One Thing Led to Another: Mastering Plot

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*This is the second of five posts in collaboration with The Ice Colony on the elements of storytelling. Last month we tackled character development. Now we’re onto plot.

Plotting a great story takes more than just a decent beginning, middle, and end. Of all the elements of fiction, plot is by far the most all-encompassing and complex, because in order to tell a story well, it’s necessary to neatly (and beautifully) weave every character, each line of dialogue, and every scene into the larger storyline. Plot isn’t just a series of events, but how the writer gives these events resonance. And as is the case with any facet of fiction writing, careful planning and meticulous execution is essential to turning out a well-paced, riveting, and ultimately meaningful story.

Some tips on plot development—

Pacing is tough—really tough. Take care to make sure things move quickly enough, but not too quickly.

I honestly tend to use something of a mathematical formula with regards to pacing, on a large scale and chapter by chapter. By the time you’re a quarter of the way through the story, the main plot should already be underway and subplots should have been introduced. By three-quarters through, the circumstances and characters should be noticeably changed from the beginning. That is, main characters’ personal arcs should be moving towards completion and you should be mostly set up for the climax of the story.

Alternatively, you might break the story into theee “acts” (I do this a lot). By the end of the first act, the protagonist’s main problem / goal should established and they should be committed to solving it. By the end of the second act, the main character(s) should have changed significantly and / or be somewhere around “rock bottom”. The last act should be mostly devoted to addressing the main, climactic problem of the story.

Write with the ending in mind…is it a circular ending? twist ending?

If your plan with regards to your story is to make things up as you go along…find a new plan. Especially in a longer story, it’s almost impossible to craft a really killer plot when you don’t know where it’s headed from the outset. Knowing in advance how your story will end allows you to begin working towards that ending from the first page. This is especially important if you want to incorporate some kind of foreshadowing, but either way the tone and setup of the story should be influenced by the ending you have planned. It’s difficult to build narrative tension if you don’t know why it’s there. Writing with the ending in mind, you can make sure the finale of your story fits the characters, and that their problems and goals make sense with regards to resolution.

Introduce characters before plot.

As previously stated, if your characters aren’t likable and interesting, nobody is going to care about the plot. Interest in a back cover synopsis can only take a reader so far; caring about the people involved in the story is what sustains interest. Before you start into the key events of the plot, make sure the reader is at least somewhat connected to your main character(s). While too much exposition without action can be a bad thing, character development should start immediately. Before you set up the main story arc, the reader should be invested.

Foreshadow plot twists at some point.

I’m a big fan of foreshadowing. I think it’s an important part of making an ending, especially what seems like a twist ending, make sense. In general, some slight suggestion of things to come makes the entire story more cohesive and purposeful. Good foreshadowing isn’t heavy-handed—it shouldn’t necessarily be obvious to the reader the first time around. There’s something of a misconception that foreshadowing is meant to be discovered on the first read through. An example of perfect foreshadowing, albeit not in a literary context, is The Sixth Sense. Obviously the twist ending, that Bruce Willis has been dead the whole time, is now pretty well known. But it’s extremely surprising on the first watch. It’s only when you go back and notice all the odd little moments that the entire thing makes total sense. This is exactly what good foreshadowing does—makes the ending not seem totally random, and takes the round-two-reader on a fun little easter egg hunt.

Cut details mercilessly, but save them.

When editing for plot, cut anything (ANYTHING!) that doesn’t further the plot in some way. No matter how much you love a scene or moment, if it doesn’t make sense with the plot, messes up the pacing, loosens the narrative, or otherwise has a negative effect on the larger storyline, get rid of it. Try to be really honest with yourself here. One thing that may lessen the pain of killing your darlings—you can and should save the parts you cut, either for later use / repurposing, or just to have as a reference point for plot and character development. It comforts me to think that all the superfluous little gems I pull from my first drafts are still part of the story, even if the reader doesn’t know it.

Plan everything ahead, but do it in a way that leaves room for change.

My first piece of advice on any kind of writing is to start by planning it in great detail. For plot in particular, it helps to plan in a way that allows for some degree of fluidity. With almost every story I’ve ever written, the final plot has looked differently than originally expected. Use plot worksheets, or write down events then figure out where you want them in the story. If you have ideas that you want to include but aren’t sure how, write them down and think about them while you write. You may find a way to fit them into the story along the way.

In a longer work like a novel, plot tends to be (and should be) cyclical.

Generally speaking, a story is a repeated cycle of problems arising and being solved (or not), ultimately leading to the climax. In the simplest terms, the usual progression is: inciting incident, tension, resolution. In a full length novel, there are usually at least a few arcs like this in a story. Just make sure every arc leading up to the “finale” fits into the big picture. Complications along the way should all be part of the main plot.

Use flashbacks sparingly, and use them well.

Ask yourself before you include a flashback in your story how it will effect the plot, the pacing, and general flow of the story. Is it actually necessary? I usually only use flashbacks if they reveal important character information, or directly advance / increase the impact of the plot. If you decide that a flashback is indeed necessary and fits into the story well, the right placement of the flashback is crucial. I like to put them at the beginning of a chapter (or short story), although I wouldn’t start a book with one. If it’s a longer flashback, in a novel it may be best to give it its own chapter. Particularly if you have multiple flashbacks—you might even switch off between the present and relevant past. Lastly, be careful with the transition into the flashback. Starting the segment in a way that feels divorced from the rest of the story can make a great little blast from the past feel awkward and random.

Increase tension by not letting your characters be happy.

Always ask how your characters’ situations can get worse. Usually, the best course of action, particularly in the middle part of a story, is to stick to Murphy’s Law—anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Just make sure there’s still hope. Without good moments and the possibility of some degree of redemption, many readers will lose interest. For example, I love The Handmaid’s Tale (TV series), but am seriously considering jumping ship because positive things rarely happen and the bad guys win over and over. I love dark, tragic stories; there just have to be good moments too in order to keep the reader interested. So within reason, make your characters’ lives hell—but make sure there’s a possibility they’ll escape, even if it’s only an ascent to a figurative purgatory.

Motive is everything…and sometimes it’s good to have opposing motives within a character.

In order to make the plot make sense and develop characters to the fullest extent, you should know why they do what they do, even if they themselves do not. Without motive and reasoning behind characters’ behavior, parts of the story if not the entire plot will feel haphazard. I recommend writing a sort of psychoanalysis of each of your main characters to get a better sense of where they are coming from, especially if they’re at odds with other characters. You might even want to include some conflicting impulses within a character—real people are contradictory.

Plot needs to stand alone to an extent, but plot can also come from characters and tension between them.

On the topic of motive and character goals, sometimes characters’ goals and relationships can make a subplot, in some cases even the main plot. In more character-centric stories, the meat of the story will revolve around personal events in characters’ lives and how they react to them. Even in stories more centered on plot outside of the characters themselves, there is always an external plot and internal plot (more focused on character development). The best books tie the two together and use the external plot to advance the characters’ story arcs and provide a blueprint for the changes they go through.

Leave intrigue…give readers a reason to wonder what happens next.

Until the end of the book, leave plenty of loose ends and / or room for disaster to strike. Pure, peaceful happiness should be relatively short lived. Make sure the exposition leaves an unanswered question that goes unanswered throughout the story. Making sure your readers actually care about the unanswered questions is a matter of strong characters and a compelling plot, but first thing’s first—you need something to drive the story, and ultimately to make the reader want to finish it.

Any major choice should have negative consequences.

At least until the end of the book, and maybe even then. Just as life is a series of decisions, a story is driven by characters’ choices, and even most good decisions have drawbacks. It further increases the tension in the story if the decisions the character faces are not easy. They may make the wrong decision, or a good one that isn’t without consequences. Possibly to the point of a pyrrhic victory. This not only makes the story more realistic, but makes it more emotional, which is extremely important in creating something people can connect to; a story the reader really feels.

All in all, the most important characteristic of a good plot, other than the storyline simply not being boring, is that it’s cohesive.

A messy plot is what sends a lot of writers back to the drawing board; “messy” can mean everything from having too many extraneous scenes or subplots, bad pacing, or characters with internal story arcs that don’t somehow figure into or emphasize the main external plot. In any good work of fiction, no matter how complex the plot may be, it’s neat—editors (at least the ones I’ve worked with) refer to this as “tight” writing. Everything has a place, and everything is in its place.

Lastly, here’s the plot outline I use most often when planning a story.

Next in the monthly Elements of Fiction series—dialogue. Walking the walk necessitates being able to talk the talk (or rather, for your characters to be able to). 📝