Plotting Without Guns

From time to time, I come across a student story that’s about a couple having relationship trouble. The characters are in conflict over some issue and on the verge of breaking up. Halfway through the tears and drama, one of the characters will pull out a gun and wave it around.


To quote one of my favorite cartoon characters–Foghorn Leghorn: “Now hold on–I say, hold on there, son!”

What’s this about? What does a gun have to do with a couple breaking up? Has the gun been in the story before? Is the gun’s presence justified? Does it have anything to do with what’s happening in the story action?

“But I’m raising the stakes,” the writer will say. “I’m trying to make things worse for my characters.”

Hmm, maybe. Except raising the stakes doesn’t mean your character should just plug her spouse for no reason other than the author is stuck. Remember that your plot should be plausible. The events and plot twists that occur should be organic to the situation you’ve set up and not some wild, disconnected behavior that doesn’t make sense for your characters.

Whatever your plot is about, keep it about that. If two people who love each other can’t work out the problem that his career is forcing him to move across the country and she wants to stay on the farmstead she inherited from her grandfather, then what are they going to do?

Split up?

Okay. Let ’em split up and be miserable without each other for a few pages. That’s raising the emotional stakes plenty. Maybe they need that test in order to grow or change for the better.

Think about the couple. What is the basis of their relationship? What do each of them want and expect from the other? What do each of them envision for their relationship? How will a permanent breakup damage them individually?

When you can answer those questions, chances are you’ll have figured out which character is going to bend for the sake of the other’s happiness.

And not a bullet is flying.


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2 responses to “Plotting Without Guns

  1. Well reasoned and well said.

    I think a great deal of what we read from young writers is–and is probably unavoidably–influenced by television. On TV, you do have to keep upping the stakes.

    I agree that this is not necessary in good fiction. Things that pop up out of nowhere anger a discerning reader, and do nothing to further the career of the writer (assuming he or she can sell the thing in the first place).

    A well-placed word, a smoldering glance, a reminder of a past indiscretion, can have a strong impact, without blowing the story in one fell swoop.

    • So true! TV writing requires a different setting of hooks than prose. The story twists and turns fall in a different rhythm, and the stakes are upped in a much more melodramatic manner than is necessary in a written story.

      I’m not opposed to a riproaring yarn with plenty of action and excitement, but I hate to see plotting cheapened unnecessarily when a story has the potential to be much richer.

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