Plot is one of those words that can strike fear in a writer’s heart –at least, it does for me. Especially when I was a beginning writer. Characters I like, dialogue is fun, words are magic — but plot, plot is tricky. Plot is so bold, so important. Plot’s what happens, what surprises people, what keeps people reading until they fall in love with your characters.
It is said that there is really only one plot – the resolution of a problem. It’s also been said there’s 2, 3, 7, 20, and 36 plots — just so you know, options. Before we talk about our characters, let’s talk a little about plot.
What is a plot?
The main events of a play, novel, movie, or similar work, devised and presented by the writer as an interrelated sequence.
Ernest Lehman said —
- ‘In the first act, it’s who are the people and what is the situation of this whole story.
- The second act is the progression of that situation to a high point of conflict and great problems.
- And the third act is how the conflicts and problems are resolved.’
What does character-driven and plot-driven mean?
‘Character-driven writing is focused on the characters and the internal change, more so than the events and situations that take place while plot-driven writing is focused on the actual happenings and the external changes of the story.’ — from thescriptlab.com
More ‘literary fiction’ is character based, while some genre fiction is action-packed and the characters don’t learn or grow as much. In an action-filled story, your characters may still make important decisions that change the plot, but they are less likely to change themselves in major ways (think about Indiana Jones or James Bond: they don’t change [much] but their choices and actions still save the girl, the day, or the world [the external challenge].)
Do I HAVE to plot out my novel?
No. In ‘On Writing’, Stephen King writes, “Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort, and the dullard’s first choice.”
From nybookeditors.com — ‘But for writers striving to create something unique and surprising, the kind of work that will grab the attention of agents and editors, the thorough plotting and planning can be a matter of life and death. By that, I mean that planning your novel ahead of time increases its likelihood of being dead on arrival. It may fly in the face of your tried and true approach, but I’m going to ask you to consider a different tack: Don’t plan. Write.’
Having a couple of page outline can help you understand the major ‘beats’ of a novel, and give you a distant landmark to head toward, but too much planning can ruin the moment. Do what feels comfortable to you, but be open to feeling uncomfortable as well. I was recently writing the last third of a novel when a conversation with my sister led to a stunning revelation about my story. I HAD to go in an entirely different direction than I’d been planning. I was quite concerned that I was ruining my book, but I trusted myself, kept writing, and now it’s my favorite novel I’ve written.
When in doubt, trust yourself. Or, as I’ve had written on an index card on my wall for almost 15 years — ‘Trust the story’. The true, beating heart of your story will never lead you astray.
How do I let my characters ‘plot my novel’?
The idea here is to relax and trust. If you think about your story, the story world, and each of your main characters, you have all the ingredients needed to plot your story as you’re writing it. It’s been said that ‘In life, one thing happens after another. In fiction, one thing happens because of another.’ Your life is being plotted out all the time, sometimes intentionally by you (the protagonist), and sometimes by others (supporting characters), and sometimes by acts outside human control (your two page ‘blueprint’).
Just remember that we are in control a lot more often than you’d think. Look at these scenarios —
- Car broke down? . . . and your hero hadn’t changed the oil in the last 6 years.
- He had a heart attack — after decades of a two-Big-Mac-a-day habit.
- Your hero got turned down for admission to Princeton for having bad grades.
- His wife leaves him.
In the first three, the hero made choices (somewhere along the way) that led to these seemingly out-of-their-hands situations. But what about the last one? Did he take his wife for granted? Stop saying thank you and asking how her day was? Or did she meet someone else, become wrapped up in a daydream, and leave a great life and husband? Maybe they were both in a life-changing car crash, or won the lottery, or just grew apart. The important thing is to remember that even in an external action, ‘plot-driven’ story, characters are making choices all the time.
Liam Neeson’s character in ‘Taken’ has no control over the fact his daughter was kidnapped (that was the writer’s big picture ‘blueprint’ of the story they wanted to tell). However, when he says ‘I do have are a very particular set of skills’, that is pure character. He’s not mouthing these words so we can jump from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ in the story, that character is speaking from personality, anger, and experience. He won’t just go to the police. He will find and hunt the perpetrators down. Bryan Mills (the character) had no other choice in that moment — it’s a character-driven action.
Trusting and following your characters, step-by-steps
- When you first develop your story, trust your landscape even if it looks like a half-finished jigsaw puzzle. Leave room for more characters to appear. And believe that the whole story exists out there, complete, and that in time you will discover it.
- Envision scenes with your characters talking to each other. Watch for clues — why does he change the subject when she asks about his past? Why does she call herself Mrs. Callaway when we know she’s never been married? What made him become a doctor when he just said the law was his first love? You want to observe these things quietly, and investigate them surreptitiously, as to not impose or change the story world — just watch, ask questions and probe deeper.
- Pick a great hero (or know you’ve been picked by one). Honestly, half the battle of plotting is won by an interesting, inquisitive, and active protagonist. You should keep digging and working with your hero until you can really hear and see them, and then hopefully they will talk and act in ways that will move your story forward. Even if your character was told to sit in a bare chair in a empty room and wait, you should know (see) what action they would take next. How long would they wait? Would they light a smoke? Pace? Sleep? Sneak out of the room and spy on others?
- Keep writing forward. In your first draft, don’t keep polishing. I allow myself to re-read what I wrote last session, correct a few typos, then move forward. That’s it. If you have those few, big events planned out, start writing toward them (i.e. she leaves for college) and just watch what she does.
- Don’t skip ahead. Once you start writing, stop thinking and plotting it out in your head (work on future stories instead). If you’re excited to see what happens next, discipline yourself to wait till you can sit down and write what happens next.
- Let your character Choose Her Own Adventure. Ever read those charming second person stories like ‘Cave of Time’? Now it’s time to put your fourth grade skills to work — only now your hero is doing the deciding. In the example of someone leaving for college, what might happen? Her mom suggests a going away party. Look closely at your character. Is she — excited about any party? Annoyed at her mom for mentioning it? Wants to spend all of her remaining time packing and planning? Little choices will tell you a lot about your character, and may lead to big choices (even ones you didn’t plan on) later in the story.
- Gage your excitement level. When your plot goes one way (huge blowout going-away party!), think about how you feel. Are you excited to read/write this part? If not, skip it and just have your character bring the reader up to date (‘The worst party of my life. And then HE showed up). Now you’re interested, right? Write that encounter. Since you’re not plotting out every little scene, it’s important to feel that internal compass — and be willing to throw out a page or two and back up if you find yourself getting bored. As my grandmother use to say about crocheting — ‘Be a cheerful ripper!’
- When you and your characters disagree, you yield to them. Say you plan on your hero meeting the love of her life, a shy CompSci major, in college and getting engaged fast (which brings on troubles with the mom back home). And so you start writing it that way, only you’re getting bored writing about their first date and then your hero wants, after using the restroom, to sneak out of the restaurant and never look back. NOO! You try to write it right, but your character’s whole personality suggests this other action. She wants to run out. You kind of want to see what would happen if she did, but it will ruin your whole plan. Or would it? If your story is about growing up, confrontation with parents, and becoming the person you’re suppose to be, then shy Derek doesn’t matter — you just thought he mattered. Tell yourself you’ll just write a few pages to ‘see where this goes’ and you’ll probably find more interesting, and more original, ways to get her to the point of the big blowup/confrontation with her mom.
- If you get stuck, wander. We are not a wandering world anymore. You’re either hard at work or hard at play. We have become allergic to dawdling, saunters, and the meandering path. But if you lose the flow of your story, think on different locations and people, flip forward in time, even change viewpoints. Search for the heart of your story, and let what’s interesting guide you back to the trail.
- Trust the power of the rewrite. Your second draft (and third and forth…) is an easy place to cut, add, and polish. I have never had to change much, but I have made stories immensely better by adding a couple of little scenes, wrapping up characters arcs for characters who disappeared after page 50, and getting voice stronger from beginning to end. Just have fun with the wild ride of a first draft (follow your heart), and know you can make it more perfect in later drafts.
- Let it wobble. This is a strange concept. But as you move away from a perfect, detailed structure and start following a real, breathing world full of characters that make weird choices, resist the urge to tie up all the loose ends, make the world pristine, or only leave in lines that are related to your through plot. Like a bowl spinning but not tipping over, let your story have some odds and ends that don’t quite match and meet up. Obviously, you want your story to be building tension, and be mostly tied together, but I believe you also want space, room to breathe, and little gaps where a reader might stop and ponder — ‘Why didn’t he finish school? He just left and we never found out why.’ Or ‘It was pretty cool when her dad talked on and on about space and the planets. It didn’t tie into the story, but it made me think of my own dad.’ Or ‘Why did he say London reminds him of Paris when he hates London and loves Paris?’ In life we don’t have all the answers in front of us — shouldn’t fiction be the same?
“Follow the light of your intuition, and keep away from the darkness of convention.”
― Michael Bassey Johnson
When you plot out your novel, you are using your reason and experience. But you’re not creating in the same way. You’re guessing, and you may get scared and conservative. You’ll do what you’ve seen done in stories before — and that would a great shame and a repetition. But if you trust yourself, believe that you know the characters and the world well, and listen to your character’s heart and voice, you can find you’ve written a story wilder than you had planned, more twisty than you could conceive of, and more refreshing (and exciting) than you’ve ever dreamed.
And isn’t that what a plot should be?