Occasionally I will get questions from new writers and by far the most common concern plot. The aspiring novelist will have a very strong grasp of who they want to write about and where proceedings will be set, but actually coming up with a plot seems daunting.
For some people the events that take place are the first things they come up with, but if that isn’t how it works for you then having an intimate knowledge of your main character is still an excellent route to working out what the story will be about.
Bear in mind that even the most inexperienced of writers is still a hugely experienced reader. We have all been reading, hearing and watching stories for many years. But while everyone feels confident in their ability to judge whether those stories are good, bad or indifferent, when it comes to our own writing it becomes much more tricky to gauge.
If you have a strong sense of how a story will go that’s all well and good, but if you don’t then here are three steps that will help demystify the process.
First, what does your character want?
At this point try not to focus on what external forces might come into this character’s world. A new guy at work, a phone call from the president, the death of a close friend—these things will certainly give the character something to do, but the point of the plot isn’t to keep the character busy.
A character will have an inner need (what they want within themselves) and an external need (events that force them to act).
It is important to work out the inner need first. If you know your character well then you will have a good idea of what is lacking from their life. You can be quite vague—maybe they want to be happy, or find love, or overcome their shyness—you just need to identify the one area that the character would most want to sort out.
Once you have a broad idea of what they want you need to narrow the focus down to what physical action, object, event, thing, would fulfil that need. Maybe it’s a job, or a person, or a large diamond—some tangible thing will make them feel better. It will require some brainstorming and throwing out a lot of ideas that seem okay but not quite right. Don’t settle until something sparks more than a passing interest (it will come eventually).
Second, what is stopping the character from getting what they need?
Whatever the character wants, it is important that they can’t get it. Not just because they lack motivation or drive or opportunity, but because you intentionally put huge obstacles in the way. The bigger the obstacles the better.
Let’s say my story is about a father who wants to reconnect with his estranged daughter, what could prevent him from doing that? She refuses to talk to him? That would make it difficult but it hardly suggests an interesting story. But if she’s kidnapped by his enemies then that would make it kind of hard for him to sit her down and have a heart to heart with her.
I’m not getting her kidnapped because I want to write a thriller about a man with a certain set of skills hunting down a bunch of bad guys to save his little girl (although that’s how it might appear to the reader), I’m creating an external series of events that force the character to go to great lengths to satisfy his inner need.
You need to go to that kind of extreme, even if you don’t know how you’re going to resolve the problem, in order to get the mental juices flowing. The more difficult the obstacle the more inventive the solution. That’s not to say you won’t come up with insurmountable problems that you’ll give up on and have to start from scratch, that’s all part of the process, but the simple and obvious won’t be much fun to write, nor will it be much fun to read.
You have to spend time just staring at the middle distance trying to come up with a way to solve the puzzle you’ve set for yourself. Sometimes the ideas will come quickly, sometimes they will take time and sometimes they won’t come at all. Persevere.
Third, what order does stuff happen in?
You have an idea of what the character wants, both internally and externally. You’ve come up with something that makes it seem very unlikely they’ll get it. But how do you create an interesting and involving journey for the character?
You can try just winging it, and some people have enough of an innate sense of storytelling to work this way. But if you don’t feel very confident doing that, or you’d like a guide on your first time out, then you can do what writers have been doing since the year dot.
Take a story you like, that’s similar in approach to what you hope to write, and copy the structure.
This doesn’t mean plagiarise the story. If the story starts with man in a tower with a gun about to shoot the Queen of England, don’t start yours with a guy in a tree about to shoot the King of Norway.
But work out the point of the scene. Are we seeing an assassination to show us how good the character is at his job? Or are we establishing his role in the organisation? Or maybe things go wrong and he’s betrayed by his own side. Whatever you think is really going on, make your scene about a similar quality in your character. Doesn’t matter if your interpretation is wrong. Doesn’t matter if you have to make changes to fit your story better. Doesn’t matter if you skip a scene that you don’t like. Just do your version.
And then the same for the next scene.
This is somewhat time consuming, but as a teaching tool it can be very effective. Bear in mind that once you have a first draft built on this method you will be itching to change things, lose scenes and switch the order. In fact you may figure out that the structure doesn’t work for your story well before you finish the first draft, but you will also find your brain buzzing with possible alternatives.
The point isn’t to produce a mirror image of a book that already exists—I guarantee you won’t be able to make that work—but you will very quickly start seeing that what a scene does on the surface is very different from what’s going on in terms of the overall narrative.
Different books will have different structures so choose carefully. A John Grisham novel is as different to a Margaret Atwood book as a log cabin is to the Empire State building. The same basic principles apply, but very different methods and materials are used in the construction.
This isn’t obvious from most books on writing, which tend to simplify things down to one method (because it’s easier to fit into a 150 page book). And most of the time that method will tend to favour the Grisham type of approach because it’s just easier to see how things fit together in that sort of book. That doesn’t mean it’s good or bad to do it that way, but it might not be what suits your story.
There is no one way to write a book, no guaranteed template for a bestseller, no magic number of pages that specific events have to happen by. Show me a book that succeeded using a particular method and I’ll show you two that used the same method and failed miserably.
But by writing out a scene to fulfil more than one function—what’s happening in the moment, what’s being set up for the future, what’s being affected by the past—the interconnectedness of events will start to emerge so that rather than having to think about what the plot should be, your character’s first action will lead to the next and the next and the next.
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