you opt to do so, I highly recommend creating one that’s easy to spell, easy to pronounce, and memorable.

GM
or is it
MM?

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How to Create an Interesting Villain

© Can Stock Photo / Ostill

It seems like I spend so much time thinking about the good guys that I forget the bad guy needs love too. Plot lines revolve around conflict. So, there must be a source behind that conflict. And that would be the antagonist. More commonly known as the villain.


There are different approaches to creating a villain. One is to have him or her truly evil and completely irredeemable. Think Count Dracula. Your readers will hate him and root for the good guys to wipe him out. This is the villain you can kill off at the end of the story, and leave your readers feeling relieved and satisfied.


A more interesting approach is to create a conflicted villain. Instead of Count Dracula, you have Barnabas Collins, the reluctant vampire from Dark Shadows. Barnabas had been a good guy until a witch placed a vampire curse him. This leaves him despising what he’s become. I think of Barnabas as a “hero-villain.” He’s an antagonist we can root for. We want to see him cured of his affliction and end up with the girl. In the interim, however, he’ll wreak plenty of havoc.


Some storytellers like to take chances and have their hero go bad. Interesting approach, but it can be tricky. If you’re going to attempt it, your character will need plenty of redeeming qualities. If not, your readers won’t make a connection, and they won’t root for him or her. By the end of the story he or she will have to renounce all the bad things they did earlier. They must also be willing to make up for the sins of the past. If not, your readers won’t be satisfied with the ending, assuming they stayed with your story until the end.


Another way to conclude your story would be to end a tragedy with a tragedy. This works well when your villain has done things that simply can’t be walked away from. At the end of the original Star Wars saga, Darth Vader renounces the emperor and turns away from the dark side of the force. He has to sacrifice his own life in order to save Luke. This made a dramatic, and satisfying, end of the conflict.


So there you have it. With a little imagination, and a few character quirks, you can create interesting and memorable villains who’ll keep your readers engaged. And that’s what good storytelling is all about.

GM

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How to Write a Good Description of Your Novel

From time to time I get emails from other authors announcing their latest book, This included one from someone who’s been writing novels longer than I have. It had the usual announcement, along with the book cover and a description. The description, however, was problematic, to say the least. It was at least five hundred words, if not more. And it described the entire plot. Once I finished reading it I had no incentive to buy the book. I knew the story from start to finish.


One of my mentors taught me to write descriptions of ten to one hundred words, and nothing longer. Over time I’ve discovered that a fifty to one hundred word description works nicely. I also write teasers, not plot summaries. The whole idea of a book description is to give a potential reader a general idea of what the story is about. It should also entice them to read more. In other words, it’s ad copy


I’ve pasted the descriptions for my Marina Martindale novels, The Journey, and The Stalker, as examples of effective teaser descriptions.


GM

The Journey

Cassie Palmer’s world is shattered when a car crash leaves her hospitalized and fighting for her life. Her husband, Jeremy, begins his own frightening journey when he meets Denise, one of Cassie’s nurses. Denise seems familiar, but while he may no longer remember her, she has neither forgiven nor forgotten how he jilted her, years before. Denise seeks revenge and Jeremy soon vanishes under mysterious circumstances, leaving his grieving wife behind. As Cassie struggles to recover her life will take another strange turn, when an unexpected visitor reveals that things are not as they appear.

The Stalker

Rachel Bennett may have attended her ten-year high school reunion on a whim, but fate intervened once she saw Shane MacLeod. No longer the shy, gawky teenager she remembered, Shane has matured into a handsome and successful man, but her perfect evening ends when another man from her past suddenly reappears. Craig Walker had been her mentor until he became jealous of her talent and success. Now he intends to either have her, or destroy her at all costs. As Rachel’s family pressures her to take Craig to court, she can no longer ignore her nagging feeling that a tragedy is about to strike.

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