WRITING BASICS: Plot
Like with all things that have to do with writing, you’re going to come across many opinions about plot. Opinions like whether or not you really need one, and what makes a good plot anyway?
Think of plot as the set of instructions that comes with your new build-it-yourself Ikea desk.
- Sure, you can build the desk without it, but it will probably not be as structurally sound.
- It’s especially tricky if you don’t build a lot of desks, or you don’t spend a lot of time analyzing how desks are put together.
- You might end up with upside-down drawers, or a cupful of extra parts and pieces.
- You could end up with something completely different than what you intended to build.
- If you were gifting the desk, the recipient might be confused about what it’s supposed to be or which part goes where if you gave them the pieces without the instructions.
- And if you needed help putting the desk together, without instructions, your partner might have a different idea of what to do or how to go about it.
Those are the same problems you’ll run into without plot.
- Not structurally sound: You could end up with plot holes, or flimsy character motivations/reactions.
- Tricky: Proceeding without a plot-plan often leads to “writing anxiety/writer’s block” because you’re unprepared for what comes next (or have nothing coming up at all!).
- Wrong drawers and extra pieces: You might write yourself into dead ends, which wastes a lot of time and energy. You might end up with a lot of extra characters that used to be handy for something but now you just want to kill them off.
- Unintended results: You might fall very short of your wordcount goal. Or worse, you end up with a story that has 30,000 extra words you need to cut. Or it feels like your characters just can’t seem to get to where you need them to go.
- The unwanted gift: Some readers (especially in the specfic genres) choose stories expecting certain tropes and journeys. Proceeding without a plot, or forgetting certain elements, can leave them unsatisfied or disappointed.
- Sometimes it’s fun to get lost, sometimes, it isn’t: Beta Readers and Editors can help you best if they know where you’re trying to go. But if you don’t have an idea of what you’re trying to say, it’ll be difficult to help you hone and refine your message.
Story vs. Character Study
A story without plot is more like a “slice of life” kind of story. Sure, some people like it. A lot of readers might say they don’t care if it has a plot or not. But most stories have a plot — it might be as formulaic and in-your-face as “the quest plot (LORD OF THE RINGS)” or “run/fight for our lives plot (FIRESTARTER)” or it might be hidden beneath layers and layers of character development (AMERICAN PSYCHO).
It’s the thing that tells you, the writer, what goes where; it’s the thing that primes the reader about things to expect or anticipate; it’s the thing that supports other story elements so a reader gets as close to your intended meaning as possible.
What is Plot?
Let’s get on the same page so we’re talking about the same thing (because yes, some people have a different idea of what exactly constitutes plot, or at least, they have a different way of describing it).
One way to think of it is a domino effect. The inciting event (which can happen before your story even starts!) is the moment when your main character’s life will never be the same. That inciting event is the push that destabilizes your MC’s world. It’s also the push that destabilizes the domino that falls on the second domino, which falls on the third domino, which falls on the fourth, etc. That’s the visual representation of plotting – cause and effect.
This is different from a vignette or character study, which is more like putting a specific domino in front of the reader and examining its color, hue, texture, shape, unique marks, etc. You can rotate that sole domino, cut it in half, melt it down but if it’s not affecting another domino, then it’s not really doing anything.
How do you Plot?
This goes along with, but isn’t the same as, what people mean when they ask if you’re a Plotter or Pantser. If someone asks that, they usually mean: do you like to list scenes, events, plot points down before you write, or do you just write as inspiration strikes.
And, like with all things in writing, there are many ways to approach the method of creating the plot to your story.
Let’s look at the most basic method, for the most basic plot.
- Start with jotting down your basic story elements:
- Main Character (MC): Who is the story about? Usually, it’s the person who has the most to lose or the person who can bring about the most change (ideally, that person is both).
- What does your MC want?: This can be as hardcore and complex as rescuing an entire planet from destruction (ENDER’S GAME), or as simple and passive as going along on an adventure because someone tells them they’re special (HARRY POTTER, BK 1).
- Setting: Where is the story happening?
- Event/Thing/Moment that changes the MC’s life (or takes the MC’s life out of its normal pattern). This is what’s known as the Inciting Incident. It doesn’t necessarily have to be tightly connected to what your MC wants — it may not even have an immediately obvious connection to the MC, but the most compelling stories involve the inciting incident thwarting the MC’s desires, or presenting the MC with the perfect opportunity to get what they want, prompting a reaction that compels the MC to act (and might hasten the MC towards certain doom!).
- Now, jot down some ideas about how the MC reacts to the Inciting Incident, and what they do about it in order to get closer to what they want. Do they reach out to trusted advisors? Do they take a moment to process? Connect some dots? Make choices? Start planning? Jump right into the fray? Take the next train out of dodge?
- Next, jot down some possible repercussions from what the MC chooses to do, plans to do, or actually does. (I’ve heard the “advice” that pre-forming an entire plot makes the story boring or canned, but I’d counter-point with the idea that it depends on how clichéd the plot points are and, more importantly, how well the story is written.)
These possible repercussions are now going to be the new “causes” in the cause and effect chain of your plot. The repercussions will further destabilize your MC’s life. How does your MC react to some of the repercussions? What do they do in order to get closer to what they want? Their goals might even start to change, evolve (this shows character development). What are possible repercussions from these new goals or actions?
Continue jotting down your thoughts, using this pattern as a guide to make sure you’re noting important points in your plot. You’ll start to notice that, as your character continues to react and act, there are fewer and fewer possible repercussions, which lead to fewer and fewer avenues of action for your MC. Your story is moving towards its natural climax, forcing harder and harder choices with higher and higher stakes.
The climax is considered to be the “point of highest tension” in the story. The weird thing about this is that you, the writer, are the outside influence drawing a hard line in the story, deciding that that’s as high as the tension is going to get. In reality, and if you had all the time and word count in the world, and the desire to continue, you could build and build the tension up, forcing higher and higher stakes.
For the purpose of this example, though, let’s focus on the reader’s perspective: the climax is the moment they’ve been waiting for. The end of the story is in sight. The MC’s goal is within his/her grasp. The disruption caused by the inciting incident will finally end. What happens during the climax is how you bring about the end to the disruption.
Jot down some ideas about what that might be: an epic battle? A heart-to-heart talk with an estranged partner? Confronting the murderer in his lair, followed by hand-to-hand combat?
The segment of the story following the climax is the segment of “Falling Action.” This is the moment right after the climax, when the audience can take a breath and witness the fruition of the MC’s hard work. An example of this is when (spoiler alert) Simba’s climactic confrontation with Scar. The “falling” is indicated by Simba throwing Scar off Pride Rock. Followed by the hyenas turning on their former master. Followed by Simba continuing to the top of Pride Rock to take his rightful place, and therefore re-establish some form of routine or pattern in the story world.
That re-establishment of routine/pattern (or complete break from the old routine/pattern in order to show a new one) is the resolution. You can show the broader aftereffects of the initial disruption of the inciting incident. If there was a love interest involved, you can show their relationship after a few months (HANNIBAL) or years or even decades (HP DEATHLY HALLOWS).
Going back to my Ikea desk instructions example, the resolution of the story would be the part in the instructions that tells you how to maintain the desk’s moving parts with a yearly squirt of lubricant, how to clean the fake or real wood, what cleaners to use if the desk is made of acrylic or metal. You can ignore that part of the instructions just like you can half-ass the resolution of the story, but giving both some attention will pay off in the long run.
Now you have a bunch of cause-and-effect notes that will help you keep your story on track. You can start writing your story just using the ideas you jotted down, or you can develop the notes further into a more complete, more complex outline.
Hang out in my mental playground! For cheaper than a Pumpkin Spice Latte, my highly-rated short stories are available on Amazon, Fresh Cuts: Breaking Volume and Fresh Cuts 2: Skinning Volume. #Fantasy #SciFi #Horror #Fables #Fairytales #SelfRescuingHeroines #DiverseBooks.
Fresh Cuts 2: Skinning has been reviewed as “Smart” “Fresh” “Disturbing” and “the part of Wonderland people don’t talk about”!
Fresh Cuts: Breaking has been reviewed as “Twisted” “Hilarious” and a “Delightfully perverse collection”!