Perhaps the most sure-fire way in which to hold readers enthralled is through your plot. Are you delivering a terrific story? Are the unfolding events compelling, shocking, unpredictable, humorous, delightful, tragic, or … (name your own adjective)?
One of the biggest stumbling blocks for my campus students comes when they try to derive a plot from their story premise. They have an exciting idea in their mind. It’s captured their imagination. They’re anxious to start writing it.
Trouble is, a deep gulch separates them from this glimmering concept and actual story events. They may contrive a number of activities for their characters to do, but that’s not a cohesive plot either.
So what exactly IS a plot and how do we come up with one?
First step: Think about the characters you have in mind. Figure out what each one wants. That desire should be something specific. It will be used as a goal.
If you don’t know what a character wants, you aren’t ready to plot.
Don’t worry if you haven’t chosen your protagonist yet from these preliminary characters. Identify each goal from each story person. That should help you choose which one will lead and which one will oppose.
Second step: Determine the motivation behind each goal.
If you don’t know why a character wants something, you aren’t ready to plot.
It’s equally important for you to understand the motives of your protagonist as well as your antagonist. It’s also important for you to know the motives of secondary characters.
Motivation is frequently forgotten or overlooked, yet it’s the key to plausible character actions.
When you know why a character is willing to fight for the water rights to his ranch, then you’ll probably have a clear idea of what that character will do to save it.
Third step: With the goals and motivations of your characters in mind, draft a list of actions the protagonist will take to accomplish her goal. Then draft a list of actions the antagonist will take.
Are those actions leading to direct confrontations between the two individuals?
If not, try again. Look at their goals to see if they’re in opposition.
For example, Polly Protagonist wants to be promoted to sales manager.
Annie Antagonist is a co-worker who wants the same position.
Only one of them can have the job.
Polly wants it because she’s got her sights on a corporate career. She sees the management position as the first step toward realizing her dream of becoming president of the company someday. She’s worked hard and believes the promotion will validate her choices as well as reward her for all she’s done so far.
Annie wants the job because she’s a single mom and chronically short of money. The management position means a bigger salary. That means she can afford a better daycare for her youngest child and braces for the eldest. It means she can move out of their crummy one-bedroom apartment into a nicer place, and they won’t go short on groceries at the end of each month.
See the difference? One woman is following a dream. The other is clawing for survival.
We can already envision conflict, can’t we? Polly’s plans for her presentation are going to be sabotaged by the more desperate Annie. How far will Annie go? What steps will she take to eliminate her competition?
If I were actually writing this story, I’d need to strengthen Polly’s motivations after the first skirmish because Annie’s going to try harder than Polly would initially expect. Round one would go to Annie. What will Polly do in Round two? Surrender or fight back?
Fourth step: With a list of plot events, you can then set them in order. What scene will happen first? As a result of that, what will take place next? And next?
With an efficient groundwork laid in place, ordering the plot events becomes a matter of cause and effect, action and consequence.
Your plot will be plausible and cohesive.