Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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August 20, 2014

Braiding Your Book's Three Parts

Laurie Schnebly

When you think about the three elements needed to braid your story together, you probably think of plot and character first.

That makes sense. If you had to write a book using just those two items, you could do a pretty good job of keeping it interesting and entertaining.

Sure, readers might be even happier if they get to see your voice. And the way you describe the setting. And the kind of dialogue your characters use. And the humor, the drama, the tension, the emotion, the -- well, all those other colorful things.



So why aren't those other things as big on the Must-Have list of items to consider when writing your book?

Maybe because we're all writing such different types of stories.

It's not just the plot which makes 'em different, although that certainly contributes.

Nor is it just the characters which make 'em different, although they certainly contribute as well.

But what really sets one book apart from another is how that plot and those characters come together.

Let's call that the situation.



Think about it. If your story is about the heroine facing ninja assassins, it's in a completely different league than your story about that same heroine facing her prom date falling for her best friend

And that's completely different from a story about James Bond facing ninja assassins, or Bond discovering that his prom date (hmm, his casino date?) is falling for HIS best friend. (Hmm, who would that be?)

Anyway, you get the idea. The plots, whether they involve ninjas or a prom date, take an enormous shift when you envision them involving Cinderella or Bond.

Just as the characters, whether Cindy or James, vary tremendously depending on whether they're facing assassins or a love tangle.



Or -- just imagine it -- both.


Those are basic scenarios, sure. And basic characters whose personalities we already have a pretty good idea about...but you see what a difference the situation makes?

That's the third strand of your braid.

 Maybe your heroine is a wanna-be Cinderella at the office party.

Or maybe she's a ninja assassin.

Maybe she's an elderly widow who bakes cookies for the neighborhood children.



Maybe she's forced by a wizard to put arsenic in the cookies.

Maybe she's a cop looking for the poisoner.

Maybe she's a nurse looking for the antidote.

Maybe she's a terrified mother looking for poisoned Emily's favorite doll.

Maybe she's Emily, all grown up and looking for a BDSM costume party.


Notice how all these situations move your story into a whole different category?





Each one of them contains a character and a plot idea you could transfer into some other book...but just think how that story would change.

This is where the magic comes in. The situation -- or even, to use a broader term, the genre -- influences your plot and characters to such an extent that it might be considered the most important element of your story braid.

What happens once you've got your strands?

 That depends on when you get 'em.




Some people start by planning each one, knowing their situation and plot and characters before they ever start writing. ("Yes, this'll be about the cop looking for the poison-cookie baker but falling in love with the evil wizard's innocent niece.")

Some people start with a situation ("Okay, this'll be about a BDSM costume party") and shape the plot and characters to fit it.

Some people start with a character ("I want to write about a nurse who dreams of making a difference") and build a plot around that person, while others start with a plot ("What would happen if a wizard made people carry out his dastardly schemes but got overthrown from within?")

All those ways of building a story work just fine. But sometimes the elements don't quite line up as smoothly as we'd like.




Prize-drawing question: What do you do?

When parts of your book don't line up as neatly as you want them to, what's the first thing you try? Or the second / third / 26th / whatever?

It's fine to mention techniques that HAVE worked for you, and also things that HAVEN'T. Because you know how we all operate differently? Something that didn't quite do the job for you might be the perfect "fix" for a writer who reads your comment!






So if you have any tips you'd like to share, please pass them along. (And if you'd rather I didn't quote you in next month's class on Your Plot-Character-Story Braid, just mention that in your comment.)


Laurie, who is always intrigued at seeing how other people do it



 About Laurie


Laurie Schnebly Campbell always loves teaching a brand-new class, so when a writer asked about "braiding" she was delighted at the chance to explore an untouched subject starting September 1 at WriterUniv.com's http://bit.ly/BraidClass.

Although she enjoyed braiding her own books, including one that beat out Nora Roberts for "Best Special Edition of the Year," she enjoys teaching even more. That's why she now has 15 novels on her bookshelf with acknowledgments from authors inspired by her classes!


64 comments on “Braiding Your Book's Three Parts”

  1. Wow, Laurie, it's not often we get the chance to back up, and view our books a whole new way! It's like a changing, shifting kaleidoscope, no? So very cool.

    I always start with the characters, their fatal flaws and misunderstandings that their backstories have given them. Then I throw them into a scenario that makes them face it. But plot is always last. I've tried plotting ahead, and, much as I want it to, it just kills the buzz for me.

    See, that's where the magic happens! When you are typing away, and something comes out that you had no pre-knowledge of - and it's perfect!

    So love it when that happens...

    Thanks for sharing your wisdom with us today!

  2. I usually start with a premise or hook which leads to scenes and then a decision on what characters would best fit. But I'm starting a new book and this time I'm approaching it different. I have a character and a general idea of "the situation" but am struggling to find that hook.

    Thanks for this Laurie! And if you have any ideas on finding a hook I'd love to hear it!

  3. Hi Laurie, thanks for sharing this. Makes me even more excited to start your September braiding class! I find if I try to plot too much out, then I rapidly lose interest. I already know what's going to happen! So I usually start with a character that's been roaming in my head and then throw them into a situation and see what happens. But in the series i'm currently working on, I have more of the situation so i'm working more on plot and finding my characters to fit.

    1. FOR LORI:
      Sounds like it'll be a fun challenge for you, putting more emphasis on the plot from the beginning and then creating characters who'll fit it -- which sure makes sense when you're working on a series! I'll be curious if the project you use for next month's homework is a book like that, or a brand new idea...either way will be fine!

    Oh, how cool that you start with the misunderstandings and fatal flaws -- it's hard to imagine a better source for rich internal conflict! And it makes sense that all those deeply buried secrets (which they might not even be aware of) WILL make things happen that even the author might not be aware of...yet. 🙂

  5. FOR DEB:
    Boy, it's impressive that you CAN begin with a premise or hook; that shows a wonderful ability for plotting. And, being stronger in that area, it's only natural that designing the characters to match will come more easily...so good for you on having the courage to start differently this time; that's the mark of a versatile writer at work!

  6. I've occasionally had a scene pop into my head, but usually a character walks in first. Thanks for a great post, Laurie, as always. 🙂

  7. FOR JUDY:
    Don't you love it when a scene pops in? I'm always envious of writers who say that happens all the time, and amazed when someone mentions beginning a book based on a scene they thought up -- without having done any special planning regarding the plot or characters, but they often just fall into place. Which sounds lovely!

  8. I think I've done it every which way. For my romantic suspense series, I'll usually start out with the character who's demanding to star in the next book. Then I have to figure out what the basic conflict is, and what character to pair him (or her) with. For my mysteries, since they all revolve around my small town Chief of Police, I have to start with a crime. But I never know the plot until I start writing, other than the mystery will be solved, and, in the romantic suspense books, that the relationship will come together.

  9. I'm a panster so the characters always come first but I do start out with an idea of the plot. I just don't know what the characters will do to get me there.

  10. FOR TERRY:
    Terry, there's a lot to be said for your kind of versatility -- hands-on practice at starting both from characters and from situation/crimes makes it a whole lot easier to keep your story braid balanced! I like how you always know things WILL turn out fine in the end, regardless of whether that's finding the answers to a mystery or to love. <3

    You sound like a perfect pantser, beginning with an idea and then seeing how the characters will meander through the situation to come up with a plot. 🙂 Or maybe the right word isn't meander; maybe it's saunter, dash, twist-and-turn, race wildly, creep, mosey, proceed...any of those sounding close?

  12. I'm a total pantser when it comes to writing. I might scribble a few notes in my journal for a story just so I don't forget, especially if I can't start writing right away, but I usually start with a character and work from there.

  13. Hey Laurie, Great blog! I enjoyed thinking about things this way. I think that most often for me, a situation comes up first followed quckly by the characters. hey may be almost at the same time, but not sure. Then, I may get in mind a few scenes - the beginning, middle, and end, but plotting through those points is the hardest thing for me. I know what I want my piece to have said when it's all done, but the plotting is the hardest!

      Starting with the situation seems like it might be the easiest way to get characters: "hmm, what kind of person would wind up in a situation like this?" Getting three scenes in mind is a bonus, because once you've got the Big Five you're pretty much all set to write -- although of course that's different for everyone. (Drat.)

  14. I look at my WIPs as a curious puzzle with hundreds of pieces. As I write the pieces start coming together. When I come upon one that's ill-fitting my brain starts chewing on it--visually rewriting the scene until either the piece is smooth-fitting or deleting it altogether and replacing it with another idea that solves the problem. This process can take hours, days or weeks, so it helps to nosh on inspiration from friends and crunch down on favorite snack food during the process.

    1. FOR PATTI:
      Gotta love any process that involves noshing with friends and favorite snack foods! And it's intriguing that you view the story elements as puzzle pieces...I like the image of a whole jigsaw scattered around the table and putting together the parts that make immediate sense while lingering over the others. Hmm, which would be the corners?

      1. Laurie, the corners are turning points. Each piece is a beat. By itself it doesn't make a lot of sense, but once you interlock other beats you form a scene and you glimpse what's starting to happen. The farther out you go the more life you bring into the picture. Until finally it's complete. Sit back and envision the whole story. Touch the edges and feel the outcome of your endeavor. In my puzzle pictures my H/h always have HEAs. Of course, I'm pre-published but that doesn't mean I haven't created my own unique puzzles. 🙂

        1. FOR PATTI:
          Oops, sorry I missed this earlier -- I like the idea of turning points as corners, and that can even work if you're using one of those arcs that contains five or six turning points instead of four. Heck, gotta love a pentagon or hexagon or octagon or...what's a seven, anyway?

  15. I'm a panster, too. I usually have a scene come to mind with a very strong character in it, doing/saying something and start wondering, "What the heck is going on there??" then build both backwards and forwards to see.

    I always find it fascinating to see how other people approach writing, and appreciate the thunk on the head that everyone does it differently and there's no wrong way, which is also a take-away from this post.

    1. FOR ROWAN:
      Ooh, I love the phrase "thunk on the head that everyone does it differently" -- that's a much more vivid way of putting it! And it's cool that you can build backwards AND forwards from that original scene, because that means you're starting in the middle of the action (what's that Latin term?) which is supposed to be THE best place to begin.

      1. The term is "in medias res." Unfortunately that's all I can sensibly add to the discussion having pantsed my way into two stories and a planned third with my braid tangled in knots 🙂

        1. FOR DEBBIE:
          Thanks, that would've driven me crazy until I looked it up! So even if your braid is tangled in knots, at least you've got a handle on a phrase that comes in handy when figuring where to start...although now, come to think of it, I don't see how you could start an actual braid in the middle. Hmm...

  16. I have to work from a detailed outline. But when my chapters get off course it freaks me out. I start with characters. Plot is harder to come by. I think its essential to know a lot about the backgrounds of characters. That sometimes helps fill in the blanks. But I've never written about a heroine facing Ninja assassins. Hm....lol

    1. FOR ROZ:
      Okay, now I'm waiting for your next Superromance or Heartwarming to work in a team of Ninja assassins -- if anybody can handle that, it's you! Starting with a detailed outline plus character backgrounds sounds like a good way to make sure all your elements are in place...not so much risk of getting stuck in the middle!

    Following a character around can be all kinds of fun, although occasionally all kinds of frustrating if they're not doing anything that makes sense for a story...but it's lucky that most characters who DO inspire a story, or even a few notes in a journal, are interesting enough people that something's bound to pop up!

  18. I always start with an initiating incident; one which will bring my main characters on stage together. They will, of course, be at odds in the beginning. The degree depends on the genre, as does the resolution. Your third-braid analogy is brilliant. A great start to my working day. Thank you.

    1. FOR ANND:
      Ooh, I like the phrase "initiating incident" rather than "inciting incident," because that means the book doesn't have to start with a flash-bang...it could also work with something that grows more gradually. And of course there's no risk of a too-slow pace as long as the characters are at odds right from the start. 🙂

  19. The characters usually come to me first and then an inciting incident to get them together. Plot tags along behind. 🙂

    I just had an interesting experience and found that my inciting incident can change and even the plot can change but my characters tend to stay the same. I pitched a story at RWA and the editor requested the full but we discussed but she didn't think the inciting incident would work for her line. She didn't tell me to change it but I though about it and brainstormed with writer friends and came up with a totally different scenario. I started writing it and the characters actually liked the new situation and have been throwing all sorts of new scenes my way. They've been a little more relaxed and natural and have allowed the writing to flow. Of course we're still in the first 3rd of the story and they may feel differently once I get into the 2nd third.

    Looking forward to your workshop!

    1. FOR CAROL:
      Here's hoping the characters continue loving the new approach -- isn't it a treat watching what can happen when you brainstorm with somebody who totally GETS your story? (Even better when it's an acquiring editor.) Speaking purely selfishly, here, I can't wait to see what story you'll be working on next month!

  20. Laurie, this was a marvelous post...but then, all of your posts are thought-provoking. Stories come to me all different ways: feet first, head first, something-in-the-middle first, characters, plots, themes, situations... I never know what to expect or how to make it work until somehow it does (usually when I stop interfering).

    As for what I do when things don't fall together? First, I bang my head on the desktop, hoping to either knock some sense into myself or shake something loose. If that doesn't work, I try threatening whichever story aspect is misbehaving, determined to convince it I mean business and foolishness will not be tolerated (unless I'm attempting a humorous story, in which case I demand more foolishness). If all else fails, I consider leaping from a tall building...at which point the Universe generally takes pity on me, pats me on the head, and tosses me some kind of bone. I have enough bones around here to build a wooly mammoth skeleton of which the Smithsonian would be proud. 😉

    Best wishes to you and yours -- and carry on with the extremely helpful classes and workshops. I'll be the first to attest to how beneficial they are to writers at all stages of their journey. 🙂

      Oh, dear, I hate the idea of your banging your head on the desktop -- but I've seen how well it works! (Although I've gotta say when it comes to leaping off a tall building, it's a relief to know that so far you've only CONSIDERED it.) Am I right in thinking you're at work on a humorous story right around now? 🙂

      1. I am, actually. Over the summer, "The Worst Outlaw in the West," about an inept bank robber and a bossy spinster who team up to rob an empty vault, was published in an anthology. Now I'm writing a short about that protagonist's brother, another failed bank robber who collides with a phony spiritualist just in time for her to accidentally summon a pair of dishonest-to-goodness ghosts. Misadventures ensue...I hope. 😀

  21. Great blog as always, Laurie. This is going to be a wonderful class.

    Usually if things go out of whack I throw out the chapter before the one I think has got a problem. (It's not the wall, it's the approach velocity.... :). That's the tip.

    Since that didn't work in my WIP I ended up stripping out a deeply entrenched secondary character and substituting a more generic one who wouldn't intrude so heavily on the plot. That meant throwing out a lot of work, so, it's *not* a tip! :).

    1. FOR VICKI:
      Aw, drat, I'm sorry you had to throw out the secondary character! Who's gonna have the starring role in a future book, I hope? (Hint, hint...) But it sounds like you took a great approach to keeping your three parts well-balanced, because a character who overshadows the rest of the story sure doesn't make for a smooth braid!

  22. Laurie,

    Thanks for the blog and thanks to everyone for the comments. This is a great place to learn and feel connected to other writers.

    I'm usually bothered by something I've heard on TV. I'm pestered until I get a what if? The what if is followed by a what would happen then?

    I swim laps or walk the dogs and get badgered by characters forming in my mind that convince me I need them to answer the what ifs and what happens next.


    1. FOR BEIGE:
      Okay, now you've gotta tell us -- what TV shows are you watching that provide such wonderful inspiration? Sure, maybe technically it's more about how your mind works than about what the show provides, but what's not to love about a show that gets your muse working on your next walk or swim...sounds like a great way to get started. 🙂

  23. It thrills me to finally see more pantsers than plotters. Pantsers unite!

    Characters almost always come first - their personalities and backgrounds and sometimes their vocations, but sometimes that changes as they run around in my head. Once in a great while an unusual vocation will be presented and I just have to build a story around it.

    As I said, I don't plot (other than knowing it will be a suspense), but usually have an idea of where I want it to go. Notice I said 'where I want it to go.' My characters don't always agree. Sometimes I fight them on it and THAT's when my story stalls. Oh, I keep writing (usually stuff I end up trashing). It's the only way for me to work through the problem. Sometimes all the 'trash writing' clicks with a character and they realize I was right. But...Most of the time, I realize the characters were right and the story will be better if I take that left rather than the right I had planned on.

    So, no real magic wand to get me over the 'stalled' story, just determination that I will write the darned thing and it will be good. 🙂

    Thanks for asking such intriguing questions here and in class, Laurie!

    1. FOR SANDRA:
      Starting a story from a character's vocation is a fun idea -- you and a local friend are the only people I know who do that! (Talk about a great way to learn about some cool job without actually having to train a few years to DO it.) And it's hard to beat determination as the motivator for getting that braid complete...that's a magic wand, right there.

  24. I spend more time on my characters than their plot or situation. It can be hard to make events happen that way. So I think about what they want. Sometimes they don't know what they want and then the braid is very short.

    1. FOR NAOMI:
      Well, there's something to be said for a short braid -- I'm thinking pigtails are always cute. But you're right about the downside of spending more time on characters than plot or situation, even though books that are MOSTLY about characters can be fabulous. For that matter, so can the opposite kind. Which just have lopsided braids, that's all. 🙂

  25. First, I'm looking forward to the braiding class and even more seeing this blog. I do okay with plotting but lose some of the emotion. However, I'm in the early stages of writing and still trying to figure out my own process.

      Okay, we need to pair you up with Naomi right above. I've always wished there were some way for writers to donate skills they have plenty of, throw 'em into some giant pot, and take out skills they'd like a bit more of. (Which I suppose is what inspires people who collaborate.) But we'll get your process figured out a bit more next month, for sure!

  26. Laurie, how nice to see you here! And what a great post!!

    I just approved a few comments for you, so you might want to stroll up the line and see them. I've got to go look at my manuscript and figure out its "braid"...

    1. FOR JENNY
      Ah, thanks for the alert -- when someone mentioned posting and I hadn't seen it yet, I realized there was probably an approval process in the works out there. Here's hoping you get to take breaks from that while figuring out your manuscript's braid -- that's always the most fun for people who are good at visualizing crafts (which, alas, I'm not. Uh-oh.)

  27. Hi Laurie, I'm pretty new at this but for what it's worth, my book started out from a news story running on T.V. The whole concept just leapt into my head from there. I had to figure out my characters, their emotional highs and lows, and what would drive them apart even more than together, after that. I think I changed the first part of the book something like ten times, lol, but the back end stayed pretty clean. I knew where I wanted to end up, just not which road would get me there, 🙂

      Wow, I hope when the book is published you'll send a copy to whatever news reporter did that story -- they'll be thrilled at hearing they inspired a work of fiction! There's a lot to be said for knowing how you want it to wind up, since that way you have a clear end-of-the-braid moment in mind...all ready to be tied off neatly when you reach that point.

  28. Hi Laurie, The braid metaphor totally works for me. Since I start with characters in a situation when my story is not lining up, I revise the plot sequence and ramp up the action.

    1. FOR LAURA:
      Way to go, Laura -- it makes sense that when you've got strong characters to begin with for a situation that inspired you in the first place, ramping up the plot action helps make the story balance out. Nice to see the braid metaphor working so smoothly, especially at the end of the day!

  29. When my "braids" don't work, I go right back to the beginning to start looking at exactly where they started to unravel. As soon as I come to a section in the ms where, perhaps a character's motivation doesn't make sense or the scene seems to be "plopped" in the middle of the rest of the action moving forward, then I stop and see if I can "re-braid" a bit. Since I know where I ended with the strand, now I pull those loose ends back in to a tighter braid. That works for me, but it does require a willingness to accept that something just isn't working and I have to throw it out or make a big change. But, hey, it's worth it in the end!

    1. FOR LAURIE:
      Boy, you're right about the willingness to accept when something just isn't working...I think that might be the hardest part of re-braiding. Because it's so tempting to just keep going and trust that everything will turn out okay, all the more so when we hear about that happening with other books. And yet it's clear your system WORKS. 🙂

  30. What I do first when something doesn't work is try to cram the square peg in the triangle hole. Then once I'm exhausted and see that it doesn't work, figure out why to see how much needs to be reworked. Sometimes it simply doesn't and you have to scrap a story. It's helpful to have crit partners you can brainstorm with because they aren't as emotionally invested and see things from a non-biased perspective and can give you suggestions you might not have thought of (or didn't want to do it "that way" but see it's better than your original idea.) Sometimes you can flag it and continue on and the solution comes naturally - and it's awesome when that happens.

    1. FOR TRACY:
      Love the square peg in the triangle phrase...as much as I love crit partners who can provide that detachment; aren't they the greatest? And knowing they DO have your best interests at heart makes it so much easier to accept ideas that didn't resonate originally. But of course the solution coming naturally is the best of all. <3

  31. Braiding...What a wonderful way of describing the coming together of plot, characters and all those other elements that go into the making of a story. For my current wip, I'm using inner conflict to develop my characters and external conflict to develop the plot action and see if i can weave them together to make a good fit.

    1. FOR ADITE:
      Weaving is a good description of all the elements that go into a story that WORKS -- while there can sure be a different balance (for instance, think of a traditional romance vs an adventure thriller or coming-of-age vs mystery) each kind has its own Best Mix of situation, plot and character. And you know you've hit it when editors want your books!

  32. When the first idea comes to me it's usually in the form of a scene. Of course, there's always a character in that scene, so I suppose I would say I start with a character who's in a specific situation. Most of the time the situation is benign, but gives me achance to see how the character deals with certain aspects of his or her life. I focus on learning as much as I can about that character and ask myself, "What would she do next?" With just those five words, I'm usually able to extend the scene into the next and get the juices flowing. That's not happening quite as efficiently with my current WIP so I've started about fifteen different versions of the same story just for the sake of trying to get to the heart of the story... which I'm still not sure of at this point. All of this frustration leads me to why I'm taking your Plot/Character/Story Braid class next month, Laurie! I'm looking forward to it!

    1. FOR ALICIA:
      Whew, just recovered my WiFi! And your definition of "situation" makes a big difference in the braid -- it could range anywhere from "just finished the school year" to "just finished a ten-year prison term" to "just finished a Diet Pepsi." But assuming it's the kind of situation where "What'll she do next?" is intriguing, you've got a good system there. 🙂

  33. This is a great discussion!! I have so many tricks to keep my brain going when the plot doesn't line up. My mood depends on which one I go with. 🙂 Sometimes, I interview the character I know best. That gives me a lot of insight. Other times, I ask 'why' and force myself to answer. Then I ask 'why' again, and make myself answer. Repeat at least six times to get to something original. Still other times, I set a timer and write. The only rule is that I can't stop until the time goes off. Sometimes I need to get the junk out of my brain before the wheels turn properly again.

    1. FOR BARB:
      Oh, boy, what a lot of great suggestions! I love doing those character interviews -- seems like it never fails to yield SOMETHING interesting, whether or not it actually winds up in the book. And the why-why-why is another winner...haven't yet tried the timer, but a friend has used it through 26 books so it's gotta be good. Thanks, Barb!

  34. Hi Laurie, Just got to "The End" on my current WIP and I found that I just had to let everything go and trust my characters to get to the end of the story. When I stopped trying to fit the story into little boxes, it somehow came together. Thinking about your class - intriguing as always.

    1. FOR LYNDA:
      Woo-hooooooooo -- congratulations on reaching The End! I hope you're in the midst of enjoying whatever reward delights you the most, whether it's diving straight into a new book or relaxing with champagne & chocolate. 🙂 And it sounds like trusting your characters to go where they belonged led to a triumphant result...good for you!

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