This week, we’re talking about plotting, because for many authors, plotting fiction is the hardest part of writing. This applies whether they’re writing novels, short fiction, or scripts.
My theory is for that for authors who avoid plotting (pantsers), mechanical plotting is a disaster. Not only does it pull them out of a creative mind state, it may make it impossible for them to write.
If you’re a pantser, don’t despair. You can plot, and enjoy it, when you get misperceptions out of the way.
Vital: pantser, or plotter, you need to be aware of a major stumbling block—discover the block below.
Plotting may seem a deep and dark mystery, but in many ways, it is mechanical. This is wonderful news, because even pantsers who are convinced that they can’t plot, can nevertheless ensure that their plot has all the elements of successful, selling fiction.
Firstly, let’s look at a common stumbling block. You can avoid it, once you know it’s there.
Plotting fiction: please avoid this common stumbling block
Here’s the most common pitfall which causes suffering for my fiction writing students: they treat their much-labored-over plot as if it were engraved in stone.
That’s dangerous, because “plot” is both a verb and a noun.
A tip: treat “plot” as a verb: make it an active process. Here’s why. From Plotting Fiction: 3 Reasons To Plot Your Novel In An Hour:
Your outline morphs while you write. As long as the bones of your outline are there, you are headed in the right direction; adjustments are simple.
Here’s how to plot, actively:
- Plot as you go. Successful fiction contains many elements, so “plot” them into your fiction while you’re writing;
- Use the checklist below. It contains the major elements of your plot. Your novel should include them all;
- Relax. Every novel, novella and short story you write is different. Some projects are more challenging than others, but you become more skilled and experienced the more you write;
- And speaking of writing, write. Plot actively, for every scene in your novel. Use the checklist below if you sense something missing in a scene, or in a characterization.
Let’s look at the plotting checklist; the essential elements of your plot, no matter the genre.
1. Your characters want what they want (and they’re determined to get it)
Everyone wants something. Some people create goals, others don’t. Whether we create goals or not, we have needs; many of these needs were established in childhood. We may not acknowledge these needs, ever—we may disregard them, then wonder why we’re unhappy.
Unlike real people however, fictional characters know what they want and you need to establish their wants/ goals on the page.
Readers respond to characters who have goals and struggle to achieve them; it develops suspense.
Establish goals for your minor characters, as well as for your major characters. Classic novels, which are read and enjoyed decade after decade, have well-established major AND minor characters who want something… This leads to conflict (see below.)
An example: Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, published two centuries ago. Elizabeth and Darcy have goals; so does everyone else in the novel.
A tip: be aware that in your novel, characters change. As they change, their goals change.
Once you’ve developed goals for your characters, your next step is to develop their motivation to get what they want. (See number 3, on the checklist.)
However, the heart of your novel is something else.
2. The story question: develop a HUGE problem for your main character
The story question is your novel’s heart. It’s usually related to genre. More importantly, it’s related to your main character’s goal:
- (Mystery) Who killed (whoever— the dead body), because the same killer has targeted the sleuth (the main character);
- (Romance) Will X and Y settle their differences and acknowledge their love, despite the forces ranged against them?
- (Thriller) Can Character X save the love of his life and the world as well?
Every novel needs a story question. Here’s the story question in Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice. It’s the first line of the novel:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
Sarcasm aside, Austen slaps the story question right where it belongs: in the reader’s mind and imagination.
Please don’t be subtle here. State characters’ goals and the story question on the page. Readers can’t see into your mind. They only know what you tell them. On the page.
Stating the story question prevents readers thinking: so what, and tossing your novel aside.
3. Motivation: fiction isn’t real life
Unlike real life, where we do things for no reason at all, in fiction, your characters are motivated by their goals. Your readers demand that you explain, so to speak, your characters’ actions: in other words, that you motivate them. Lack of motivation for actions/ crimes is the reason stranger than fiction is a real-life cliché. How often do neighbors say of a serial killer: “but he was such a quiet man…”
If you’ve struggled with your plot, or you fear that your writing is boring, focus on characters goals’ and motivation. It’s very helpful to develop a goal and motivation for each character as you’re creating them.
Not only does this help you to plot, it also creates conflict. (Hurrah!)
4. Fight club: battles large and small (conflict and more conflict)
We’re human. Conflict is natural, even with those nearest and dearest to us.
Unfortunately, as authors, we want to avoid conflict in our fiction as we strive to avoid it in daily life. You may want to slap someone, but you don’t… In fiction, not only does your main character slap someone once, he/ she slaps them again.
In your fiction, focus on conflict. It’s essential. It keeps readers turning the page.
Creating conflict can be challenging, so focus on this process. Give a character:
- A goal he must reach…
- Motivation to achieve the goal…
- Obstacles, often caused by other characters trying to achieve their goals. (Viz: the sleuth’s goal is finding the killer; the killer’s goal is to escape detection…)
- Backstory: motivation for battles with his parents/ siblings, or his claustrophobia…
Make plotting fiction easier with this simple, but powerful checklist
Plotting fiction will lose its fears for you when you include the elements on the checklist.
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Copywriter and marketing pro Angela Booth maintains a busy copywriting and ghostwriting practice. Fascinated by online marketing, she wrote one of the first business books for internet marketing, published by Allen & Unwin. She’s been an enthusiastic blogger since the late 1990s.