In the above discussions with MW Stover, he suggested checking out the book Writing to Sell by Scott Merideth. I just happened to be in the library yesterday and picked up a copy. Because Juzzza was having trouble finding a copy and no doubt, a few others may be curious, I thought I'd summarize some of the interesting points that I found in it. And perhaps generate some discussion.
First of all, there isn't a magic formula in it. Sorry. (I'm still looking - if anyone knows it - please let me know.)
What I did find interesting (and unfortunately I'm going by memory):
As Mr. Stover pointed out, Merideth defines what he calls a plot skeleton, which goes by many other names, but just about all stories follow it. The protagonist is presented with a problem. He (or she - my copy of the book was published in 1974) then proceedes to solve this problem. This can be tackling the whole problem, or a series of obstacles required to overcome the problem. However each attempted solution exacerbates the problem. This leads to a bleakest point point where it seems the protagonist will not be able to solve it. Then, by course of his own inginuity or course of actions he conquers the problem.
Merideth goes on to suggest that the best problems are ones that must be solved, as opposed to those that should be solved or would be nice if they were solved. A good story then evolves from a situation where the problem must be solved, but cannot be solved - at least not easily.
The problem can take an external or an internal form and he gives some pretty good examples in the book of what he means.
In outlining a story, Merideth says that it's important that an author develope an effective plot skeleton. You need a connected series of events that increase dramatic tension that are focused on the solution of a problem.
In short, I don't think there's anything in it that I haven't read anywhere else ( I tend to pick up these kinds of books from time to time). However I think, he really peels things down to what editors look for - or at least what they were looking for in 1974.
December 16th, 2004, 11:55 AM
I went ahead and bought the book on Amazon after reading his comments. I figured I could do a lot worse than taking the advice of an established author.
It hasn't arrived yet, but I'm curious to read it when it does.
December 16th, 2004, 12:25 PM
The only problem I see is that the problem must be solved. There are tons of good stories out there where this isn't the case. Having a problem that must be solved usually turns the story into the lone hero saves the world scenario which is getting really old. :p
December 16th, 2004, 01:20 PM
As I said, the copy that I have was writtin in 1974, which makes it older than me.
"Must" can be taken to have different meanings. I think an example that he gives (and I am going from memory, which I have great difficulties distinguishing from imagination sometimes) is one of a man trying to establish a relationship with a woman. It's a pretty old story. Most people go through a stuggle trying to 'woo' that special someone at some point in their lives. At no point is there a "must" component to this. The story is made more interesting however, if on learning about the character, we find that he's failed at ever wooing anyone. The character is frail and if he fails at this task, there will be severe psychological consequences. Indeed he may never feel that he can fall in love with anyone. Thus upon a study of character, he "must" succeed.
Merideth takes a pretty firm stance in arguing that anyone who doesn't agree with the plot skeleton, doesn't understand it.
If I can toss in my own two cents, I would modify "the problem must be solved" into "the reader has a vested interest in seeing the problem solved."
December 16th, 2004, 01:28 PM
I agree, Choppy.
Take my story for instance. The detective "must" solve this murder mystery as it is apparent that it has been done under the same circumstances as his parents' murder. He "must" solve it to bring some closure to his life and the lives of others affected by this chain or murders...
December 16th, 2004, 01:55 PM
Is this an author named Scott Merideth or the literary agent Scott Meredith whose agency operates a profitable editorial services factory?
A plot skeleton is a term for the architecture or outline of the plot. The particular plot skeleton you describe that is related in the book -- protagonist, conflict, escalating obstacles, point of depression when all looks bleak, then problem is conquered and things are resolved -- is certainly a very common type of plot skeleton. It is used regularly in science fiction and fantasy stories, particularly heroic adventure tales. It was definitely the plot skeleton used for the movie, "National Treasure," which is pure fantasy but a great deal of fun anyway.
However, it doesn't really work as the plot skeleton for stories like, say, "Moby Dick," "Romeo and Juliet," "The Turn of the Screw" or many other types of stories. Some stories use a skeleton where there are a series of problems, each of which is solved in its turn. A number of stories have sad endings where the problem is not conquered but instead destroys the life of the protagonist. Some stories use the skeleton of an observer main character, like Nick in "The Great Gatsby," who is changed by the events of the story but does not engineer those events. Many historical stories cannot set up such a skeleton. For instance, you couldn't exactly be writing about the Alamo in the States and have everything look its bleakest -- we're surrounded by thousands of Mexicans -- and then somehow everybody survives anyway. Well, you could, but calling it the Alamo might not work.
Of course, it could be argued that if you write stories with a different sort of structure and skeleton than the "person against obstacles and overcomes them" one, that you won't sell your work, but there does not seem to be any evidence that this is actually the case. And as someone who frequently rejected stories with the obstacle plot skeleton in the past, I can say with a fair amount of confidence that using this plot skeleton guarantees you diddly squat. But, if you are writing that sort of story, the book might be helpful in setting up and organizing the plot.
December 17th, 2004, 08:40 AM
No, sorry KATG, MWS quite clearly stated that editors will be handing out cheques if writers follow Meredith's effective plotting structure.
I CAN'T WAIT to point that out to the next editor who send me a rejection :D
Dear Mrs Jones,
Thank you for your rejection, but can I suggest that you re-consider your decision?
If you read my MS again, it is quite clear that I have followed Meredith's Plot Skeleton structure and I believe, therefore, that you should be reaching for your cheque book.
Oh and Choppy, thanks for the thread, glad I only spent $1.95 at Amazon US rather than £60 at Amazon UK!!!
December 17th, 2004, 11:46 AM
Oh please, please do it. They'll love it. They will laugh with delight. They'll show it around the office, then frame it and hang it on the wall. They'll talk about it at writers conferences and sff conventions. You'll be immortalized. :)
I'm not entirely sure what Matt meant in that post, but I don't think he was being completely literal. I think -- and I could be wrong -- that he was saying it's an effective choice for sf and fantasy and the book is a helpful guide to it (in that autocratic way writing guidebooks tend to have.) And I'd pretty much have to agree with him on that point. A lot of fantasy and a good portion of sf uses that structure. I would say the fantasy story I'm working on uses that structure, although I don't exactly have the point of bleakest despair when all is nearly lost bit. It's more of a series of points of bleak despair. Sort of a "we're going to die; oh look, we're still alive," "we're going to die; wow, most of us are still alive" progression. I don't know what you'd call that --the Survivor skeleton?
One of the genres that uses Meredith's structure a lot is suspense -- mysteries and thrillers, and given that the book was written in 1974, that's probably mainly what Meredith is talking about. But if everybody is using it for suspense, it would seem to negate the advantage. I'm sure I've brought this up before but way back when I was a junior editor doing mysteries, I had to read oodles of ms. that made me ready to kill Robert B. Parker and John MacDonald, because every other manuscript featured either a war vet P.I. who only went by one name like Parker's Spenser, or a hard-drinking loner on a houseboat like MacDonald's Travis McGee. And it wasn't that these stories were horribly written -- they weren't. Most of them were agented by someone who had felt their work was good, they had interesting characters or premises. Nor was it that there wasn't any more room for war vet or houseboat dwelling P.I.'s, just as there's always more room for dragons in fantasy or another story about exploring Mars in sf. It was that they were trying to use a blueprint not of their own making and because of that, there tended to be messes when it came to plot, consistency or style. They had the plot skeleton but it just lay there, didn't get up and dance.
So I don't know that following Meredith's method exactly will get you much in this day and age. But if it does, I win. I worked in publishing, I have publishing contacts (even if they are old and creaky,) which means I can probably finagle to get read first and get the check first, even if you have the plot skeleton. Ha, ha!
December 19th, 2004, 05:18 AM
Ahh...all books or stories are about obstacles that must be solved. Otherwise they would just be journals or non-fiction. Stories are about life and life is about problems. Unless you're a buddhist maybe.
I hope Meredith isn't being too literal...I havn't read the book. If he says the story has to be solved and the obstacle overcome then that is obviously a narrow approach to "writing to sell." But an obstacle can be anything; a disease, a social dilema, or whatever. And just because someone "must" solve it doesn't mean they will. It isn't necessary for a story.
Anyway, I think we all know that the good guy doesn't have to win in order for a novel to sell. The protagonist doesn't even have to be good.
December 30th, 2004, 01:29 PM
I have not read Meredith's book but I did a writing course last summer and if they suggested one way to read a story, they suggested half a dozen.
In the light of this I am not sure that the protaganists need solve problems. What they need to do is either transform themselves or transform the reader. Or both.