Last month, we talked about story arc or narrative arc, which—on a high level—is your main character’s journey towards something, whether that’s change or growth or something much more negative. Also, see our companion article this month on developing a Compelling Character Arc.
This month, we're going to discuss drafting your plot. Where the narrative arc is the journey, the plot is the path you take to get there.
What is Plot?
Plot is what happens to your main character (MC). Things happen and your MC has to deal with or resolve these issues: they receive a mysterious message, they come home to find their spouse in bed with someone else, their house burns down, etc. One thing happens, then another, then another, and each event leads your character further along your narrative arc toward the climax.
Plot is what gives us action. The narrative arc, working in tandem with the character arc, gives us the reaction.
Your characters, settings, and scenes are built around your plot, usually organized in a logical manner. Care must be taken, however, to not let plot dominate your story. You can have the most action-packed tale, but without character development, it will fall flat.
Where to Start?
You have two choices: 1) you can jump right in and hope for the best; or 2) you can write a plot outline. Which option you choose is determined by your own natural style and what feels comfortable to you. We’re going to cover Option 2 and show you how to outline your key plot points using a Change Character Arc from our companion article this month: How to Create a Compelling Character Arc
1. Determine your character’s goal. If you have drafted a Change Arc for your MC, you already know what she is like at the beginning of your story, and who you want her to become by the end. What events need to happen to her in order to make that change occur? What does she want to achieve and what problems does she needs to solve to reach her goal? This goal is your ending point on your plot outline.
2. What happens if your MC fails? This is the worst-case scenario that your MC faces if she doesn’t succeed. Take, for example, the novel Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth wants to marry for love or not to marry at all. Her worst case scenario would be married to a man she doesn’t love or respect. She does everything possible to avoid that situation, even dismissing Mr. Darcy because she doesn’t believe he’s honorable. This plot point is at the beginning of your story, and your MC’s reaction to the ensuing plot points are all there to let your readers know what the stakes are.
3. What needs to happen for success? This is a checklist of events that move your MC closer to attainment. Think of these as requirements that must be met to satisfy your reader: the MC's goal should be both hard to attain and worthy. In It’s a Wonderful Life, the MC needs to realize that his life has been worthy just the way he’s lived it. Each event in the film affects or is affected by George Bailey in a certain way, eventually leading him to the realization that his life was indeed already wonderful. Such events are all plot points along the narrative arc.
4. What hurdles are in the way? There must be hurdles that threaten to hold your MC back from reaching his or her goal. Intersperse these hurdles as plot points on your outline. In Gone With the Wind, Scarlett is faced with what seem like insurmountable hurdles just to keep herself and her beloved Tara intact. These events give your readers the roller coaster of emotions they love.
5. Sacrifices are made. It can’t be easy for your MC to attain their goal, or your reader will be left feeling denied. There need to be sacrifices along your plot outline that make the goal that much more important. Does he or she suffer pain, humiliation, loss of self-respect, or even loss of family? In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen agrees to sacrifice herself to save her sister from being chosen for the Games.
6. Small wins along the way. It also can’t all be about the obstacles and the hurdles. Your MC must have some smaller wins along the way to keep him or her moving towards their goal. These should balance, to some extent, the sacrifices that are made. In the movie, Ricki and the Flash, Ricki is able to win some small battles with her alienated daughter to get her to open up and talk.
What Makes a Strong Plot?
The goal needs to mean a lot to the MC and the supporting characters. If the problem facing your MC is trivial, your reader won’t get excited about it.
Make sure your MC resolves the conflict on her own. Don’t have someone else come in to save the day, and don’t rely on an act of nature to tidily wrap things up. Your readers will read to the very end to see the MC solve her problems. Shmoop.com have put together some great plot point outlines, including these:
When you outline your plot, remember that it’s just a skeleton. It’s up to you to flesh out that skeleton and make it a 3-dimensional living, breathing opus. Each of our bodies is comprised of a skeleton that looks very similar to others. It’s when you flesh out our frames with muscles, sinews, hair, and skin that we take on our individual appearances. Outlining your plot in this manner won’t stifle your creativity; instead, it helps you maintain a good plot throughout.
Finally, a powerful resolution is one that leaves your reader feeling some strong emotion at the end. What you don’t want your reader to feel is angry that the ending was weak. Tying up all the loose ends also makes for a powerful resolution that won’t leave your reader dangling and upset.
Your plot outline will be as individual as you are. It’s merely something to give you structure on which to build. It’s the foundation for your creative juices to spring forth and to let your characters muddle through and be themselves. The outline is not meant to be rigid, but merely a pliable frame holding up the walls of your world.
There are so many other essentials that go into a good plot, like sub-plots and multiple points of view, that we’ll cover in upcoming months. Stay tuned for more.
Interested in other posts from our "How to Write a Novel in 2016" Series?
- Writing a Novel in 2016: Start with Your Idea
- How to Construct a 3D Main Character
- How to Create Your Story's World
- How to Create a Compelling Character Arc