Plot Elements Matter

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

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”?

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Obstacles, roadblocks and detours

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

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 what great stories are made from. 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 plane. 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 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, it 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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The Muddy Middle: Where good plots go to die


Well, I don’t know how I got here tonight

I got the feeling that something ain’t right
I’m so scared in case I fall off my chair
And I’m wondering how I’ll get down those stairs.
Plot holes to left of me
Bad action to the right
Here I am, stuck in the middle with goo
First off, apologies to the rock group Stealers Wheel whose song “Stuck in the Middle With You” has been rolling around in my brain this week because I am now about 80K words into my book and I am stuck in the middle with goo.
Ah, yes…the middle of the book. The quicksand bog of fiction. The sinkhole of despair. The sand pit that swallowed up that poor lad in Lawrence of Arabia.
I call it the Muddy Middle. It is the place where good plots go to die. It’s not that hard, I think, to craft a attention-getting beginning, and it isn’t that difficult to come up with a slam-bang climax. But what about that looooong stretch in between? How do you keep suspense taut, how do you keep the pages turning? Maybe this is why we have so many serial killer books, because when all else flags, toss out another body, right? This is also why most serial killer books are god awful stale. Because usually the suspense is not organic and hard-earned. It is a failure of imagination.

The classic dramatic plot

Recently, I re-read Gone with the Wind. It clocks in at 63 chapters. The first five are what I’d call the opening and the story essentially wraps up in one chapter. So what did Margaret Mitchell fill the 57 chapters in between with? Challenges, obstacles, reversals of fortune for her characters, especially for Scarlett O’Hara. This is the essence of plotting, what keeps the story from bogging down. And it has a definite trajectory. A good plot is like Woody Allen’s shark — if it’s not constantly moving forward — and upward — it dies. (Warning: more shark analogies ahead!)

There are lots of different kinds of plots. Picaresque plots like Shogun or Tom Jones, where the main point is to trail behind the protag’s adventure. Disaster movies like The Towering Inferno have multiple plots that intersect and sometimes mesh at the end. There are even novels without plots, though I’d venture that most are unsatisfying because readers have an innate craving for order and purpose that they don’t find in real life. But for those of us who write thrillers or mysteries, well, you can’t go wrong with the tried and true classic dramatic plot.

Let me give you a visual. Which of these plot lines is the best?

The one at top left is a flat line. If you’ve got one of these you’re in big trouble. (Or maybe writing bad literary fiction…sorry, cheap shot). That one below it is almost as bad, a plot that is a yawner until the writer gives you a paddle-jolt climax that comes out of nowhere. The one at top right looks like it would be a nifty thriller — nonstop action! — but it also doesn’t work because the pacing is too frenetic. Think about a roller coaster. Why do people love them? Because the heart-stopping plunges are balanced with quiet moments when we can catch our breath and anticipate the next thrill. And that leaves us with the jagged plot line at the bottom.

You give me fever!
I call it The Fever Chart Plot because it is graph that charts the protagonist’s fortunes. The trajectory of the story moves forward AND always upward toward the climax but between A and Z it and dips and rises. The beginning A represents an attention-grabbing opening scene. Then there’s a slight dip as we establish characters and setting and define the problem (in crime fiction, usually a murder to be solved). The line dips because as the problem is more clearly defined, it seems increasingly unlikely the hero will ever solve it.

But then the line goes up as the hero begins to cope, fighting his way through a thicket of complications. Sometimes, the plot hits an early high because it looks like the hero has things in hand but then there is a dip — something goes wrong, there is a reversal of fortune. The hero climbs out again only to be confronted with new obstacles along the way. We get another hard climb and more dips. Eventually, the hero achieves a summit of sorts (toward the end) when it looks like he will be triumph BUT…

He is plunged into a final abyss of despair (the last major setback before the climax). This is where your classic tragic plot usually ends. (Hamlet dies). But we’re talking heroic plots here, so just when it looks like all is lost, the hero, through bravery, smarts and fortitude, recovers and soars back, solving the problem once and for all. That little line at the end? That’s just the denouement where little threads are tied up.

This might seem obvious almost to the point of simple-mindedness, but it is the sturdy scaffolding on which most mysteries and thrillers are built. Your book might have fewer or more dips and rises, depending on the complexity of your story. I once charted out all the plot points of our book A Killing Rain and this is what it looks like:


Tools to dig out of the Muddy Middle

So what can you use if you find yourself bogged down in the middle of your story? There are some nifty tried and true devices and to illustrate them, I’m going to use a movie we all know instead of a book — Jaws. A couple years ago, I got to know Jaws really well when I contributed an essay on the Benchley book to Thrillers: 100 Must Reads, edited by David Morrell. I hadn’t read Jaws since it first came out and when I dissected it for the essay I was surprised at how flabby the book is. (lots of bad subplots about class warfare, mafia kingpins, and a really icky affair between Chief Brody’s wife and  Hooper). But the screenplay — well, it’s one of the best thrillers written, and I’ve used it when I teach workshops on thriller plotting. Jaws uses six devices that keep the middle of the story moving forward:
  • Setbacks
  • Pendulum swings of emotion
  • Raising the stakes
  • Obstacles
  • Rift in the team
  • Isolation of the hero
So let’s go cut open that shark and see how each works…
First, there was that great attention-getting opening scene.
Then we meet the hero, who is a classic dramatic archetype: the ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances. Chief Brody is an outsider on the insular little vacation island — and he can’t even swim. In the setup, he is confronted with the problem, and the girl’s death forces him into action.
The SETBACKS keep coming as the victims pile up. And since Jaws is basically a serial killer plot, each new body plunges Brody deeper into despair. But then — TA-DA! — we hit a peak when local fishermen snag a great white and every one is happy.
But then we get A PENDULUM SWING OF EMOTION when Brody’s own son is almost attacked. And another when a dead boy’s mother confronts Brody and castigates him for her son’s death.
Another SETBACK occurs when Hooper tells him the bite radius of the captured shark is off and when they cut open the shark, they don’t find any body parts. Brody gets proactive and moves to close the beaches until they can catch the killer shark. But then he faces a new OBSTACLE.

The Amity mayor who’s hellbent on saving the island’s lucrative July Fourth weekend. Brody’s overruled, the beaches stay open and all Brody can do is sit on the beach and sweat. We get a slight rise in the plot graph when Hooper and Brody go out  on a night hunt (Hooper is a perfect foil character for Brody, there to give him hope and pull him out of the dips). But then they find that dead guy in the submerged boat and things look increasingly grim. Until we get a major up-thrust for Brody. He gets the money to hire a professional shark hunter — Quint.

Our hero has things under control now, right? Not so fast. Quint is a great character, and he represents one of the most effective devices you can use to beef up your middle — THE RIFT IN THE TEAM. As the three men hunt the shark, the escalating tension between them threatens the quest. You see this device used a lot in cop novels — the errant hard-drinking guy bumping heads with his partner. Think of every partner Dirty Harry ever had. Or watch the sparring between Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey in HBO’s True Detective. Rifts in the team. Brody is pulled down in another dip as he tries to cope with crazy Quint, who at one point even smashes the boat’s radio.

The plot goes into fever pitch after this, with dips and rises as they chase the shark. The STAKES ARE RAISED as their weapons prove futile, and the boat starts to fall apart and the shark even starts to gnaw on it.

We’re entered the final big trough when Hooper decides the only option left is for him to go down in the shark cage. (STAKES ARE RAISED AGAIN). Hooper disappears, presumed dead. And then we begin the final plunge into the abyss for poor Brody. Quint goes out in a blaze of gory…

And there is our hero, alone on a sinking ship, staring into the maw of death. Which brings us to one of the most effective ways to beef up your plot — ISOLATION OF THE HERO.   Think of Clarise Starling alone in that creepy basement. We’ve use this device often, putting our hero Louis in abandoned asylum tunnels, on frozen ice bridges on Lake Huron, gator-infested Everglades, and yes, on a sinking boat in the Gulf. It gives your hero that final chance to prove himself  — through guts and brains — and triumph over evil. Remember how Brody did it?

Blasted the bad guy to bits. With his final bullet. And he couldn’t even swim. What a guy. What a climax. What a roller coaster ride.

One last note: In the book, Peter Benchley lets the shark just swim away never to be seen again. Which is a really really bad ending. But that is a blog for another day.

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The Author’s Bucket List on Plot Structure


By Jordan Dane

I’ve never been a plotter. I’m too impatient. Once I get the general idea of a story with a compelling conflict and a notion of my cast of players, I can’t wait to “discover” the story as I write. It plays out in my head like a movie, but I’m constantly exploring new ways to get organized so my daily word count goals can be achieved without roadblocks.


Today on TKZ, I submit my latest thoughts on the 3-Act Structure and the Storyboard method of plotting. These are purely my thoughts on combining these concepts as they might apply to my writing, but maybe you’ll see elements you like in this for you.


I used to think of the 3-Act Structure as beginning, middle, and end, but I’ve read it more accurately reflected as Establish, Build, & Resolve by Michael Hauge in his book “Writing Screenplays that Sell.” Thinking of these acts in this manner denotes movement. So imagine these three segments as buckets, but before I can toss wads of paper (or scenes) into these buckets, I must have a place to start. Set aside your buckets for now and grab a paper and pen—or Sticky Notes, colors optional.


Presuming I have a general notion of my book, I would create a list of 20-25 things I know about the action in my book in terms of what I call “big ticket” plot movements. No backstory. What will go on my list will be scenes that I envision as key elements to my story. They won’t be put into any order. I merely list them as they occur to me. I would brainstorm without censoring my thoughts. I heard an author talk about creating notes on 3-M sticky notes, rather than a random list, but you get the idea. I don’t expect to know every scene in my book at this stage. The storyboard I create will be an evolving beast that I will change as I write, edit, and final my book so I can see my plot at a glance.


Now let’s talk about the 3-Act Structure in terms of a BIG “W.”


ACT I – Establish – The start of Act I (or the top left of my “W”) is the Triggering Event. It’s the inciting incident that will start my story, the point at which my main character’s life changes forever. As I travel down the left side of my “W,” I head for the 1st Turning Point that usually sets up the problem or the first low point or perhaps a moment of hope. This is a reversal point that changes the direction of my plot as I head out of Act 1. I’ve “Established” my world up to this point and the general conflicts and players in the first 25% of my book, in theory.


ACT II – Build – As my plot heads toward the upward middle of my “W,” that is another key reversal. If I have a book with hope in my first turning point, this shift might dash those hopes to some degree. If I have a dark moment in that first turning point, things get worse, but the plot takes another key turn one way or the other as the action “Builds.” Act II ends with the next turning point (the 2nd low point of my “W”). This is the black moment where all seems lost. This part of the “W” represents the middle part of the turning point structure or 50% of my story, the “building” middle.


ACT III – Resolve – Now I would be in Act III, the last upward line of the “W” after the black moment. I’m headed toward resolution. In this section, my hero or heroine might discover something about the villain in the story that is his or her weakness. He or she implements a plan to take advantage of this Achilles Heel, but I might consider throwing in another epiphany or twist before the end. This could be a twist or complication—an “Oh my, God” moment the reader might not see coming before the world is restored or the ending happens. This last part of the structure is the final 25%.


I’ve oversimplified these blended theories for the sake of this post. The lines of the “W” don’t have to be linear, for example. I could have little ups and downs along the way that will take me through my book, but I wanted you to have a general idea of how this could work.



Now get ready with your buckets. Each of these acts is a bucket, for the purposes of this explanation. So the list I created at the beginning—the 20-25 brainstormed scenes—each has a place in an Act Bucket. I would add to these 25 things as I get more familiar with my book, but if I were to Storyboard this out, I would create 20 squares that represent chapters in my books. (You might write differently, so make this work for you with your average number of chapters in a single-title book.) I would write my 25 items down with each one going on a 3-M Sticky Note and place them on my storyboard where I think they will go in Act I (25%), II (50%), or III (25%). Since each of these scene ideas is moveable, I can change the order and chapter they might appear to get the pace and building intensity up. Once I see things on my storyboard in a visual manner, I will no doubt want to add more Sticky Note scenes to fill out the detail and transitions in my story as the plot develops.


I generally have 4-5 scenes in a chapter. So as my story plot movement gets established and building toward a resolution, I perhaps can add colored notes to signify POV switches or character story arcs or relationship arcs to deepen my story understanding. I thought this process might fit my “pantser” approach to structure with a simple method that I can see visually as I write and evolve the story. Writing software seemed too complicated to learn with my writing schedule, but I’d love to hear of a simple brainstorming plot method or storyboard concept if you have one.


What works for you?

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9-Act Screenplay Structure – Novel Plotting Resource

The first step toward recovery is to admit I have a problem. So here it is. I’m NOT a plotter. I’m a complete “pantser.” There, I said it, but…

When I looked into plot structure for fiction—while I was still delusional about having the capability to actually plot—I found references to the Nine-Act Screenplay Structure. This is the basic framework of today’s blockbuster movies. You’ll see 3-Acts and 12-Acts, but I played with this version below as a format and had some success in conceptually plotting one or two of my earlier stories. Ah, the ambiguity…

It’s my belief that once your brain grasps the concept of this structure, you may automatically follow the idea whether you’re aware of it or not. As a visual learner, it helped me to draft this and embed it in my brain, like a time bomb triggered to go off when I sat in front of my computer.

The 9-Act structure is similar to the classic Hero’s Journey that you may have seen, but I thought this would be interesting to talk about. See what you think. Would something like this work for writing a novel?

Word of Caution – Once you see this framework, you may not enjoy movies the same way again. Just sayin’…

Nine-Act Screenplay Structure

Act 0—During Opening Credits First 5 Minutes (film time)
What strikes the conflict—sets it up—event years earlier may plant the seed of conflict

Act 1—Opening Image—The Panoramic Crane Shot Next 5 Minutes

Act 2—Something Bad Happens 5 Minutes
In a crime story, it’s usually the murder—Reveal the bad front man, but hold off on the introduction of the bad head honcho until later

Act 3—Meet Hero/Protagonist 15 minutes
Meet hero—give him 3 plot nudges to push him to commit

Act 4—Commitment 5-10 Minutes
The push—Usually one scene that’s a door to Act 5—1-way door, no turning back

Act 5—Go for wrong goal – approx. 30 minutes est.
A series of 8-12 min. cycles called whammos or complications followed by a rest period of 5 minutes or so to uncover some of the backstory. End this act with the lowest point for the protagonist. The dark moment.

Act 6—Reversal 5-10 Minutes—Usually 70 Minutes into the Film
The last clue discovered—Now Act 2 makes sense—It is the low point, a history lesson usually revealed by the bad guy/honcho—but reveals the Achilles heel of the nemesis too.

Act 7—Go for New Goal 15-20 Minutes
The clock is ticking—Hero has a new plan. The action seesaws back and forth with nemesis and hero gaining & losing ground between each other—usually takes place in 24 hours within the context of the movie. Favors are repaid, magic, good luck happens. The new plan is kept secret. New goal is achieved.

Act 8—Wrap it Up 5 minutes
Back to where it all began—a feeling of accomplishment & rebirth—the world restored. Ahh!

Now having outlined this plotting structure, I’m not sure if following something like this (without deviation) would hamper creativity by providing too much framework. This would be like “the rules” of writing. Maybe rules are there to be understood, but we shouldn’t be afraid to break them either.

I tend to “think” about my book ahead of time and let my brain ponder what I call my “big ticket” plot movements—like what my black moment will be for my main character(s). I also develop my ideas on who the main cast of characters will be and maybe where I might set the story location(s).

Basically I’m impatient about writing. Plotting and outlining ahead of time would be like the San Antonio Spurs, Manu Ginobili, sitting injured on the sidelines of the NBA finals. The guy just wants to play, man. Let the dude play. (Of course by the time this post happens, the Memphis Grizzlies could put Ginobili on the bench until next season.)

What tips can you share on plotting…for those of us who are challenged by a heavy dose of impatience?

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