The plot is the backbone of a story: the twists and turns that hook your reader. By choosing the right plot elements, linking events to character, and mastering twists and sub-plots, you can turn your latest tale into a genuine page-turner.
The Writers’ Academy tutor Dr. Barbara Henderson discusses all aspects of plot, from the amount of plotting you should do, to fixing common plot problems.
In this webinar we will look at plotting – we’ll also think about structure, because that has a lot to do with the pace of your plot and provides a framework for it.
People will always tell you that genre fiction (such as crime, romance or fantasy) is ‘plot-driven’ but of course even in literary fiction, where the plot can be slower and more gentle there is nevertheless a plot of sorts.
Sometimes people will use the term ‘plot driven’ in a slightly dismissive way, with the implication that this means it is a somewhat trivial or lightweight genre. What they are missing, of course, is that any plot always depends on the characters – things happen, or certainly things pan out in a certain way, because of the characters and the way they are and what they have done or not done.
The novelist Kate Mosse says that sometimes ‘plot dare not speak its own name’, going incognito as “structure” or “planning”.
Stephen King, in On Writing, calls it ‘the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice’. For him, plotting is incompatible with the spontaneity of creation.
Yet a good plot is exactly what draws me to a novel in the first place. And keeps me there. Without it, no amount of sizzling dialogue or exquisite description or beautiful language is enough.”
But you will hear the words story, plot and narrative all used when discussing fiction writing. So what is the difference between each term?
Famously, the novelist EM Forster said, ‘The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died and then the queen died of grief is a plot’. A plot adds character and motivation to a story.
Let’s say we tell the story of you going to work. You wake up, get dressed, travel to the office, work at the desk, have lunch, chat to your colleagues, do more work, catch the bus home, watch TV and go to sleep. That’s the sequence of events.
The plot of your working day will relate those events to each other. It’s about sequencing and selecting those events for maximum effect. So maybe the beginning of your workday plot is when you wake up but the most interesting part is something your colleague says to you over lunch. And that may affect how you feel for the rest of the day and what you do, up until the end when you go to sleep.
But what about narrative? Narrative is about how these events are told – how you construct those events and effects into a format. You may re-order the events – starting with you trying to sleep but going over the events of the day. You may miss out some unimportant things such as the journey to work, but write much more about that difficult conversation with your colleague.
Notice how I said it gets interesting when we have a problem with the colleague. Plot then develops out of conflict – whether that’s an event or a person. It prompts some kind of action by the protagonist, your main character, because of that character’s wants and needs. How that character responds will determines the course of events.
Writer Annie Lamott created a mnemonic, ABCDE, to help writers remember the basics of plotting. These are the elements:
A is for action
Set the scene with an event that launches the series of events that will become your story. This scene should happen quite early in your narrative – for example, in crime fiction, it often happens in the first scene, such as the discovery of a body. Certainly it should happen in the first third of your story – I will come back to structure later.
B is for background
Context is essential to give your readers knowledge of the story world, and it usually follows that initiating action or event. It’s not just about world building, though. It’s about getting to know your main character’s background and their core beliefs and what motivates them.
C is for conflict
Conflict or tension is produced by your main character’s need to achieve a goal – to find the treasure, to find true love, to solve the murder case. For the story to be compelling, it should be something the character almost can’t live without. There should be all sorts of obstacles and difficulties with the character achieving this goal.
D is for development
This element makes up the bulk of the plot; it is the character’s journey, internal and external, and all the events that happen along the way. These events should bring the protagonist closer to resolving their conflict, but things should get worse and worse for your main character before they’re resolved. Remember too that every event that happens in your plot needs to be there for a reason.
E is for end
Annie Lamott divides this end section in to three ‘C’s: The crisis is the stage at which the protagonist realises how to resolve the conflict, the climax is the point at which the conflict is resolved, and the consequences are those issues that occur after the crisis and the climax. The main character should have changed in some way; perhaps the whole story world has changed. It may mean thinking about loose ends and how to tie them up.
Describe the story you plan to write in one sentence. If you can’t say what the book is about in one sentence, you don’t have a clear enough idea of plot. If you’re still writing, just say as much as you know – but when you have finished a draft you certainly should be able to sum up your plot in a sentence.
Earlier I mentioned ‘motivation’.
Your protagonist must have a clear central motivation. In literary fiction, that can be something like coming to terms with the death of a parent or overcoming an internal issue. In commercial fiction, it’s should be a more obviously tangible goal – to find a partner or to solve a crime or to escape with your life. But it has to be clear and consistent. And it has to really matter. It has to matter more than just ‘It’s my job’, for a detective in a crime novel, for example. Notice how in crime novels the crimes get more and more personal to the detective as the story goes on. The hero has to have a real, personal involvement for there to be high stakes. If it’s not important to the protagonist, it won’t be to the reader either.
Your protagonist’s goal should be clear as early as possible into the novel. Chapter one – ideally! The exact definition of the goal can shift. (In a romantic novel, the heroine may first want to marry one man and then switch to the more compatible Mr Right; a detective may start off needing to catch a murderer but then realise they also have to solve the case to save their own job). But the basic motivation behind the goal never shifts. (True love, or getting justice).
Throughout the novel, the stakes must increase.
At the start of a novel, the goal has to matter. By the end, it has to matter more than anything else in the world. If the jeopardy doesn’t increase, you risk boring your reader.
Make good use of flaws and obstacles to get in the way.
In the film Rear Window: Jeff Jeffries has a broken leg and is confined to a wheelchair when he witnesses what he thinks is a murder; in Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, inspector Alan Grant is confined to a hospital bed too and investigates the Richard III/princes in the tower case from there. The flaw may be psychological.
In my children’s novel The Serpent House my main character Annie has a terrible fear of snakes – but she has to confront them to get to a magical book of medicines. You can exploit these kinds of weaknesses. Have a think about how you can make these flaws become integral to the plot.
You will have heard this tip before, but it’s an essential one. Ask yourself: What does your character want? Who or what is stopping them from getting it? And also ask – why do they want it?
Every scene and every chapter must keep things changing for the main character.
Things may at times appear to get better for or worse for your protagonist, but they need to be constantly changing. The main character should not be in the same position at the end of the chapter as he/she was at the start. They may be no further forward with catching the criminal but they should have learned something, perhaps via a major setback.
Another way to think about the same thing is to ask what the dramatic purpose of each and every chapter is. “Setting the scene” is not a dramatic purpose. Nor is “filling in back story”. Change or disequilibrium are at the heart of drama – your story has to keep moving.
Is there such a thing as a perfect plot?
This is a hard question – but certainly there are elements that should be in any good plot. A good plot has clear character motivation. It has a clear structure. It has an outcome. It has subplots.
If you search for perfect plot templates online, you will often find Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice cited as an example.
The main character Lizzie Bennett’s motivation is that she wants to marry for love. She meets both Darcy and Wickham. At first she does not like Darcy and begins to fall for Wickham – but he turns out to be a wrong sort, while Darcy turns out to be Mr Right. She falls for Darcy and they get married.
There are three sub-plots too: Lizzie’s sister Jane falls for a man called Bingley but he vanishes. (This is linked to how Lizzie feels about Darcy). When he returns, they marry. Meanwhile Lizzie’s younger sister, silly Lydia, elopes with Wickham – but it’s Darcy who brings about her recovery. And there is comedy as the creepy Mr Collins proposes to Lizzie. She says no, but her good friend says yes – because she is not like Lizzie, so determined to marry for love.
So a simple template : motivation – plot – outcome – and three smaller sub-plots.
You could write that out as a simple template for your own novel. What’s your character’s main motivation? What’s the story around that, including some obstacles in the way? What sub-plots do you have and how to they link to the main plot?
If you think that your plot is a little thin or light, then think what is needed to add to it. What it doesn’t need, probably, are more events, more backstory, more points of view. But it does mean you need more complexity and layers.
So let’s say your character needs to defeat some kind of evil. Maybe they’re a detective solving a murder case. Okay – but what else is going on that means they can’t always focus on that? Are they watching their father die slowly of cancer while at the same time struggling with problems in their marriage? Can you complicate it further? Give the hero a son (or daughter, or both) with whom he also has a complex relationship. Or perhaps your character is upset about his dad, so he embarks on a ridiculous relationship with a young colleague, making things worse for him in the long run.
The key is to add layers and complexity.
Beginnings, Middles and Endings
You may remember your primary school teacher telling you that all stories have a beginning, middle and end. They were right! Think of it like this:
Beginning: This is where the main character makes a decision to act – because of something that’s happened, usually, which has created a goal.
Middle: The action itself – all the problems along the way as the protagonist tries to get to their goal.
Ending: The consequences of the action – happy ever after – not maybe not.
In a romance story, for example, it might look like this – a girl meets a boy and falls in love. She decided she must marry him.
So she tries to win his heart – but all sorts of things go wrong and she ends up losing him.
You character changes in some way – perhaps recognising some flaws. She wins back the boy – the end!
But of course, it’s not as simple as that when you’re writing fiction. You have to think hard about how to structure these elements of your plot.
Let’s think about your beginning.
The first thing is that it must grab a reader’s attention, straight away. Remember that a novel must entertain.
‘Write what you know’ if what you know is really interesting – but also, write what excites you. Your passion will come across on the page and excite the reader.
Here are a few types of opening…
The Action Opening:
Start the novel with the hero in some sort of physical or emotional jeopardy or right in the middle of some sort of compelling situation. Here’s the beginning of Raymond Bradbury’s Farenheit 451:
“It was a pleasure to burn. It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the atters and charcoal ruins of history.”
A moment of drama from somewhere later in the plot and then flashback to the events leading up to it.
I started my crime novel In Too Deep with the narrator having just witnessed a death – but then I went back to tell the story of how that death came about.
‘First Day on the Job’ Opening:
The protagonist may, as the title suggests, be starting a new job, or they may have just arrived in a new town or school. This is a good way to introduce a new kind of world to a reader as they will discover it alongside the story’s the hero.
‘Everyday Hero’ Opening:
Here, your protagonist is going about their everyday life and some event sends them spiralling off into another direction. Harry Potter was not looking forward to his birthday because life with the Dursley’s was so dreary – but a letter from Hogwarts school changed everything.
Never start with a description of the weather. I read a crime writer/blogger who said, “In a crime novel, if you open with the description of the weather I’m going to think that the weather killed somebody.”
Never start with events that turn out to be a dream – it makes readers feel cheated. Prologues are not popular with readers or with publishers – you should be able to tell your story within the main body of the story.
And it’s often said that opening with an alarm clock going off, or the main character looking at the gloomy weather and thinking that it reflects their life, is something of a cliché.
I’ve mentioned motivation and its importance to plot. Each character has External and Internal goals and motivations. It is always helpful to work out what these are for your characters.
Almost all stories follow a structure in which the rising action takes the main characters through a series of complications that result in a climax, followed by the falling action of the resolution. At this point, the character must learn something, grow, and accomplish a goal.
But an important point to remember is you have to present a compelling reason for their actions.
Ask yourself what are your character’s external goals? Harry Potter’s is to defeat Voldemort and avenge his parents’ death. What are your character’s internal goals? Harry Potter’s is to find a family.
The important thing about middles is that they should keep up the pace – keep the reader turning the page. The middle section is often the hardest part to write – often, new writers think of a great beginning and a great climax, but struggle to maintain interest in the points in between.
Having a structure plan can help. It helps you to decide where actions should take place in the narrative and how to space them out. Knowing in your mind ‘what happens next’ will keep you focused on the plot as you write.
Three Act Structure
You can find all kinds of models for structure to use as a framework. But one of the easiest to follow is the classic three-act structure. Use this traditional structure to divide your story up into three sections or Acts.
Act One is often where development, setting and exposition take place. You can set a scene, describe a world, have the reader get to know your character. But the important point in this first act is called the inciting incident – in other words the point of change, the first turning point or initial crisis for your protagonist. It’s the event which upsets the characters’ ordinary world and compels them to act in a certain way.
Think about the ‘ordinary world’ of your characters, before key events started to happen for the purpose of this story. Describe it in a couple of lines.
Now ask what challenges this? This is your inciting incident. And make sure you have identified your main character.
Now imagine your structure like an arc – the line rises and rises as your character continues to have building tension, obstacles and set backs.
In that middle section, keep making things worse for your character. Have them think they have solved their problem, only to have that turn out not to be the case. Introduce twists, as Gillian Flynn did in the middle of Gone Girl or Sarah Waters did in the middle of Fingersmith.
Structure can also involve playing around with time – telling the story in flashbacks or other non-linear and more experimental ways.
If you are graphically minded draw yourself a rough graph or jot down the beginning, middle and end of your story.
Now write the story and fill in the gaps. If you’re not so graphically minded, just jot down a few key phrases or events that might carry your story forward to a possible conclusion.
Don’t worry, this isn’t cast in stone, and you can change the beginning, middle, end and anything in between at any time. Many writers just write to find their voice. That’s fine.
Once you have a first draft, go back and see if it has some kind of structure or arc. If not, you may have to tweak it a little.
Each event needs to be written as a scene – scenes have beginnings, middles and endings too. And they have action and often dialogue or internal monologue (thoughts) of a character.
Scenes should drive on the storyline and also develop your character, a little – there should be a purpose to every scene you write.
The character will effectively have a mini goal in every scene – one of the many small things they must accomplish if they want to reach their overall goal. And each scene needs to link to the next in some way – scenes (and then the sequel, or what happens as a result) are the building blocks that form your novel.
With everything that happens in a scene – when you plan them out, try to add a ‘but’ to keep the obstacles coming for your character. Fred wants to ask his girlfriend to marry him – but he is too shy.
Then add a ‘so’ – ‘ so she thinks he doesn’t love her and breaks up with him’.
Adding the ‘but’ and ‘so’ will help you to keep the conflict going and to make sure each scene is worth including.
In that tricky middle section, keep creating a series of obstacles and challenges until it finally looks as if all is lost for your character. That ‘all is lost’ point is a key one in a plot.
Endings should do something with the conflict of the story. It can wrap everything up (like Cinderella) or it may leave things a little more open.
The most important thing is that the ending should reflect your character and their actions, so something like ‘then she suddenly found a winning Lottery ticket so all her problems were solved’ is a cheat – the ending needs to happen because of who your character is and what they did.
It should also use elements from the middle. Don’t have your characters do something in the middle of the novel that has no bearing on the outcome. You can cheat by going back and adding bits when you know how you want it to end!
Finally it should have impact – make the reader laugh or cry or gasp or think.
Think about the novel endings that have really had an impact on you. What was it about them that really made them memorable? What can you learn for your own writing?
Some plotting rules:
Don’t spend too much time away from your plot – in backstory or description, for example. If you have spent a few hundred words away from the story, that’s probably too much so go back and make some edits.
Don’t have too many central characters. New writers are often a little too ambitious – that’s partly because they can’t decide whose story they want to tell. Try not to have more than three.
Different writers tend to face slightly different challenges. Some tend to be weaker on characterisation and stronger on plotting. When plots go wrong, it’s often because they fail to keep focus on the protagonist.
Remember, it’s characters we care about!
For others, the most usual problem is that there’s plenty of good character material, but just not enough plot.
If your plot is too bare, then you need to fatten it up – and remember that means adding layers, not just bunging in loads of extraneous new backstory, etc.