Monday, July 11, 2016

Three Ways to Build a Better Plot

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Plot is how writers illustrate a story to their readers—which is why it’s so vital to craft a compelling one. It’s the foundation on which a story is built, and the weaker that is, the less likely the story will stand, let alone entertain. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a poor story idea, so it’s no wonder so many writers have trouble with plotting.

I love plotting myself, but even I’m always on the lookout for ways to make the process easier and more effective. Here are three things that I find particularly helpful when working on a new novel:

1. Know the Ending First

Since the whole goal of a novel is to solve the core conflict problem, knowing A) what that problem is and B) how that problem is resolved, makes it easier to plot it. Let’s look at a common way a novel’s plot is described:
Jaws is the story of a sheriff with a fear of the water who finds out a killer shark is terrorizing his beach during a major holiday weekend (the premise).

Next, let’s look at that same story with the ending as part of the idea:
Jaws is a story of a sheriff with a fear of the water who faces that fear to kill a killer shark terrorizing his town during a major holiday weekend (the general problem and how he solves it).

The premise version only gives the setup for the story. It doesn’t provide enough information to know what the sheriff does after this discovery. A large percentage of novels start out with this type of “plot” summary (I’ve done it, too), and it’s no wonder an equally large percentage of first drafts hit a wall around page 100.

The ending version says exactly what the sheriff does—kill the shark. Even if we have no idea how that is going to happen, we know where the plot is going to go and what the ending will look like. We know what steps to take so the sheriff ends up in a position where he decides this is the best course of action to save the town and his family.

It’s a subtle difference, but if we don’t know how the story ends, it’s much harder to write toward that ending.

Note: Some pantsers write in order to discover the ending. If this is your process, don’t feel you have to try this technique. Not every tip works for every writing process.

(Here’s more on the difference between plot, premise, story, and idea)

2. Treat Your Antagonist Like a Hero

There’s nothing like a great bad guy.

The protagonist is only as good and the antagonist he or she faces. It’s all too common to see antagonist being evil for the sake of evil, with no actual goal behind their actions. They want to “take over the world” but there’s no reason why. They’re working hard to stop the protagonist, but nothing ever explains why aside from the protagonist trying to stop them or get what they want. Or my favorite—the antagonist who seeks out the protagonist because they fear the protagonist will try to stop them, thus ensuring the protagonist gets involved. (Duh, don’t tell the hero they're prophesied to stop you, bad guys)

The conflict is cardboard and a good breeze will make it all fall apart.

The antagonist is the strongest part of your conflict. A great antagonist with strong and compelling reasons for doing what they’re doing will give you a variety of interesting and solid problems to throw at your protagonist, because you’ll know what the antagonist is doing and why. Any time you can convince readers to empathize with your bad guy is a win.

Once you know what the antagonist wants and why, spend some time plotting out what they’re doing in the story. Pretend they’re the hero and they’re trying to achieve this goal and someone (the protagonist) is working hard to stop them. See what fun situations you can create for both sides.

By knowing what your antagonist is doing, why they’re doing it, and how they plan to accomplish that goal, you’ll have a much better sense of what problems your protagonist will face.

(Here’s more on plotting from the antagonist's perspective)

3. Figure Out the Lie

Great stories have a moment when the protagonist faces a long-held belief and realizes it was all a lie. It’s a moment filled with emotion and usually one of the scenes you remember long after the story is read (or seen). It’s a critical part of the character arc and changes how the remainder of the story will unfold.

Without a lie, that emotional moment is gone and the story feels shallow. There’s nothing to realize, nothing to learn, and nothing to push the protagonist past their comfort zone and into being the person they need to be to win in the end. It’s the moment that changes the character forever.

When you know what lie your protagonist believes, how it hurts them, and how it holds them back (this can apply to other characters as well), you have a better sense at understanding the types of actions they’d take based on that lie, and what situations they’d need to face to reveal the truth behind that lie. For example:

In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy believed life was better anywhere but home, and had to nearly lose her home (and her life) to realize that. She also believed that someone else (the wizard) had the power to make her happy (by sending her home, when she could do that all along).

In Holly Black’s White Cat, Cassel believes he has no power and is manipulated and mistreated by his family—until he realizes he has the most power of all of them (being vague as not to spoil this awesome book).

(KM Weiland recently wrote an excellent article about the lie and the Moment of Truth that’s worth checking out)

Characters who believe things that hold them back or hurt them provide a deep well of potential plot problems and conflicts to play with.

There are as many ways to plot as there are books, but understanding where you’re going, who is causing the problems and why, and what lie is holding back your hero will give you a solid foundation on which to build a strong plot—and a strong story.

Do you know these three things about your current project?

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel.

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

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  1. The last book, I had nothing. Just a opening scene, nothing more. So I just wrote and wrote. About halfway through I finally knew the plot, ending, etc. BUT I had a ton of rewriting to do. This time I know the ending. I'm still working on the lie, but it makes sense that that is a good thing to know too!

    1. Plenty of people do write that way, and if it works for you go for it. But even if you enjoy revision (I do), having to do too much does get tiresome after a while (grin). Keep me posted on how this book goes compared to the last one. It'll be interesting to see how you fared.

  2. What a novel concept (pardon the pun...): the protagonist's recognition of the "lie" and her "moment of truth" as the turning point in the story! It's like she realizes she's had the magic arrow in her quiver all along.
    It's similar to James Scott Bell's "mirror moment" (often near the middle of a story or film where the MC figuratively sees herself in a mirror and realizes she must change or "die").

    1. I love puns :) It's probably the same concept. So much of writing is finding new and slightly different ways of looking at the same basic technique, because good storytelling seems to follow similar patterns. It's more about finding the right way for each writer to get there and what terms and approach they use, and what clicks with them.

  3. Dear ms. Janice. I love the way you put your heart on helping the others writing their books. And I've been enjoying many of your article. Although i feel like this one won't work for all stories. I mean point one and two will obviously work. But i'm not so sure about point three, it depends on the tone of the story itself. Writers can't add just any element to make the story look better.
    That's just my opinion but i hope i was wrong. Sorry you may notice as you read this that English is not my first language.

    1. Not every tip will work for every writer or every story. Although some version of "the lie" is usually seen, there are stories where it's not appropriate.

      I say a lot how each writer has to adapt any advice to his or her story, and this is no exception. Writing is fluid, and most "rules" are just guidelines. :)

  4. Wow! Really fascinating things to think about. I'll have to try these and see if one of them will help me plot better through the middle section of my WIP.

    1. Good luck! I hope at least one gets you through the boggy middle. If not, I have articles on that as well!

  5. Nice post Janice. I have tried two of the three points that you have written about and they have been very helpful with the progression of my story. Going to play around with this idea of writing a summary for the ending to see if that helps push things further along.

    1. Hope it works for you. It's been quite valuable for me.