Plot Elements Matter

By Joe Moore

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, the structure on which the story is built. Plot can be defined as the series of events that move the story forward; the network of highways the characters follow to reach their goals.

When it comes to building your plot, nothing should be random or by accident. It may appear random to the reader but every turn of the plot should be significant and move the story to its final conclusion. Every plot 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 plot 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 another? If you ask why, and don’t get a convincing answer, delete or change the plot 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 what great stories are made from. But you must build your character in such a manner that his actions and reactions to each plot element 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 plane. But a private pilot who has flown small planes could be able to fly a large passenger plane and possibly land it. 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 were straight and level with smooth sailing, the plot 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.

When you begin working on a new story, do you develop your plot or characters first? Do you believe that a book can be primarily “plot driven” or “character driven”?

21 thoughts on “Plot Elements Matter

  1. Great post, Joe.

    For me, plot always comes first. Figure out what’s gonna happen and then develop the characters around that. Of course, once the actual writing starts, the characters tend to take over and dictate what they will or won’t do. Love it when that happens. 🙂

    • Thanks for your comments, Tom. I’m a big fan of letting the characters come alive on their own, too. Good luck with your writing.

  2. Great tips as aways, Joe. I want to add to one thing you wrote:

    When it comes to building your plot, nothing should be random or by accident.

    The word “building” can be taken in two ways. When it’s the final construction, yes, there are no accidents. If it’s the initial planning phase, though, I would encourage randomness and “happy accidents.” Let wild things happen in your mind, and THEN try to justify them. Most of the time, you can.

    Random first, explain later?

    I just can’t help myself….

  3. Excellent post, Joe. I usually start with a cool murder method, then comes the character, then the plot = the worse scenario possible for that character. Unless I’m writing flash fiction. Then it’s always the character that comes first. This is a little like the chicken and egg question, only for writers.

  4. for me, it’s a mix but I’d say I start with character. What is their misbelief and/or challenge? What is the journey they need to go on to overcome that? And then what plot can I wrap around that challenge/journey that will either get them in trouble based on that or (finally) let them grow in such a way that they are able to grow and change? the overall misbelief can be something like “if I do everything perfectly, I will succeed,” and all kinds of plots can be invented that would illustrate that stance. It’s up to me to pick which ones best serve the character and the time/setting/world that I want to set the story in.

    • Thanks for the comments, Maggie. If you combine the misbelief challenge with the plot, you get the story question, the question that keeps readers reading.

  5. Building to the event? I started way back in Chengdu, Sichuan, China, with a sickly-but-well-loved orphan who comes to America and is the key to the first story mystery, but not the heroine of the novel. My story is a thriller with two mysteries to solve.

    So thank the Lord for Che-lan.

  6. I find myself crystalizing big picture visions for both character and plot, in no order. But I don’t move forward until I have a vision for both. Then I build the plot (what I call “core dramatic story arc”) across the four-part structural paradigm that I advocate, which in essence gives the hero “something to do.” Of course that “to do” is dealing with something – “it’s not a story until something goes wrong” – in the form of a problem, a need, a quest, or an opportunity. Then I ask those questions… what would the character do along that path, how would they react. In doing so, plot becomes the catalyst for building characters, and in turn, their natural or provoked responses to things forwards the plot itself.

    It’s never formula. But thank God for structural principles. For me, that guides everything. Great post today, a fabulous 101 introduction to story building.

  7. For the current WIP: I wanted to see a particular type of feel in a current work of fiction. I wanted to work that in with the political thriller genre (discussed the other week). I didn’t know how to make that work, but I kept on thinking about it, and then one day elements of the plot popped into my head. Then I thought about who the characters were that would do this. And when those characters came to me, and their relationship became clear, I was off to the races. I love my MC. While I had the start of a plot it wasn’t until she came to me that the plot could fully develop, and she couldn’t have existed until the story started to exist.

  8. I’m a character-first writer, although things go hand in hand. Need your character to have a certain skill set as a plot element appears? You can go back and establish that. I, too think “Why?” is a critical element in the author’s toolbox. Why is this character here? Why does he care? Why would he react that way?

    Right now I’m starting the third book in my romantic suspense series. I know my hero and heroine, and their basic Goals, Motivations, and Conflicts. Once I have that, I can move along with situations to throw them into, and from that, the plot develops. At least that’s how it works for me.

  9. I usually start with a character with a problem that if not resolved will result in that character’s death. So I’m not sure which I have to have first. 🙂

    • Thanks, Patricia. There’s nothing wrong with putting your character in jeopardy. Death is pretty drastic, but it can work. The point is to cause the character’s life to be upended, whether it’s physical, mental or some other potential loss. It’s the event where their life is shaken and they must do something about it. Good luck with your writing.

  10. I’m such a newbie at this, but my WIP actually started with the setting, and then a “what if” question. My old hometown is rich in history as one of the wildest Old West towns in the mid-1800’s. I’m not too sure if the character idea came first, or the plot. It was said that back in the 1870’s, when it was known as the biggest boom town, even bigger than Dodge City, there were 76 deaths before anyone died of natural causes. So, that leaves a lot of chances of murder and greed due to the silver mines. (It is in Nevada). Then immediately, a character came to mind, a madam. There were many brothels. I see her much more clearly than I see my MC. I have been rethinking the rest of it. I wanted a parallel of present day and back then, but I think it may be too much for a first novel, and be too much backstory. So, I am still thinking about this. Any ideas?

    • Thanks for sharing your story ideas, Rebecca. Without more info, my best advice is to proceed forward but get periodic feedback from others to address your concerns. One way to do this is to join a local critique group and/or recruit a couple of beta readers that will give you honest feedback. Best of luck with your project. It sure sounds interesting.

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