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How to Write Plot
Plots are the directions your characters take in order to act out the story, it is made up of events and decisions, the actions and reactions of your characters in relation to each other, the world, and even abstract factors such as religion or disease. They rely on structure, action, as well as conflict involving protagonists and antagonists to drive the story.
A plot’s structure can vary depending on the author, genre, or nature of the story. Authors may like to use the chart for “Rising Action, Crisis, Falling Action” which lines up everything in a neat arc, known as Freytag’s Pyramid. The beginning is reserved for setting up the action, providing backstory, introducing characters and conflict with an Inciting Incident. The middle is the largest section, used to solve the problems, see the characters in action, and introduce new conflict with a Climax. The ending is the resolution of all conflict, the characters dealing with consequences of their actions, the Dénouement. Some authors prefer to organize these details in Act I, Act II, Act III format in the Dramatica Act Structure. Set up like a play, novel plots can be detailed and mapped out in this structure, where Act II is always the longest and largest, with Act I and Act III being equal to each other in length.
Examples of Plot Structure in Use
During the planning stages, we figure out the Five W’s:
- What is happening? Why is it happening? Plot
- Who is it happening to? Characters
- Where and When is it happening? Setting
Every story starts with action. Action drives the story and is the steam engine behind the plot. Without action, without movement, characters are stagnant, the setting means nothing, and the plot is nonexistent. For novels, action is essential (for short stories, that’s a different ballgame). When I say action, or movement, I mean direct deeds and acts, whether they’re accomplishments or failures, of characters. A character has to do something or have something done to them in order to further the plot. Examples of action include finding a body, or putting the body somewhere to be found. The point of action is to introduce conflict, which drives the story further. I suggest beginning the novel with direct action, leaving the backstory for a prologue or later in the story, because it instantly hooks the reader.
Conflict in Literature
Conflict is what a novel is all about. It’s why you have characters existing within a setting. If there is no action, no conflict, the characters have nothing to gain or lose. The purpose of a novel is to show change, whether a character learns something about herself or the world around her, or the world itself changes around the character. Conflict is the instigator, the aggressor, which pushes the change. It can be anything from dealing with an antagonist, solving a problem, or simply surviving a catastrophe. Dramatic tension is created through conflict, which carries the story through a novel by providing problems and solutions for the characters to interact with. This tension can build-up through the Rising Action and explode upon impact in a Crisis or Climactic Moment, leading to the Falling Action and eventual Dénouement.
Apocalypses are large conflicts. Zombies are threatening to overrun the world, taking the characters along with them. The conflict is trying to figure out how to stop the zombies, either by finding a cure or ending the zombification, or surviving to continue the human race, one generation at a time. However, a plot doesn’t need a huge conflict, and usually consists of smaller conflicts, one after another. Once a character overcomes one problem, another one pops up to test the limits, strengths, and weaknesses beginning to develop. If a character finds a body, the conflict is whether to call the police, figure out who put the body there, or simply walk away. If they call the police, the next conflict is being under suspicion, and working to appear innocent. If they go after the killer themselves, they may face danger and become next on a hit list. If they walk away, what are the consequences? The writer must decide.
Protagonists and Antagonists
Characters exist in numerous categories within a novel, each to his or her own purpose. The main character is the protagonist, whom the novel focuses on, the viewpoint or perspective the story is told from. There can be more than one protagonist, it can be a group of characters, with viewpoints switching or broadening to include all of them. With a protagonist comes an antagonist. Antagonists often stimulate conflict, acting against protagonists. It is not always clear who is the good guy and who is the bad. Antagonists do not have to be villains or enemies, but a force working in opposition to the protagonist(s).
Antagonists aren’t always characters; diseases, world disasters, and viewpoints of a group of individuals can be antagonists. In Twister, the antagonist which drives conflict is the twister itself, ripping apart towns with no prejudice. A cancer patient can be the protagonist, while the cancer itself can be the antagonist the protagonist has to overcome. The conflict comes with the characteristics of the disease: the effects it has on the main character, whether the cancer goes into remission after radiation and chemotherapy, or if it’s just too late and the patient dies.
A twist is something unexpected, a surprise, launching the novel somewhere new. It can stimulate new conflict, resolve old issues, or bring about new answers to the same problem. The point of a twist is for the reader not to see it coming. An author can have it planned out, giving a few subtle hints along the way until it happens, or can suddenly write it into the story. Twists can often help Writer’s Block by providing new life for the story. However, adding too many twists can damage the plot; readers will get confused, whiplashed, and the plot will become convoluted. Keep twists to a minimum, and only employ them when necessary or spontaneously without completely changing everything done up to that point.
An example of a twist is when a character suddenly realizes she is pregnant—in the midst of the zombie apocalypse. Guess that last-minute hook-up before the end really changes things! Now she has to deal with a pregnancy while fighting off undead menaces trying to eat her brains, running from town to town with a group of Earth’s last survivors. Will she survive? Will the baby? How do you raise a child in the middle of a war of survival? (Of course, this premise can also be the starting conflict, but when you already have a plot going, adding in a twist like this can up the stakes).
Setting Up and Paying Off
Seen in films and plays, Chekhov’s Gun can also happen in novels, which is setting something up and paying it off later. While meant to keep just the essentials in a story, novelists can use this for foreshadowing, a later twist, or to add a bit of humor or drama in the midst of a conflict. Setting up is noting an object or fact in the beginning of the story, such as a character’s history with alcoholism. Paying off is when that object or fact becomes relevant to the story later on, such as the former alcoholic ending up in a bar surrounded by mixed drinks and cheap beer. It may be a small thing, but it adds an element to the story which draws the reader’s attention. If a segment is flat, with nothing going on, paying off something that was set up earlier can help the plot move forward. Authors usually do this on purpose, an organized twist that they always knew would happen.
In a movie, the nail gun introduced at the beginning of Arachnophobia is later used to kill the deadly spiders at the end of the film, in one of the most recognizable aspects of the entire movie. In theater, Chekhov’s own plays prompted this trope when a character of The Seagull brings a rifle on stage to later commit suicide with. These items or facts are things the audience can see, but easily dismiss, something introduced as irrelevant or without preamble, showing up later with a big effect. Readers may miss the set-up, only to realize it later in the pay-off. In writing, this works best with objects one character notices but doesn’t give much thought to, or a minor character lingering in the background only to be villain the other characters have been trying to defeat the entire novel.
A sub-plot is a minor arc woven throughout the novel. Writer’s Digest has an excellent article detailing sub-plots and how authors can implement them. These smaller plots mix in with the main storyline, or can happen indirectly, separate from the main plot. Sometimes the sub-plot may clash or directly influence the main plot. They can involve character relationships, the movements of minor characters, world events, and more. The sub-plot should never gain more momentum than the main plot (or else the plots have been switched, and the author needs to focus more on the one gaining momentum and leave the other as a side or sub-plot).
Some authors also launch parallel plots, two main plots simultaneously that eventually converge into one super-plot. This is done by showing two completely different actions happening at the same time, which appear to have no relation until one affects another. A man robbing a bank in one chapter may have nothing to do with another man driving to work in the next. The robber has the bank under control. The worker is at a red light, hints of news on the radio where the bank is mentioned. The police arrive outside as a hostage situation is underway. The man arrives at work only to be blockaded by police cars. Now the two plots have converged and wind their way through the novel simultaneously.
To Plot or Not To Plot
The plot of a novel can be decided and detailed in the planning stages, or can happen along with the writing process. Not every aspect of the plot needs to be known before writing—a lot of times, plot comes to the writer in a creative flow of motivation and inspiration. Authors should not try to force plot, but instead let it come to them as they write. Keeping track of the plot and sub-plots is important to tie up loose ends at the resolution of the novel. However, not every story needs to have a ‘happy ending’ and not every issue needs to be resolved. Those aspects are up to each writer, to suit the purpose of the story itself. Novels with sequels may often leave certain issues untouched by the end of the first book, only to confront and solve them in the next. Prequels can set up the conflict introduced in the sequel. Every plot needs a beginning, middle, and end, a main conflict, a climax of action, and a new realization that leads to the end…or the beginning of a new adventure.