If character is the heart of the story, then plot is the skeleton.
Getting plot right can be tricky and other variables can often influence it; things like pacing, theme, and even character, all inform how a story unfolds.
Nailing plot can be hard, and it can often take multiple re-writes to get everything just right.
Whether you need help drafting your first manuscript or if you’re a seasoned author, the following points are a humble reminder of the various elements you need to consider when working on plot.
#1. What happened?
Yup, that’s plot summed up in two words: what happened?
Some authors figure this out ahead of time by creating an outline that they then work from (whether closely or loosely), while others create outlines after they’ve completed their first draft as a way to see at a macro level what is actually happening.
Whether you invest this time at the start of the project (during outlining) or at the end (during revisions) it doesn’t matter, because it takes a long time to write a book and every writer has to pay off their debt somewhere along the line.
There are many ways you can structure a story, but the two most obvious are linear and non-linear.
There are freaks of nature authors out there, such as Dianna Gabaldon, who don’t write in a linear fashion and others write their stories from start to finish, but how you write the story may not be how you publish the story.
Messing around with all the different ways the story could be told is one of the great joys of revision and it’s well worth experimenting with different orders to see what effect they have on your story.
One of the easiest ways to do this is to write out all of the major central plot and subplot points on post-it notes or index cards and then arrange them on the ground in different orders until you find a sequence that feels just right.
#3 S**t keeps getting worse
The main thing you need to remember about plot is that stuff has to keep getting worse.
Having a character encounter one obstacle that they easily overcome isn’t very interesting and victory without sacrifices isn’t satisfying.
When things get worse – especially when things get worse because of a decision that the character has made – tension increases and your reader will be hungry to see how exactly the MC and their motley crew figure things out.
#4 The promise
Every story makes a promise, usually in the beginning.
As Chekov said, if there’s a gun on the wall in Act One, then it must go off in Act Three.
The promise may be take a backseat to other aspects of the plot, but by the end of the story, you’re going to have to deliver the goods.
If our hero had heart palpitations for the love interest in chapter one, then there better be a kiss in the final scene. If the novel opens with a MC who dreams of leaving their home town, then they either need to do that or they must find a new sense of purpose in staying.
#5 Character driven
The best plots are those that are character driven.
Q: What does that mean?
A: The character takes action and makes decision that carry the plot forward. They are not standing around waiting fo the Almighty Narrator to dump obstacles on them which they then respond to.
Not sure what character agency is? Check out this blog here.
No one like to hang out with boring kids that sit around complaining about being bored, it’s way more fun to hang out with restless rebels who are hungry to get out and do something.
#6 Don’t add ‘dummy’ obstacles
Dummy obstacles can be spotted a mile away.
Ever read a chapter and thought, what was the point in that?
This is a seriously amateur move and should be avoided at all cost.
Better to have a short, sharp, tight plot than one that is fluffed out with filler action scenes that are pointless and go nowhere.
Can’t think of any good additional obstacles to add to your story? Try your hand at Productive Meditation or sit down and challenge yourself to come up with fifty (yes, fifty!) potential obstacles, pick the best one/s and add them to your story.
Or you can decide that maybe your novel is going to be a really short novel (The Great Gatsby is 47, 094 words), or a novella, or a short story.
Better to be short and good then long and bad. (That’s what she said).
#7 Light and dark
We need variation in our plot in order to keep things interesting.
A plot that is all action is just as bad as one that is filled with internal ruminations.
We want to see action, story beats, things happening, as much as we want to read deep exchanges between characters, poignant moments of reflection, and internal realisations.
A car needs breaks and an accelerator; if missing, you’ll either be going nowhere fast or you’ll be heading for a brick wall and praying that the airbags work.
Subplots, like light and dark, add variation, nuance, and additional layers to the story.
Nobody has one thing going on in their life, so your characters shouldn’t either.
Your main plot may be about solving a crime, but we also need to see other aspects of your MC or other cast member’s lives.
Do they have a romantic interest? Skeletons in the family closet? Work with an antagonising colleague?
Subplots help flesh out a character and they mix up the plot so that the whole book isn’t simply about one thing. That being said, subplots can also inform the central plot, and if you can pulls this off it will make the novel so much more exciting.
Micro-plots are events that happen in a single scene or across two scenes.
Again, this could be a romance narrative between two secondary characters – which shows that these characters have a life independent of the MC – or it could be a small glance into another aspect of your MC’s life or personality.
You don’t have to include micro-plots in your narrative, but they can make a novel feel more complete compared to narratives that only contain a central plot and subplots.
#10 Description, info dumps, and other bad manners
Description is so hard to get right.
How much detail to include is tricky, especially as our taste my differ from our readers, the standards expected of the genre we are writing in, or even our level of skill.
If in doubt, send your work off to betareaders and let their critiques guide you through the refining process of how much, or how little to say at any one point.
Same goes for info dumps.
This issue is more prominent in some genres (sci-fi and fantasy) then it is in other, but learning how to seamless and convincing feed your readers the information they need to know (vs all the information you as the author know) is vital if you want your book to read like a story rather than an Wikipedia entry.
Now, I’d love to hear from you. How do you approach plot? What strategies do you use to solve plot holes? Leave a comment below and tell me all about it.
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