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People want to read stories. Your heroic warrior protagonist might have all the depth of the oceans, but if all he does is decapitate orcs the reader’s going to feel pretty headless too. This article will first look at some of the key ingredients of an engaging plot before looking at some tools to help you map out your tales.
Let’s get a couple of definitions out of the way before we dive deeper.
Story – is a sequence of events. This happened, then that happened …
Plot – encapsulates the sequence of events, plus character motivations. A plot develops out of conflicts which affect the characters. An example of a story would involve a man dying, followed by his wife. A plot would involve the death of a man, followed by his wife, but her death is the result of a broken heart.
What makes a good plot? Interesting characters and an interesting premise have been mentioned. Conflict is another crucial one. There’s no short answer—much goes into a good plot. Let’s break them down.
What the protagonist needs or chooses to do has to matter. For example, a woman’s daughter is kidnapped and she has just two days to raise a million pound to pay the ransom. There’s a lot at stake there. But don’t just settle for that. If you can, increase the stakes, so by the end it’s life or death.
Using character flaws is a good way to enhance a story. Not only do flaws enable the reader to connect more with the character, but it adds a unique perspective to the struggles they go through. Flaws also provide a source of conflict. There are physical flaws, like Tyrion Lannister having dwarfism, or Yarvi in Joe Abercrombie’s Half a King having only one hand. Or mental challenges, like depression or a lack of confidence.
It’s important to make the right promises early on in your story. What’s the story going to be about? When you sit down to read a gritty thriller, get a couple of hundred pages in, the last thing you want is for the villain to suddenly whip out a wand and start turning everyone into dung beetles. The reader will feel cheated, annoyed and angry—everything you don’t want. So if you do happen to be writing a gritty thriller featuring magic, drop the magic in early on!
So how can this be done? One way is through prologues. There’s a fair amount of debate as to the usefulness of prologues. If done well, they can really enhance a story. If done badly you’ve lost your reader before the story even gets going. One trap some tend to fall into is to use it as an opportunity to info dump and world build. Throwing too many names of people, places or concepts, especially in fantasy where the names are weird, is going to send a reader to sleep. Worldbuilding will be discussed in its own post, but in short, the trick is to tease it into the story—the odd reference here or there, especially in the first few chapters. Show the tip of the iceberg, a little bit of leg.
An example of a good prologue is that in A Game of Thrones. Gripping, intriguing, action packed. It’s very different to the first few chapters, but it provides crucial promises of what’s to come. Very little magic or supernatural things occur throughout the bulk of the Song of Ice and Fire books. Without that prologue, some may assume that magic does not exist at all, so when white walkers start reanimating the dead (sorry for the spoiler) then it’s not an anger-provoking surprise.
The prologue in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark is another example of a great opening. The reader is introduced to this competent character navigating his way through an ancient ruin to recover a treasure. He evades traps and pitfalls, gets what he wants, but at the very end drops the treasure. An exciting opening with promises made about the character—that he’s competent but has flaws, and immediately we want to know more.
Here’s an interesting thread on Reddit discussing prologues: https://www.reddit.com/r/Fantasy/comments/6h094f/why_are_prologues_considered_bad_writing/
Keep that story moving! The reader must feel they are going somewhere—exploring ancient ruins or vibrant cities, walking through great battles and experiencing intimate moments in characters’ lives. Not just places, though, they must feel the characters are taking steps to achieve their goals. If for six chapters the protagonist is just sailing to some faraway land, the reader will want their bloody ship to sink. What twists could happen? Could they encounter a sea monster, a pirate ship, a deadly storm (though, shipwrecks have been done to death)? A story with a lack of progress provokes frustration.
A number of helpful tools and methods exist to help you with plotting, most of which I’ve picked up from writer Brandon Sanderson.
The bracketing method
This approach is helpful if there’s a lot going on in your story. In short, when a plot begins a bracket is opened. Then as it resolves, the bracket is closed. An example will best explain how this works:
The three-act format
This tends to be used in films, though its usefulness extends to all forms of storytelling. It’s a simple, easy tool which helps to break down a story. The graphic below describes it:
Sanderson’s plotting techniques
The font of knowledge himself has offered his own plotting device. He begins by building a series of promises or events that could take place in a story. So for example, if we looked at Star Wars, the key events or promises there:
- Destroying the Empire;
- Defeating an all-powerful Sith Lord (the Emperor);
- A character from humble beginnings learning the ways of the Force;
- Restoring light amongst the universe.
The next step is to ask yourself how can these be achieved. Each point must progress the story toward a conclusion, with interesting conflicts and red herrings along the way. “One simply does not walk to Mordor,” as we all know. Thinking of the likes of relationships, mysteries, journeys and character flaws can help.
If your story is following one particular path, with little to break it up, a subplot can provide a welcome change. If your plot is feeling thin, think about adding a sub plot or two. Too many sub-plots, however, can confuse a reader. Sub-plots also provide mini-cliff hangars within a story. If a protagonist is left in an uncertain position at the end of a chapter, you can break away, heightening the tension.
Ian Rankin, the genius behind the Detective Inspector Rebus books, is a master of the sub-plot. While Rebus is off solving some gruesome murder, another plot is bubbling in the background. Rankin leaves you unsure as to how it will link with the main plot until the very end. The Hanging Garden is an example of a book with excellent sub-plotting.
Sanderson recommends a short essay by screenwriter Terry Rossio, entitled “Strange Attractor”, and having read it myself, recommend it highly. The crux of it is, a story needs to have a good concept, something compelling, enticing, attractive. It’s not easy to think of something original nowadays—if only we were doing this a hundred years ago, eh? But try we must.
If you enjoyed this article, why not stay in touch by signing up to my mailing list? Subscribers receive a list of 50 fantasy book reviewers, as well as a copy of This Craft We Call Writing: Volume One, a collection of writing techniques, advice, and guides looking at, amongst others, world-building, writing fight scenes, characterisation, plotting, editing, and prose.