Plotting Tips

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

This will be my last post for 2015. Since 2008, TKZ has traditionally taken a 2-week Winter Hiatus, so I’ll return on January 6 after celebrating the Holidays with my family and friends. I’d like to take this opportunity to wish my blog mates and blog friends the very best for this holiday season and the coming year. Now on to Plotting Tips.

When you write a story, whether it’s short fiction or a novel-length manuscript, there are always two major components to deal with: characters and plot. Combined, they make up the “body” of the story. And of the two, the plot can be thought of as the skeleton while the characters are the meat and muscle.

When it comes to building your plot, nothing should be random or by accident. It may appear random to the reader but every twist and turn of the plot should be significant and move the story to its final conclusion. Every element, whether it deals with a character’s inner or outer being should contribute to furthering the story.

In order to determine the significance of each element, always ask why. Why does he look or dress that way? Why did she say or react in that manner? Why does the action take place in this particular location as opposed to that setting? If you ask why, and don’t get a convincing answer, delete or change the element. Every word, every sentence, every detail must matter. If they don’t, and there’s a chance they could confuse the reader or get in the way of the story, change or delete.

Your plot should grow out of the obstructions placed in the character’s path. What is causing the protagonist to stand up for his beliefs? What is motivating her to fight for survival? That’s what makes up the critical points of the plot—those obstacles placed in the path of your characters.

Be careful of overreaction; a character acting or reacting beyond the belief model you’ve built in your reader’s mind. There’s nothing wrong with placing an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation—that’s the formula from which great stories are made. But you must build your character in such a manner that his actions and reactions to each plot point are plausible. Push the character, but keep them in the realm of reality. A man who has never been in an airplane cannot be expected to fly a passenger jet. But a private pilot who has flown small planes could be able to fly a large passenger plane and possibly land it under the right conditions. The actions and the obstacles can be thrilling, but they must be believable.

Avoid melodrama in your plot—the actions of a character without believable motivation. Action for the sake of action is empty and two-dimensional. Each character should have a pressing agenda from which the plot unfolds. That agenda is what motivates their actions. The reader should care about the individual’s agenda, but what’s more important is that the reader believes the characters care about their own agendas. And as each character pursues his or her agenda, they should periodically face roadblocks and never quite get everything they want. The protagonist should always stand in the way of the antagonist, and vice versa.

Another plot tripwire to avoid is deus ex machina (god from the machine) whereby a previously unsolvable problem is suddenly overcome by a contrived element: the sudden introduction of a new character or device. Doing so is cheap writing and you run the risk of losing your reader. Instead, use foreshadowing to place elements into the plot that, if added up, will present a believable solution to the problem. The character may have to work hard at it, but in the end, the reader will accept it as plausible.

Always consider your plot as a series of opportunities for your character to reveal his or her true self. The plot should offer the character a chance to be better (or worse in the case of the antagonist) than they were in the beginning. The opportunities manifest themselves in the form of obstacles, roadblocks and detours. If the path was straight and level with smooth sailing, the story would be dull and boring. Give your characters a chance to shine. Let them grow and develop by building a strong skeleton on which to flesh out their true selves.

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18 thoughts on “Plotting Tips

  1. When I read a summary like this on the novel plotting process, I chuckle to myself and say “Oh, so THAT’s all it takes to write a book.” My coping mechanism for driving myself crazy with plots. 😎

    To me, plotting a story is like putting a complex puzzle together. I have a historical story idea I’ve been working on for some time. The success of that plot depends on a lot of the guidelines you mention above. My story line is critically dependent on both local, regional and national events timelines in the historical period in question; I have to make the protag’s mission first believable by motivation of the character and then conduct the character’s mission while making sure it doesn’t seem implausible or contrived. And I definitely don’t want miraculous coincidences. Plotting this one is making me sweat blood, but it’ll be worth it in the end–as long as I successfully accomplish all those key points you mention above.

    Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and any and all other holiday wishes to you. Here’s to strong plots and high productivity for 2016! 😎

  2. And in this post, you’ve just covered at least eight of my blogs over the years. Asking “why” along the way is vital. If the answer is “because I need it for the scene to work” then you’re screwed. Foreshadowing is your friend. Characters must be faced with choices, but they should be between “it sucks” and “it’s suckier.”

    But I’ve also found I don’t need the answers before I start writing. I can know as little as “Bryce had issues with his father” and because I don’t know what they are (yet), I can drop clues (foreshadowing) without dumping.

    Have a great holiday season.

    • One thing I find interesting is when I drop something into a story straight out of my subconscience only to find that miles down the road it was a foreshadow that even I didn’t know about. That’s when writing becomes magic. Best wishes back to you, Terry.

  3. Each character should have a pressing agenda from which the plot unfolds.

    That’s a money quote, Joe. If the author knows EVERY character’s wants, needs, desires, motives, and tactics (especially the “off screen” actions I call the “shadow story”) it makes plotting so much richer … and fun.

    Have a wonderful holiday, Joe. But do get some writing done.

  4. My favorite bit was –

    “Your plot should grow out of the obstructions placed in the character’s path. What is causing the protagonist to stand up for his beliefs? What is motivating her to fight for survival? That’s what makes up the critical points of the plot—those obstacles placed in the path of your characters.”

    A great reminder and motivator, and exactly what I needed to hear right now. It keeps thing clear and precise. Thanks! And have a great holiday!

  5. Well done, Joe. We can never reapply this focus too often. It’s that duality – character AND plot – that is the key to everything, as you so-ably stated here. In my work I frequently encounter plot skeptics, for them it’s all character all the time. For them I’ve found myself describing plot as “giving your hero something urgent and meaningful and dramatic to DO,” and with this: “A good story isn’t just about something, it’s about something happening.”

    Sometimes those sink in. Sometimes a writer has to learn this for themselves, the hard way. It’s always better and quicker, though, to listen to what you’re saying here.

  6. “Always consider your plot as a series of opportunities for your character to reveal his or her true self.”

    Love this. Great advice here, Joe. Now I feel like taking a nip of the egg nog. Happy holidays. Cheers!

  7. Excellent post, Joe. Bookmarked it. I especially liked the “why” paragraph.

    “Why does he look or dress that way? Why did she say or react in that manner? Why does the action take place in this particular location as opposed to that setting? If you ask why, and don’t get a convincing answer, delete or change the element. Every word, every sentence, every detail must matter.”

    Great advice to keep us mindful of the big picture.

    Happy Holidays to you and your family.

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