June 20


Deliberate Practice: Bonus Day


I thought I would do one more day. 

Is that all right?

The introduction to this series is here.

Bonus Day: Plot on the X

“But when I fell into the mistake I have so long remained in, at least you led me on?” said I.
“Yes,” she returned, again nodding steadily, “I let you go on.”
“Was that kind?”
“Who am I,” cried Miss Havisham, striking her stick upon the floor and flashing into wrath so suddenly that Estella glanced up at her in surprise,— “who am I, for God’s sake, that I should be kind?”

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

Here’s a simple idea for a plot. A character faces some kind of problem, a blockage or obstacle in the path of her desires. Very early in the story, she discovers a way to achieve those goals, a path to go down. The path, however, seems oddly clouded, shadowy — something is not quite right.

But the protagonist wants what she wants, and she hurries down. As she makes progress, her own unease, or outward signs of trouble, accumulate, grow in intensity, building until the story hits a turning point. At that turning point, the hidden trouble rises up, becomes overt. The protagonist is shocked, devastated.

Now she changes course. Now her goal is to fix the problem revealed in the turning point. Her original hopes and goals are merely a memory, a regret, and she races away for a showdown with the story’s real threat.

This kind of story is exciting for the reader because, in the first half of the tale, she can enjoy the protagonist’s struggle to get the goal, but also pick up on the clues that something else is afoot. Hints and warnings suggest that a twist is coming.

For example, this is the plot of The Magic Barrel, a short story often discussed on this blog:

Leo Finkle wants, when he completes his Rabbinical studies, to win a congregation. He has also heard it is important to be married for this process, but he doesn’t have any female friends, so he calls a marriage broker. He is uneasy about calling a broker even though he needs to get married quickly, and once the broker arrives, his unease only grows. As he prepares for his first meeting with a candidate, his discomfort rises, leaving him erratic and short of sleep: on his very first “date,” he exclaims to the very pleasant woman he has been introduced to that he entered Rabbinical study because he DID NOT love God, a realisation he has never had before. In fact, he realises that in his adult life, he has never loved anyone. Horrified by himself, he resolves to seek out love above all. He goes back to the broker, and discovers, as if by chance, the photo of a previously unnoticed woman, and he sees in her eyes the love he needs. She is a monster, warns the broker, a broken woman. She will destroy you. But Leo refuses to listen: he has to marry for love. Now he races for a meeting with this young woman, his original plans for conventional and socially-approved Rabbi-hood quite forgotten.

So a story like this has six key parts:

  1. The setting, the situation facing the main character.
  2. The protagonist’s goal, and the seemingly promising path she thinks she must travel down.
  3. The hints, warnings, foreshadowings that something is wrong.
  4. The turning point — this is scene of crisis where, for instance, the young ambitious lawyer realises that his amazing and scary boss is really the devil.
  5. The new goal. Now the protagonist is racing to overcome the real threat, the deep problem either in herself or her world.
  6. The forgotten original goal, present only as regrets, longings, warnings from old colleagues.

You could picture this plot as an X. Start at the bottom of the diagram and go up:

Plot diagram x

The action of the story only ever takes place on the bold line. The dotted lines exist only as clues, ruminations, doubts.

I got the idea for this kind of structure from Peter Brooks’s great work of narrative theory, Reading for the Plot. Brooks used Great Expectations as his model, but it works for a great many short stories, films, and novels. The “real story” is hidden until the turning point.

Here’s today’s exercise: write an outline of this kind of story. You just need six sentences: you can just sketch them out in note form.

  1. The setting and situation facing a protagonist.
  2. The seemingly good path that opens up for the protagonist at the story’s opening.
  3. The doubts and worries and warnings, also appearing from the story’s opening, that something is wrong with this path. In a literary story, this “something” will primarily be a problem deep in the protagonist’s character or soul that needs to come out. In a genre story, this will primarily be a problem in the outside world.
  4. The turning point. Here, in a moment of terrible insight or revelation, the protagonist realises what was really going on, what the warnings were trying to say, or she instead realises something damaged inside herself which she knows she needs to fix.
  5. The new goal: what is the protagonist racing towards now that the revelation has occurred.
  6. The regrets and absences and longings for the original goal: what is the protagonist giving up by seeking down this more dangerous, more profound path?

If you would like inspiration, try to write a love story with this template, just like “The Magic Barrel.”


That’s the end of this series! I hope you have enjoyed it. I definitely have. It’s been fun to test myself by doing these challenges, and to see your many responses.

Soon, I’ll put up a page with links to each challenge. Please come back, if you like, and try some of the ones you missed. I read every entry.

And, if you like this blog, please consider joining the other sponsors of this blog, over at my Patreon page, where I share some of my award-winning fiction and other extras.


deliberate practice, peter brooks, plot, techniques

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  • melissaremark says:

    Daniel, I really really enjoyed this series. As we all are, I’ve been so busy that my novel-in-progress has fallen through the cracks a bit–never far from my mind, but definitely no new pages. I used most of these exercises with my characters and the events and moments of the narrative. Now I feel ready and rejuvenated to dive back into writing the book. I especially liked the imitation, levels of narration, and plotting on the x exercises. They produced some stuff that has a good chance of making it into the actual story. Thanks for all the work you put into it. I look forward to swapping novels someday!

    • Melissa, that’s really awesome to hear. I mean it — I know the feeling of being stuck, or too busy. Very glad the series helped. And I’m looking forward to seeing your book 🙂

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