Friday, July 1

What to do, What to do? Plotting Through Goals

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

A plot is just a series of events that allow you to illustrate your story. Because of that, you have a multitude of things you can do to your characters. All those possibilities means it's sometimes hard to know what to do next. Plotting is simple, yet often difficult. I've found that goals make the entire process easier.

As you start your scene, your protagonist will have a goal. It'll probably be a story goal, because the whole point is to move the story forward, right? But also try thinking about the other goals. The smaller, even pointless goals the protagonist might have. What are their feeling at that moment? What do they want, both selfishly and unselfishly? They might want to have a quiet moment to think as they're working to keep a room full of terrified people calm. They might want to slap the woman who won't stop shrieking. Lots of things are probably going through their minds. Short and long-term goals.

Now, look at all those goals your protagonist has, and the situation they're currently in, and ask yourself:

1. Can my protagonist be in any danger?
2. Can my protagonist learn or reveal a secret?
3. Can my protagonist be in conflict with someone, something, or themselves?
4. Can my protagonist make a choice?
5. Can my protagonist fail at something?

Sometimes all you'll find is one thing to do, but the more of these you can layer up (even if it's a small thing) the richer your plots can be. The outcome won't be as obvious, because there will be multiple things going on and any of them might be the goal driving the story at that particular moment. But all of them will be doing something to deepen that story.

1. Can my protagonist be in any danger?
Odds are your protagonist will be in some kind of danger since that's often central to the main plot. But there are smaller dangers to be had as well. While you don't want to throw danger in for the sake of danger, there are probably ways in which you can up the stakes and cause some trouble. Let Murphy's Law play a role here, and if something can go wrong, let it. However, if it's totally obvious that something is going to happen, resist to urge (like in those suspense/horror movies where you know a cat is going to jump out at some point right before the bad guy shows up). Do something unexpected instead.(Unless the goal is to fake out the reader and then have the unexpected happen)

2. Can my protagonist learn or reveal a secret?
Secrets, whether learning the truth or discovering there is truth to be had, are great ways to grab reader interest. These are good plot points to use when you have quiet moments going on and still need to hook the reader. Or they can double as that unexpected twist when the reader is sure that metaphoric "cat" is going to jump out. It can also be a more mundane secret, like a clue that moves the plot forward or provides a little foreshadowing. It can even be a secret slipped in that goes almost unnoticed, yet carries great importance later on.

3. Can my protagonist be in conflict with someone, something, or themselves?
Conflict drives a plot, so the more of it the better (within reason of course). Don't give your protagonist a break. Even if it's small, let there be personal demons to overcome, a difference of opinion to feel guilty over or have to compromise with. Moral struggles to go with the physical struggles. An item that won't cooperate (like a locked door, or a gas valve that won't turn off). What kinds of things can cause problems and get in the way of any of the things, internally and externally, your protagonist wants, either in that scene, or in the overall story. (One word of caution here: don't throw something in the way just to throw something in the way. If it helps the story try it, but don't make things needlessly complicated. That actually lessens the tension and bores the reader)

4. Can my protagonist make a choice?
Choices are what leads your protagonist down the story path. If they're not making some kind of choice, then the book can feel random and the protagonist reactive instead of proactive. But if they need to choose something, then the opportunities for unpredictability go up. (unless you create a situation where there is no actual choice, just a fake choice, and you don't want that). Choices give readers the sense that the protagonist is acting and driving the story. And every choice provides an opportunity for it to be the wrong choice, and you can have all kinds of fun there. The choice also doesn't have to impact that scene. It can be a choice that has greater repercussions later in the story. Those bad decisions that come back to haunt you.

5. Can my protagonist fail at something?
Winning is boring. Failure forces the protagonist to think on their feet and come up with new plans. The failure doesn't have to be huge, it can a small thing that leads them one step down the wrong path on some level. Failing to see a friend is hurting, failing to spot a clue that would save you, failure to heed your own apprehension. Or it can be a huge moment where everything goes wrong and the protagonist fails on every level. Failure to see, failure to act, failure to notice. And like the choices, this can have consequences later.

There are plenty of things you can use to plot, but these are questions that help me and situations I enjoy playing with. Because the more trouble your protagonist gets into (quiet emotional trouble or end of the world trouble), the more fun it is to watch them get out of it.

Do you start your scenes with character goals or do you just write and see what happens? 

More articles on goals and plotting:
Giving your characters a goal
Actions vs choices
Raising the stakes: when and where
Causing trouble without making trouble
Character arcs and plot

10 comments:

  1. A handy post as always, Ms. Hardy. :)

    Your statement, "A plot is just a series of events that allow you to illustrate your story," reminds me of something I had to do in one WiP. The story had turned dark and revolting, more so than I wanted. It was supposed to be about a runaway slave and how slavery had affected her ability to trust even known allies, not about a runaway slave and her sadistic master.

    So I rewound a few scenes to what started the turn the story had taken. I looked at that one and listed who had to be in the scene and who could be replaced with someone else, then figured out who those ones could be replaced with.

    Ultimately, I ended up with events that suited the desired story far better than the previous horrific mess. :-D

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  2. Definitely good advice here. As a reader, I get so frustrated when a character seems to be drifting through the story instead of driving it. It's a lot harder to do when I'm writing than it is to pick out when I'm reading, but having characters make choices is so, so important.

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  3. Great information. I told my daughter recently, my MC wasn't suffering enough. If I have to suffer in life, so should my MC.

    Teresa

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  4. I'm just sketching out my plans for next novel, and this is really helpful! Thanks so much for your generosity.
    Lynne Morgan Spreen

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  5. I'm bookmarking this for when I finish my first draft (in two weeks maximum?). Very helpful!

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  6. I've actually started applying a similar set of questions to every scene I write. After scrapping 45 pages of my first novel, I realised I need to work on each scene having a purpose for the story.

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  7. I can’t write that way, I can’t predict what’s to come… it just comes as I write.
    Now, I agree with your advice, and will implement it during revisions.

    That’s what makes my revisions so hard; I am a weak writer, and I compose by the seat of my pants.

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  8. Valerie: Oh, early grats on your first draft!

    Paul: It does help. There's a common rule of thumb that says every scene should have three reasons for being in the book.

    Jeff: There's nothing wrong with being a "pantser." Lots of writers are and that's the process that works for them. One of the harder things to do when you first start writing is to find the process that works for you. I tried a lot of different things before I found mine. It might take you time to find yours. But you're working on improving and you'll get there :) We were all weak writers once.

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  9. I'm definitely a plotter, so I start every scene with a plan in mind. That said, scenes don't always go as planned so as I write the scene I allow it to flow on its own, at least the first time. I've found that my characters (and subconscious) often see things that I missed or couldn't predict.

    Excellent advice Janice! I'll be adding your suggestions to my plotting journal.

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  10. Gene: That's about what I do, too. I stick to the plan, but allow for spontaneity to see where the story goes on its own.

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