How to write a plot

Photo credit: iluvcocacola

A while back, someone on Reddit Writing asked for some advice on plots. He had good characters, a solid setting, and lots of details to create a world on the page, but was missing the essential element of a good plot.

Plots can be daunting. Let’s break it down, starting at the beginning.

First thing’s first: what is a plot?

No dictionary definitions here. A plot is the structure that holds up your story. It’s the framework by which you will get from point A to point B, and every sub-point in between. What’s most important here is that there is a point A and a point B.

So…what’s Point A?

Point A is where your character(s) starts. What’s their “normal”? Whether it’s an sci-fi action thriller or a literary tale, you need to introduce your characters and set them somewhere. This can be done in a few sentences or a few chapters, every writer and every story is different. Play around with what works best for you. Establish your character(s).

And Point B?

Point B is where your character ends up at the end. Have they learned anything? Did they save the village from barbarians? Is our hero standing triumphantly over the scorched bodies of the alien invaders? Did our character learn something? All of these things are your point B.

You go from point A to point B. And what happens in the middle…that’s your plot.

You’re still not explaining what plot is, jerk.

At some point in the introduction of your characters, there needs to be a turning point. This turning point is the beginning of your plot. A turning point can be anything from your character noticing a beautiful woman across the room, to a UFO crashing into her house.

Your turning point starts your character out on his/her quest. Something has happened that has caused his/her “normal” to be compromised and there is no going back to “normal” until the character does something about it.

Okay, a UFO has crashed in the house…this is a plot?

Now that your turning point has happened, your character will now have an objective. He’s going to try to win the heart of the girl he saw across the room. She’s going to figure out where the UFO came from, and why all of the cattle on her ranch are gone.

This objective becomes the driving force for your character. Notice that the objective can be triggered by something internally (longing for love) or externally (UFO + house). The character is now on a path toward his/her objective. The structure of the story is coming together. We’re formulating plot!

Now, it would be a pretty boring story if the guy went across the room and asked the girl out and she said “Yes! In fact, let’s get married!”, and then the story ended. We need obstacles for our hero to overcome. Every great story has amazing obstacles that the main character must overcome. A lot of time they take the form of an antagonist (Wicked Witch of the West, Buffalo Bill, anybody who runs a carnival ride in Scooby-Doo…), but an obstacle can also be an external force (a meteor streaking toward Earth, a violent storm at sea, snakes are on this plane!).

So I’ve got an end in mind, how do I keep things interesting until then?

Overcoming obstacles is how plot is formed. Between point A and point B in your story should be a number of obstacles that the character must overcome. That’s what keeps a reader glued to a book. It creates an arch to the story, and keeps it moving. Each obstacle the characters overcome is a mini-victory to the reader as well. Just like a┬ároller coaster┬áneeds peaks and valleys to be enjoyable, so does a good story. My technique is to make each of these obstacles a scene.

Neat. How does it end?

At the end of the story, the character needs to face their final obstacle. Usually it’s the biggest obstacle that character has been building up to. It’s a chance for that character to confront the antagonist head-on in a climax that will result in the character getting what they want, or going away empty-handed.

So there you have it. Establish a character, turn their world upside down in some way, give them an objective, put some stuff in their way, and watch to see if they get what they’re after.

Before you go, here’s some more good reading.

In his book, Plot and Structure, James Scott Bell breaks these points down into a principle he calls LOCK. L is for Lead – your main character. O is the Objective. C is the Confrontation. And K is for the Knockout, which is that special little bit at the end of a story that makes you go, “H-O-L-Y-C-R-A-P, Bruce Willis was dead the whole movie.” I highly recommend the book, as it goes into much more depth about plotting practices and structures than I reasonably could here.

What are your thoughts? Is there anything that you use for plotting that others could use?