How do you plot a story? Do you begin with a grand idea and build around it? Do you first think of your characters and the challenges they could overcome? Or do you just write and see where it goes? Well, there’s no right way to do it. Just a whole bunch of different ways. Some may work for you, others might not. In this article, we’ll look at what a plot in fiction is, a few ways to create conflict, and some useful plotting tools to help with structure. By the end, you’ll have what you need to help you plot short stories and help you plot novels too.
What is a Plot?
The importance of plotting cannot be understated. It’s in plotting our character’s paths that we truly come to know them. We test their mettle and resolve, push them to their absolute limits. Plot and character, therefore, go hand in hand. To find a plot true to our characters, we must first understand them, so that when they’re faced with conflicts and obstacles we know how they’ll react. Those reactions shape the plot.
Let’s get a couple of definitions out of the way before we dive deeper. Story versus plot…
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, only her death is the result of a broken heart.
So plot is fuelled by conflict. What can writers do to help introduce as much conflict into their fiction stories as possible?
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. Frodo must take the One Ring to Mordor or risk the destruction of everyone and everything he holds dear. Richard must defeat Darken Rahl—not only is it his task as Seeker, but he must avenge the death of his father.
A strong motive will help that character overcome the obstacles your plot before them. It will give them the courage to defeat a Balrog or face down an entire army. It’s the writers’ job to test that motivation as much as possible. Ask what you can do to make things even worse for your characters? Send them to the pits of hell and back. Strip them of all their abilities, their confidence. Scaling Everest is much more impressive than climbing an anthill, especially with no tools to help.
It’s said that the focus of the earlier chapters in a novel or story ought to be on characters above all. If we’re to care about the people in the car when it crashes, we need to know about them first. What do I mean? Before you start making the lives of these characters a living hell, the reader needs to get to know them, otherwise, they may struggle to care what happens to them.
If you’re seeking to introduce as much conflict as possible to your story, something to consider is giving your protagonist an imperfection of some kind—some people call them flaws but I think that’s misleading and disingenuous to the character. Let’s explain this one with an example.
Tyrion Lannister. He’s a dwarf and fuck me doesn’t he know it. His own family, one of the richest and most powerful in all of Westeros, barely tolerate him. Most people in the realm mock him for being half a man. His dwarfism creates a whole layer of conflict in his life, such that it affects how he thinks and acts. It brings with it a unique set of challenges that he must overcome and enriches the tale with a unique perspective.
Other writers like Joe Abercrombie have experimented with similar things, such as with Yarvi in his novel Half a King. Consider things like scars, loss of a limb or birthmarks, something I’ve used in my novel, Pariah’s Lament with one of my protagonists Isyara. Isy was born with a raven-black birthmark smothering half of her face. She’s branded cursed in her town. She’s bullied, beaten, abused, even by her own father. She becomes a pariah, living on the edge of society.
This isn’t to say every character must have an imperfection. There are the supermen we know and love, like David Gemmell’s Druss the Legend. But it can be tricky to empathise with perfect characters for nobody is perfect. Everyone has their failings. You could probably list mine on two sides of A4. We love people regardless. Indeed, it can be the thing that makes us love them the most.
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Prolific novelist and all-round good guy, Brandon Sanderson, offers an interesting bit of advice when it comes to structuring plots. For Sanderson, it’s all about making the right kind of promises.
He’s of the view that early on in the story promises must be made to the reader about what the rest of it is going to be like. Novels can be weighty beasts—a significant time commitment. When you sit down to read a gritty thriller and 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. Those earlier chapters in which you made your mind up about whether to carry on suggested nothing about magic wands or dung beetles. It does not have to be spelt out, just hinted at, that something more is in play in the background.
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 in way of the writers’ path is to use a prologue as an opportunity to info dump and world-build. There’s a good chance using too many names of people, places or concepts is going to send a reader to sleep. World-building will be discussed in its own chapter, but in short, the most successful and popular technique 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.
One prologue that’s stuck in my mind is from A Game of Thrones. Gripping, intriguing, action-packed. Very little magic or supernatural incidents occur in the subsequent chapters, and indeed throughout much of the A Song of Ice and Fire books until dragons hatch and white walkers begin their long hike to the wall. Without that prologue, it may be assumed that magic does not exist at all in this world.
Similarly, in Sanderson’s own book, Mistborn, the prologue features Kelsier single-handedly destroying a slave plantation. While you don’t know how he did it, we know it’s possible.
The prologue in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark provides another helpful example. We’re 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.
I find nothing more frustrating than a static story. Don’t introduce me to a character and have him do nothing for paragraphs or pages.
In his creative writing lectures (all of which are free of charge on Youtube. Well worth watching), Brandon Sanderson explains the importance of making the reader feel like they are making progress with the story, that they are going somewhere—exploring ancient ruins or vibrant cities, walking through great battles and experiencing intimate moments in characters’ lives.
It doesn’t stop at places or adventures, though. A reader must see the characters taking steps to achieve their goals, and often those steps involve the obstacles we as writers throw in their path. If for three chapters the protagonist is just sailing to some faraway land, the reader will end up wanting their ship to sink. What twists could be added? Could they encounter a sea monster, a pirate ship, a deadly storm?
So we’ve looked at ways of generating conflict. What devices can writers use to structure their sequence of conflicting events?
The Bracketing Method
If a lot is going on in your story with several central characters, it can get a bit tricky to keep track of everything that’s going on. George R.R. Martin even admits to losing track and relies on the help of a few GOT fanatics. To be fair, he has about forty main characters.
So how does the bracketing method work?
When a plot or sub-plot begins a bracket is opened. Then as it resolves, the bracket is closed. Let’s look at an example:
The Three-Act Format
This technique is more common in the film industry, yet its foundation in storytelling is sound and applicable across the board. This is my personal favourite. It’s a simple, easy tool which helps to break down a story. The graphic below describes it:
Sanderson’s Plotting Technique
The font of knowledge himself has his own plotting device. He begins by building a list 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 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 all help.
If your story is following one particular path, with little to break it up, a subplot can provide nice variation. If your plot is feeling thin, think about adding a subplot 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, something known as architectural suspense.
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.
More Writing Tools
Sanderson recommends a short essay by screenwriter Terry Rossio, entitled “Strange Attractor”, and having read it myself, recommend it highly. In short, Rossie believes that 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. You might find it helpful.
I also have a few other guides on plot you can check out:
If you’d prefer to watch instead of read, check out Brandon Sanderson’s lecture on plotting:
And I recommend checking out the relevant chapters in the following books:
If you’re really stuck for ideas, you could try out this nifty little plot generator. This one by Reedsy is also pretty good too.