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For Aspiring Writers

Building a plot

By Rachel Ann Nunes

What is plot? Basically I think of it as the old saying "Out of the frying pan and into the fire." You must continually maintain the reader's attention.

Four ingredients in plot:
  1. Exposition - the information needed to understand a story
  2. Complication - the catalyst that begins the major conflict
  3. Climax -the turning point in the story that occurs when characters try to resolve the complication
  4. Resolution - the set of events that bring the story to a close
  1. Write what you know best or see #2 below.

  2. Write what interests you. Use research to become the expert.

  3. Make the stakes high. Your character must be suffering. The greater the despair the more glorious the joy of the resolution.

  4. Main character must continually come up against others as he gets further and further into trouble. Remember that each character has goals and agenda.

  5. You must have enough conflict to sustain the length of the story you want to write. Know your audience. You will need more subplots for an adult novel, fewer for children's books.

  6. Opposing forces should be near equal. For instance, in a fantasy setting, if the good guy has all the power, then you will not have a conflict.

  7. End chapters with a question or new trouble—something to keep readers from putting the book down. Yes, there must be highs and lows in a story, but you do not want to risk having a reader put your novel down at the end of a chapter.

  8. Continually use tension and urgency. Even if this is a comedy, how the person succeeds should be a surprise to us.

  9. Chapter 1 should start at the most painful, embarrassing part for your character. Have one big scene with conflict to begin.

  10. Begin as close to the story as you can (the story went on before, but we need to start at the time of biggest conflict or despair—see #9 above).

  11. Give setting—time, place, time period. Don't leave us guessing or we won't pay attention to your story.

  12. Describe at least one major character near beginning. Decide whose story it is (see Creating realistic characters).

  13. Establish tone and style.

  14. Foreshadow all important elements—first part is like prophecy and the latter part fulfills prophecy. This prepares the reader for the ending.

  15. Hero must take eventually take charge of events at some point in story.

  16. Make plot appropriate to your character. His choices show what kind of a person he is—hopefully someone we care about.

  17. Skip ahead in time over the mundane. We don't care about what he ate for dinner unless it moves the plot ahead.

  18. Use misdirection to surprise reader.

  19. Try reversing typical stereotypes: the little girl is not so innocent. The good-looking friend is the serial killer, etc. Think conflict! But don't overdo.

So do you need to know your entire plot before you begin?

No. Much of the plot will come to you as you write, but you must have direction! This is where an outline can help. But . . .

I hate outlines. I hated them in high school and college, and I still hate them. I love seeing where the novel is going to take me. Yet many successful writers find it helpful to make a detailed outline, and you may be one of those. Try doing a detailed outline, and then try doing what I do to see which works best.

My outlines consist of an opening scene and generally an idea where I want to end up, and then a few scenes in between. While I'm writing, I'll type notes, ideas, and even entire scenes at the bottom of my screen, deleting them as I use them in the story. Basically, when I see there are no more waiting there for me, my story's done. If I wrote it out thoroughly beforehand, I think I might be so bored I wouldn't want to write it. But having said this, many authors swear by detailed outlines and say they write much faster with them because their plotting is already finished.

Regardless, you must keep in mind that your story is alive. Outlines need to be updated as you write, and occasionally thrown out altogether. Let the story take you where it will. This is one of the greatest joys of writing.