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Finding Your Fiction: Concise Steps to Writing Successful Fiction - Intro and Plot

Updated on December 17, 2013


"Finding Your Fiction: Concise Steps To Writing Successful Fiction"-- derived from my popular "Finding Your Fiction" workshop in association with St. Louis Writers Workshop and St. Louis Writers Guild. Completed guide is now available for 99-cents as a kindle ebook, and on smashwords

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You are a writer. You have been writing most of your life, writing term papers, developing business proposals, composing letters, email and Facebook posts. But are you a writer with a capital W? Do you want to become a fiction writer?

Writing a step by step guide that will magically turn you into a successful fiction writer is of course impossible. But I can save you some time. A condensed guide like this one works well for motivated writers who want to focus more on their own writing than reading about how to write. For example, rather than list endless numbers of activities, I list only those I have used successfully.

But who the hell am I? Telling you how to write?

Among other things, I have won short fiction awards, I am the author of the novel Where the River Splits , and my work was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Information in this guide comes directly from my writing and publishing experience, other guidebook sources, and my popular Finding Your Fiction workshop sponsored by the St. Louis Writers Workshop and St. Louis Writers Guild. Should you want to know more about me, biographical information is available at or you can simply google Jeffrey Penn May.

You could also of course enroll in an MFA program. The "good ones" cost lots of money, and you get instruction from "established" writers. At the very least, they can teach you the basics. But there is no guarantee you will learn anything beyond the basics. Using guides like this one can save you time and money -- a poor person’s MFA.

Guidebooks can help you avoid amateurish errors (professional errors are often hailed as "groundbreaking"). They can give you a strong foundation to build on and set you forth on a lifetime of exquisite misery -- for there is no misery as grand as the struggling artist, poet, writer. Mastering literary tricks and infusing passion into your work requires you to sell your soul to the devil and endure a lifetime of pain, which is of course hyperbole. It does, however, require some initial talent and lots of hard work.

There are no "rules." However, you should learn the rules before you break them. You should master accepted "norms" before deviating from them.

But wait! You want to make lots of money from your fiction. It’s possible. But only after you learn how to Write. Then, translating your fiction writing skills into commercial success is a matter of persistence, networking, politics, marketing talent, and luck.

Exercise I. Desire.

Why do you want to write fiction? List favorite novels/stories. Why are they your favorites?

Exercise II. Schedule.

Where and when will you be writing for at least 20 minutes without stopping and without interruption? Ideas come from the act of writing. Expect your 20-minute write to be complete rubbish. You may be pleasantly surprised.


Section I

Choosing plot over character is dangerous. Plot is presented here first mainly because it might be "easier" to comprehend. On the other hand, characters drive plot. Which should come first -- Plot or Character? (Aristotle listed dramatic effects in descending order: plot, character, dialogue, music/style, and spectacle.)

Good literature has dynamic characters. (While I use direct statements often, you should "almost always" qualify them, because there are "almost always" exceptions to the rule.)

Are you a soft, eloquent writer? Or do you write harsh eye-popping prose? Regardless of your narrative style, you need a plot. Good plots get the readers’ attention immediately and keep their attention by raising questions and delaying the answers.

Basically, plot fall into two categories. Suspense looks to the future for answers. What happens next? Mystery looks to the past. How did this happen?

Classical Plots

  1. have a beginning, middle, end
  2. result in significant change
  3. give reader emotional satisfaction
  4. often progress in a series of loops forming a circle
  5. can be seen as quests (for survival, money, relationships, return to normalcy)

Plot Requirements

  1. Characters, including protagonist (see next section on Character)
  2. Conflict.
    Inner (guilt, fear, doubt, anger)
    Interpersonal (A wants what B has)
    Environmental (physical or social threats)
  3. Resolution.
    Avoids "deus ex machina" (see below)
    Resolution in hands of protagonist skills to resolve the quest|
    Optional-obligatory "Hollywood" scene – meeting of protagonist and antagonist

What is "deus ex machina"? A term used to make critics sound smart. Literally, it means, "God from the machine." It refers to the earliest fiction, Greek plays, when at the end an actor was hoisted down onto the stage, and provided a convenient but contrived resolution. Everybody dies. Doesn’t this happen in Hamlet? Just about but it makes sense.

Plot Beginnings

  1. Establish background, then introduce the precipitating event and start the action.
  2. Start with precipitating event and start of action, then feed in the back story.

Activity: Recall your favorite stories and identify classical plot elements.

Section II

Other somewhat paraphrased descriptions of essential plot elements condensed and gleaned from my direct experience with literary agents, publishers, and how to books.

Guidelines received in a detailed rejection from a literary agency.

  • A basic plot structure, includes a 3D "sympathetic" lead character is confronted with an urgent problem. As the character tries to solve the problem, he or she becomes entwined in complications, deepening the conflict, becoming severe, more urgent, until the climax, the point of absolute crisis where all seems lost. At the last moment, he or she finds a solution. The original problem is overcome. The lead must accomplish the task single-handedly, or as close to it as possible, and avoid major coincidence or deus ex machina.

Guidelines from one of my former literary agents, presented in a book and included as part of the agency agreement.

The Beginning

  • Brief descriptions of protagonist and setting. Who is where? What is he or she doing and why?
  • Something happens. Hook. Initial event that get things going, often setting up the central conflict that causes the character to act, reflect, change, grow.
  • Protagonist reacts to the initial event, making a decision for better or worse, or choosing to delay the decision.

The Middle

  • Protagonist is confronted with more conflict, characters, events decisions, feelings, and reactions.
  • Pressure created by the central conflict builds up, forcing more difficult decisions.
  • Emphasizing central conflict, which will lead to the resolution.

The End

  • Characters are poised for a final act or set of actions, "suspense" is tearing reader apart, concluding when the conflict is resolved.
  • Climax is the scene in which the central conflict of the novel is resolved.
  • After the climax, action and tension nearly cease to exist, but the characters may tidy up odds and ends in the denouement, or descending action.

Guidelines from a "how to" book. Nigel Watts’ eight-point arc. I highly recommend his "teach yourself" book writing a novel.

  1. Stasis – base reality, starting point
  2. Trigger – beyond control of protagonist, turns day from average to exceptional
  3. Quest – to get back to normal, to get more pleasure, to maintain satisfaction in the face of an onslaught, can begin as one quest and evolve into another.
  4. Surprise – along the way on the quest, must encounter credible surprises, obstacles, steadily increasing in severity.
  5. Critical choices – to continue on the quest, protagonist must decide which way to go, or how to overcome obstacles
  6. Climax – a "visible" event where all the critical choices come to a head and decisive action is taken.
  7. Reversal – Aristotle -- "change from one state of affairs to its opposite." Consequences of previous events, of surprises, choices, climaxes.
  8. Resolution – a fresh stasis.

Activity: Recall your favorite stories and identify a major question raised near the beginning.

Section III

Beware Sub-Plot.

Sub-plots are necessary to add dimension lacking in the main plot. The are like sounding boards to the main plot and help give the main characters their unique identities. Our main Joe is nothing like his buddy, the big clumsy dope, Ryan.

Sub-Plots help pace the action. They often provide obstacles to delay the climax.

However, writers can easily find themselves enamored with their secondary characters. Soon they are writing two stories, two novels, instead of one. They have created a two-headed monster, both stories competing for attention and both so intertwined that it becomes impossible to correct without extreme slash and burn techniques.

Activity: Identify a sub-plot in one of your favorite stories.

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    • Jeff May profile image

      Jeffrey Penn May 5 years ago from St. Louis

      Sheribear64, Good job on crafting characters. Now upset their world and see what happens. Good luck.

    • Sheribear64 profile image

      Sheribear64 5 years ago from Omaha , Nebraska

      I am almost done crafting my characters, but I don't know what to do next? Help! I will return when your section on characters is finished, I hope that will help me further devolop my characters.

    • Jeff May profile image

      Jeffrey Penn May 6 years ago from St. Louis

      Thanks James, I get the feeling that you are edging closer to trying your hand at fiction.

      (By the way, for those on here who want the entire Finding Your Fiction series as an ebook, you can get it for your kindle and soon for Nook and other devices. Just search Jeffrey Penn May.)

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 6 years ago from Chicago

      This is really interesting to me, Jeff. Thank you for providing this needful information. I learned a lot from you in mere minutes.

    • Jeff May profile image

      Jeffrey Penn May 6 years ago from St. Louis

      Thanks Pamela! Appreciate the comments... your internal struggle with conflict is in itself a conflict... Good luck with your fiction.

    • Pamela N Red profile image

      Pamela N Red 6 years ago from Oklahoma

      Very helpful, Jeff. I can create colorful characters and am pretty good at dialogue but struggle with conflict. I hadn't thought of inner turmoil as conflict. This helped me a great deal.

    • Jeff May profile image

      Jeffrey Penn May 6 years ago from St. Louis

      Thanks for commenting Docmo. Yes, almost all writing is in the rewriting.

    • Docmo profile image

      Mohan Kumar 6 years ago from UK

      Useful hub on the mechanics of plot devices and the flow of the story. To some , I feel , stories come naturally - but the key discipline is in the editing and rearranging the plot so that it captivates and enthrals. Voted up!

    • Jeff May profile image

      Jeffrey Penn May 6 years ago from St. Louis

      Well, I have had the experience of writing a "successful" novella without planning it out or even thinking about mechanics. But those experiences are rare. Good luck with teaching your class.

    • randslam profile image

      Rand Zacharias 6 years ago from Kelowna, British Columbia

      Love the deus ex machina element, that so many beginning writers fear the very mention of.

      When we speak of the elements of construction in story-telling so many people lose interest because of the sudden realization--"you mean the writer planned it this way?"

      It seems strange that so many think these stories are devised through messages from above, the muse or simple dumb luck. When indeed, they are contrived, arranged, re-written and reconstructed projects of immense proportion.

      Perhaps, the revelation of simple planning comes as too much of a shock and scares so many away--with hands on ears--screaming, "I don't want to know how to make the magic!!!"

      Thanks again, Jeff, for this concise hub on a very important subject on writing.

    • Jeff May profile image

      Jeffrey Penn May 6 years ago from St. Louis

      Thanks radioguy. Concise is the operative word here. Hope to have the next section (Character) available in a week or so.

    • Radioguy profile image

      Radioguy 6 years ago from Maine

      Good stuff and very helpful!