Plot doesn’t pick up where characterization ends: the two are inextricable. It’s all very well to create a vibrant protagonist whom readers can relate to, but then you have to get that character into some kind of trouble. The engine that drives a short story’s plot is its protagonist’s wants and needs. Knowing your characters’ deepest desires–and why these desires motivate them–is critical.
Sparks begin to fly in fiction when characters come together–when we see them conflict, fall in love, betray each other, form alliances, and just plain perform on the stage you’ve created for them. In stories, this can be accomplished in as little as a single scene between two characters. In novels, though, your conflict moves through a series of scenes whose tension increases incrementally until it all boils over.
At the heart of every story, regardless of its genre, is a character with a problem: one that, for whatever reason, isn’t easily solved.
There are as many approaches to plotting a story as there are writers, but for those struggling to tighten a piece, a look at standard plot formulas can sometimes be helpful. Author Wendy Webb, for example, suggests that narratives be structured using seven steps:
Hook (open with a high-impact phrase that engages reader interest)
Problem (clue readers in as to what the protagonist wants… and why he cannot have it)
Backfill (now that the audience is engaged, provide whatever context is required)
Complications (the protagonist encounters obstacles in his first attempts to achieve the goal.)
Action (more attempts, more failures)
Dark Moment (the goal seems out of reach… but is it?)
Resolution (The protagonist succeeds or fails, and we see the final result of his struggle.)
An alternative structure used by other writers is even simpler:
Intro (similar to hook, above)
Resolution: Things Get Worse
Resolution: Things Get Still Worse
Still more complications, and a crisis…
Resolution: Where Character Either Triumphs or Dies
Remember, though, that the true key to plotting lies not in following a formula, but in establishing a conflict that readers can clearly identify (and identify with), bringing it to a crisis, and then resolving that crisis in an emotionally satisfying fashion. If you can pull this off, your story will be a successful work of fiction.
Questions to ask when plotting:
Is what your character wants important? A fine meal, a night’s sleep, a new TV–we’ve all wanted one at one point or another, but is it worthy of a 200-or-more page story? A book should be about something crucial to the character’s happiness or even their continued existence.
Think through your novel on a scene by scene basis: Does each scene advance the plot? Does the conflict come into play within each scene? Is it possible to increase the tension of some or all of your scenes?
Are all the elements of plot present in your draft? When can the reader say, positively, that they know what forces are in conflict in your story? Can they identify the moment of crisis and its resolution? Are the protagonist’s actions in pursuit of her goal logical?
What emotions do your characters experience as the story unfolds? Is your protagonist happy, sad, anxious, or in some other emotional state when the story begins? How far from this starting point is the story going to move them? (Remember that a character who is already in crisis on page one of a piece has nowhere to go but up, whereas one who is happy–or only moderately distressed–can be set up more easily for a big plunge.)
How suspenseful is your story? What is it that your reader wants to know or experience? Have you managed to dangle this expectation just out of reach… without being unclear as to what’s going on in the story?
Do you have a plan for balancing the need to surprise readers against the need to make your characters’ actions believable? Nobody wants to write (or read) a book whose ending is obvious by the second chapter. At the same time, your characters must be true to themselves. If they do something wildly improbable, readers will not hang in for your big finish. In other words, do your characters’ actions make sense?
Is what is happening clear at every stage of the story?