Category Archives: Lectures

Essays written as lectures for my various courses.

Plot-What’s the Problem?

Posted on June 21, 2011 by

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 plainly perform on the stage you’ve created for them. This can be accomplished in as little as a single scene between two characters. Most stories, though, move their conflict through a series of scenes whose tension increases incrementally until the conflict reaches its crisis and boils over.

Though an SF story’s element of the impossible certainly gives an author unique options for plot complications–few mainstream stories see a character blown out of a spaceship airlock, or trampled by a centaur–the mechanics of plotting are less affected by genre considerations than other story components like setting and character. At the heart of every story, fantastic or not, 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 stories 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 s/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)
Complication One
Resolution: Things Get Worse
Complication Two
Resolution: Things Get Still Worse
Complication Three
Resolution: Where Character Either Triumphs or Dies

Some writers find these plot bones useful in initially planning their stories. Others prefer to veer off-road, blazing their own trail through the plot jungle. Where these structures often come in useful is after you have a first draft. At that point, compare your piece with the structures provided above. Analyzing an existing draft with an eye to clarifying and strengthening the conflict will always make it stronger, and plot formulas like the ones above are useful tools in forming this analysis.

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 a story:

Think through your unwritten story 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 progresses?

  • 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?
  • Do you have a plan for balancing the need to surprise readers against the need to make your characters’ actions believable?
  • Do your characters’ actions make sense?
  • Is what is happening clear at every stage of the story?