What Is Your Plot?

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All writers are villains. We make dastardly plots. But do you even know what a plot is? It isn’t just a list of actions. That could be a page out of your planner just as easily as your novel’s outline. To write well, we all have to go back to basics sometimes. Relearning and questioning improves craft.

What It Isn’t

Your plot includes a series of major events, yes, but it isn’t just a rough, soulless outline. If your plot is just a list of things your characters do (Character A goes to city B, Character G fights Character C) you are missing the two most essentially elements in any plot: motivation and conflict.

Whether you’re writing literary fiction, high fantasy, or YA romance, your plot grows from these two things. All action needs motivation. This isn’t necessarily complicated. Let’s say your action is just warming up a bowl of soup. Why did you warm up that bowl of soup? Because you were hungry and cold, and you’re really sick of tuna sandwiches. You have a motivation.

What does simple conflict look like? Well, you want soup, but your younger brother also wants soup, and you only have one serving left. This conflict could balloon into a war between the two of you over the soup, or you could deal with internal conflict over whether you love the soup or your kid brother most. If you want a complex and engaging plot, you’ll intertwine these conflicts, because the best plots always involve character transformation, which brings us to the next point.

Character Development is Key

All stories need characters. All plots function through characters. As your plot progresses, so should your characters. In the beginning, you meet the character, understand their needs, and develop a connection with their views, goals, and personality. The middle of the book should break at least a few of those things. Let’s use the soup story again. So, the blurb on the back of your soup book promises that you make soup at some point in the story, and they’re eager to get to that action. The introduction will introduce your hunger – the motivation to make the soup – and maybe hint at rising tensions with your brother. Maybe he ate all the soup last time, or you want to punish him for ratting you out to your mom. Maybe you just think you’re hungrier than he is, because you saw him eating pretzels earlier.

As the soup epic unfolds, not only is there the action of pouring the soup, putting it in the microwave, and choosing the right settings, but your character must also see your little brother shoveling snow, trying to sneak a surprise for you into the house, or just standing in the corner yelling for mom to intervene and give him the soup. These actions not only create obstacles between you and the final action (eating the soup), but they also challenge initial beliefs from the introduction. Maybe you realize your brother is colder than you are, or realize he doesn’t know how to work the microwave without turning a bowl of soup into a volcano. The plot involves sibling love vs. self-preservation. Your readers care about who gets the soup, why they get the soup, and how you come to terms with the final verdict. That’s plot. It’s emotion and development tied to action.

If You’re Struggling

Plot takes practice, just like every other aspect of writing. If you find yourself just walking through the process of making soup without any emotional context, however, a few tricks can help you engage with your true plot again. Ask yourself a few questions. Does this character really want the soup? Why or why not? Does this tie into secondary motivations? What obstacles stand in their way, and will they lose, change, or overcome to reach their goal? Don’t forget your antagonist. Hold their actions and motivations to the same standards, and don’t stop asking questions until you taste that soupy plot goodness.

Plots don’t have to be complicated, but they do need more than action. Ask the obvious questions and follow them down the rabbit hole of your character’s motivation. Challenge them. Break them. Then spread your discoveries out in the sun and discover the heart of your plot.

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