It turns out plotting is not just for evil geniuses, it’s for writers too (though whether they are the same thing I leave to your discernment). Plots are many things: pieces of land, dastardly plans, or that really important thing in your novel that you need to work out.
The writing plot is our primary focus this time around (although I have devised some pretty cunning plans in my lifetime if you’re looking for someone to hire). When it comes to story, plot is the what and why behind the story. In a novel, there will be multiple whats and whys and part of plotting will be weaving them together into a coherent whole.
I believe it was E. M. Forster who said, ‘“The king died and then the Queen died” is a story. “The King died then the Queen died of grief” is a plot.’
THE ELEMENTS OF PLOT
Plot is important to stories but there are certain components that make for good plots in the first place.
The Idea: It is very difficult to come up with a plot if you have no idea what your story will be about. Before you start plotting your novel, you need to know what you are going to write about. This can be something as simple as ‘a girl has a racehorse but the racehorse is blind’ (Blind Beauty) or ‘little boy finds pirate trapped in his granny’s perfume bottle’ (Salt Pirates of Skegness). From there, you can work out the rest.
Characters: It’s very difficult to write a story if there is no one in it. For things to happen, there needs to be characters who can both cause events, and be pushed by or into them. Choose your characters carefully so that they are suited to your plot. Otherwise you will find that they either seem very wooden (because you’re forcing them to act in a way that is unnatural to them) or they change the plot by sheer force of their fictional will (because they’re staying consistent with their own character). The latter is not such a big deal but do be wise about choosing your characters.
Conflict: This is an essential. Without conflict, your story will be boring. If a guy decides to overthrow a kingdom and the king and his subjects say ‘yeah, sure’ and step aside, not only would that be a little odd, it would also make your manuscript a whole three pages long. There is satisfaction in struggle. Though readers will hate you for putting your characters through the mill, they would never read your books if you didn’t. Once you have an idea and suitable characters, the next thing you are going to need is conflict to drive things along.
THE SHAPE OF PLOT
A common way to plot a book is using what’s called the ‘Three Act Structure’. The three acts include Setup, Confrontation, and Resolution. The Setup is rarely more than a quarter of the length of the book and it is in this Act that the main characters, theme, and conflict are introduced. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is a good example. On the off-chance that you haven’t seen or read it, there will be spoilers ahead.
The Setup in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (LWW from here on out) consists of meeting the Pevensie children and their evacuation to the country. Our main characters, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy are introduced and their situation established. You could include Lucy discovering Narnia as part of this act as it introduces us to the idea of Aslan and the White Witch – both important players later on. The story has been established. Edmund meeting the White Witch when he follows Lucy into the wardrobe could also fit into the Setup as it alerts the Witch to the existence of the siblings, thereby kicking off the conflict.
Between Act One (Setup) and Act 2 (Confrontation), we have the first plot point. In LWW, the Pevensies break a window and, in hiding from Mrs Macready, they stumble through the wardrobe into Narnia, proving Lucy right after all. This is where the characters break out of their normal world and are forced into adventure. It’s known as ‘the inciting incident’ and indicates the direction that the rest of the story will take. It is also referred to as ‘the point of no return’.
Act Two is generally the longest of the Acts. The tension rises and the conflict increases until it comes to a head. The problem or conflict was established in Act One and now the characters must find a solution. But this should never be easy and the tension should be consistently climbing. There are always further complications and the hero(es) might try and fail a few times to overcome the problem.
In LWW, Edmund runs away into the clutches of the enemy, betraying his siblings. The three of them end up on the run with Maugrim and the Secret Police on their tails. They reach Aslan but the White Witch appears, staking her claim on Edmund. Aslan makes a secret deal with her but although they get Edmund back, a battle is coming and they don’t know what to do.
Here we find the second plot point. The conflict has reached critical mass and needs a resolution. There seems to be a resolution to the problem (Aslan will help them) but then Aslan sacrifices himself at the hand of the Witch.
Will the protagonists win or lose? It’s not entirely clear at plot point two but something has to give and a resolution has to be reached one way or another.
Finally, we move into Act Three, the Resolution. It shouldn’t be much more than a quarter of you story at most. In this Act, the solution must be found for conflict, the climax plays out and then resolves itself, and the threads of the story are neatly tied up.
In LWW, the climax comes in the resurrection of Aslan (though only Susan and Lucy know about it) and the commencement of the battle for Narnia. The resolution happens as Aslan rescues the Narnians who have been turned to stone by the Witch and leads them into battle, turning the tide and freeing Narnia. When all is over and Narnia is free, the tale is wrapped up in the coronation of the four Pevensies (fulfilling the prophecy). Later, they return to England and the circle is complete.
This is not the only structure for writing but it is a common and effective one. A more detail (and incredibly helpful) breakdown appears at The Plot Dot. The Three Act Structure is helpful because it keeps the pace of the story consistent and can show the writer if they are doing the right things at the right time.
NOT EVERYONE IS A PLOTTER
This is all very well and helpful, but please be aware that not everyone actually plots their book. Personally, I have the idea, the characters (or at least one character), a vague conflict, and an ending in mind. That’s when I start writing and see what happens.
Others will have every detail of their story (down to detailed chapter breakdowns and seven generations of the characters’ family histories) planned and in place before they feel comfortable to begin. It’s a sliding scale from starting with a blank notebook and blank mind to having twenty books filled with background and plans for one novel.
Don’t feel like you have to know exactly how your story pans out before you start writing, we’ll talk about that (i.e. ‘pantsing’) another day. But for now, I hope this was useful to you as you begin to think about putting together at least a basic plot.
- Try breaking down your favourite book or movie and see if it follows the Three Act Structure.
- What are other good models for plotting a novel?