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Plotting a Course

I've went through the four Coursera courses on Creative Writing from Wesleyan University that was recommended by Nanowrimo in an email I received. I figured I would share my notes on them. Have a great day!

Module A – Plotting a Course (w/ Brando Skyhorse)

[1.] What is plot?

  • Plot is the main events of a novel or story devised and presented by the writer as an interrelated sequence (dictionary definition).

  • “Main events” mean what happens in your story, literally the actions or events that occurred.

  • “devised and presented as an interrelated sequence” means the connected order in which things happen in your story.

  • Plot is what happens in your story and the connected order in which those events occur (better).

[2.] Plot vs. story

  • E.M. Forester explains –

  • The king died and then the queen died = story

  • The king died and then the queen died of grief = plot.

  • This implies a causal relationship between those two events.

  • In the first description, first “x” happened and “y” happened. There's no relationship between those two actions.

  • In the second description, first “x” happened and then “y” happened because of “x”. The queen died because she was sad about the first thing that happened. Those things are connected to each other.

  • Think about the actions in any novel or story. If the words “and then” happens between the beats of those actions, you have something really boring because the events are not related to each other in any way. You don't need “and thens,” you need “therefores.” This happened therefore, this happens.

[3.] Freytag’s Pyramid --- The events in a dramatic work

  • Exposition --- this is where you give your initial important background information about the story.

  • Includes information on:

  • Setting

  • Events that have occurred before the main plot of your story

  • Character back story

  • Anything that might provide context for what your plot is about

  • Inciting Incident --- this is the actual event that kicks off the action in your story.

  • This event also informs the reader what the main conflict in your plot will be about.

  • This is where we are introduced to our protagonist.

  • Rising Action --- this is an event, or events, that start after your inciting incident that builds up to your climax.

  • Your plot is dependent upon these exciting events to set up the climax of your story.

  • This is where we usually meet our antagonist.

  • Climax --- this is the most exciting event in your plot.

  • Here's where your protagonist, your main character is pushed up against the wall, and finally reveals what they're made of.

  • Falling Action --- these events are the fallout from the big action that happened in the climax.

  • This is also where we learned the conflict between your protagonist and the obstacles that have been put in their way.

  • Resolution --- this is where the protagonist, or main character, solves the main problem or conflict.

  • Denouement -- the ending.

  • Any remaining secrets, questions, or mysteries which remain after the resolution is solved by the characters or explained by the author.

[4.] Freytag’s Pyramid in Harry Potter

Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone

  • Exposition. We're introduced to Harry and his horrible relatives, the Dursleys. We find out Harry is an orphan, and it's clear he's being mistreated by the Dursleys, especially concerning the odd incidents that seem to keep happening around him. Just before Harry's 11th birthday, letters are delivered to the house, which Harry's uncle intercepts with an increasing mania. Finally, after removing the family to a cabin on a remote island, just at midnight on Harry's birthday, Hagrid shows up to hand-deliver a letter that informs Harry he's a wizard.

  • Rising action. This is where a majority of the book takes place. Harry learns what it means to be a wizard and starts discovering the wizard world. He also meets a few of his supporters, Hagrid, Ron, and Hermione and antagonists, Severus Snape and Draco Malfoy. We follow Harry through his first year in school where he faces the standard problems of a new student, getting lost on the way to class, trying out for the quidditch team, noticing mysterious happenings going on around the school. Ultimately, Harry, Ron, and Hermione reach an erroneous conclusion that Snape is trying to steal the sorcerer's stone and attempt to stop him.

  • Climax. Harry reaches the end of the teachers' set traps and puzzles and sees not Snape, but Professor Quirrell attempting to steal the stone by looking for it in the Mirror of Erised. During the climax, Quirrell reveals that he had tried to kill Harry earlier in the year at a quidditch match and that he'd released a troll into the school. Ultimately, Quirrell reveals that he's being possessed by Lord Voldemort who forces Harry to look in the mirror and find the stone. Harry gets the stone but refuses to give it to Lord Voldemort slash Quirrell. When Voldemort tries to take the stone from Harry, Harry passes out.

  • Falling action. Harry wakes up later to find out that Quirrell couldn't take the stone from him, likely because he's still under the protection of his mother's love, which saved him as a baby. Professor Dumbledore reveals that Voldemort left Quirrell to die, and that the stone has been destroyed. Resolution. The conclusion of the school year Harry, Ron, Hermione, and Neville win back on the house points they'd lost earlier by sneaking out of their common room, and Gryffindor wins the House Cup.

  • Denouement. Harry returns home to the Dursleys for the summer without letting them know he's not allowed to use magic outside of the school.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

  • Exposition. Harry wakes up in his bed at the Dursleys after having a vivid dream. His scar hurts enough that Harry feels the need to tell someone, so he dashes off a letter to Sirius Black. Harry then goes off to the World Cup with the Weasley family. Once Harry gets back to Hogwarts, he and the other students find out that the Triwizard Tournament is being held at their school this year, and any student over 17 is invited to apply.

  • Inciting incident. Despite being under 17 and another champion from the school being chosen, Harry's name emerges from the goblet, as it represents a binding magical contract, Harry must compete.

  • Rising action. The whole year Harry faces friendships falling in and falling out, his first crush, and the whole of the tournament. The final task in the tournament is a maze that each of the champions must try to get through to get the trophy in the middle. Harry and the other Hogwarts champions reach it together, so they decide to take it together. When they touch it, they are transported together to a graveyard. Immediately after arriving, Cedric is killed.

  • Climax. Harry recognizes Pettigrew, who ties Harry up and performs a ritual that raises Voldemort back into a corporeal form. Once he has a body back, he challenges Harry to a dual. Their spells cancel each other out, and this gives Harry enough time to grab Cedric's body and the portkey and transport back to Hogwarts.

  • Falling action. Once back, Harry tries to explain what happened, but Mad-Eye Moody takes him away to his office. Once they are alone, it becomes apparent that Mad-Eye Moody is really Barty Crouch Jr., one of Voldemort's ardent supporters. Before he can kill Harry, Dumbledore rushes in and intervenes.

  • Resolution. The real Moody is found, Barty Crouch Jr. is given the Dementor's Kiss, and Harry is declared the winner of the Triwizard Tournament.

  • Denouement. Harry gives all his money to Fred and George to start a joke shop, and it is revealed that most people in the Ministry of Magic don't believe that Harry has seen Voldemort.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

  • Exposition. Harry is just about to turn 17, which is the age of majority for wizards. At this age, the protection on his aunt and uncle's house will be broken, so there is a very complicated plot hatched to move Harry safely from Privet Drive to Ron's house at the Burrow. They are attacked immediately upon leaving and suffer a few losses before making it to the Burrow.

  • Inciting incident. There is a wedding celebration at the Burrow, but the night of the wedding the Ministry of Magic is taken over by Death Eaters. Ron, Hermione, and Harry barely escape, and from this point forward, they are on the run.

  • Rising action. The majority of this book is spent with the trio hunting down the Horcruxes. They find the original locket fairly quickly, but have no way to destroy. They are dogged constantly by the threat of Death Eaters and catchers, and they are eventually captured and taken to Malfoy Manor. Dobby appears and rescues them, and it's at that point they realize that the rest of the Horcruxes they haven't found must be in Hogwarts, so they return. A massive battle ensues, but they manage to find and destroy the other Horcruxes.

  • Climax. Harry offers himself to Voldemort who fires a killing curse at him while Harry just lets it happen. Voldemort thinks Harry is dead, but what's actually happened is that Voldemort has destroyed a piece of his soul that was inside Harry, leaving himself vulnerable to death.

  • Falling action. Harry pretends to be dead, and Voldemort walks into the castle with his body, triumphant at having defeated him. Of course, at this point, Harry reveals himself to be alive, and the real final duel takes place.

  • Resolution. Harry urges Voldemort to feel some remorse for what he did, but instead, Voldemort fires a last killing curse at Harry. Harry uses a disarming spell, causing the killing curse to rebound and kill Voldemort.

  • Denouement. The wizarding world returns to peace, and we see a future flash forward where Harry is sending his own kids off to Hogwarts.

[5.] Character + Action = Plot

  • “John Gardner, an American Novelist, once quipped, there are only two plots in all of literature: someone goes on a journey and a stranger comes to town. Hayao Miyazaki, one of Japan's most celebrated animators, director of Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle, Ponyo, and many others, said that what drives animation is the will of the characters. You don't depict fate, you depict will. In both these examples, character is an integral component imply.”

  • [Character] The five key questions you should ask yourself when creating a great dynamic character.

  • 1. What do they want?

  • This is the first and most fundamental question you have to answer when creating a good character. All great characters want something. Kurt Vonnegut, author of Slaughterhouse Five and many other great novels and stories, wrote that the first step in writing a good story was creating a character that wanted something. Even if that something was a simply a drink of water. Desire is a crucial component in creating a believable that we can follow. This is different from a character that needs something. A character that needs something is fate. A character that wants something is will.

  • 2. What are their weaknesses?

  • Many writers give their characters traits that make them honorable, virtuous, and in many cases invulnerable. Now while you may want to hang out with someone who's honorable or virtuous in real life, we don't really make for interesting characters on the page. Think of the list of the greatest characters in fiction: J Gatsby from The Great Gatsby, Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye, Harry Potter from the Harry Potter series. Each of these characters were more interesting to follow and to read about because of their weaknesses, not their strengths. Superman isn't an interesting character because he's invulnerable, Superman's an interesting character because he's vulnerable to kryptonite. So when compiling a list of traits for your characters, make sure that their weaknesses are more interesting than their strengths.

  • 3. Where are they from?­ There's both a literal answer for this and a deeper, more emotional answer.

  • What are your characters biographical information?

  • What city, state, town, or country are they from? Did they grow up as a kid on the streets of New York City or were they born and raised in a farm in Indiana? Understanding this biographical information helps inform us of what a character wants because it can help us understand where they came from. Then, there's the more emotional answer.

  • What is their emotional background?

  • Did they have two loving parents? Or were they raised by a single, overworked mother? Did they lose a sister when they were very young? Were they bullied in junior high? Where are they from emotionally helps us understand a character's motivation for acting the way that they do. And it can be instrumental in helping us understand why a character desires a particular thing. It's also crucial in helping us answer the next question.

  • 4. Where are they going?

  • Pairing this question with where are they from gives you a complete character arc. That is, if I know why a character wants a particular thing and I understand where they're from, I have an understanding, not only of how hard they're going to try to get what they want, but how resilient they'll be when rising actions are put in their way to obstruct their path. I'll get to rising actions in a second.

  • 5. What can your characters do to surprise you?

  • Now this may sound weird, but characters sometimes don't do what we expect them to do when we put them on the page. They act in a more resourceful way than you imagine. Or if they suspect they were walking into an ambush in a dark room, they might decide, just like an actual person, not to go into that room. Look for places in your story where your characters do things you didn't expect them to do, and encourage your characters by following them instead of trying to lead them.


  • Rising Action -- Here is a simplest way to define what exactly is a rising action. Your main character wants something. Some obstacle, it can be another thing another character, your main character's own flaws, gets in your main character's way of getting that one thing your character wants. Those obstacles are rising actions. Your character overcomes these obstacles, these rising actions only to encounter even larger obstacles on the next level or in the next chapter. That's the next rising action. So, like levels in a video game, your character has to keep overcoming obstacles. They have to keep overcoming rising actions until they reach the place where they can try and get what they want.

[6.] Summarizing Plot (also called the pitch)

  • “When an [inciting incident] happens to [character], they have to overcome conflict/obstacles, to complete quest.”

  • The pitch is the shorthand way to describe what your book is about to an agent.

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