Coming up with a plot
So for the next entry in my series on writing, I thought I would talk about how to come up with a decent plot. After all, it’s one of the most important things to consider when writing, because every book is built around a good plot, right?
Wrong. The first thing to remember is that you don’t necessarily need a great plot – some of the best books I’ve read have been complete nonsense from a plot perspective, but stand up as some of the greatest works of literature nonetheless. All that matters is that you care what is happening to the people in the story, and for that you need good characters.
But I’ll come onto characters another time. For now, let’s just say that you’ve decided your book needs a decent plot to carry the story through to the end. I find this element of the writing process really hard, not least because most of the great plots have already been written – it is difficult to come up with something original these days, and if you need further proof of that, just look at how many Hollywood remakes there have been over the past few years, or even re-remakes. Even the most experienced storytellers are finding it hard, so if you are struggling, don’t despair – you are not alone!
So when I’m trying to come up with a plot, I try and keep the following five rules in mind. Now, there may be some of you who find the idea of applying rules to the process of creative writing to betray the principle of writing creatively, however in this case you should just obey these rules. Trust me – it will make your life waaaaaay easier:
1) Treat your plot as its own character.
You know that point in writing where your characters are so well defined, they begin to do their own thing without you even realising it? Even though you are their creator, you no longer decide what they do – he or she now behaves in their own way in your mind, and you are merely writing it down. You know you have got to this stage with a good character, because if you do try and force them to do something that goes against their nature, you cannot reconcile it in your mind. It’s the same with a good plot – once a story arc has been nurtured to a certain point, it develops its own natural momentum, and you no longer need to think too hard about what happens next – the plot takes care of itself. Know when to spot that your plot is at this stage, and just let it happen.
2) Don’t worry about where the story is going.
I know some writers try to plot out the entire story before they get started. They want to know about all the underlying themes, all the key plot points, all the twists, the ending, everything. They may want to use some dramatic irony to hint at things to come in the first stages of the novel, and for that, they need to know what’s actually going to happen. If you are someone who likes to write this way, then great. However, you mustn’t be afraid to just put pen to paper and get started if you’ve only got that initial idea, or a specific scene in mind, or even just a conversation between two characters, fleshing out everything from that starting point as you go.
I find it sometimes works better if you have no idea what is going to happen. After all, your central characters are not usually privy to future events, so if you as the author are in the same position, it can produce some interesting results. What’s more, there’s nothing like the thrill of your own story taking you by surprise! Some of the greatest turning points in classic stories have happened this way (Dan O’Bannon for instance had no idea he was going to come up with the chest-burster scene in Alien when he started writing it), but you have to be prepared to set off on your writing journey without knowing where it will go.
3) Don’t be afraid of using clichés
Many authors like to think of themselves as being highly original. How many times have you sat in front of your manuscript, happily typing / writing away and thinking to yourself “No-one has ever thought of this before! I’m so clever!” Ok, maybe that’s just me. The downside of thinking this way is that you can be afraid of resorting to clichés. Now, you need to be careful not to fall back on them too much, but there is a reason clichés are clichés, and that’s because they work really well. Sometimes, the best and most satisfying way to resolve a plot point is to resort to a cliché, so don’t be afraid to do it.
4) Obey the three act structure.
So you think you can be really innovative and write a story that spans four acts, or two acts, or one act? Or half an act? Don’t bother. The three act structure is the only way to go. Setup, confrontation, resolution. Plot points can drift between the different acts depending on the balance of your story, but as human beings, we like things in threes. The three act narrative is by far the most proven, and the most satisfying. So obey it as a structure for your book.
5) Remember the eight-point arc.
Nigel Watts was a clever man, and he came up with the eight-point story arc in his book “Writing a novel and getting published”. The basic idea is that within your three acts, you should have eight points to your story arc. Now, there are loads more websites that talk about this with far greater authority than I ever could, so look them up. However, to give you a brief guide, they are as follows:
Stasis: This is where you establish the normal way of life for your characters and the particulars of your world. A good example of this would be when we meet Luke Skywalker at the beginning of Star Wars working on the farm, or Neo in The Matrix going to his dull job.
Trigger: Oh no! Something beyond the control of the main character has happened, and this has set our story in motion! Bear in mind that the trigger can be good (boy bumps into beautiful girl in the street) or bad (boy bumps into an alien invader in the street). Either way, this is the thing that sets our main character off on…
The quest: So the trigger leads to the quest, and the quest usually takes two main forms – make everything go back to normal (i.e. the hero defeats the invading aliens), or make things better (i.e. the girl falls in love with the hero and they go off and have lots of baby heroes.)
Surprise! This part of the story arc involves lots of stuff happening, and should take up most of the story. Here’s where you chuck in all your mysteries, discoveries, complications, etc. Basically stuff for the protagonist to overcome. And no deux ex machinas please – you should tread carefully between having something that catches the reader off-guard, but not something so ridiculous that it pushes the reader’s willingness to accept what is happening to breaking point.
Critical choice: In my opinion, this is by far and away the most important stage in any story. But what is it? Well, at a certain point in your story, your protagonist needs to make a pivotal decision. This is where we finally get to see how the character has developed since we were introduced to them at the beginning of the book, as a person’s true nature is often revealed when they are under the most pressure to make a decision. Nigel Watts is very clear on this point, and says that the critical choice must be a decision made by the character, taking them down a certain path – it cannot just be something that happens to them randomly. Think of a classic story, and it won’t take you long to see where the main character had to make a critical choice. It usually involves choosing between a good but difficult path, and a bad but easy one. Luke Skywalker not joining Darth Vader is a good one.
Climax: So your protagonist has made their choice, and goodness me was it a critical one! Ok – now it needs to lead to the climax. This is where your story peaks in terms of excitement! Death Star, anyone?
Reversal: This is what transpires as a result of the critical choice and the climax, and it should change the way your characters behave – in particular your protagonist. Luke Skywalker finally uses the force! Neo can see the Matrix! Like with the “Surprise” element of your plot though, there should be no deus ex machinas here. As I said earlier, the story should evolve naturally, as though it were a character itself.
Resolution: Phew! The story is done, but now things are different. The resolution should show what the new “stasis” is – this can be good or bad depending on the critical choice, but for better or worse, your characters should have changed, and your story should be all tied up. This doesn’t mean you can’t have an open ending, but all your plot strands should be left in an appropriate state to end a book, leaving the reader either satisfied with the conclusion, or eager to find out more…
Anyway, there you go. Now we’re at the end of this entry, I suppose it’s customary to say something along the lines of “of course, these rules are just a guide, so feel free to write however you like”, but if you ask me, I wouldn’t stray from them at all.