Monday, October 17, 2011

8 Plotting Pointers

As a freelance editor, sometimes I come across a manuscript that is well-written, but there’s no plot. The characters are simply meandering around with no real purpose. No plot? No story. No book deal. No fans. No money. See how you can miss out on a lot if you don’t ensure your story has a plot?

Here are eight pointers on plotting:

1. Know where to start. A story should begin at or near the inciting incident. This is the moment when the protagonist’s normal life is suddenly turned upside down and her journey begins. This means the story has already begun before we opened the book, but we won’t learn about this backstory until later on. For now, we want to enjoy the moment, see how the character handles herself, what she has to lose, and where she’s going from here. The backstory can be slipped in later through flashbacks, exposition, inference, or dialogue. Don’t DUMP it at the beginning or anywhere for that matter.

2. Keep your characters true to themselves. A mild-mannered man won’t hit his girlfriend. Unless the writer has shown us a different side to the character, we won’t believe the man could be violent. Motivate, motivate, motivate. We’ll believe a character can and will do anything as long as it’s properly motivated and makes sense within the story.

3. Nothing should happen at random. Every element in a story must have significance. Always ask, “Why this person and not another? Why this place instead of that? Why would he say or do this? What is its purpose? Does it move the story forward? Does it reveal something about the character? Will the story still make sense without this?”

4. Tick tock goes the clock. The protagonist should have a sense of urgency. If she doesn’t attain her goal by such and such, this will happen… Without this ticking time bomb looming over her, the heroine can easily get distracted and forget what’s at stake. Or she can simply take her time attaining her goal, but the reader probably won’t stick around.

5. Show character growth. Make ‘em suffer. I know it’s tempting to give your characters a break. You don’t want to hurt your darlings. But, you MUST torture them. Every time life starts to get easy for your characters, another hurdle must present itself. The more things the hero has to overcome, the stronger he’ll be in the end.

6. Subtly foreshadow things to come. You want the reader to realize the clues to the killer’s identity were there all along. If only she’d been paying closer attention and hadn’t been so focused on the story… A miracle shouldn’t solve the problem. The villain shouldn’t suddenly cave or become weak. The final clue to solve the mystery won’t drop from the sky. And the killer won’t be someone we’ve never seen or heard about before. But remember, foreshadowing something is done subtly or you’re no longer foreshadowing, you’re giving it away.

7. Resolve it. Whatever the conflict may be, and no matter how hard it’s been for the hero to overcome it, at some point, he must do just that. By the end of the story, he should’ve learned enough and grown enough that he can finally attain his goal. The reason the hero can now overthrow the villain is because the hero has grown and is stronger, not because the villain is weaker.

8. Remember your readers. Make sure your story fits within the genre you write and what your readers expect. It’s okay step outside the box, but don’t run from it.

What are some plotting pointers you’d like to share?

Lynnette Labelle


  1. I agree with everything that you've said here. No plot equals boring.

  2. Great pointers. I love to torture my characters. Maybe I shouldn't admit that out loud!

  3. Michael, Christine, Katie, and Dawn: Thanks!

    Lynnette Labelle