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Mapping: Starting with SUCK

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Apr. 22nd, 2013 | 10:09 am

This is Part Three of a new series on the technical elements of writing.
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In the Eight Point Structure, the character starts in Stasis (“this is how things are”), and the plot goes into motion with a Trigger. Just like pulling the trigger on a gun, something big and dramatic happens. It may not be a large physical action, but it disrupts the stasis and starts something previously outside the protagonist’s experience.

A story’s Trigger is often the thing we say when we first describe a plot to someone else.


A farmboy is fixing a robot when it projects a hologram message of a woman asking for help.

A flower girl overhears a man bragging that he can teach anyone—even her—to speak like a lady.

A young man sees his father's ghost. The ghost says “I was murdered—prove it and bring the killer to justice.”


In a story, the Trigger is typically in the first two paragraphs. In a novel, it’s in the first two pages. Unless you are deliberately employing a different structure, pull the trigger right away. Browsing my shelves for trigger examples, I noticed something powerful. Book after book, the trigger was in the FIRST LINE. Right there—Wham! Keep reading! Something amazing just happened!


“They say that just before you die your whole life flashes before your eyes, but that's not how it happened for me.” (Before I Fall)

“A sealed envelope is an enigma containing further enigmas. This particular one was of the large, bulky manila variety with the name of the laboratory stamped in the lower left-hand corner.” (The Flanders Panel)

(I haven’t even read The Flanders Panel yet, but I bet that envelope sets it all in motion.)


Many novels start with the trigger and then flash back to the stasis:

“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.” (The Secret History)

We find out the college student narrator, Richard, and his friends killed Bunny in the next paragraph. The author flashes back and whips through Richard’s childhood, then gets the narrator off to college on Page 5 (it's a 524 page book).


What makes a good Trigger?

SUCK.

That is,
A trigger is Simple.
It is Unexpected.
Concrete - something very specific is happening.
And it Kicks off the story.

Start Simple. ONE incident that is a case study for what's wrong in the character's life. Les Miserables is enormous and dense, there are four or five major plot lines; even the abridged versions are huge. But each plot line starts with simple triggers: a woman is knocked up and abandoned. A man steals a loaf of bread. A dying woman asks that her daughter be found and taken care of. Two young people fall in love at first sight.

Triggers are Unexpected because they’re different from what always happens. Start the story with the moment of change—in playwriting, this is also called the Passover Question: “Why is this night different than all other nights?”


Most hide and seek games are normal; today I went into a closet and found a snowy forest where I had tea with a mythical creature. (The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe)

Most days I don’t get any mail; today I got my acceptance letter to wizard school. (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone)


This is often true even in non-fiction:

Most business books are about success; this one is about failure.
(Redefining Success: Still Making Mistakes)


A good Trigger is Concrete. Something specific happens. Richard and his friends kill Bunny before he can rat them out. Elle Woods gets dumped when she’s expecting a proposal. Little Red starts walking through the woods alone. Eliza Doolittle hears that someone can teach her to speak differently.

Finally, a Trigger is a Kick-off. It’s the same level of physical or emotional action as putting the ball down on the fifty-yard line and taking a run at it. The Trigger must result in the protagonist taking action. Your hero must say “yes” to the Trigger and begin her journey to personal change.

For example, “We moved to a new town” is not enough. Lucy Pevensie didn't just move to a new town—she went to the back of the wardrobe, walked through the snowy woods and had tea with Mr. Tumnus. Then she takes her brothers and sister back to the place she found. Twilight’s Bella Swan moves to a new town and spends her time resolutely refusing to be triggered.

I won't go on a date with you.
I don't know why you think I'm pretty.
I don’t want to hang out.

If Bella was in an improv show, we'd boo her off the stage for negativity, if her fellow actors hadn’t already booted her for saying "no" to every suggestion and endowment. Have your hero say yes and begin the journey.

Finally, don’t feel that your Trigger has to be at the “beginning” of something. Nothing really starts at the beginning—remember the mini-plot arcs in Legally Blonde? Start in motion. We don’t need five chapters of Harry being abused by the Dursleys—he lives in a closet and no-one plays with him, that’s enough. We get it.

Take a moment and think about your favorite book or movie—what’s the trigger? Now go look it up or watch it, and notice how early it shows up. If it shows up after five pages or after the five-minute mark, why did the writer do that?

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Heard any good Triggers lately?


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Comments {20}

blahblahblah, whatever

(no subject)

from: kathrynrose
date: Apr. 22nd, 2013 02:38 pm (UTC)
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Welllllllllllllllllll poop!

My trigger is too slow. I don't want to lose the flea market, though.

::ponder::

Edit - also, thanks again for passing on the good information. You're really generous in helping develop other writers. I forget to say thank you when I find a problem in my stuff.

Edited at 2013-04-22 02:39 pm (UTC)

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whipchick

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from: whipchick
date: Apr. 23rd, 2013 09:00 pm (UTC)
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You're welcome :)

What if you move the trigger earlier and flash back? Or put Ojas' trigger right away? (Is it Oja or Ojas?) Or she takes some action at the flea market that leads to what happens next?

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blahblahblah, whatever

(no subject)

from: kathrynrose
date: Apr. 24th, 2013 03:30 pm (UTC)
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It's Ojas. :)


The latest version of my first paragraph is:

Come on, Nicole. What is your problem? I closed my eyes and leaned against the chain link boundary between the cluttered booths. Normally I enjoyed our monthly flea market adventures, but today I just couldn’t focus on anything. It was like there was some kind of static just at the edge of my perception. It wasn’t exactly a sound or a feeling, but in a way it was both, and whatever it was, I was having trouble shaking it.


Which is kind of a pre-trigger.

I hate to think of giving up the desk too soon. I mean, there should be some building, right?

I thought about adding something to the above paragraph, like

(not exactly this, but I'm sleep deprived) -- "I couldn't imagine what in the world was causing it. I never suspected it might not have been this world."

But I'm afraid that's cliche. I kind of hate it.

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Your Face

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from: kandigurl
date: Apr. 22nd, 2013 04:38 pm (UTC)
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I adore that you're using Twilight as an example of "how not to write". :) I wrote a Twilight parody and the very first chapter was called, "I Moved to a New Town," so I lol'ed heartily at “'We moved to a new town' is not enough."

Also, this is inspiring me to pick up a story I'd long given up on. I think I could probably hammer something out of it with these guidelines.

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whipchick

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from: whipchick
date: Apr. 23rd, 2013 09:01 pm (UTC)
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HAHAHAHA! I am so down with that :)

Twilight's such a great example, because it's popular enough that everyone gets the references, but it really is pretty badly structured. Definitely the exception that proves the rule :)

So glad you are picking up your story again!

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theun4givables

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from: theun4givables
date: Apr. 22nd, 2013 06:27 pm (UTC)
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I really appreciate that you're taking the time to do these. Once I'm done all three first drafts of my trilogy, I'm going to be looking out for these sorts of things. I'm not sure if my trigger is in the right place just yet in book one, but I know how I plan to change the beginning of it already. Savin being nervous about popping the question to his girlfriend Mari counts as a trigger, right? Lol

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whipchick

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from: whipchick
date: Apr. 23rd, 2013 09:02 pm (UTC)
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Thanks!

Yes, that is totally a CONCRETE trigger full of ACTION. Totally. :p

But if he chooses to go ahead or not go ahead with it...

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theun4givables

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from: theun4givables
date: Apr. 23rd, 2013 09:21 pm (UTC)
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He kinda has to ask because she kinda has to say yes just so she can end up accidentally pregnant. ;)

Did I mention I'm mean to my characters? Because I kinda am.

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Andrea Blythe

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from: blythe025
date: Apr. 22nd, 2013 07:08 pm (UTC)
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I think this is just the post I needed right now, because I've been feeling stuck with my beginning chapters and I'm now thinking that a major part of that is that I'm burying the triggers (and there are several). Claire has her parents getting divorced and meeting/dating someone as minor triggers (which I haven't gotten to yet, so boo). Adam has falling in love as a minor trigger (happens in his first chapter, so yay). They both have werewolf attack as a major trigger (which doesn't come until several chapters in).

So, because the triggers are kind of buried, I'm basically biding my time until I can get to them. Hrm.

I don't really know what to do but keep going as I'm going at the moment, though. Something to think about in the rewrite, I guess.

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whipchick

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from: whipchick
date: Apr. 23rd, 2013 09:04 pm (UTC)
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Ah! What a great discovery! So glad this is helpful. And yeah, keep writing forward - once you know what the trigger is, it's one of the easiest fixes to make in the next draft.

I've read a ton of blog posts from agents and editors about how the vast majority of novels they get could cut the first chapter and dive into the plot sooner, so i think it's a fairly human thing to want to lay some ground work before getting into the big stuff.

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Andrea Blythe

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from: blythe025
date: Apr. 23rd, 2013 09:29 pm (UTC)
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The thing is, I really like my first chapter right now, because it sets up the stasis while showing the weirdness of her reality. It's one of those things where I intended to have the divorce announcement appear in that chapter and then while writing the scene evolved into something else and pushed everything back, kinda screwing up my momentum.

I know I'm going to have to go back and rework the first chapter. I'm resisting the urge to do it right NOW in the aim of just getting on with things, except it kinda changes the structure of how the subsequent chapters will go.

Hmmm. You know. I already have the trigger scene written. Maybe I'll just tack it on at the end of Chapter One with the aim of making it work later. I think doing that will help me get past the block I have with upcoming chapters, allowing me to skip past the filler.

Ah, yeah, huge sigh of relieve. Can't tell you how its helped talking it over with you to work it out. Hopefully things will come together faster noe.

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unmowngrass

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from: unmowngrass
date: Apr. 22nd, 2013 11:42 pm (UTC)
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Once again, I appreciate the effort and generosity you're putting into sharing these things, and you give me hope that, with the structure you're providing, I might one day actually write a good story!

And I've also just identified the problem I have in the story I wanted to write (rather than the one that kinda wanted to be written): the trigger is too slow.

"The heir to a hotel dynasty meets a piano player, and in getting to know her, uncovers his own family secrets." That's my synopsis, but there's no trigger for it, I've just realised that. So he meets the piano player, so what? What actually happens?


Also, the more I'm thinking about this, the more I'm finding that much as I'd like to be a "gardener" writer - working with what comes out and not knowing the exact shape of things - I actually am/need to be an "architect" writer - I need to know what's happening and then write to fill in the gaps. That makes more sense to me. I am taking plenty of mental notes from you right now :)

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whipchick

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from: whipchick
date: Apr. 23rd, 2013 09:07 pm (UTC)
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What a fabulous discovery!!!!

>>>What actually happens? >>>

Yep. Right there. But, the setting and characters sound awesome and compelling, so this is not going to be a tough stretch to fix :)

I really, really love your analogy of gardeners vs architects, and I think that's so much more positive and evocative than the typical plotter/pantser terms. The interesting thing for me is that all the really successful writers I know are architects...they may garden for their ideas, or freewrite when they're thinking, but they all either start with a structure, or write a first draft and then go back and restructure.

Thanks and you're welcome :)

Edited at 2013-04-23 09:08 pm (UTC)

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unmowngrass

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from: unmowngrass
date: Apr. 25th, 2013 07:27 pm (UTC)
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:) Right, if something else happens first, then I can open with that and move the scene where he is looking at the piano player from the bar (currently the opening scene) to later on. Hmm, let's think.

The first idea I had was a robbery, but actually, I want to save that for later in the book because it could be a really big story line, and I still want it to be about the piano player in general. I must need a smaller trigger, but with more driving force than currently. So...

If our protagonist gets drafted in to have to fire somebody, when he has so far been uninvolved in the day to day running of the business ... then he can still admire the piano player from the bar after he has done so, and the stasis has changed as he is now more involved with the running of the hotel than he was before, right? He can then continue to be more involved, in increasing measure, which will make up the rest of the book. Fabulous.

Is that a good trigger?

Thanks for saying it sounds awesome and compelling *shy smile* -- it's "write the book you want to read", right?

Also, I can't claim credit for the gardener/architect metaphors, but, er, nor can I remember the website I got it from, either ;-)

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whipchick

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from: whipchick
date: Apr. 30th, 2013 07:46 pm (UTC)
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Yes! And it shakes up his stasis, which is GREAT!

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unmowngrass

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from: unmowngrass
date: Apr. 30th, 2013 11:55 pm (UTC)
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Thanks! Although I've been thinking...

There are, I think, five subplots woven together in this story:
1) Getting more involved in running the hotel
2) Romance with piano player
3) The family secrets
4) The relational consequences of the family secrets coming out
5) Falling out with his brother (separate mini-plot line to 4)

Is that right?

So, am I right in thinking I need to have a trigger for each one? I have triggers for 1 & 5 now, the trigger for 2 is the scene in the bar as I mentioned... I still need a trigger for 3 (and therefore 4), don't I?

But... I can probably work it so that 5 triggers 3, can't I? Because that's how real life works, stuff has consequences that are sometimes unforeseen, but they don't always get slammed in the face with multiple life-changing external events one after the other, right? ;-)

In which case, the trigger for this bit probably needs to be a little further inside the book, and give 5 a chance to establish itself first. Which is annoying, because actually, the family secrets are the main plot, and the rest, with the possible exception of 2, sort of fits around it. So, that's my next thinking goal for this project, to find that trigger.

I'm just thinking aloud here :)

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whipchick

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from: whipchick
date: May. 1st, 2013 12:09 am (UTC)
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Yes yes yes!! That's exactly how it works. And I'm glad you're brainstorming on this, too, because I just hit a place with my book today where I was all OH FUCK THIS STORYLINE JUST DIED I DON'T KNOW WHY I'M PUTTING THESE SCENES NEXT and I need to step back and do some homework on the structure and plot out all the intersecting loops and how some of them trigger each other. Frustrating as hell, because I'm happy with how the scenes were actually written in the previous draft, but they do not structurally do anything for the story. Like a great hat that doesn't match the outfit.

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whipchick

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from: whipchick
date: Apr. 23rd, 2013 09:09 pm (UTC)
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Oh God that trigger is BRILLIANT. Even the use of "was" in the first sentence. BRILLIANT.

Thank you, and you're welcome!

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The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphors

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from: halfshellvenus
date: Apr. 23rd, 2013 07:13 pm (UTC)
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Another excellent entry!

I'll admit, I don't usually read books this way. I'll look at the blurb on the back or inside the jacket to see if it seems like a book I'd find interesting, and then reading it is the next step. I'll allow pages to set the tone, because if I like the author's narrative style and what he/she is saying, I'm more hooked by that than whether I'm intrigued by the opening.

But I'll bet most people don't read that way. Must ponder employing this as a technique!

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whipchick

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from: whipchick
date: Apr. 23rd, 2013 09:10 pm (UTC)
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Thanks!

I'm curious whether people read this way or not! I'm more likely to buy a book based on having heard something good about it, or liking the style, but I don't write my own work with style in mind per se.

Which brings up a really interesting point, "do agents/editors read the same way bookstore shoppers read?"

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