Plot Is a Four-Letter Word

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.


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4 responses to “Plot Is a Four-Letter Word

  1. Brunet, Jean

    Here and in other entries of your interesting blog, you insist that a protagonist’s goal is essential for plot outlining. Yet I often find it difficult to state that goal, even after I finish a book, say a Richard Russo novel for instance.

    Even in the less literary “Godfather” you use as an example, Michael Corleone’s goal is not all that clear: is it a political career (his initial desire), to protect his father, take revenge, seize the reins of his father’s empire?
    And what of the “big showdown between the protagonist and antagonist” that makes the story destination? I don’t quite see how the “Godfather” trajectory could rise from the outline steps given above.

    Thanks for your insight.

    • I haven’t read Richard Russo. If he is a “literary” author, then the goal may not be clear as not all novels–especially certain types of mainstream works–are not written according to the template I’ve described. My focus is the commercial novel, and my guide is always what Robert McKee (author of STORY) calls Classic Story Design.

      Michael Corleone’s immediate goals change as he moves along his downward trajectory. However, his central objective is to seize the reins of his father’s empire. If it had been anything else; for example, if he’d truly wanted the political career (in reality more his father’s goal for him than his own), then once he saved his father’s life he would have retreated. Instead, he saves his father, then takes revenge, then takes control, then expands the empire bigger and bigger. He doesn’t have a central antagonist per se, unless it’s his wife who keeps trying to pull him back to sanity. My view is that his “foe” is whoever tries to stop him.

      • I’m really, really lost on L (Length). Writing to length is something that I assume comes with practice. But I’ve seen works I love in all lengths. Is there some length that’s salable for a novel that one “ought” to target?

        On Michael Corleone: is Villain Of The Week really fatal to a story? Do we need One Big Villain? I’m engineering one into my WIP, but at this stage it feels forced. Obviously the detail is needed to weave V through everything so V’s appearance ultimately makes sense. But if my young naive protagonist met V on Page One, there wouldn’t be a Page Two :p

        I bought McKee’s Story, but of course … it will probably help to also read it 🙂

  2. Well, length can vary depending on the needs of the story. My point in the post was that a short story needs fewer plot events than a novel, and determining your medium ahead of time helps you prioritize.

    As for novel lengths, when you’re new to the biz it’s best to write in the 70,000- to 75,000-word range. That comes out to about 20 plot events, more or less.

    In genre fiction, yes, you need a central villain. Harry Potter meets Voldemort on page one and survives, which launches his legend. If you’re writing a mystery where the Big Villain is hidden, then the sleuth is sifting through the masks and strategies used by BV to stay hidden. Also, you can fill in the gaps when BV isn’t onstage with a subplot villain or an antagonist.

    Try writing without any antagonist at all, and you have nothing solid in the plot department.

    🙂 Deb

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