Who, What, and Why Not: Boiling Down Plot

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‘Plot’ is such a little word, but it casts such a daunting shadow. How do you build a plot? Where do characters come in? What if you’re writing a character-driven piece? Plots take many shapes, but they all boil down to the same three elements: who, what, and why not? These are your story goals.

The Who

The best stories begin with people. Begin with a character. It doesn’t even have to be the protagonist. Just identity an individual within your story. Determine who they are, where they are, and what they need in day-to-day life. Pick someone interesting, because this person needs to hold your audience’s attention. Got them pinned down? Excellent! You’ve taken your first step towards building your plot.

The What

What does your character want? What pushes them into action? A hero may quest after a mythical item, seek to preserve their home, or hope to win their true love’s affections. Desire isn’t always that straightforward, though. Characters, like people, look for subtler things: fulfillment, entertainment, satisfaction, peace and quiet. Your protagonist’s apparent goal may shift throughout the story, especially if there are twists, but their key motivations should remain the same.

Many literary stories involve an internal revelation or realization. On their way to that point, they will have to answer questions and learn from experiences. Ultimately, a character doesn’t even have to acknowledge or even understand their motivation in order for the author to complicate the journey.

Remember, you may not be working with your apparent primary character. This is an easy way to build twists in your story. Whenever you have more than one character, you have more than one plot. These conflicting ambitions and needs should shape your primary character’s path just as much as the protagonist’s own desire. Does a secondary character have a reason to hide their motivation from the protagonist? Do they accidentally complicate the hero’s mission? Sometimes the worst scenario comes from the best intentions.

The Why Not

Although lots of people like to separate genre and literary fiction by their plot – or supposed lack thereof – all stories still have a conflict at their core. This is the third element of every plot: the obstacle to the character’s goal. In a sword and sorcery fantasy tale, this obstacle typically appears as a villain. Complex villains don’t just obstruct the hero “because they’re evil” but rather because they have conflicting goals or ambitions. Even if the hero’s town is under threat, the villain may be trying to prevent future wars by uniting multiple kingdoms. The villain simply sees the hero’s needs as lesser than those of the world as a whole.

Literary fiction also utilizes obstacles to motivate a story’s plot. They may not be as clearly defined as an evil king or a nefarious alien, but they’re always there. More often than not, they have something to do with the protagonist’s own personality, fears, or lack of experience. A character could spend an entire story battling to answer a question. That absence of knowledge is the obstacle. Maybe they doubt themselves, or maybe the obstacle is buried in a convoluted relationship with another character.

No matter how twisted and tangled your plot grows, remember its three roots. Figure out the who, determine the why, and then ask why not? You’ll always come back to your story’s foundation.


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