Wednesday, December 14, 2011

How Does a Writer Plot Successfully?

A plot sparks, ignites, and finally explodes in the closing scenes, or it should, if you’re doing your job. The story shouldn’t just spark and ignite only to fizzle out. It needs a constant increase in tension. Options for your characters must continue to disappear—especially when your character needs them the most—only to have the story end with a logical conclusion.

But how does a writer plot successfully? Here’s a little cheat sheet you can use:

-Don’t start the first scene with explanations, just get the story moving.

-Begin with the character reacting to a problem, one that’s pulling her life in the wrong direction.

-Make your character’s life hell. Don’t put her in situations where she’s comfortable. She needs to be on her toes, constantly looking for a way back to her “normal life”.

-The plot forces your character to change in order to survive the story. Without this transformation, the ending won’t be plausible.

-Make sure your protagonist’s goals and motivations are strong, and that the conflict she’s up against is almost impossible to overcome. A woman who’s afraid of dogs because her friend was attacked as a child is too weak to keep a story going. However, if the character is terrified of dogs because she was attacked and nearly killed when she was younger, and now her job as a reporter requires her to go undercover at a dog mill or she’ll be fired, that’s conflict. Now, add that the meanest dog escapes and has the reporter’s daughter trapped against a wall. The reporter will have no choice. She’ll have to do more than face her fear, she’ll have to conquer it as well.

-Don’t just torture your characters, torture your readers, too. Make them care about your characters and then put those characters in danger, be it physical or emotional.

-Make your characters act in ways that most people would be afraid to act. Have your protagonist stand up to bullies, for example, but only after she’s gone through a series of situations that have prepared her for the fight. She can’t go from being cowardly one minute to a brave hero the next without any kind of transformation in between or the story won’t be believable.

-Show your character’s changes through her actions or decisions, not summary.

-Have her react to events that occur in the story. She can’t simply sit around and worry.

Of course, plotting is a little more complicated than that, but following these tips will keep you from making many of the mistakes beginner writers make.

Do you have any tips you’d like to add?

Lynnette Labelle


  1. This is all great stuff! I especially like starting out NOT explaining things. That will avoid those "information dumps." And having the character react and not just sit around and worry--excellent advice. Now I have to check and make sure my characters aren't doing that in places...

  2. Love all these. You did a great job of lining out these important points.

  3. Carol and Judy: Thanks!

    Lynnette Labelle

  4. to pull my narrator further out of his comfort zone...?

  5. By the way, I hope it isn't too late, but when I linked this article on a writer's forum, one of the forumgoers addresses the example with the dogs by saying, "Sometimes, there's something to be said for a quiet, understated conflict."

    How would you respond to this? I'm just curious (and the forumgoer approves of me quoting this).

  6. I make it my goal to try to inspire my readers to tolerate behavior that in real life they would find intolerable.

  7. This is so useful! I already knew the need to start with action, but reading back through the first chapter of the book I'm working on at the moment I can see I've already completely over-burdened it with explanation! Thank you, this is a great list.

  8. ChihuahuaO: The problem is that if the conflict is so understated or hidden that the reader doesn't see it as a conflict, she'll probably put the book down before she gets to the point when the conflict is revealed. In the past, more readers (myself included) would give a book a chance, even forcing themselves to read the whole thing, hoping the story would improve. More and more, readers are only giving a book somewhere between 1-3 chapters to hook them. Agents and editors are even stricter. If the book doesn't hook them with the first page, they move on. So, what this person said may have been true years ago, but readers expect more now. Understanding what your particular readers want and expect will help you sell more books. Do you research. Know your genre. Understand today's craft of writing because it's not the same as it was in the past. Another example of this change is the use of deep point of view. More and more this is expected when years ago, we hadn't even heard of the term. I hope this helps.

    Lynette: It's all about properly motivating your characters and their actions/reactions. If done well, you can have your characters do anything--right or wrong.

    Sally: Trust your reader to understand and fill in the blanks as she goes along. That might help you cut back on the explanations. :)

    Lynnette Labelle