Basics in Plotting Principles
Last week, I started reading a book that had complex, likable characters. But I didn’t finish the book. After seventy pages, the characters still hadn’t done anything that was actually interesting. Not much was at stake for them. I put the book down with a sigh and wished the author had taken the time to learn some plotting principles.
Don’t let this happen to your book.
Before you start writing, you need to make sure you have a plot that will keep your reader interested until the end of the novel. To do this, make sure you can answer these plot questions.
1. What is your character’s main problem?
Every book tells the story about a character who has a specific problem. The novel describes how he/she deals with this challenge. Granted, we all have problems. My house gets dirty too quickly. I need to remodel my kitchen. My husband and children don’t heap upon me the praise I so richly deserve. Problems, yes, but I would have a hard time turning any of them into a compelling story, let alone one that readers would pay twenty dollars for.
Some good examples of problems that work are: A powerful evil wizard wants to kill the main character. (Harry Potter) An ex-pirate must save his true love from marrying the wrong man. (The Princess Bride) A boy wants to help his Japanese friend at a time when Japanese are being sent to internment camps. (The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet) If your character doesn’t have an important problem, then scrap that idea and come up with something more compelling.
2. What is your character’s goal to solve his/her problem?
Sometimes when bad stuff happens, we can’t do much except react. Let’s say you’re writing a young adult book about bullying. In the opening scene, your main character Gwendoline enrolls in a new high school. The class mean-girl makes fun of her name, her clothes, and her limp blond hair. Gwendoline reacts by crying in the bathroom and eating her lunch in a stall.
Heartbreaking, yes. Take a moment to be glad you’re no longer in high school.
But what is Gwendoline’s goal to overcome her bullying? Is she going to secretly seek revenge on the mean girl to teach her a lesson? Is she going to convince her parents to move so she can go to another school? Is she going to give herself a makeover and become one of the mean girl’s friends? If Gwendoline doesn’t have a goal, but instead just lives day after day feeling despondent, your novel will grind to a halt. Readers want characters to take charge of the situation. So after you introduce the problem, you need to write a scene detailing what the character plans to do to overcome their problem. This goal will become the story question, and readers will keep turning pages to see how the story question is answered. (Will Luke destroy the Death Star? Will Dorothy find her way back to Kansas? Will Miss Marple solve the mystery?)
The book’s story question is answered in the climax scene. (Yes, Luke destroyed the Death Star! This climax was so successful, the Star Wars franchise used it more than once.) Characters don’t always have to achieve their story goal, though. If Gwendoline’s goal was to give herself a makeover and become the mean girl’s BFF, you might write the scene this way: The mean girl finally invites Gwendoline into her inner circle, but Gwendoline has an epiphany and realizes she doesn’t want any part in the mean girl’s posse. She no longer cares what the mean girl thinks. She is free from the bully’s influence, but in a different way than she first imagined.
3. What obstacles/complications oppose your main character’s goal?
If your character achieves her goal too easily, you’ll have a boring book, and the problem won’t seem challenging. Let’s say Gwendoline is plotting revenge. She’s going to make herself over and win the local beauty pageant so that the mean girl doesn’t get to wear the coveted tiara. Gwendoline realizes she needs money for a sequined evening gown. (A scene problem in her quest to solve her story problem) If she goes to her mother, asks for some cash, and her mother hands over the credit card, you’ve written a scene with very little conflict or tension. If Gwendoline needs cash, it would be far better to have her apply for a job and have the other applicant be the mean girl. The employer could give them both a test-run in his restaurant to see who would make the better waitress. Now the scene has some conflict.
4. Who is your antagonist?
An antagonist isn’t necessarily a villain, it’s just something or someone that opposes your main character’s goals. Let’s go back to Gwendoline and tweak her story so that she’s in a romance. (After all, Gwendoline deserves a hot guy. The poor girl spent her first day of school crying in the bathroom.) Her goal is to win the pageant, but now she’s working at the restaurant with the mean girl’s handsome older brother. He knows how much the pageant means to his sister and how little it means to Gwendoline. Grades and talent play into the pageant scoring and Gwendoline has straight A’s and has been playing the violin since she was four. She has a serious chance of winning. So Hot Brother is using all his charm, bribery, coercion — and he finally bets his truck against her evening gown in an effort to stop Gwendoline from competing. Technically, he’s the antagonist because he’s opposing Gwendoline’s goal, but he’s far from the bad guy. He’s going to be the love interest.
5. What are the consequences of failure if the main character doesn’t reach his/her goal?
A lot of bad books are bad because the author overlooked this all important question. Something dire needs to happen to the main character if she doesn’t reach her goal. This is why a lot of stories use death as a consequence. (If Dorothy doesn’t make it back to Kansas, the witch will kill her. If Harry doesn’t defeat Voldemort, Voldemort will kill not only Harry, but wizards and muggles too. If Luke doesn’t defeat the Death Star, the whole galaxy is in danger.)
When the audience is reading through the story about Gwendoline, we don’t want their reaction to be, “Who cares if she doesn’t win the pageant? A lot of people don’t win pageants and go on to be productive members of society anyway.”
This doesn’t mean we have to raise the stakes to make them life and death. Fiction doesn’t have to be a blood bath. But we do need to show that Gwendoline’s life will be much worse off if she doesn’t get her goal.
So will winning a pageant work as viable story goal? If Gwendoline is a well-adjusted teen who wants to enter the pageant because it looks like fun — then definitely no; it won’t work. But Gwendoline’s story involves bullying, so we might be able to pull off this goal by showing that winning the pageant is her ticket out of this town and a way for her to leave all the people who don’t value her. If I was writing this story, I would make sure to mention that Gwendoline wants to go to college but can’t afford it unless she wins the scholarship money the pageant provides. Those are consequences that readers will sympathize with.
In order to keep readers’ interest, your main character must have an important problem and a goal to solve his/her problem. Obstacles and an antagonist need to stand in the way. And just as importantly there needs to be a consequence of failure should the main character not reach his/her goal. Once you know those things, you’re ready to move forward with your manuscript. If any of these elements is missing in your story, rework your plot until they’re there. (And if I ever write a story about a teenage girl who enters a beauty pageant, well, you’ll know how I came up with the idea.)