Let’s Get Plotting

I’ve talked about world building and the basics you need to get started. In some cases, you can skip world building entirely (such as if you’re working in the real world, or a modified version of the real world). Even if you’ve decided to go fingers blazing, you need a few plot basics before you start.

Characters
This is where I usually start. For me, having an interesting set of characters makes the rest of the framework fall easily into place. Without someone to identify with or root for, your reader will wander away. I like to start with a central concept and work from there, but there are lots of ways to create characters. Sometimes, they come to you, and that always makes things easier. I find writing a few short stories, prompts or chapters with a new character helps me connect and write them more easily. Even if a character springs to mind fully formed, it takes some time to find their voice.

The number of characters you need depends on the type of story you’re writing. In general, you need a protagonist (usually the hero) and an antagonist (usually the villain) to oppose them. Your protagonist doesn’t necessarily have to be good and your antagonist doesn’t have to be evil. In fact, the most interesting antagonists live and act within moral grey areas. Sometimes their actions are justified, though they may push too far. My favourite stories have both the protagonist and the antagonist moving through morally grey zones, adding extra depth to the narrative.

Most stories aren’t limited to a two character cast, so you’ll probably need some supporting characters. These might be friends of your protagonist, the group they travel with, or simply people they encounter along the way. Some supporting characters will help your hero, others will hinder them. Big secondary characters usually have their own plot arcs but, if you’re going to wing it, you’ll probably work out those details later.

Each character, whether they’re the hero or a sideline support character, needs a motivation. This is what causes them to move from where they are at the beginning of the story towards the ultimate goal at the end. As the saying goes; your character should want something, even if it’s just a glass of water. Motivations will affect the actions your characters take and the decisions they make.

Conflict
The essence of every story is conflict. At it’s most basic, every plot involves introducing your character to a conflict which disturbs the status quo and following their actions until they resolve it. Without conflict, stories would be boring. You might like to imagine your favourite characters in a cafe, happily drinking coffee and going about their daily lives, but it wouldn’t be fun to read for long. Every scene should contain conflict, even if that conflict is internal.

But if we’re talking about the preparation stages, you don’t need to know every conflict that will crop up during the course of your story. Instead, focus on the central conflict. How is you protagonist drawn into it? What role does the antagonist play? You may also want some idea of the main conflict’s resolution, so you can map the plot point stepping-stones to reach it.

Obstacles
If your hero simply walks through their door, faces their fear and wins the day, your story won’t be very exciting. While it’s true that we love to see our favourite characters succeed, we also like to see them suffer. An author once described her method as drop a mountain on a character, make it better. Others have said they edit their work by asking how can I make things more difficult for my characters?

The journey to your story’s epic climax should be riddled with obstacles, whether you plan them all ahead of time or not. If you’re writing an outline, ask yourself what obstacles your characters encounter in each chapter, how they’re going to deal with them and how it might set them back. Obstacles usually force the characters to take a path they haven’t planned for. They also keeps the audience on their toes.

An Ending
What happens after your story’s epic climax? Are there questions left unanswered? Where is your hero at the end of the story? What’s their mental state? Did they get what they want? What have they learned and how have they changed? How do they feel about their experiences? Is there more left to do, or has everyone moved on with their lives?

Most stories end soon after the conflict’s resolution (because without conflict they become uninteresting), but it’s a good idea to know where your characters’ stories end. This will help you track their progress through the story. Think of your ending as a goal you push your character toward, one ordeal at a time. After all, if a character doesn’t change, there’s not much point in the journey, is there?

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