NaNo Prep: Plot
Characters, setting, plot - the "big three" of fiction. Theme makes up the fourth critical element, but is not discussed nearly as often. After writing my NaNo Prep posts on characters and setting, I thought plot wouldn't be significantly more difficult. I was quite wrong. Of course, when you think about it a little more, it makes sense. People are people, no matter what, and it isn't too hard to talk about people in general because there are enough similarities. Especially in fiction, it is relatively easy to talk about character arcs and archetypes and the components of personality. Setting is similarly general. Plot... Plot can be anything. It can go anywhere. While some people believe there are only two or three or seven basic plotlines, others see twenty, thirty-six, or more. I can't cover everything there is to know about plot in this post, so I would refer you first to K.M. Weiland's incredible series on story structure, and then after that to the other resources at the bottom of the post.
That said, this post isn't going to tell you how to write plot, or even give some basic guidelines. Instead of giving you a formula or structure to follow, I am going to try to help you look outside of the box. There are several methods for how people write plot.
How do you write your plot?
Some people focus heavily on their characters at the beginning, and let plot take shape as they imagine what each character would do in reaction to the original premise. These stories have the distinct advantage of being the most easily "relatable." The characters are deep and realistic, and they are actively driving the rest of the story. However, this leads to the main pitfall: the plot might seem like a series of events chronicling the characters' lives instead of a tight, cohesive storyline.
Other people focus mainly on the plot itself, building a suspenseful, unexpected, and intriguing storyline. This method has the advantage of a very cohesive, self-contained, and organized story that whisks readers along at lightning speed. The main disadvantage lies with the characters. With a pre-determined plot, the characters are just "along for the ride," and can fall into three pitfalls: they are passively watching as the story occurs around them, the plot forces characters to act out-of-character in order to accomplish pre-determined goals, or worst of all, the plot is so disconnected from these particular characters that any character could fill the roles and the story wouldn't change.
Yet another group starts building the story from the setting. I fall into this category. I had a neat concept for a hybrid group of people, descended from two races that are mortal enemies. As I worked, the world became fleshed out, history danced across the page, and I had compiled so much information for my setting that I had the seeds for hundreds of possible premises. The problem for me was that I had neither characters nor plot, beyond "I want the main character to be from the hybrid tribe and I want her to travel all over the world (so that readers could experience my magnificent setting.)" There is certainly danger here: When you look at society first and then zoom in to study the characters, it is easy to forget they are individuals who are not defined entirely by the way their society has affected them. Plot likewise tended toward a very simplistic, world-traveling/questing formula. This group has to be careful to focus on the details and nuances of the characters and plot, lest they get swallowed up by the huge, impersonal setting.
The final theoretical group I am focusing on starts the story focusing on theme or concept. They usually fall into another category as well, but the main reason they are writing the story is to convey a particular message or explore a particular "What If?" scenario. Their stories are generally emotionally and morally powerful and explore some deep themes and messages. The danger of this path is twofold: if the message becomes so important that the writer forgets fiction is supposed to entertain first and foremost, the story could become overly "preachy" for lack of a better term and lose all of the power it was meant to have. On the other hand, the writer may become so involved in exploring the various aspects of an idea or theme that the story lacks focus, and therefore is difficult to follow.
Not everyone falls neatly into just one category, and these are not the only methods available. Nevertheless, I would be willing to bet that most people can identify with at least one of these methods.
I thought this was about writing plot... why did you just explain how different people favor characters, plot, setting, or theme over the other elements?
If you noticed my not-so-subtle pattern above, you are right on target. Although each of these elements is vitally important and can be considered on its own, they are all interconnected and ultimately cannot exist without each other. Which element is most comfortable to you affects how you plot your story. Each method, as I explained above, has strengths and also potential weaknesses. I encourage you to work especially hard to make sure you don't fall into the pitfalls available, but that is not what this post is about. This post is about helping you think outside the box.
Last time, in my NaNo Prep: Worldbuilding post, I emphasized that constraints breed creativity. This is certainly true... but there are also other ways to reach creativity. In keeping with my natural tendency toward worldbuilding, I was dutifully working through 30 Days of Worldbuilding, preparing for NaNoWriMo. On the very second day of this task, I discovered that the author wasn't just focusing on worldbuilding: she was leading you step by step through creating a world that not only provided background for the plot, but also supported it.
Day 2: Physical Planet. It looks quite unassuming, doesn't it? Does it give you some vague notion of a large-scale map showing the various large land-masses on your imaginary world? It sure did for me. But wow, was I in for a surprise. There are four short paragraphs explaining how and why certain climates and weather conditions exist. Then, at the bottom, it said the magic words for me: What role do you anticipate weather playing in your story?... Jot down ten plot devices related to weather, and what you think they do to the story...
Weather - That's it? That's the big deal?
For me, it certainly was. In the original draft of my story, my characters sailed across a sea to land in a foreign land. From there, they would trek east until they met a particular person, who would end up helping them. As I brainstormed what I could do with inclement weather, my plot was radically altered. Instead of calmly stepping off of the ship to casually travel cross-country, the characters are thrown overboard because of a storm at sea and washed up on the beach. That very same storm chases them through the forest until they are forced to sneak into an enemy military base for shelter. Now, suddenly, the characters were no longer in control, no longer comfortable, and no longer taking the plot at their own, boring pace. They were in serious trouble. I won't explain the rest of the far-reaching consequences this plot development had on my story, since I think you get the point.
Instead, I will do my best to help you find AHA! moments of your own.
After all, the best stories aren't the highly specialized ones that prioritize character, plot, setting or theme. The best stories can boast a perfect balance of all of these elements, so that they all work together. If you identify strongly with any category above, my goal today is to help you think outside of the box and look at your story from another point of view.
- How would your story change if an important character suddenly acted out-of-character at a critical moment? What would cause this character to act this way?
- What if an important character experienced a major mood swing at the worst possible time?
- What if one of your characters acts in a way that causes an important ally to get angry and decide to withdraw support?
- What character traits do your characters value in others? How would they change if they decided to start emulating a trait that is contrary to their natural disposition? How would it affect their family, friends, and enemies?
- What if your characters are thrown into an unexpectedly tense situation, and they realize they don't like the nasty side that comes out of a new ally or companion?
- What if the main characters realize their new friend or ally holds a belief or opinion that the main characters feel is unacceptable? Are they still able to work together? If they have to work together whether they like it or not, how can this ideological conflict lead to disagreements over how to handle certain situations or strengthen your theme?
- If you developed your antagonist as much as your main character, would your story change? Remember, good guys aren't the only ones who shouldn't act out of character. Examine your antagonist's actions and make sure they are driven by his fears and desires. If there is a discrepancy, how would your story change if the antagonist stayed true to his own personality?
- What if your character thought she could trust someone else and revealed her deepest secret to him, only to have him turn on her or use this information against her? How long would it be before she trusted someone again? Would she be able to get help from her other friends without revealing her secret to more people?
- If at some point your character is being pushed into a particular course of action by outside forces, what would happen if he actually shows the strength of will and determination to find another way out that is more in keeping with his character?
- What would happen if a minor character already knew about the major plot twist? If your characters solve a mystery, discover a dark secret, or are blindsided by a new revelation, how would this be impacted by having someone else know about it in advance?
- What would happen if a main character got injured in a fight or disaster? Would he be in shape for the next one, or would he be dead weight? Would the team have to veer off course to seek medical help? (This is another great idea that radically changed the progression of my story.)
- What are some of the far-reaching consequences of your characters' actions? If they lie to someone to gain their help, what would happen if the person discovered the lie? If they help a princess escape her arranged marriage to a disgusting prince, what will be the political fallout of such an event? Will the kingdom lose a vital ally? Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, even in fiction. Use this to your advantage.
- How would a sudden weather change affect your story?
- What would happen if a natural disaster forced thousands of refugees to migrate to another location?
- What would happen if a city on the border of two kingdoms switched sides?
- How would a sudden shift in resources alter the world? (For example, a famine causing a particular country to run out of food, or perhaps an essential commodity for one nation is rendered obsolete by technological advances in a different nation, or maybe a war has caused resources like cloth and metal to be rationed.)
- What do your characters think about people from other regions? Countries? Classes? Races? Professions? Religions? Does that country boy think the professionals from the city are sophisticated and advanced, or does he think they are stuck up and obnoxious? Would the princess from one kingdom be offended by the manners of the prince from the neighboring kingdom, or does she think he is exotic? What if one of the main characters is injured, but the only one who can help him is a priest from a religion he hates?
- What character qualities does your main character's society value? Does she possess all of them, or is she missing some? How does she view herself in light of what society thinks of her?
- What would happen if you introduced a likable, sympathetic, well-developed character who believes and lives by the antithesis to your main message? Give him a very good reason to believe your theme is false, and give him the best arguments you can against your own theme. You will quickly find that your theme goes much deeper when you take the other side seriously. Maybe it will help you think of ideas and implications you had never considered before.
- How would your characters react if the "right" choice led to unforeseen disaster? Maybe that person they helped turned them over to the antagonist, or their mercy toward an enemy led to him being able to greatly harm a team member or an uninvolved innocent. How would this shake their belief and shape their actions?
- What would happen if a "bad guy" also firmly believed in the story's theme, and cited it as the motivation for some of the bad things he does? How would your characters respond to the perversion of their message... or do they start to reconsider whether they are right after all?
- What if the only way forward toward the goal forces the characters to cross their moral boundaries? Will they do it? What if some do, and some don't? Will the group split, thinking those on the other side have betrayed them?
Don't just give one answer for each of these questions. If one intrigues you, answer it several times. A storm wasn't the first weather idea I came up with, but it is the one that worked the best and has affected my story so much. The goal of these question's isn't to change your story (although that may be a by-product.) The idea is to round out your story by brainstorming other ways to look at it. The best practice would be to come up with questions on your own that are specific to your story, or talk to someone else so that he can help you brainstorm. There are also many more resources online. Stimulate your imagination by looking at your plot from different angles!
Thanks so much for reading! This month, I am busy preparing for NaNoWriMo, so I took advantage of the excuse to share some of my favorite writing tips and resources. I hope you are enjoying it. See the bottom of the page if you would like some more worldbuilding resources. If you would like to read other related posts, see below:
NaNoWriMo: Write with Abandon!
NaNo Prep: Character Resources
NaNo Prep: Setting Resources
NaNo Prep: Plot Resources
NaNo Tips: Give Your Story a Chance
NaNo Tips: What Helps You Focus?
NaNo Tips: My NaNo Journey
Would you be interested in having a theme resources post? Do you find that you focus more on character, plot, setting, or theme? Have you ever come dangerously close to one of the common pitfalls? Has a random burst of inspiration ever radically altered your story? Do you have any thought-provoking or interesting questions to add to my list? Let me know in the comments!
Other Plot Resources
Note, offsite links may contain a couple of minor curse words. It is the Internet, after all. Nevertheless, I thought these and other links were valuable enough to post anyway.
- Dramatica's Eight Essential Plot Elements
- How to Write Story Structure
- How to Plan Your Book and Write a Novel Outline
- 5 Ways to Write a Killer Plot Twist
- The Basics of Writing a Mystery Plot
- On Creating, Keeping, and Building Suspense
- The Addictive Power of Emotional Investment - Plot
- How Story Structure Creates Foreshadowing
- 9 Steps to Build a Strong Plot
- And of course, 30 Days of Worldbuilding, which is mainly about worldbuilding, but in a way that builds plot and character organically from the setting. It's perfect for people who start their stories with the setting, and very good for everyone else.
And of course, these are just scratching the surface on the resources for plot. If you have any more, please recommend them, and I will gladly add them to this list.