Lately, quite a few people have been requesting more information about plotting, so let’s consider a few basics:
1) P is for persistence:
Webster’s Dictionary defines the word “persist” as to go on resolutely or stubbornly in spite of opposition, importunity, or warning.
Your protagonist must be a character who persists in pursuing the story’s objective, no matter how difficult the circumstances or opposition become.
Plot hinges on conflict, and conflict comes from two goals in opposition. Therefore, both the protagonist and antagonist are persistent people. They are focused on what they want or are trying to achieve. They are highly motivated. They are determined to succeed. They refuse to give up. And each scene of the story … each event within the plot should center on these stubborn, focused people who are maneuvering against each other to win.
2) L is for length:
How long will your story be? Short, say about 3,000 words? Or long, about 70,000? Whatever the length, that is your border. The story has to fit within its perimeters, whether those are set by genre or publication specifications. Knowing your intended length helps you determine your priorities as you select the list of events that will occur in your story.
If, for example, you’re supposed to be writing a novel about star-crossed lovers and your assigned length is 65,000 words, you’re going to need a lot more happening than they meet, they feel instant attraction, they quarrel, and they make up in time to live happily ever after.
Consider the comedy film, THE LADY EVE, by Preston Sturges. Starring Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck, the story revolves around a con artist father and daughter who set up a meeting with a wealthy, reclusive, naive young man. Eve weaves a rapid spell around him, and he quickly succumbs to her charm and beauty. By the end of a few days they’re engaged to be married. That comprises the movie’s first act. How will Sturges fill the remaining two-thirds of the film’s length?
Act Two must have a breakup between the two lovers. So Henry’s character discovers that Eve is an adventuress and her father is a professional card sharp. He breaks off the engagement at once. However, Eve has truly fallen in love with him. Angered by his dumping her, she sets out for revenge and “meets” him once again, this time posing as her identical twin half-sister. And she makes him fall in love with her a second time.
Act Three is where she marries him, then–on their wedding night–talks about her numerous liaisons with countless other men. All of this is invented, of course, but poor Henry doesn’t know it. He flees again, heartbroken and distraught, only to encounter Eve a third time–once again in her “real” card-playing persona.
Beyond this bare bones summary of the central storyline, there are subplots, amusing secondary characters, and comedic stunts to help fill the length.
However, trying to fit a story of this scope into a short story’s limited word count would involve chopping it down to a mere sketch of two or three scenes. A LOT would have to be left out. In effect, it would be a radically different plot.
3) O is for outline:
Most writers start out with a character in mind or perhaps a setting or a handful of events. From that kernel of inspiration, the actual plotting has to be worked out. Outlining can be challenging, but no matter how difficult it may prove to be, the time invested is nearly always worthwhile. Would you rather spend your hours writing and rewriting an outline of five to ten pages, or write fifty to one hundred pages of poorly thought through manuscript that then has to be thrown away?
*Start with your protagonist. What does she want? Why?
*Next, create your antagonist. Who is opposed to your protagonist achieving that objective? Why?
*Write down a list of possible plot events as quickly as possible. Don’t edit or analyze. Just jot them down.
*Later, determine which of the events to keep and which to toss aside.
*Put the kept events in sequential order. Don’t worry if they don’t precisely connect. These will possibly be your key turning points.
*What signifies a huge or significant change in your protagonist’s life? Put that first.
*Look at your list of events again. Do any of them follow logically from the event of change? If not, think about what might happen next. Toss and keep events as needed.
*What is your protagonist’s plan to achieve the goal?
*What step will your protagonist take first?
*What is the immediate outcome of that attempt?
*How does the antagonist thwart this attempt?
*What will your protagonist do next?
*How does the antagonist thwart that?
*Do any of these attempts and failures lead logically to one of the plot events on your list?
*If not, what crisis do they lead to? That will be your first turning point.
*Think about what might happen next after the first major crisis. Plot from there to the next crisis/turning point. Follow cause-and-effect logic.
*The climax of the story should be a big showdown between the protagonist and antagonist. Plan for it. Make sure that what happens in the story leads in that direction. It is your story’s destination.
*Look at your outline again. If anything seems contrived or out of place, shift it or motivate it. If it still seems wrong, delete it.
4) T is for trajectory:
Think of your plot as an arc spanning the story from its start to its ending. At all times, the protagonist is working toward achieving his objective. With each attempt, and failure, the protagonist should find a plausible motivation for why he’s willing to continue. And he should try again.
All of those efforts will result in gradually changing the protagonist. That alteration may be slight or it may be profound. Either way, the protagonist should be forced to either grow as an individual or devolve.
Consider two examples of trajectory: Scarlett O’Hara from GONE WITH THE WIND and Michael Corleone from THE GODFATHER.
Scarlett starts out as a pretty, willful, headstrong young girl who is infatuated with her neighbor Ashley Wilkes. When he chooses to marry his cousin, Scarlett plunges into an impulsive marriage of her own. Through the course of the Civil War and the Reconstruction period that follows, she changes into a survivor, a businesswoman, and a mother. She’s so goal-driven and stubborn that it takes a lot of heartache to shake her from her infatuation with Ashley. By the end of the story, she realizes who she actually loves instead and is finally willing to at least try to work out a real relationship with him. Her character trajectory seems slight because it’s so gradual, but at the end of the story she has at least set her feet on the path of true change.
Michael starts out as a young man who knows what his father does for a living but thinks naively that he can remain separate from the mob activities. He’s distinguished himself heroically in WWII and is planning a political career. It’s not until his father is gunned down in an assassination attempt and lying helpless in the hospital that Michael involves himself directly in his father’s business. He protects his father, saving the don’s life. Beyond that, Michael takes revenge on those behind the plot by coldly executing them in a restaurant. Then he seizes the reins of his father’s empire from his older brother. He lies to his wife, promising her that this is temporary and that he’ll get out of the business. But instead he goes in deeper and deeper into the cesspool of organized crime. He eventually becomes far more ruthless than his father ever was. And when he orders the execution of his remaining brother, his trajectory downward from a respectable young man to a ruthless monster is complete.
Story plot, ideally, should be an entwining of the protagonist’s outer story problem and attempts to solve it and the inner problem or trajectory of change that happens along the way. The plot events should affect the protagonist in one way or the other from start to finish.