Do you feel like the tension in your story has started to sag?
That you are simply rehashing old plot problems? It can be a challenge in Act 2 to keep the reader caring, the story filled with enough tension to keep the pages turning.
I watched Saving Mr. Banks this weekend. Wanted to love it. But it had a few problems. The main character (Pamela) suffered from a fatal case of unlike ability, even with her backstory – and got redeemed too late. But that’s another topic. Bigger was the issue that, aside from Walt Disney wanting to keep a promise to his daughter (the stakes of the story), we simply stopped caring about the character, mostly due to her obsessive need to get the story right.
Thankfully, the story tension is resuscitated by the backstory, and the fear of young Pamela losing her father.
In other words, Peripheral Plotting saved the day.
If your story seems to be going in circles, or worse, dying…this trick just might give it the life it needs to hang on.
Peripheral Plotting is the technique of pulling in ancillary elements and using them to create more tension in your plot. Ideally, it will push your character along their journey, creating more sympathy for your character – and even motivation for their next choices.
How does Peripheral Plotting work?
I’m going to veer away from Saving Mr. Banks for a moment and look at Live Free or Die Hard, a movie in the Bruce Willis saves the world franchise. Live Free or Die Hard is a perfect example of peripheral plotting.
The story is that basically, through the Internet, the bad guys are trying to take over all the transportation, finances and utilities in the United States, and if they succeed, the entire world as we know it will collapse. Fascinating, big stakes. The problem is, that after a while, we as the viewer become bored or hardened to these larger stakes. The story starts to sag.
Ultimately, we only care about stories that touch our hearts, and frankly, survival of the world, while important, just feels untouchable. Thankfully, the creator chooses to make it personal. He kidnaps John’s estranged daughter and threatens her life. Suddenly, there are new stakes to the story. By putting pressure on John to save his daughter and abandon the quest to save the world, we now have a twist that re-engages the reader into the storyline. He has to choose between survival of the world, or saving his daughter…and suddenly there is new life injected into the story.
The technique of reaching beyond the main storyline to find those fringe elements and using them to exert pressure into the story is called Peripheral Plotting. The creator could have used a stranger off the street and threatened their lives – but this wouldn’t have been personal to John, and therefore wouldn’t have touched our hearts. He could have decided to threaten the life of the president, but this is too far out of the periphery for John. Peripheral Plotting requires that the plot element be Personal and close in Proximity.
Another great example of Peripheral Plotting was the television show 24. Notice how, at any given point, Jack Bauer had two or three other issues to deal with, on a personal level, along with saving the world.
The gem of this plotting is that all of these things are happening at the same time, making it harder for Jack to complete the big picture task. Most of all, all of these plotting elements conspire to raise the stakes and keep the adrenaline flowing in the story.
Peripheral Plotting works in the same way.
Flashbacks and Backstory
In Saving Mr. Banks, our unlikable heroine has an obsessive need to get every element of the story exactly as she sees it in head – the story she put on the pages. Which, does not include dancing penguins and singing. We begin to understand this as we travel through her backstory, delivered in flashes along the way. As the backstory tension grows stronger, it gives greater motivation for our character’s decisions in the present. Finally, at the climax, it helps us understand her decision for abandoning the project.
I’m not a huge fan of using flashbacks as a peripheral plotting device – but it does work. (And I’ve done this myself).
This is one of my favorite methods of creating more tension. Notice I didn’t include Subplot – while a subplot (a story in a story) is a great way to increase the enjoyment of the story – and, should in fact connect with the main plot in some way, it is not a peripheral plotting device – which, by nature, must put pressure on the main plot. A Layer, however is a great peripheral plotting tool. A Layer is the introduction of a character or story thread that enhances the theme of the main plot, and causes more conflict for the main POV character as he/she considers his/her choices. A Layer should cause a character to change and grow – which is exactly the point of peripheral plotting.
How do you find those Peripheral Plotting elements?
Look around you – each one of us has people and things we care about in a widening circle. This is our periphery.
Let’s say my goal is to get my character to the airport so she can get to Seattle to see her mother for Easter. In a linear plot, all that might stand between her and her goal might be transportation, or perhaps money. Maybe getting time off from her job.
But let’s do some peripheral plotting.
Here is where I create an Idea Web and use some Visual Plotting. With my character at the center, I then draw a web of the things he or she cares about around that central hub. Then it’s easy to see the big picture and create scenarios or “what-ifs” for each of these things.
I then pick someone or something in my character’s periphery and create trouble. Something that could potentially divert my hero’s attention, or even damage her. As she races to solve this peripheral problem, of course, the larger stake is affected, and worsens.
This is the use of Peripheral Plotting to create Peripheral Stakes. (I often use Inspiration Software, a brainstorming program, to gather my thoughts.)
So, going back to my “what if” scenario…I’ll chose my character’s son and cause some trouble.
What if she gets a call from the principle of the school? Her son has had a fight on the playground and they can’t find his father (who is supposed to pick him up). She must get off work early and go to the school.
After meeting with the principle, she calls her husband and discovers that he never showed up at work today. Let’s add more stress to the plot and say that they are estranged. Now, my character’s husband has been pulled in from the periphery.
Now what does she do? She has a sister – we can pull her into the story and consider that she could drop her son off at the sister’s house. But when she arrives, her sister is in crisis because her daughter has a high fever – and she has to take her to the hospital. Which means her son has to stay with her.
And…just to add more tension, we’ll have that son come down with a fever, too.
She heads home to get her bags. When she gets home, she discovers that her house has been broken into. Now she has the missing husband, the sick son and the ransacked house to deal with. Oh, and let’s not forget her mother. I might then also turn the focus back onto the main goal by having her mother call, and tell my character that she is on her way to the hospital with chest pains.
Now, you don’t have to follow every peripheral element – (you don’t want to make the situation unbelievable!) but now I’ve created enough tension threads to keep the story moving.
As you’re plotting, ask: What is the worst thing (within reason) that could happen, right now, to someone or something in your periphery that would derail your own quest in life?
Finding Peripheral Stakes opens up new scenes, new secondary characters, new plotlines and new opportunities for character growth and adds tension to a muddling plot.
If you’re still reading, thanks for sticking with me! Hopefully this was helpful. We’ll continue with our Extreme Book Makeover of ACT 2 next week with a chat about adding those surprising twists and turns!
Go! Write something Brilliant!
PS – this is the last day to enter the Frasier Contest. Check it out here!
PPS – we still have a few spaces left for our Kiss and Tell Retreat – learn how to write a best-selling romance!