Tuesday, December 22, 2015

7 Keys to Irresistible Plots

By Laurence MacNaughton, @LMacNaughton

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Anything that helps with plotting is welcomed with open arms in most writing circles. There are so many moving pieces to getting a novel right, it can be hard keeping track of them. Luckily, Laurence MacNaughton has a handy way to make sure our novels have all the key elements they need for a solid plot. Please help me welcome him to the lecture hall today.

In kindergarten, Laurence MacNaughton decided that when he grew up, he wanted to be a scientist. "What kind of scientist?" the teacher asked. "A mad scientist," he declared. "The kind that makes monsters." As it turned out, mad science presented limited career opportunities, so he went on to study criminal psychology instead. Today, he's a professional copywriter, writing coach and author of spooky, high-octane supernatural novels. When he's not busy writing about monsters, Laurence enjoys biking, hiking, cruising car shows and exploring the ghost towns of the Rocky Mountains. He lives in Colorado with his wife and a few too many old cars. Laurence is the author of The Spider Thief, Conspiracy of Angels, and the Jazzy St. Clare supernatural mysteries. Find out how you can get a free book at www.laurencemacnaughton.com.

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Take it away Laurence...

Is there a simple way to make the plot of your story irresistible, so that your readers keep turning pages, desperate to find out what happens next?

Yes. Every irresistible plot contains seven key elements that help catch the reader's attention and hold it to the very last page.

These keys are so universal that you've seen them hundreds of times before, even if you didn't recognize them. In fact, you'll actually find these plot keys hidden in the spelling of the word FICTION.

F is for Flaw

In a well-crafted story, something is already wrong even before page one. It could be a dysfunctional relationship, an unhealthy situation, or an unresolved trauma haunting the viewpoint character. Or all three at the same time.

Creating a character who is perfectly fine at the start of the story robs you of opportunities to put your character in deeper and more complex trouble over the coming pages.

But starting the story with a character already suffering a certain amount of misery gives them more room to grow -- and helps make your story irresistible.

I is for Inciting Incident

At some point in the past, your main character was probably coping with her flaws, more or less.

But once your story begins, something must happen that radically upsets that tenuous balance in the character's life, causing those flaws to crash down all around her and create serious trouble.

Whatever that inciting incident is, it must be a specific event, something that's never happened to your character before.

If you're feeling stumped, here are some ideas to get you started:
  • A character finds something startling: a dead body, a mysterious letter, a captivating photo.
  • Someone dies.
  • A relationship begins or ends.
  • A stranger comes to town.

A good inciting incident thrusts the character into a new and unexpected situation, one that raises immediate questions for the viewpoint character (and the reader).

C is for Choice

After the inciting incident, your viewpoint character is in deep trouble, and she needs to do something to set things right again.

But here's the key: not only must the character decide to act, but she needs to make that choice on her own -- no one can order her to do it.

The motivation needs to come from within, from the character's need for something: love, revenge, respect, independence, safety -- any universal human need.

Because of that need, the character makes a deliberate decision to take action and try to solve the problem. And that key choice drives your story forward.

T is for Twist

Somewhere around the middle of your story, you need an unexpected turn of events to spin the plot in a whole new direction.

Without that twist, your story is predictable, dull, mediocre. You don't want that. You want to write an irresistible story.

So you need a twist: the reader thought the story was headed in one direction, when suddenly it's headed in another. The challenge is to pull this off without making it seem clunky and contrived.

That's another reason to set up your character's flaws in the very beginning. If you can tie the twist to an established flaw, its sudden appearance will make total sense.

Your character will feel sucker-punched, and your readers won't be able to stop turning pages to find out what happens next.

I is for In Vain

At some point, your character needs to hit a wall.

We're not talking about a disappointing setback, or a failure that just requires a change of plans. We're talking about a total, catastrophic, devastating loss.

Utter defeat. (Or so it seems.)

Someone dies. A heartfelt relationship is broken. Something precious is destroyed.

One way or another, the character's life is irrevocably changed. And the more heart-wrenching this moment is, the better it is for your story.

Even worse? From all appearances, it looks like your character will fail at whatever goal they're trying to achieve. All is lost.

In other words, it's all been in vain.

This is the darkest moment of the story, and you need to do everything possible to convince the reader that there's no way your character can go on after this loss.

Eventually, of course, they must press onward. But for a little while, it must look like your character is finished.

Without this "in vain" moment, the final confrontation doesn't feel earned. So hit this moment as hard as you can. In the end, it will be worth it.

O is for Overcome

You know what this moment is. The climax. The final confrontation. The do-or-die moment. It's the easiest part of the story to spot.

It's also the easiest part to mess up.

There are two main ways you can ruin this moment:

One, you can let someone else steal the thunder. Too many stories fall flat because the main character isn't the one who takes the pivotal action. It needs to be your main character, and no one else, who solves the story problem.

Two, you can forget to set up a finish line. See, in order for the reader to root for your main character, there needs to be a specific, visible moment in her mind's eye where she can see the character succeed.

The family reunites. The dragon is slain. The lovers declare their devotion. The runner crosses the finish line.

Without that specific, visible moment where the character overcomes the final obstacle, there's no exact moment for your reader to start cheering.

If you want your story to be irresistible, you need to tell the reader when to cheer. Set it up ahead of time. Make it clear where the finish line is, and your readers will eagerly turn pages to get there.

N is for New

At the very end of your story, your character winds up in a new place -- physically, emotionally, relationally. The main problems have been resolved. Lessons have been learned. Nothing will be the same again.

What does this new place look like? If the opening of the story is the "before" picture, this is the "after" picture. Show it.

Create a specific image that shows your readers how the character's life has changed, for better or worse. And if you can, hint at the future. That makes for a story that lives on in the reader's mind long after they reach THE END.

Use These Seven Keys in Your Story

Remember, nearly every irresistible plot contains these seven key elements:

F = Flaw
I = Inciting Incident
C = Choice
T = Twist
I = In Vain
O = Overcome
N = New

Watch for them in every story you read, and you'll start to see how other authors have applied them in new and interesting ways. Then apply them to your next story to make it irresistible.

About Conspiracy Of Angels

Just out of prison, ex-convict Mitch Turner is determined to put his life back on track and find out the truth about his daughter's mysterious death. But when his daughter's best friend, Geneva, discovers a cryptic piece of top-secret technology, the two of them are thrust into the cross-hairs of a deadly living weapon. It's known only by a code name: Archangel. It's fast, invulnerable, inhuman. And its next target is Mitch. But the Archangel is more than just a relentless killer. It's a gatekeeper of the dangerous boundary that divides this world from the next. And it's Mitch's only chance of learning the dark truth about his daughter's fate. Outnumbered, outgunned and on the run, Mitch and Geneva race to outsmart an elite force determined to silence them. Can they uncover the conspiracy before the Archangel unleashes its deadly secret on all of humanity?

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  1. This article is super, super helpful. It makes the whole plotting thing much clearer to me. I wouldn't have instinctively think of that "In vain" moment, but now I realize that it might actually be the most exciting part to write (and the most devastating to read).
    Proof that your F.I.C.T.I.O.N. technique is good material: I'm actually feeling excited just reading at it and tons of cool ideas are popping up in my mind! Thank Mr MacNaughton!

  2. Great article. I love the F.I.C.T.I.O.N technique. It will help me remember as i struggle with my story.

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  4. Wow. Thank you, Laurence for the priceless tricks of the trade. And thank you, Janice for sharing your amazing connections. I've got people!

  5. Thanks everyone for reading and commenting! You guys are the best. A few years ago I wrote a quick ebook about this technique. It's called Instant Plot: Planning Your Novel the Easy Way. If you'd like a free copy, just contact me through my website: www.LaurenceMacNaughton.com. I'll be happy to send one your way, as my gift. Have fun writing!

  6. This is brilliance, pure & simple! I love how you've tied each point into 'fiction'. Speaking of ties, I'll add, make sure to tie up all your loose ends & be sure to add in plenty of foreshadowing. This makes for an even better story/novel. Thanks for sharing, Laurence! I need to hop on over to your website and request the free book you're so generously offering!

  7. Simplifying a complex topic into easily understood concepts. Thank you.

  8. Awesome!!! I love how you were able to put a whole plot structure into your F.I.C.T.I.O.N method. I've researched, downloaded and looked up so many different plot planning ideas and have to say that this really it going to be a keeper one for me. Thanks a ton!!