I thought it was about time I actually addressed plot. (FYI – This will most likely not be the only article I write about plots)
The plot is the pathway that winds through your story. It is the veins that carry the characters, the intrigue, the tension etc. It is the structure. So, it is pretty important.
That being said I’ve read some stories (not to mention seen some movies) that appear as if the writer has completely forgotten that a plot is needed.
A writer should spend time in the plot. They should stand in the middle of the vast flat land until they see at least some semblance of pathway. It might be a straight road, a winding, twisting footpath or a spider-web of tracks that continually intersect.
As writers it is so easy to think of a character, a basic scene for that character and then jump right into writing. Don’t get me wrong, there are some great character-driven books but even these need a plot.
Okay, so you now know how I feel about plots. Let’s go into some details
Conflict is the burning flame of plots. You need conflict. No, this does not mean have your characters screaming at each other.
You need to have challenge, the “try and fail” concept.
This is where the main character will be doing something, attempting something – whether that’s trying to save his/her family, trying to walk again, trying to walk away from his/her past or trying to return the ring to Mordor WHATEVER – they will be attempting something.
This is your “try”.
Next, they need to fail. Cruel I know, but if they were successful immediately it would be a pretty boring book. We as readers/viewers want to see failure. We want to watch as the hero fails to return in time to save his family (great example – Gladiator). We want to watch as the heroine fails to escape her abusive husband.
This is your “fail”.
Why? Why do we want this? I’m sure there are a hundred reasons, but the what you need to remember is – we just do!
Okay so we have thrown our unsuspecting character into a horrible, stressful, heart shattering (etc) situation and then forced them to push against it…. then we’ve ripped the rug from under them and watched as they fall, and fall damn hard!
Now, we must make them try again. Here is where you can fling in your own ideas. Does your character spit out a bloody tooth, mutter a plethora of curses and then push himself up to fight again? Does your hero shake in fear, cower back and slink to hide for half the book, change his name and try and forget?
Your character should try again. But it doesn’t have to be immediate. They can try and fail and try and fail and try and win! They could try and fail and try and win. They could try and fail and then walk away and only later get pushed back into trying again (through situation, another characters goading or their own conscience pushing them).
All these ways give you scope to think about your story and develop it, the character and possibly other characters.
The best stories usually include several conflicts like this. Look at Lord of the Rings, the premise is “get the ring to Mordor” however the number of things that thwart that plan, that hinder and force change continue to steer the story, and test the very wills of the characters.
If there had just been one conflict, one try and fail, it may have been okay but it certainly wouldn’t have been the “wow” book it is now.
Now, at the same time we need to consider balance. Flinging crap at your characters left right and centre is too much. Have some try and fail moments, have some regrouping moments and maybe have a little success.
If your characters are in 100% peril all the time that can get a little stale as well. Think about this, a soldier from a rival kingdom travels into enemy territory carrying a missive. His king wants peace with his neighbour, together they will protect each other and turn their attention towards another army that will threaten them both. He passes towns in plague, almost drowns in a marshy bog and finally makes it. However before he can deliver his missive, a town guard runs him through. You can give reason for this, maybe the guard wants to make a name for himself, or maybe he’s a novice and sees this soldier and panics, reacting blindly.
Does he then hide the missive, fearful of being punished for his reaction? Does he not even realise or find it? If written well the tension of the soldier fighting and struggling all the way only to die in such a way will have an impact.
Another aspect of balance is that the conflicts are believable (not in real terms, if your story is set on Mars or in a land with fire dragons, then it should be believable within its own setting). So, by “believable” I mean not over the top stupid.
Your character should not have to traverse a fire pit of lava sharks, while dodging swinging blades coated in venom all while carrying a sacred orb that must remain at a steady 21 degrees C. This is stupid and over the top. Make the conflict believable to the story.
Next make sure your conflict is varied – your character should not have to spend the entire book dealing with natural disasters. While surviving an earthquake, volcano eruption and two avalanches sounds impressive, it’s not – it’s boring. Throw in a battle, maybe some betrayal or a health issue or two. Mix it up.
Okay, so all the conflict I’ve mentioned so far has been external. Whether we are fighting giant killer bees or struggling to match the language of the elusive dirt eaters. Now we need to move internally.
Almost all stories should have something going on inside. Think about that raft of emotion we all have, a varied spectrum of senses and feelings that rage. Make sure to throw some of that in too.
Is your character struggling with guilt from a failure in their past? Did someone they try and help die so now they are finding it hard to help anyone else? Are they consumed with jealousy, wracked with paranoia, terrified of physical pain?
Either with an external or stand alone, there should be at least one internal conflict going on with your character. Are they doubting if they are strong enough to complete their challenge. Are they scared they will never see their loved ones again? Have they already lost someone they love and are struggling to give a damn about anyone else, even the fate of the world? Are they tired of the greatness of responsibility dropping on their shoulders?
Whether it’s facing a fear, overcoming a personal demon or battling past memories make sure you give time to your internals.
The plot of your story should flow smoothly, it conflicts (both internal and external) should get more intense, the stakes should get higher the deeper into the story. Think about a tipping point – one that will either see the character push through or turn back. Is there a point when they have been driven too hard, suffered too much that they may be unable or unwilling to go on? Yet just that little further and they will crest the peak and move towards resolution. (maybe?) 🙂
When you think of plot flowing, think ‘logical’. Do not drag your characters in another direction just to make them deal with a conflict that does nothing to move the story or develop the character. It should have a point!
Sometimes you might want to leave out a conflict because it will slow down the story. But what if it developed the character? What if it left the character distrustful or dishonest? If you need to leave it out fine, but think about having it in the narration – explain to the readers (at a relevant point) why your hero watches everyone with suspicion.
Always remember your readers don’t know EVERYTHING about your story and characters that you do. We all produce thoughts, ideas and back stories that help us to define the world and the characters but don’t always make it into the novel. Anything pertinent should be added either as a scene or within the prose.
It’s not too hard to find conflict when you think about it. Firstly if there is any sort of journey in your story you have the land to contend with. What is the lay of the land like? Who is your character and why are they travelling? This will make a difference.
Example: You have a young princess sent out with a retinue of guards to a neighbouring kingdom to marry their prince. Is she travelling in a litter or a carriage? If so what if they come to water or a bridge that is not wide enough? What about stony ground that can damage the wheels? Is there a forest that a carriage could not get through? Does she ride her own horse, are they chased by wolves and is she separated from her guards?
Then you have other people:
Example: Do they go through poor towns? How will these people feel about such wealth flaunted at them? Will they be awed or angered, are there bandits and thieves or even assassins intent on stopping the two kingdoms joining?
The best way is to think about what your end goal is and how you want to get there. Watch movies or read books to see how other people do conflicts. How it is shown and developed.
A conflict can be as simple as not fitting in. Does your character have a deformity that is ridiculed by their people, cruel taunts and teases. Suddenly a plague infects them and now the deformity is seen as a curse, bringing the plague on them – especially if the character’s family all survive, none get sick etc. Now not only do you have a plague but the threat of violence from those who you know.
Often as a story is written conflict will open up naturally. Think about it when you write, keep in mind the try and fail concept so that you don’t end up turning a great conflict into a boring read by having everything work out perfectly.