Tag Archives: Frank Herbert

Plotting Plots

You can have story concepts and ideas all day long, and not have a plot.

Maybe you’ve been living with a character or a setting for years, ever since inspiration struck you, but have you ever gotten your story off the ground? Has the storyline ever completely come together? Or are you still mulling over the story world and never managing to figure out what should happen to your protagonist once he or she actually sets out on the great quest?

It’s not easy to make the leap from concept, dream, idea, or spark to an actual plotted storyline that spans beginning, middle, and end, but there are certain techniques in the writer’s toolkit that will make it possible.

Firstly, determine the moment of change for your protagonist. Yes, I know you’ve been designing the history, back story, and mythology of your story world, but what catalytic event does it all boil down to?

Consider the opening of Frank Herbert’s masterpiece, Dune. Herbert has obviously thought through a complex political situation, the world Paul and his family are leaving, the world they are moving to, the factions, the intrigues, etc. but instead of a massive info-dump he chooses instead to open his story with the last-moment preparations for the move off-world. This is the actual change in Paul’s circumstances, and it causes a visit from the Bene Gesserit witch that sets Paul on his path of destiny.

Secondly, examine the character you’ve selected to be your protagonist. Is this character truly suitable to play the lead role of your story? Or is this character a bystander, watching others engaging in conflict and adventures? How can you tell if you’ve chosen the best character to star?

By honestly assessing whether this character’s goal drives the story action and whether this character has the most at stake.

Too often, I watch students of mine contort their stories into Gordian knots in an effort to preserve the wrong character. They will cling stubbornly to a weak, vapid, reactive, passive bystander while ignoring the so-called secondary character that possesses drive, determination, stamina, and a defined goal.

Thirdly, what is the protagonist’s goal in light of the story situation, the stakes, and the catalytic event? Until you know it, you have no plot no matter how much world-building you may do.

Fourthly, who is the antagonist? Don’t shove forward some contrived dastardly no-good without any thought. Instead, take time to sort through your characters for the individual that most directly opposes your protagonist’s objective.

For example, I can cook up some mighty, evil super-wizard living in a remote tower as he plots the annihilation of all living things. But what has Super-wizard got to do with Young Farmboy living three kingdoms away in the dell?

Please don’t start rambling about how Young Farmboy has a destiny and someday, after Young Farmboy has gone on a thirty-year quest, he will meet Super-wizard in a cataclysmic battle to the death.

Go back instead to Young Farmboy’s goal. What, specifically, does he want? To go on a quest? To what purpose? Okay, sure, to find the Golden Casket of Treasures Untold. And what does that goal have to do with Super-wizard three kingdoms and thousands of leagues away?

Are you going to remind me that Super-wizard is evil and wants to annihilate everything? But is that intention directly opposed to Young Farmboy’s goal of seeking the Golden Casket?

No, it’s not. Beware the temptation to sweep past this glitch. Ignore it at your peril. For it will unravel your plot and leave you stalled.

There are three approaches to use in solving this plotting problem. Super-wizard’s purpose can be altered so that he has the Golden Casket in his possession and would rather see all living things annihilated than surrender it. Or Young Farmboy’s goal needs to change so that he’s seeking to stop the threatened annihilation of all living things, specifically his village and the sweet maiden he loves. Or Super-wizard can sit in his remote tower and you can devise a more immediate antagonist that can constantly oppose and trouble Young Farmboy as he seeks his goal.

Lastly, once you’ve solved the problem of goals that are actually directly opposed, think about the climax you intend. How will you wrap up this clash of opposition? How will the conflict be resolved? How will the protagonist prevail even when all the odds are stacked against him and his antagonist seems to have the upper hand?

Solve these problems and answer these questions, and you’ll have a plot. It may not be exactly what you originally intended, but what does that matter? You’ve made progress in moving from a concept – nebulous and not quite coming together – to a storyline that jumps into action from the beginning, holds together in the middle, and delivers a rousing good finish.

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Where Am I?

“It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.” –Sherlock Holmes in “The Copper Beeches” by Arthur Conan Doyle

The creator of Sherlock Holmes understood the value of setting and how it can contribute to a story’s success. Just as Holmes explains to Watson about how an isolated setting can contribute to crime, so does a writer need to remember how any setting can be utilized to enhance plot and characters if necessary.

So where are you locating your story? Why are you putting your plot and characters in that place? Have you made conscious decisions to do so, or does the setting seem unimportant to you?

When dealing with your story’s location, you should determine a couple of things from the outset:

1) is setting dominant or in the background?

2) what genre are you writing?

Dominant or Background?

Some stories feature settings so vivid and vital to the plot that the locale becomes a character itself. Such settings require a rich, vivid depiction. This is accomplished less through static long paragraphs of description and more through quick insertions of specific details into the action. The props the characters handle, the afternoon rain showers they walk through, the silent forest of dead trees snagging the heroine’s clothing as she tries to run … these can all generate the kind of imagery that sticks in your reader’s imagination.

However, some stories don’t require a prominent location. In this kind of fiction, the setting is simply diminished to a minor role. For example, the Battle of Waterloo was historically significant, but if it has little bearing on your story, then a few brief sentences are enough. Perhaps the viewpoint character hears the distant boom of canon fire and wonders when the battle will end, but she’s more concerned with convincing her spinster sister to let her attend the ball that night so she can dance with Major Honeycutt.

Which Genre?

Each fiction genre carries certain arcane elements that are expected by readers. For example, a traditional mystery story is supposed to offer a murder or serious crime, a number of suspects with strong motivations but flimsy alibis, and a sleuth.

That being said, each genre also tends to affect how dominant a setting may be. The mystery story is less concerned with the external environment than it is with the location and placement of the body and the discovery of clues. Is it really going to matter if the murder occurs in Jamaica? Could it have happened just as easily in Dorset, England? If the answer’s yes, the setting will fade into the background.

Recently I reread AND THEN THERE WERE NONE by Agatha Christie. This clever variation on the locked-room puzzle is set on a small island. The island itself doesn’t matter. All that’s important is that the characters be cut off from outside assistance. They could have been dropped in the middle of a desert, or on a small asteroid. The effect would be the same.

Some of you may be saying, But what about Sherlock Holmes? His rooms at 221B Baker Street? His slipper of tobacco? His chemistry set?

Holmes’s apartment is a character in the stories. It’s as beloved as Holmes and Watson. But the crimes occur elsewhere. Think of the settings in Robert B. Parker’s novels. Spenser solves crimes in Boston. The city is depicted, but not in a dominant way. It’s a backdrop, and the emphasis is placed on the victims and suspects. On the other hand, in Dick Francis’s mystery novel SMOKESCREEN, the South African setting is important to the plot. There’s a harrowing chapter where the protagonist is trapped in a car in the African bush and left to die.

Genres such as fantasy or science fiction often prominently feature settings. Tolkien’s Middle Earth is depicted in a way that has captured readers’ imaginations for generation after generation. Think also of Brian Jacques’s REDWALL series, with mouse monks defending the little abbey from villainous rats, weasels, and stoats. And of course there’s Frank Herbert’s DUNE, a novel featuring a planet so vivid it almost steals the story away from the characters. Could Paul Atreides have met the sandworms on just any old planet? No. Dune is a brilliantly designed setting–with every specific detail fitting plausibly and consistently into a cohesive whole, right down to environmental suits that recycle your perspiration and tears into drinking water.


When writing setting, remember to first determine how much prominence it will have and then always use the most precise, specific details you can to illustrate it. Employ the five physical senses as well, where appropriate, to help bring the place alive.

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