I knew that C.S. Lewis and I had more in common than our Christianity when he said, "You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me." Welcome to a celebration of faith, tea, and the written word. I'm always engaged in a book, and whether it's one I'm reading or one of the inspirational historical romances I write, there's always a cup of tea close by. Join me in a cup as we chat about faith, our favorite books and the exciting places our reading and writing adventures take us.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Plot Slump? Call Team Scorpion

I've been working on plotting a novella this past week.

Every writer has different methods when it comes to organizing a story, but I divide up the chapters and then use an XL spreadsheet to help me figure out where things should happen in the three plots of my romances: the action plot, the emotional plot, and the spiritual plot.

Sometimes plotting is tricky. Stuff has to happen, which sounds obvious, but plot isn't just about the events that take place in a story. It should also weave into the characters' arcs, creating opportunities to expose their weaknesses and strengths, which leads to growth.

I was stumped with my novella, but this week I sat down and watched an episode of Scorpion that I'd DVR'd from Monday, April 18, called "Chernobyl Intentions".
Genius alert!
If you're not familiar with Scorpion, here's how Wikipedia describes the show:

"Scorpion is an American action drama television series loosely based on the life of computer expert Walter O'Brien. In the series, O'Brien and his friends help each other to solve complex global problems and save lives."

In other words, Team Scorpion is a group of geniuses who repeatedly get hired by Homeland Security to solve impossible problems that could result of the death of every one on the show and/or the world.

As a result of their challenges, the characters have almost (but not quite) frozen, crashed, been imprisoned, exploded, drowned, suffocated, and more. But, against the ticking clock, they've used their collective brilliance and skill to solve the problem at hand and escape just in the nick of time.

That's all well and good for a TV show, but what does that have to do with me plotting romances where such challenges and deadly risk are rare?
Romance doesn't come easily to Team Scorpion
Well, Scorpion is an easy-to-follow example of a very important principle: plot should torture the characters, even if psychologically. This torture comes in two forms:

  • the kind they can't control--external forces, like a storm, a war, or a job
  • the kind they can--mistakes or choices they make along the way that hinder progress, like a fear, a painful past, the inability to forgive one's self which sabotages one's ability to be happy
Every story needs external and internal conflicts that are difficult for characters to overcome. And things should get worse as the story progresses. Just like those old commercials on TV, you see something that's enough as it is, but something else comes along and you can say, "But wait! There's more!"

Back to Scorpion. Here's an edited (by me) recap of the April 18 episode, from Wikipedia:

"Scorpion is tasked with helping Oksana Nastrovaof the Global Nuclear Energy Council move an improved concrete sarcophagus in place over the old deteriorating sarcophagus at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant before corium trapped under the reactor destabilizes. Scorpion discovers unmelted caesium rods near the corium using a robot. While Paige and Sylvester fly with Oksana in her plane over the sarcophagus, taking measurements, the robot is affected by the radiation and punctures the corium, resulting in the ejection of a radioactive cloud that disables the plane. It crashes into the old dome, trapping the plane's occupants, while the team tries to save them and stop the corium reaching the caesium rods...."

I edited content and cut the recap short, in case you ever watch and want to be surprised by the ending.
Young genius Ralph is mentored by Team Scorpion. Aw, those guys have hearts AND brains!
One nice thing about Scorpion is you don't have to know about corium, caesium, or even concrete. The brainiac characters take care of all that stuff. But in terns of conflicts and how they affect characters,  here's what happened in the first 23 minutes (1/3) of the show:
  • The team was called to go to Chernobyl, one of the most dangerous places in the world if you're going to judge by radiation levels, to fix something so radiation wouldn't leak out and kill people. External conflict set up here!
  • The characters have reasons to want to go to Chernobyl: only their genius skills can save the world. Meanwhile, The characters have a reason not to want to go to Chernobyl: Paige has a son,  they all have lives and love and, you know, they don't want to die from radiation poisoning. This tension makes the characters relatable and sympathetic while giving them an opportunity to show what they're made of.
  • The team comes up with a plan to take care of the Chernobyl problem that will physically protect them from radiation poisoning: a robot. This shows the characters' strengths as geniuses.
  • The robot burns up after puncturing the radioactive material, making the material (which I will call Ooze 1) spread so it will soon spread to ignite even more radioactive material (Ooze 2), which will explode and affect the whole planet. Note that if the team hadn't sent in the robot, a nuclear catastrophe wouldn't be imminent. The stakes are upped, and it is inadvertently the fault of the team. This challenges their emotional states, and while the audience doesn't blame them (because it wasn't intentional) the characters are still sympathetic while new conflicts are introduced to the story.
  • Another unintentional effect of the robot puncturing Ooze 1? It causes the crash of a plane overhead which carries two members of the team. Naturally, it doesn't just crash into the dome. It gets stuck, half in, half out. More external conflict. More internal conflict (save our friends or ourselves? What about the world?)
  • Using their genius minds, the team determines the group on the inside of the dome has 40 minutes to get out before Ooze 1 meets Ooze 2 and explodes, killing them and, of course, a lot of other people all over the planet. The stakes are heightened: now they have a time limit. And their emotional states are challenged.
  • Then, to make things worse, a water leak springs and mixes water onto Ooze 1, causing radioactive gas to form! The team on the inside of the dome has oxygen tanks, but they only have 20 minutes of oxygen, so now the team on the outside has half the time to free their friends. Emotional states are even higher now.
  • The team on the outside of the dome figures out a way to tow the plane backwards using a big chain and an old merry-go-round, which is conveniently around the block, freeing their friends. But oh no! The plane is stuck on something, and to remove it, one of the team has to sacrifice herself! And of course it's the team member with the most to lose: she's a single mom with a little boy at home! More external conflict, more internal conflict.
And this is just in the first third of the show.

Now, you have to suspend disbelief when you watch the show, and this plot sounds utterly stressful to watch, but that's not the point. The point is, every time you think you have a way to solve the problem, the problem gets worse. The stakes get higher.

Our characters get tortured.

In the historical romances I write, the external and internal conflicts are far different than Scorpion's, but the principles are the same: a Challenge arises. Meeting that challenge is harder than expected. Solving the problems prods the characters to change somehow and reveals their true hearts.

Every character starts a story wanting something. This is called the goal. In the Regency romance coming from Love Inspired Historical in February of 2017, the hero, Tavin Knox, wants to catch a dangerous smuggler. His motivation, or reason, is because it's his job and he's paid to do it, but that's not his real motivation. He feels he has to complete this job in order for God to forgive him for a past sin. And what's stopping him? The heroine wanders into his investigation, ruining everything--and that's chapter one.

As authors, we have to make sure plot keeps moving, allowing the characters' goals, conflicts (external and internal) and motivations to move along with them.

How are your characters too comfortable? Do they need a challenge, a loss, a mistake? 

I'm guessing they might, because mine always do. Achieving what they want should come at a cost. It's our job as writers to figure out what that cost should be, and up the ante on it.

It makes the Happily Ever After that much sweeter.

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