Monday, August 18, 2014

A Simple Introduction to Plot Structure

It's Monday, so, as promised, I'll try to get my posts back on schedule. I've been busy moving back permanently to Pittsburgh, so that's why I took a short break from writing advice posts (these take a long time to put together, as many of you probably know).

Let's get to it, shall we?

You are walking down the street when all of a sudden BAM!! It hits you: Inspiration. You rush home, keeping the idea fresh in your head, throw open the door, grab the nearest piece of paper and a pen, and jot down your great idea. Breathing a sigh of relief you sit back and look at your genius. There's your character, the setting, and.....what? You reread the page. What's going on? It was so good, but now you realize nothing has happened at all. Something is missing.

One word: plot.

Your characters don't have anything to keep them occupied. They are standing there looking at each other saying: "Okay....what's the point?"

How do you form a plot? What are the necessary elements? Why don't people want to read about the life of your characters, and be done with it?

There's no true point to the story. Readers don't want to watch your character live and die, unless that character is an awesome action hero who spends his days cleaning up the world of evil and fighting awesome battles. Even then, that might become dull.

There has to be a point to the story, and people want to know what that is as soon as possible. The opening paragraphs (which I'll talk about in a later post) need to hook your reader and tell them why they are reading the book. Why should they care about your character's story? Why should they take interest in your novel?

A true plot is essential. The first few scenes should establish the main goal of your hero. Follow these six basic points:

  • What does he want?
  • Why does he want it?
  • Who or what stands in his way?
  • How will he reach his goal?
  • What will happen if he reaches his goal?
  • What will happen if he doesn't?

If you keep saying that word
It stops sounding like a real word.
In the opening scenes, try to at least explain points #1 and #2. Maybe you can fit some of the other points in there, but the first two are crucial. They tell us which direction the story will go in.

The reader wants to know the destination. Once they know What and Why, they have a reason to continue the story, just like your main character will have a reason to move toward the goal. They have something to root for. They can take a journey with the character and experience the same pitfalls and high moments the character has. Show readers "Point B," and the satisfaction of the journey will come with the rest of the novel. Once you tell the reader where they're going, they'll follow all the instructions -- the subplots, romance, and journeys -- without hesitation. When they reach the goal, they'll decide if it was worth working for.

It's okay if you get a few pages written before you make up your mind as to what the main characters want. But make sure you do it fast, or your readers will keep asking: "What is the point of this?" and you'll lose them before the meat of the story starts. Make sure the goal is something interesting. It doesn't have to be obtainable, it doesn't even have to be real, per se. Maybe the hero seeks a rumored magical sword that can save the kingdom, but, as he finds out, it isn't real at all.

Then what's the point of the journey? The journey should change the character. The hero seeking the sword should discover the strength and courage inside him that will allow him to defeat the enemy threatening the kingdom.

Throw in a villain. Make him hurt the hero. Make him force the hero to make a choice he doesn't want to. Bend the boundaries. Snap his values. Cause pain. Make readers feel it in their hearts.

That's the true meaning of plot. Put your characters through heaven and hell. Have their worst nightmares claw at them and their brightest fantasies elate their spirits. Do it for the sake of change. Keep that change realistic. A man doesn't simply become a knight because he finds a magic sword. He learns a new set of strengths and values and morals, grows more intelligent, and devises a plan that will lead him to victory. Things happen to him that change his perspective in life. That is the point of plot. Don't leave your character the same as he started.

Make the reader care that the character changed. Do we feel sympathy? Is he stronger or weaker? Has he lost friends and loved ones? What did the journey do mentally or emotionally to the character? What was the price he paid to obtain his goal - or not?

That's what plot is all about -- a series of events, leading toward the established goal, that create a complex character built up from his/her experiences on the way to that goal. Whether s/he reaches that goal, or not, is completely up to the writer.

Follow me on FacebookTwitterTumblr, and Pinterest.

Subscribe to Get it Write Tonight!
Scroll to top of page in right sidebar.

Enjoy this post? Check out these others:

Also be sure to check out my Get it Write Tonight ebooks, Characters and Edit! That! Book!

While you're at it, check out my New Adult Science-fiction novel, Embassy.


  1. Now that I'm editing a novel I wrote during Christmas Break, I realize this would have been good advice about eight months ago. All the same, it's always important, no matter what stage of writing you're in.

    1. Ha, well sorry it was so late! It's always good for revisions, though, to keep track? :)