Friday, July 4, 2014

The things I wish I’d know about plotting when I first started writing

For every new writer there is a steep learning curve. There are a gazzillon things we’ll need to learn before we’re ready for publication. Some things come easy, some take time. Everyone has different talents and different struggles, things we’ll need to work harder to overcome. For me, one of the things that took me the longest to learn is about plot.

Sure, we all have a story to tell but a story doesn’t always mean we have a plot.

Now, I’m still learning, but over the last year I've gathered quite a bit of information that I truly wish I’d known when I was just starting out. Even if you’re fairly good with plot, there may be a thing or two you could still learn. It also may help you catch a problem with a plot you never noticed before.

1.     Plot means conflict, yes, but it also means the call for action.
            There is no story without conflict, it should be inherent on each and every page, but conflict alone isn’t enough to carry a plot. There needs to be a call for action that connects with the conflict. What needs to happen in this story and why? It should be something only your character can or will do.

2.     Your character needs a goal
            This goes along with number one because the call to action is a goal. Don’t make things just happen to your character, those things might push your character into the plot, but there needs to be a thing or two that makes your character active in this story. What does your character want other than surviving?
             Even “down the rabbit hole” plots need to have something active within the “get out alive” goal.
            The best way to beef up a story is to have two different layers of conflict: internal and external. Sometimes those goals can even conflict with each other. They have a goal, now what connects that goal to their emotional journey?

3.     Every scene needs to move the plot forward.
            When I first started writing this was my worst habit. I’d make the inciting incident happen in chapter 12, thinking that all the things that happened before were important (hint: they aren’t). If you can cut scenes without changing how the story pans out, you’re probably falling into his pit hole.
            Every scene needs to matter, needs to change something. It can be personal, the way the character thinks about something, or it can include a hint that pulls them further towards the end goal, or maybe it makes things worse, deepens the conflict. Look at every scene in your story and decide if you NEED it there. Even subplots should connect back to the main conflict, even if it’s not right away.

4.      Stakes
            What happens if your character fails at his/her goal? There should be some very scary consequence to failing. The world ending? Well, yes, that’s a pretty easy go-to. But honestly, something personal is usually more compelling. Death, the loss of a family member, being hated by someone they care about, making their parents proud. With Middle Grade, those stakes CAN be a bit smaller than adult works because sometimes peer or parent acknowledgment is the most important thing to this age group. That’s okay. So long as it truly matters to your character, it will matter to the reader.

5.     Subplots
            Developing the goals of side characters is a great way to deepen a plot. I won’t go into huge detail about this subject since Jamie wrote a great post about subplots a few weeks back:

6.     Structure
I plan to write a full post about this because it can get kind of in depth. If you’re worried about plot structure try using a beat sheet like this one: There are some really interesting theories to plot structure that can make any story line much stronger. 

I’m still learning about plot myself, and it’s one of those things that is different for every story (and that’s a good thing, otherwise all our stories would be the same), but there are always ways to make it stronger, to make it more compelling to readers. What have you learned about plot? Any more tips for me or books you really enjoyed reading about the topic? I’d love to hear them!

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