Friday, July 25, 2014

Basics Of Plot Structure

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about plot. Specifically, things I wish I’d known when I first started writing (find it here). If you’ve read, understood and implemented the points in the first plot post you’ll probably have a pretty good start when it comes to plot structure but it’s a truly interesting topic to dig into. Below, I’ve listed out the most common major points in a strong plot structure.

 You can use these basic plot structure points to plan a new novel idea and make sure you’ll have a full, impactful story before you even get started. Or you can use it as a check list for a finished novel when you want to be sure you’re not missing anything.

Step One: Set Up

     What’s normal to your character? This should be quick, as short as one sentence and not much longer than one page. The truth is, we need to know what normal is to your character or we won’t really understand why the changes matter. If normal is, well, normal (school, homework, parents, siblings etc.) you won’t want to share much or you’ll run the risk of boring the reader. One sentence is enough to establish normal and it doesn’t necessarily have to be the first sentence. “If Grams had only warned me about the demon below the stairs I would have never hid there during hide and seek”. (yes, I just made that up) That sentence works because it shows both the normal and the not-normal. I know this character has a grandma he calls Grams and he was playing hide and seek. There is still a whole lot more to know but at least I have an idea of what his normal is. We can learn more as the story progresses.

Step Two: Inciting incident

      This is the very first event that starts the ball rolling for the rest of the plot. This is the very first big change in your character’s world. The thing that prompts the character’s call to action. It should come as close to the beginning as possible.

Step Three: Character makes a choice
     This is the specific moment that the character chooses to act. It might be during the inciting incident, it could be the next scene, could be a few scenes later. It all depends on your story. 
 Step Four: Fun and Games


      My editor explained this to me as what you see on your cover. The cool parts of the story. In a romance, this is where the characters fall in love. In a mystery it’s where the character finds that super cool clue. In an adventure, it’s the most exciting, fun part of the adventure. This is the fun part before things turn south and start to fall apart. The higher the hill of a roller coaster, the better/scarier the dip when things finally start to fall. Establish a high for your character so when things fall we get the best stomach sinking feeling possible.  

Step Five: Midpoint
      The top moment of the fun and games. The midpoint is either the most “high” moment or the “low” moment (the latter being the minority and very difficult to pull off). I’ve heard this described as the moment your character thinks the story is over. They’ve achieved their goal, or there is NO way they’ll ever win.

Step Six: All is lost
      This is usually the next scene and should be the opposite of the midpoint. If your midpoint is high, you’ll need that twist that brings it all crashing down, if your midpoint is low, you’ll need that moment where things start looking up. Basically, in the midpoint, your character comes to a conclusion and in the next scene learns they were wrong.

Step Seven: The choice
      The character clears their head of the horror of the All Is Lost Moment and makes a plan for success (make this a tough plan, not an easily achieved)

Step Eight:  Finale  
      The big moment, for better or worse the story will end on this moment. This might be the long awaited battle with the big bad guy, or it might be a more personal “proving a point” moment. If it’s the latter, make sure it something that’s been set up from the beginning, something your character would never have done at the beginning of the story. It should cost something.

The End!!
 Congratulations! You have a fully plotted novel.
Now, it's time to get writing, or revising or maybe even querying (depending on when you can across this list)

The plot points above are the powerful moments in the story, with them you’ll be sure to have an impactful story for all readers. Does your story fit these plot points? Can you think of a successful story that doesn’t? Do you use another plot structure or do you even worry about structure? I’d love to hear your thoughts!


Unknown said...

Hello. Thank you for writing this. It's incredibly useful. I have a question though. I've written a MG novel where the protagonist thinks she's won but eventually only half wins (as her aim is two-fold).....too complicated? Too disappointing for readers? Does s/he always have to win? Thanks!

CraigC said...

I think your reader has to believe it's a win. Your audience can't leave the book feeling like their heroine/hero lost or end on a down note--kids need gratification for reaching the end of the book. If you've got more story to tell, I think as long as there's a win somewhere you're good to go. Just my two cents.

Unknown said...

Would I use the same basic structure for nonfiction?

Melissa Olson Cunningham said...

Just what I was looking for, thanks!