Wednesday, October 26, 2011

5 Basic Ideas for Plot Development

By Ruby Johnson

Writers like to call themselves plotters or pantzers. Basically both types of writers start in the same place— with an idea. It's what they do with the ideas that distinguishes them from each other. Today, we'll talk about the plotter who writes down ideas and story points. Once they have the idea, they start asking themselves questions about goal, motivation, and conflict. Plot develops out of conflict such as an event, or a person and precipitates actions of the protagonist, either internal or external, which is driven by the characters's wants and needs. How that character responds determines the course of events.
 Each character has two goals, motivations and conflicts—External and Internal. In Debra Dixon's book on GMC she says every scene must have at least two of the three. It is helpful to delineate these for your characters. Almost all stories follow a pattern in which rising action propels the protagonists through a series of complications that result in a climax, followed by the falling action of the resolution. At this point, the character must learn something, grow, and accomplish a goal. But an important point to remember is you can't have your characters do something outside their comfort zone. You have to present a compelling reason for their actions.
Writer Annie Lamott created a mnemonic catechism, ABCDE, to help writers remember the basics. These are the elements:

Set the scene with an event that launches the series of events that constitutes a story. This scene should happen as early as possible, and though some writers have broken this rule, observe it  unless you have and outstanding reason not to.

Context is essential to settle your readers into the story, and it usually follows the initiating action. It is important to know your character's core belief and, thus, you must know his back story. Pay it out parsimoniously, however, and don't let your reader get ahead of your protagonist, or you'll likely lose the dramatic tension of the story.

Such tension is produced by your protagonist's impetus to achieve a goal. That goal should be specific, and, for the story to be compelling, it should be something the character can't live without. To be even more so, it shouldn't be easy for the character to satisfy that desire. The tension is produced by desire, but it is sustained by obstacles to attainment of that desire.

This element constitutes the bulk of the plot; it is the journey, and all the events and incidents along the way. These happenings should bring the protagonist ever closer to resolution of the conflict, and they should steadily escalate in import and impact to heighten the suspense and keep the reader engaged in the story. Every event that happens in your plot needs to be there for a reason. Readers feel cheated if the author suddenly drops in a convenient ploy.

The final step is further divided into a mnemonic trio: The crisis is the stage at which the protagonist must decide how to resolve the conflict, the climax is the tipping point, at which the conflict is resolved, and the consequences consist of the state of affairs that exists after the crisis and the climax—has the main character changed, or has the main character changed the world in some way? What is the outcome of all that has come before? You must make your plot tight and  tie up all loose ends. This stage in a story, also called the denouement, is the final, necessary release of dramatic tension.

A Five Step Exercise in Plot Development:
1. Describe the story you plan to write in one sentence. If  you can't say what the book is about in one sentence, you don't have a clear enough idea of what you're trying to do.
2. State what the main character wants more than anything else in life. The plot grows out of this desire.Then stick in three obstacles to prevent him from obtaining this goal.
3. Write a character description of the protagonist that includes appearance, likes, dislikes,fears, chilhood trauma, occupation, etc. Plot is behavior. The kind of experiences your characters have had determine how he behaves in the future. What he fears affect his actions. Plot grows from character.
4. Make a timeline for the events of the novel. This will give your novel anchor points.
5.Make a map that shows where the action will take place. This helps to gauge distances and figure the length of time to move your characters from one place to another.

Now all you have to do is write the novel!


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Bryan said...

Awesome advice! That's a much more detailed version of what I used to tell my creative writing students.

One exercise, in addition to those presented, for background story was to describe their childhood. Family and friends. The purpose of this was to present the 'Nature vs. Nurture' argument in character development.

It's pretty unlikely a white boy from the suburbs of Dallas is going to be the next crocodile hunter unless his parents made frequent family trips to the bayou...

Ruby Johnson said...

Thank you for the comment. Your exercise to describe childhood, family, and friends is a great way to get inside a character and could give additional depth to a story.

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